Peace eludes India’s Manipur even after defeating BJP over ethnic violence

In the riot-hit remote state, hopes of a change following the governing party’s defeat are shortlived as deadly clashes continue.

India Election Manipur
People stand in a queue to cast their votes in Shangshak village of Manipur [File: Yirmiyan Arthur/AP]

Jiribam/Chennai, India – Thangman Guite had just finished her dinner on the night of June 6 when she received a phone call.

“They are coming, hide,” is all the 26-year-old school teacher heard.

Several other residents of Vengnuam, a village in Manipur state’s Jiribam district bordering Assam in India’s northeast, received a similar phone call.

Within minutes, Guite switched off the lights of her house and instructed about 15 villagers assembled before her home to run towards the house closest to the nearby forest. She also asked everyone to switch off their phones.

As they huddled in one of the rooms in that house, not even daring to approach the window to have a look outside, they heard voices and gunshots as at least two vehicles, allegedly carrying armed men belonging to Arambai Tenggol, a local militia, began to enter the village.

The huddled villagers ran to the forest, as quietly as they could. While hiding in darkness and fearing being discovered, Guite said she began to have flashes of all those captured and killed in the deadly ethnic violence that has gripped Manipur since May last year.

“I thought we wouldn’t [make it alive], honestly,” Guite told Al Jazeera. Within an hour, she saw smoke billowing from their village.

Early the next morning, soldiers of the Indian army, deployed to contain the violence, arrived.

Kuki-Zo tribals in Jiribam being evacuated by soldiers of the Indian army [Courtesy: Thangman Guite]

As Guite made her way out of the forest and entered the village, she discovered her house was among dozens reduced to cinders. The church she prayed at every Sunday had suffered the same fate.

A 40-year-old man was missing. Residents said he had been abducted.

The incident at Vengnuam encapsulates the ethnic tensions in Manipur, where clashes between the predominantly Hindu Meitei community, who are in a majority, and the mainly Christian Kuki-Zo tribe have so far claimed more than 220 lives and displaced 67,000 others, according to the government data.

The Vengnuam attack followed tensions in Jiribam district after the decomposed body of Seigoulen Singson, a 21-year-old from the Kuki-Zo community, was discovered weeks earlier. Singson had been missing since May 14.

On June 6, two days after the main opposition Indian National Congress party trounced the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in both the parliamentary constituencies in Manipur, the dead body of 59-year-old Soibam Saratkumar Singh, a Meitei, was found by the locals after he had been missing for more than a week.

The Meitei alleged that Kuki-Zo tribals were behind the murder. Kuki-Zo leaders denied involvement, blaming the killing on rival Meitei armed groups instead.

As the news of the arson at Vengnuam spread, Meiteis living in the area feared a counterattack and requested to be moved to safety by the authorities. Within hours of their evacuation to a relief camp, Lamtai Khunou, a Meitei village, was set on fire.

India Manipur Ethnic Clashes
A burned fruit tree stands in front of a vandalised house in Sugnu, Manipur [File: Altaf Qadri/AP]

According to a statement by a Kuki-Zo group, the burning of Lamtai Khunou and two other Meitei villages was termed as “retribution against Arambai Tenggol who initiated these violent acts”.

“The tribals will no longer remain silent in the face of aggression,” it said.

As of the time of filing this report, more than 1,000 people in Jiribam, belonging to both Meitei and Kuki-Zo communities had been displaced – the Kuki-Zo were evacuated to Assam by the army, and all the Meitei from the periphery areas were relocated to a relief camp.

‘Suffered under BJP rule’

As India concluded its weeks-long general election on June 4, which saw Prime Minister Narendra Modi return to power for a record third term, tensions in the remote Manipur state remain at a boil.

Critics have accused the BJP, which heads the Manipur government, of using the violence for political gains — a charge the party and state government deny. Many in the state view the BJP’s defeat in the parliamentary election as a rejection of its alleged role in the continuing violence.

Guite told Al Jazeera that exercising her franchise was important and the only way to register her discontent at the government’s failure to control the killings. She, however, added that the sense of hope generated among her Kuki-Zo tribe by the election results was lost on her after the Vengnuam incident.

On the morning of June 8, as the Indian army escorted her and other Kuki-Zo to a relief camp in neighbouring Assam state, the futility of the celebrations around the electoral changes in Manipur slowly dawned on her.

