Monday, 07 August 2023 05:29

How Manipur violence is challenging India’s politics

Kashmiri women activists protest against the alleged sexual assault of two tribal women in Manipur on July 24, 2023.

Interethnic violence has grown over the summer in India’s northeastern Manipur state, with reports on Thursday claiming three people had been killed and several homes set on fire. The clashes, between the majority Meitei ethnic group and the Kuki tribal groups, risk spilling into neighboring states, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has thus far failed to seriously address the violence or the broader underlying issues of migration and ethnic tensions in the region.

Since May 3, Meitei and Kuki residents of communities in Manipur have engaged in horrific violence including reported rapes, burnings, and decapitations, apparently motivated by the state government’s efforts to extend benefits and jobs once exclusively reserved for Kukis to Meiteis. Over the past three months, the violence has become so extreme that it has triggered a no-confidence motion against Modi’s government this coming week.

Though the proposed motion won’t affect Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) grip on power, it will serve two main political purposes: to draw attention to the government’s inaction in containing the conflict as well as other failures and to galvanize the opposition under a new umbrella group.

Interethnic, sectarian, and insurgent violence is not new to India, and Modi’s Hindu nationalist ideology has contributed to the atmosphere of discord, if not outright fueled violence in some cases. The BJP governs Manipur state, and rather than attempting mediation between the largely Hindu Meiteis and Christian Kukis, the state government imposed an internet blackout that was only partially lifted last month.

The no-confidence motion won’t topple Modi’s government and may not even bring relief for the thousands who have fled violence in Manipur — or the many more still living in fear.

Violence in Manipur has become too extreme to ignore

India’s northeastern states — collectively called the “seven sisters” — are remote, often under resourced, and ethnically diverse. Some of these ethnic groups, called Scheduled Tribes, are transitory or share kinships across different states or even into neighboring countries; the Kuki, for example, have ties to ethnic groups in neighboring Myanmar and parts of Bangladesh as well as Mizoram and Assam states.

Because of its remoteness, porous international and state borders, migratory tribal groups, and the political and economic instability of neighboring countries like Bangladesh and Myanmar, northeastern India has seen many interethnic conflicts over the decades and under Modi’s government. In Assam, for example, tensions between ethnic Assamese and Bangladeshi migrants, including those whose families had lived in Assam for decades, have always had a political dimension — which was only exacerbated in 2019 when the federal government essentially declared about 1.9 million Bangladeshis in Assam stateless.

Manipur, like Assam, is poor and under-resourced; and inequality, real or perceived, exacerbates any tensions that already exist.

In Manipur, the Meitei people make up about half of the population, per CNN, and the Kuki make up 25 percent. As Scheduled Tribes, the Kuki have special access to land permits, jobs, and other benefits because they had historically been oppressed and denied access to education and livelihoods.

But a court ruling issued May 3 suggested the Meitei people also be designated as Scheduled Tribes, giving them access to the benefits — and, importantly, land in Mizoram’s hill country— that had previously been set aside for Scheduled Tribes. Kuki and other Scheduled Tribes rallied against the ruling, leading to the statewide suspension of mobile internet services, as well as a “shoot-at-sight” order issued by police governor Anusuiya Uikey to “maintain public order and tranquility,” CNN reported at the time.

The lack of internet connectivity prevented those outside Manipur from seeing just how violent and grim the situation had become — that is until late July, when a video of two naked Kuki women being paraded through a street and sexually assaulted surfaced on YouTube. That incident sparked national outrage and forced Modi to make his only statement about the violence thus far, saying the sexual violence was “shameful” and vowing to take action. India’s Supreme Court also weighed in, saying that if state and federal authorities don’t make efforts to bring those responsible to justice, “we will,” Al Jazeera reported. Police in Manipur had reportedly arrested at least four people and were investigating 30 others by the time the video made international media on July 21.

In all, over the past three months, at least 150 people have been killed and at least 60,000 have been displaced by the violence. Some reports put the number of dead at more than 180.

Outrage over Manipur could work to the opposition’s advantage

At one time, it would have been hard to imagine that conflict in a poor, remote state could have had an effect on Modi’s power, but the violence in Manipur is also coinciding with a newly vigorous and unified opposition — and some clear frustration with the ruling party.

In a signal to other Kuki constituencies in Manipur, The Kuki People’s Alliance, or KPA, withdrew its political support from the governing BJP in Manipur Sunday with a letter from party president Tongmang Haokip, the Hindu reported. Though as a new party the KPA has only two seats in Manipur’s 60-seat state assembly to the BJP’s 32, the move could push the eight other Kuki representatives to take a stand.

On the national stage, the upcoming no-confidence motion will be the first test of the new Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance, or INDIA, opposition coalition. Throughout Modi’s tenure, opposition parties including the once-dominant Indian National Congress party have struggled to break the BJP’s hold on both national and state politics. It’s unclear whether the INDIA coalition, which comprises some 26 political parties, many of which are regional and had been unable to coalesce on the national level, will be able to challenge the BJP’s dominance in the states and in parliament. But, as Reuters reported last month, they are building a platform to challenge Modi and the BJP’s Hindu nationalist ideology, as well as improving economic outcomes for Indians by combating inflation and unemployment.

Rahul Gandhi, perhaps the best-known and most outspoken opposition politician and the scion of both the Gandhi and Nehru political dynasties, is also marking his return to the Lok Sabha, the parliament’s lower house where the BJP still holds the majority of seats. On Friday, the nation’s Supreme Court blocked Gandhi’s conviction for defaming Modi during a 2019 speech, and he is now allowed to return to parliament.

As of now, Modi and the BJP look to have a solid grip on power despite the horrors in Manipur and the newly unified opposition. That is unlikely to change before the upcoming 2024 national elections, but the no-confidence measure is an opportunity for the opposition to grill Modi and the BJP on persistent problems like violence against women, as Bloomberg reported Sunday.

Modi remains popular in India, riding on his twin messages of economic development and Hindu nationalism, but weakening the BJP on a state-by-state and seat-by-seat level could be possible, as a May victory by the Congress Party in the southern state of Karnataka indicated.