Since May 3, the northeastern Indian state of Manipur has witnessed repeated inter-ethnic clashes primarily between two local ethnic communities, the Meitei and Kuki. The violence has resulted in over 75 deaths and the burning of at least 1,700 buildings (including homes and religious sites). More than 35,000 people are currently displaced as well, with many now living in one of the 315 relief camps in the state. As the fighting continues, these numbers may also be rising.

A woman gestures as she argues with an Indian army member in the village of Gamgiphai, Manipur state, India, August 31, 2011. (Manpreet Romana/The New York Times)
A woman gestures as she argues with an Indian army member in the village of Gamgiphai, Manipur state, India, August 31, 2011. (Manpreet Romana/The New York Times)

The state government response has largely echoed the strategies India has previously employed during unrest in the Northeast or Jammu and Kashmir. This has included issuing military curfews, suspending internet services and deploying approximately 17,000 troops and paramilitary forces with shoot-on-site orders in effect for “extreme cases.”

While the violence in Manipur is some of the worst witnessed in the state in decades, it is not an unfamiliar occurrence in India’s Northeast, where the identities of different ethnic communities have repeatedly been weaponized to serve the interests of a powerful few. Any moves toward peacebuilding in the medium- to long-term will have to reckon with what has long been a weaponization of colonial fault lines — as even decades after India’s independence, very little has been done to foster understanding between different communities regarding one another’s history, culture and traditions. 

Democracy at Gun Point: The Current Manipur Violence in Context

Manipur, which means “Land of Jewels,” consists of a valley surrounded by mountain ranges. The state is home to 39 ethnic communities following different faiths, including Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, as well as Indigenous religious traditions such as Sanamahi. Opposition to the manner of Manipur’s merger with India in 1949 laid the groundwork for the nascent stages of resistance and separatist movements and remains at the heart of the dispute between New Delhi and many restive portions of the Northeast.

To quell this resistance, the Indian government imposed the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act in 1958. The act provides broad-based powers for the military and paramilitary groups to “[maintain] public order,” in “disturbed areas,” which have been primarily applied to regions of the Northeast and Jammu and Kashmir.

The act has been criticized by rights groups and contributed to a deep trust deficit between the state and central government in Manipur, while the central government argues it has been necessary for maintaining order in areas with a history of insurgency — some predating India’s independence. In the Northeast (and elsewhere), the central government has also emphasized the threat of foreign support for separatist movements.

Today, the region features multiple conflicting claims to ethnic and communal homelands — and armed insurgent groups to defend those claims. In Manipur, there are at least four valley-based armed groups, several Naga groups and nearly 30 Kuki armed insurgent organizations. The proliferation of armed groups — at one point estimated to stand at around 60 — contributed to the sense of a “war within a war” in the state.

Those closely connected with political power took advantage of the tumultuous situation, and the state became the site of rampant gun-running and narco- and human-trafficking. Armed groups frequently back candidates in state elections. In 2022, two Kuki insurgent groups issued statements in support of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), and in 2019 images on social media reportedly showed a letter written by armed groups to Indian Home Minister Amit Shah asking for a party ticket to be given to a candidate of their choice — although the armed group later disputed this.

Northeast politicians have reported intimidation by opposing armed groups, and civil society organizations in Manipur emphasized that the 2022 elections were overshadowed by “open intimidation” from militant groups and violence across polling stations. This has led to “democracy at gunpoint” in this fragile region.

What Sparked the Latest Violence in Manipur?

The most recent violence began after the Manipur High Court asked the state government to consider Scheduled Tribe status for the Meitei community, which is the majority population in Manipur. This status would ensure protection within the Indian Constitution and allow the Meitei expanded access to benefits, including reserved seats in government.

The Meitei community in Manipur had long requested this status. However, there were strong concerns that such a move would deepen ethnic divisions, particularly with the Kuki and Naga Indigenous communities. Indeed, soon after the court announcement, a rally was held in protest by the All-Tribal Students Union of Manipur on May 3.

