The long-simmering ethnic tensions in Manipur have recently erupted into deadly clashes. There is, however, no clear path forward towards peaceful co-existence.
The violence that erupted in the Indian state of Manipur in April shows no sign of ending. And we should probably not expect it to. Hundreds have been killed, and several thousands have fled from their homes. The country’s opposition alliance is predictably demanding that Prime Minister Narendra Modi intervenes to stop the escalating chaos, and while the prime minister’s intervention might have saved lives, the dynamic forces that push the conflict are deep-rooted and of long-standing.
At one level, it is a conflict between two ethnic groups. The first is the Meitei. This group is politically dominant and makes up a little over half of the state’s population. It lives around the capital, Imphal, and is more urban-oriented than the other groups in the state. The other ethnic group is the Kuki, a Chin people ethnically and linguistically related to other groups — including the Nagas, who dominate neighbouring Nagaland and the Mizos, who dominate neighbouring Mizoram state.
The Kukis are designated a Scheduled Tribe (ST) according to the Indian constitution. A long-standing demand from the Meitei is that they, too, be designated as Scheduled Tribe. This status accords the group with specific benefits and certain forms of ‘positive discrimination’. These include reserved quotas to institutions of higher learning and government positions and a series of government measures aimed at ‘uplifting’ disadvantaged social groups.
Also, because of their ST status, the hill areas of Manipur are protected, and the Meitei are not allowed to settle there. The Kukis, however, are allowed to settle in the Meitei-dominated Imphal valley. A High Court judgement in April encouraged the state government to investigate the possibility of awarding the Meiti ST status. This led to Kuki protests, again leading to Meitei mobilisation and eventually the violence.
So, at this level, it is a conflict between two politically mobilised groups over access to resources, including government benefits and quotas. If the Meitei are given Scheduled Tribe status, the resources and opportunities available to the Kukis will be much reduced.
… it is a conflict between two politically mobilised groups over access to resources, including government benefits and quotas. If the Meitei are given Scheduled Tribe status, the resources and opportunities available to the Kukis will be much reduced.
At a different level, the conflict arises from dynamics that have been under development in modern India for a very long time. First, the quota system introduced to alleviate discrimination has been much abused in Indian states and is highly politicised. The tribals, as they were called, ethnic groups in the periphery and away from the great riverine civilisations, in the mountains or the less-fertile central highlands, were historically disadvantaged and generally discriminated against. Hence, a quota system was introduced as positive discrimination measures in independent India’s new constitution.
The quota system slowly expanded to include new groups. The distinction between tribal and non-tribal was not always entirely clear, and in many states, the reservation system has been expanded to placate mobilised groups. Demonstrations for and protests against expansion are a regular feature of Indian politics. Both the Prime Minister’s Bharatiya Janata Party and opposition parties have availed themselves of the opportunity permitted by this system, and no party has advocated abrogation of these benefits from any group of voters.
A point to be made here is that it is not entirely unjustified by the Meitei to demand Scheduled Tribes status. As an ethnic group, its origin lies in the slow merger of several ethnic groups – including the Mizos and the Nagas, who are both classified as Scheduled Tribes. Their conversion to Hinduism is also relatively recent, and pre-Hindu indigenous deities and spirits are still worshipped.
About eight per cent of the Meitei follow the traditional Sanamahi religion, according to the 2011 census. There are a fair number of similar-standing ethnic groups in India that have, historically and over generations, sought to become mainstream Hindus but have had a change of heart after the introduction of the quota system. For some, the demand has been granted.
At a third level, the conflict is between two dominant political forces in India: the Hindutva juggernaut and its opponents. In one camp, Modi’s BJP and the many Hindutva organisations promote Hinduism as a cultural and political cause. Yet, to destabilise Manipur does not make electoral sense for BJP as it already controls the state. The chief minister, N. Biren Singh, belongs to BJP, and the party dominates its state assembly. In some ways, the conflict seems to have left BJP in a conundrum, as it can only offer the opposition a series of open goals.
For the larger Hindutva brigade, though, the conflict in Manipur concerns the threat that assertive minorities represent to Hindus. The Meitei are largely Hindu, recent converts as noted, but their opponents, the Kukis, are largely Christian. The primary Hindutva organisation, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), has engaged itself in the conflict and expressed concern over the violence. Still, it offers succour and assistance mainly to Meitei victims of Kuki armed militants (the link is to Organiser, RSS’ mouthpiece). The aim of the Hindutva organisations and RSS, in particular, is the cultural transformation of India in a more Hindu-nationalist direction. More than political power, the objective is to promote Hinduism in the country’s DNA.
The nationalist sentiment behind this aim, often called ‘Soft Hindutva’, is immensely popular, possibly more famous than BJP itself. BJP has won the two last national elections on this agenda and is on the course of winning a third. RSS’ support is central, and both Modi himself and his right-hand man Amit Shah are RSS men. Even critics of Modi and opponents of BJP find it difficult to be openly critical of the soft Hindu nationalism, evidenced by the increasingly pro-Hindu orientation of BJP’s rivals. They embrace Hindu symbols as much as BJP and are careful with anything interpreted as pro-Muslim for electoral purposes.
India’s opposition parties have recently formed an alliance to counter BJP’s juggernaut ahead of the 2024 national election, called India’s National Developmental Inclusive Alliance — I.N.D.I.A., for short. The rather cumbersome name is counter-balanced by the neat abbreviation, and the term Inclusive in the title clearly reaches out to minorities. Seen from a liberal and democratic West, this is a policy formulation one is likely to agree with.
However, in the current situation of a clash of radically opposing views, it adds to the confrontation by not addressing the concerns of the Meitei. Even if the Meitei are politically dominant in Manipur state, their sense of vulnerability as a marginalised 1,5 million strong community in the enormity of the world’s currently most populous nation is still real.
The younger generation’s aspirations are Connected to this, yet at a deeper level again. Partly urbanised Meitei suffer under the same lack of opportunities and the same social media-induced visions of success as scores of young all over the world. They also want to be modern, independent of their parents, and have good jobs and a prosperous life. To many, Scheduled Tribe status would be one step in the right direction, with the quotas and opportunities it will offer. With the promise of a better future that he represents, with economic growth and an all-Hindu identity for all, Narendra Modi is a tantalising prospect.
Soft Hindutva is tied less to an anti-Muslim or anti-Christian sentiment per se and more to a bland and largely non-denominational Indianness — albeit based on Hindu symbols. In Manipur, it blends with aspirations for economic growth and prospects to create a clash with groups that seek to monopolise privileges seen as opportunities to exit from backwardness. Although not all have taken a fancy to such dreams, these forces are strong enough to mobilise great negative energy.