In May 2023, violence erupted in Manipur state in northeast India primarily between two ethnic groups, the majority Hindu Meitei community, and the minority Christian Kuki tribal community. The clashes were triggered by a March 2023 court ruling that accorded the Meitei “scheduled tribe status,” providing them the same privileges regarding government job and education quotas as the minority Kuki.
As of July 29, 181 people have been killed and 400 others have been injured due to the ongoing conflict in the region. Over 60,000 people have fled their homes as the army, paramilitary forces, and police continue their attempts to suppress the turmoil. On July 26, fresh violence was reported after houses belonging to the Meitei community in Moreh city were burnt down.
The Meitei-controlled state government faces accusations of having implemented policies that discriminate against the minority Kuki community. These policies involved forced evictions that endangered the security of Kuki lands and attempts to label them as illegal immigrants.
The clash between the valley and hills
The ongoing violence in Manipur can be attributed to the state's ethnic and geographic divides and the demographic imbalance and disparities in political representation that have occurred as a result. Manipur’s population is divided between districts located in the valley and the hills. The hills constitute 90 percent of the area, but are home to only 10 percent of the population, while the valleys — which represent only 10 percent of the state's landmass — accommodate 90 percent of the population. This demographic discrepancy has led to a situation where the valley's population, which is dominated by Hindu Meiteis, controls 40 out of the 60 seats in the state assembly. The predominantly Christian Nagas and Kuki-Zomi communities that occupy the hill regions therefore have limited representation.
Rape allegations and the plight of victims
A widely circulated video capturing the ethnic violence in Manipur portrays a near-civil war situation, with sustained clashes between members of the two groups despite the presence of the army.
One especially graphic video showing two Kuki women being paraded naked and publicly humiliated by a mob went viral on social media. The video, dated May 4, emerged only in mid-July 2023, because of the internet shutdown the government enforced in the state. The video, which went viral, gained national attention and incited widespread condemnation. As journalist Tora Agarwala notes, several Kuki women experienced extreme violence at the hands of mobs. Among them was a 19-year-old girl who recounted her harrowing ordeal, which eventually forced Prime Minister Narendra Modi to break his silence on the situation in Manipur.
The video footage from Manipur highlights how rape and sexual assault is often weaponised during conflicts, and highlights how social media can both spread misinformation and be used as a tool to push for awareness and accountability.
— Himal Southasian (@Himalistan) July 31, 2023
In another incident, two Kuki students at a nursing institute were caught and mercilessly thrashed by a mob, leading to serious injuries and hospitalization. While some survivors have shared their painful experiences, many fear reporting the crimes to the police due to safety concerns, Scroll reported.
These incidents highlight the deep-rooted animosity between the Meitei and Kuki communities in Manipur and underscore the gravity of the situation. In an article recounting the experiences of a peace activist in the region, journalist Betwa Sharma recounted the plight of families during this 3-month long conflict:
In a blow-by-blow account from #Manipur, @harsh_mander tells us about families broken by 3 months of ethnic violence, children drinking rice water in relief camps & the “extreme culpability” of the state and central govts abandoning constitutional duties. https://t.co/WEjXXgYQzZ
— Betwa Sharma (@betwasharma) July 31, 2023
Modi criticized for silence
After being criticized for his silence, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke publicly about the matter for the first time on July 20, 2023, stating the culprits responsible for the incident involving the two Kuki women in Manipur would not escape punishment and expressing his pain and anger over the violence.
Indian newspaper The Telegraph ridiculed the prime minister for his delay in commenting, publishing an image of a crying crocodile on its web site, with the caption “it took 79 days of pain and shame to pierce 56-inch skin.” The “56-inch skin“ phrase is a reference to Indian Home Minister Amit Shah's characterization of the prime minister as a “man with a 56-inch chest.”
Front page of The Telegraph says a lot……
“It took 79 days for pain and shame to pierce 56-inch skin.”
Today's #Telegraph front page shows Modi's crocodile tears after 79 days.
— Younus PT (@younuspt) July 21, 2023
On July 27, 2023, the opposition brought an unsuccessful no-confidence motion against the Modi government on Manipur in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament.
The mainstream media has also been accused of not highlighting the crisis enough.
On July 20, 2023, India's Supreme Court demanded action against the perpetrators of the May 4 incident. Senior advocate Kapil Sibal urged the court to constitute an independent agency to investigate the incident, alleging “collaboration” between the state police and the mob involved in the assault. Sibal pointed out that, instead of protecting the victims from the mob, the police had moved them towards the crowd and abandoned them, resulting in the loss of the woman's father and brother to the mob's violence.
Writer-journalist Sushant Singh shared Mukul Kesavan's commentary on the issue:
Mukul Kesavan: The violence in Manipur exhibits two symptoms– The impunity with which Meitei mobs have been allowed to loot police armouries and the instrumental use of rape to announce the end of Kuki citizenship. pic.twitter.com/iL7gye4qOj
— Sushant Singh (@SushantSin) July 30, 2023
On May 4, 2023, the government shut down the internet in Manipur, restoring limited and conditional access only after July 25, 2023. This ban included WiFi and VPN (Virtual Private Network) use, deletion of social media applications and, furthermore, a requirement to fill out undertakings assuming liability for “secondary” users on a network. On June 9, the Supreme Court refused to allow an urgent hearing on a plea by two Manipur residents against the repeated internet shutdowns.
The independent internet watchdog Netblocks reported that:
🔥 For 3 months, #Manipur in #India has been in the dark due to an internet shutdown. Network data show that telecoms restrictions in Manipur have been ongoing since 4 May, leaving the region in the midst of a severe information blackout in a time of need.
▪️ Human… pic.twitter.com/nHSdHJzzF5
— NetBlocks (@netblocks) August 4, 2023
Peace activist Harsh Mander, who visited Manipur, told Article14:
I would stick my neck far out and say the criminal role of the state authorities for failing to prevent the violence and to control it in the shortest amount of time with all the force that it can muster. The state government has been unable to reassure the Kuki minorities that it has acted with fairness; instead, they widely believe that the state government is actively partisan in the ensuing battle against them.