Tense calm in India’s Manipur where ethnic riots claimed 62 lives

Curfew in place and peace talks held as state’s chief minister says about 230 people injured and 1,700 houses burned in the violence.

An Indian army soldier inspects the debris of a ransacked church that was set on fire by a mob in the ethnic violence hit area of Heiroklian village in Senapati district, in India's Manipur
An Indian army soldier inspects a ransacked church that was set on fire at Heiroklian village in Manipur's Senapati district [Arun Sankar/AFP]

Rioting and ethnic clashes last week in India’s Manipur have killed at least 62 people and displaced 35,000, officials say, as a tense calm prevails across the remote northeastern state.

Manipur’s chief minister, N Biren Singh, told reporters late on Monday that about 230 people were injured and 1,700 houses burned in the violence.

Fierce fighting broke out in Manipur between members of about 30 tribal groups and a non-tribal group, the ethnic majority Meitei, over economic, educational and political benefits extended to some tribes.

An Indian army soldier walks past the remains of a house that was set on fire by a mob in the ethnic violence hit area of Heiroklian village in Senapati district, in India's Manipur
An Indian army soldier walks past the remains of a house that was set on fire by a mob at Heiroklian village in Manipur’s Senapati district [Arun Sankar/AFP]

Police in the state capital, Imphal, said 62 people were killed in the fighting that had raged in the hills and some parts of the valley, but there was no violence over the weekend.

A report on Monday in India’s Scroll.in news website said the death toll hit 65 while three politicians in the state’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said in a Reuters news agency report that it was about 70.

Singh said thousands of civilians, escorted by security personnel, were now returning home after the situation was brought under control by police officers and soldiers patrolling the streets and enforcing a dawn-to-dusk curfew, which is still in place.

“The situation is slowly limping back to normal. … We shall order a high-level probe to enquire into the violent clashes,” he said.

Lorho S Pfoze, a member of parliament from the state, said the government was trying to ensure that villagers could return to their homes as leaders from opposing sides held peace talks on Monday.

“The situation is extremely tense, and victims are scared to return to their villages as they fear clashes could erupt again,” he said.

On Monday, Indian Home Minister Amit Shah told the India Today news channel the situation in Manipur was under control as he appealed to its people to maintain peace.

A scooterist rides past a damaged water tanker that was set afire during a protest by tribal groups in Churachandpur in the northeastern state of Manipur
A man rides past a damaged water tanker set on fire in Manipur’s Churachandpur [File: Reuters]

Violence in Manipur, which borders Myanmar, broke out last week after protests by more than 50,000 Kukis and members of other predominantly Christian tribal communities in Churachandpur and adjoining districts.

They were protesting the Meitei Hindu community’s demand for a special status that would give them benefits, including the right to farm on forest land, cheap bank loans, and health and educational facilities as well as a specified quota of government jobs.

India reserves some government jobs, college places and elected seats – from village councils to parliament – for those categorised as scheduled tribes. It is a form of affirmative action to tackle historical structural inequalities and discrimination.

Minority hill community leaders said the Meitei community is comparatively well-off and that granting it more privileges would be unfair.

The Meiteis say employment quotas and other benefits for the tribespeople would be protected.

Two-thirds of the state’s 2.5 million people live in a valley that comprises roughly 10 percent of the state’s total area. The Kuki and other tribes live primarily in the surrounding hill districts.

Rights groups in Imphal said tensions started building last month after the Manipur High Court asked the government to consider the Meitei community’s request to be given the constitutionally defined status of a scheduled tribe.

The existing recognised tribes opposed the request.

“The tribal and non-tribal groups have had a history of jealousy over the distribution of economic resources and opportunities, but this time their anger just could not be contained,” said Khuraijam Athouba, a member of the Coordination Committee on Manipur Integrity who participated in Monday’s peace talks,

“We are urging both sides to really put an end to the violence, or they will have to live under strict curfew for months,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies