Modi Can’t Look Away From Manipur

 Indian military and paramilitary personnel take part in a search operation in Kangpokpi, India, on June 3. AFP via Getty Images
Indian military and paramilitary personnel take part in a search operation in Kangpokpi, India, on June 3. AFP via Getty Images

Since early May, the Indian state of Manipur has suffered from destructive violence that has barely registered a blip on the global radar. More than 130 people have died in the state, and another 60,000 displaced from their homes. People have ransacked 4,573 weapons from police armories and destroyed 250 churches. So grave is the situation that many residents have chosen to escape to neighboring Myanmar, where the ruling military junta is conducting aerial bombing campaigns against its own citizens.

Manipur, a state of just 3.7 million people at India’s easternmost edge, has a checkered history of ethnic clashes and militancy, which subsided in 2008 after a cease-fire agreement. But the current violence—taking place between two ethnic groups, the Kuki people and the Meitei people—is unlike any in the past. It involves not just militants but also civilians, and the state government has seemingly taken sides; the turmoil has wreaked havoc on the local polity and threatens to spill over the state borders. But Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has appeared indifferent to the situation: He hasn’t found the time to tweet about Manipur, let alone chair a meeting or visit the state, which is ruled by his party.

Modi’s government has treated the violence in Manipur as a question of restoring order when it warrants a political solution. This security-centric approach will harden ethnic divisions, likely requiring a permanent commitment from the Indian Army—which pulled out of the state in 2020 to focus its resources on India’s disputed border with China. The situation in Manipur is an internal diversion that will worsen India’s vulnerability to Chinese military coercion amid border tensions, as well as undermining connectivity projects with the wider region. The upheaval will also have repercussions beyond India’s borders unless Modi takes bold political steps to quickly restore normalcy.

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Manipur is one of the eight states in India’s remote northeast region, connected to the rest of India by a sliver of territory between Nepal and Bangladesh. Despite its small size, Manipur’s sensitive location bordering Myanmar deserves the world’s attention. The state is populated primarily by three ethnic groups—the Meitei people, the Kuki people, and the Naga people—that have had tense relations in the past, including exchanges of violence. Between 1980 and 2008, Manipur grappled with armed militancy, which ended when rebel groups signed a cease-fire with the federal government.

The ongoing conflict is between the majority Meitei community, who reside in the plains, and the Kuki people in the hills. The Meiteis control political power in Manipur, while the Kukis are protected in their own areas by constitutional provisions that date to British colonial rule. In 1907, the British envisioned a distinct administrative structure for the Manipur hills, with a funding mechanism given to a British political agent to manage Kuki and Naga affairs. This laid the groundwork for separate district councils, and after India’s independence, a Hill Areas Committee was established under special provisions of the constitution to protect the rights of minority tribes.

Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has led the Manipur government for the past six years, and it now appears to favor the Meitei community. The ruling party has weaponized Meitei grievances for political gains—fueling a narrative that includes the marginalization of the Meitei at the hands of so-called Kuki outsiders as well as charges of Kukis engaging in drug trafficking and violating forest rights. (The Naga community has remained largely silent and neutral, focused on its own long-standing demand for autonomy.) The state government has unleashed the police to crack down on drug trafficking and selectively has enforced forest laws against Kukis. As a result, the rift between ethnic groups has taken on a sharper edge of hatred and enmity; even a federal government proposal to organize a peace committee has unraveled.

In April, a court ordered the state government to recommend that the Meitei group be classified as a scheduled tribe, which would grant special reservations for government jobs and universities—on par with the Kuki and Naga people. This triggered protests among the Kuki and Naga communities, which took a violent turn when Meitei organizations attacked the Kuki people. The loss of trust between ethnic groups now runs so deep that even the BJP’s local representatives who belong to the Kuki community have asked the federal government to impose a separate administration over the hill areas, beyond state control. New Delhi has already appointed a new police chief from outside Manipur, but he has yet to deliver results.

To suppress the violence, federal forces have created buffer zones—a tactic employed by the Indian and Chinese armies on their border since 2020—between Manipur’s hills and plains. The mile-wide zones, manned by army and federal forces, serve to segregate the areas dominated by the warring ethnic groups. The state and national approaches to the situation appear to diverge. Manipur’s chief minister blamed the violence on terrorists, seemingly referring to the Kuki people. But India’s top military officer, Gen. Anil Chauhan, clarified that “this particular situation in Manipur has nothing to do with counterinsurgency and is primarily a clash between two ethnicities”.