The violence began that same day, when reports surfaced that the Anglo-Kuki War Memorial Gate had been burnt down. This led Kukis to burn several villages inhabited by Meitei communities in Churachanpur, which in turn prompted retaliation by the Meitei, who reportedly torched several localities belonging to the Kuki community in the Imphal Valley areas, leading to several casualties.

While the protests may be identified as the most immediate trigger of violence in Manipur, intra-Indigenous community tensions had been rising in the state for several years. The current state government’s handling of Indigenous land rights issues, for instance, has been perceived as targeting the Kuki communities primarily living in the hill areas surrounding the capital valley. Efforts to survey reserved forests in the hill regions was said to be an effort to reduce poppy cultivation, but has resulted in evictions in Kuki villages.

Meanwhile, another point of contention is the current land imbalance between Indigenous communities: Meiteis cannot buy lands in the previously mentioned hill regions, but Kukis and other tribal communities can buy lands in the valley.

Additionally, the influx of refugees following the 2021 military coup in neighboring Myanmar — particularly those from Sagaing region, who have strong ties with the Kukis — has also created a greater sense of insecurity for the Meitei Indigenous community. Though the real decision-making in the conflict lies with those who control the guns, drugs and politics, the ones most affected in both the communities are women and children. The identities of different ethnic communities were weaponized in the current conflict to suit the agenda of a few.

The Evolution of the Conflict

While getting reliable information from Manipur has been difficult, images and reports from the state portray an ongoing “war zone,” with heavily armed militants continuing to roam, villagers arming themselves and a sharp deterioration in trust between citizens, governance and security.

Social media posts that manage to circumvent the internet blackout are often rife with messages of hate, division and desolation. Prices of essential commodities are skyrocketing and trucks carrying food, medicine and essential supplies have been left stranded. While it is unclear at this point how the conflict will evolve in the short-term, two trends are of particular importance to watch:

Response of the Indian State. At the start of the violence, there was a notable silence from the central government. This elicited criticism from opposition parties, which have accused the BJP of focusing more on the upcoming elections and using silence to foster violence.

With the violence ongoing for nearly one month, India’s Home Minister Amit Shah did recently arrive in Manipur for a four-day visit aimed at “restoring normalcy” to the state, while India’s chief of army staff also recently visited Manipur to assess the situation. At a press conference in Manipur on June 1, Shah announced that a judicial probe that would “investigate the violence” on behalf of the central government, led by a retired High Court judge. He further announced the creation a peace committee between members of different communities, additional fencing on the Myanmar border, and called for the return of an estimated 1,420 weapons looted from local police since the start of the clashes.

The ongoing violence, however, will be a key determining factor in whether these commitments can be met. Amid the chaos on the ground, armed groups continue to exploit the situation, while others have raised concerns of cross-border attacks. Given the concerns and promises to expand border fencing, India will likely need to engage with its neighbors in the region if the violence continues. 

Reconciliation Prospects. Several communities in the state and the region are holding peace and prayer meetings, religious leaders have called for peace, and others have called for the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Women’s groups across northeast India have issued appeals and formed “Mothers Peace Committees” in various localities.

Ending the current violence and fostering long-term reconciliation efforts, however, are fundamentally two different — although interlinked — ends. Any reconciliation must contend with the legacies of violence from multiple insurgencies and the often heavy-handed responses by the government, which have contributed to lasting trauma within the state.

Across all communities, the people in Manipur have suffered immensely for years as they saw their rice fields turned into battlefields and peace be taken away by a few power-hungry people who have engineered division and sown violence. Citizen-centric dialogues and engaging civil society will be key to addressing decades of deep distrust and historical hurt that have polarized Indigenous communities across the region. Indigenous peacemaking initiatives, truth-telling and forgiveness ceremonies could be a wat to start to soothe the fractured hearts and minds of communities who have lived through violence for decades. Women in peacebuilding is also needed, to begin what will be a long process of building responsive governance and transparency in the region.

Binalakshmi Nepram is a senior advisor for USIP’s religion and inclusive societies team.

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