Chauhan’s comments raise questions about Modi’s seemingly indifferent attitude. When the violence began, the prime minister was campaigning for the BJP in Karnataka, which held state legislative elections on May 10. (The ruling party lost.) His silence on Manipur continued when he traveled to Japan, Papua New Guinea, and Australia later that month. In fact, he went ahead with his trip to Australia even after U.S. President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida canceled their plans. There, he asked the Australian prime minister to take action against the defacement of Hindu temples. Meanwhile, Modi has not expressed sorrow about the deaths in Manipur or mentioned the destruction of Christian churches in the state. He still has no plans to visit.

Modi’s most trusted cabinet member, Home Minister Amit Shah, traveled to Manipur 27 days after the violence began, holding meetings and promising relief. His visit was preceded by a two-day trip by the army chief, which saw a flare-up in violence. The Indian Army has a recent history in Manipur: It only pulled out of its counterinsurgency duties in the state after a deadly clash with the Chinese military in 2020 led New Delhi to deploy its soldiers in a forward defensive posture along the disputed border. The primary role of India’s 57 Mountain Division is to serve as a reserve formation for the India-China border; now, the army has diverted the troops and recommitted them to internal security in Manipur.

The Indian Army probably hopes for a quick return to normalcy in the state, but that seems unlikely without any political initiatives from Modi’s government. The violence in Manipur has so far been treated as a security problem, hardening divisions rather than building bridges. This short-sighted approach has led to heated exchanges between federal forces and the state police, while the Meitei community is protesting the deployment of army and federal forces. The Kukis distrust the state police, which has allowed weapons and ammunition to be looted from its armories, raising concerns about spiraling violence.

There is also the risk of unrest spilling over to the wider region. The Kuki people share ethnic roots with other groups, such as the Chin people in Myanmar and the Mizo people in the Indian state of Mizoram. In the wake of the violence, hundreds of Kukis have fled to Myanmar. Anger about the treatment of the Kukis is also brewing in the neighboring state of Mizoram, which came out of its own Mizo-led insurgency that ended in 1986. Meanwhile, the Naga community shares ties with its ethnic brethren in the state of Nagaland, home to one of the world’s longest-running insurgencies. There, the Naga people have demanded their own flag and constitution; matters have not progressed beyond a framework signed with New Delhi in 2015.

If a full-fledged insurgency returns to Manipur, with a cascading effect on the neighboring states of Mizoram, Nagaland, and Assam, the Indian Army will have to substantially increase its deployment there. This would negatively affect the army’s capabilities against China along the border in the state of Arunachal Pradesh, where the People’s Liberation Army has increased its own deployment since 2021.The longer the Indian Army is committed to pacifying Manipur, the more vulnerable India looks on its border. There is already a vast disparity in border infrastructure between India and China; any further reduction in Indian forces will open New Delhi to increased pressure from Beijing.

In 2015, Modi announced the so-called “Act East” policy, focused on connecting India’s northeast region with nearby Southeast Asia through trade, culture, people-to-people contacts, and physical infrastructure. Infrastructure progress has been patchy, with some of the delayed projects seeing a forward movement only in recent months. If the violence in Manipur spills beyond the state’s borders, it will further hamper the Act East policy; although indirectly, the policy dovetails with the Indo-Pacific strategy pursued by the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (known as the Quad), which also stands the risk of being undermined if these connectivity projects stall.

The fragile peace in India’s northeast now appears to sit atop a tinderbox. The violence in Manipur has the potential to provide the dreaded spark. The issue warrants Modi’s direct political intervention. The BJP’s state government has undoubtedly lost the confidence of most of the people of Manipur; a change of state leadership or a move to bring the state under direct federal administration could help matters on the ground. A visit by Modi to the state, consoling those who have suffered from violence, providing relief, and inviting all ethnic groups to the table would be a start toward building bridges between communities. New Delhi should endeavor to move federal forces and the army out of Manipur and reestablish routine political and administrative processes as soon as possible.

Unless Modi can quickly return normalcy to Manipur, he risks a greater challenge from China on the border and potentially undermining the efforts of the Quad. Violence and strife in a remote state like Manipur are not a simple security issue; they can have severe ripple effects for the geopolitics of South Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific region.

Sushant Singh is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in India. He was a lecturer in political science at Yale University and the deputy editor of the Indian Express, reporting on strategic affairs, national security, and international affairs. He twice won the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award for his reporting in 2017 and 2018.

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