“My people have suffered under the BJP rule, who we blame for instigating this violence. The results seemed like the entire state had rejected them. It made us believe that there would be a change in heart,” she told Al Jazeera over telephone.

Manipur has long witnessed tensions between the Meiteis, who constitute about 60 percent of its population and are concentrated in the more prosperous valley areas around the state capital, Imphal, and the minority Kuki-Zo and Naga tribes who live in the hill districts surrounding the valley.

India’s constitution identifies dozens of historically marginalised tribes as eligible for the government’s affirmative action programmes. They are given quotas in educational institutions and jobs through a so-called Scheduled Tribe (ST) status. For nearly a decade now, the Meiteis have been demanding the ST status as well, amid vehement opposition by the tribes.

A local court in March 2023 recommended that the ST status should also be extended to the Meiteis. The court order – rescinded in February this year – set off a chain of events that eventually led to one of India’s worst civil wars. As tribal groups held protest marches across the hill districts, demanding the withdrawal of the court order, there were fears of a Meitei backlash.

India Election Manipur
A paramilitary soldier stops a vehicle from entering a polling booth area during a repolling in Imphal West District, Manipur [File: Bullu Raj/AP]

On May 3 last year, suspected Meitei individuals torched a centenary gate built to commemorate a Kuki-Zo rebellion in 1917-1919 against the colonial British rule in the hill district of Churachandpur. The burning of the monument triggered deadly riots between the two communities across the state.

Within weeks, Meiteis residing in the hill districts were evacuated by the army to the valley. As hundreds of Kuki-Zo fled Imphal, many were lynched to death and their villages in the peripheries of the hill districts burned down. Tens of thousands were displaced, the highest internal displacement in South Asia this year, according to the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre’s report published in May.

Tense elections

The violence forced the authorities to hold the general election on Manipur’s two seats in two phases – April 19 and April 26. Despite massive security, several incidents of violence and alleged vote rigging were reported, forcing repolling in about a dozen booths.

On the morning of April 19, Sarah Takhelmayum*, a 21-year-old social worker from Imphal, was one of the first to cast her vote in Moirang, part of the Inner Manipur constituency.

As she returned home, she received several calls about violence at some polling booths in the area. Soon, videos of voters running away in despair, with gunshots being heard around them began circulating on social media.

Takhelmayum said her mother was adamant about casting her vote as news of alleged voter repression streamed in. On their way to the polling station in Moirang, they heard gunshots and a stream of Arambai Tenggol vehicles moving in the area. Takhelmayum said she saw men with guns threatening the people.

“By 10am, everybody was up in arms, alleging that they were being stopped from voting. The resentment against the BJP was out in the open,” said Takhelmayum.

She said it was for the first time in a year that she saw people publicly pointing fingers at the governing party for everything that was wrong in the state, especially the manner in which the Arambai Tenggol militia had been accorded impunity.

“The obvious ties they had with the ruling government became more evident in the run-up to the elections and this made people question the militia and their posturing as saviours of the Meitei,” Takhelmayum said.

“What is the purpose of using weapons inside Imphal Valley, especially during an election? Where is the Kuki-Zo here who you say you are fighting against?” she asked.

In a news conference on April 19, the Congress complained of “unprecedented mass violence and booth capturing in the valley region by armed groups”.

At least three witnesses Al Jazeera spoke to in April also claimed they saw Arambai Tenggol members forcing people to vote for the BJP in the valley districts. The BJP rejected the allegation of using Arambai Tenggol fighters to influence the vote, with its state vice president Chidananda Singh telling Al Jazeera in April that the party “always stands for free and fair elections”.

In the Inner Manipur seat, the BJP candidate and state education minister Basanta Kumar Singh was defeated by a margin of 1,09,801 votes by Bimol Akoijam of the Congress.

Will Congress win ensure peace?

However, even many Meiteis said they had not imagined the BJP could be defeated in Manipur. Takhelmayum said she was shocked when she heard about the election results.

“Even if we wanted to vote them out, we felt that we were nothing in front of the muscle power and notoriety that the BJP yields in Manipur,” she told Al Jazeera.

Biju Samom, editor at a local news outlet, said a “silent but steady resentment” had been growing against the BJP in Manipur, especially because of its failure to restore peace in the state.

“This victory marks the beginning of a new politics in Manipur where younger people, more deserving people, influenced electoral politics than the usual ‘contractors’, ‘social workers’ and corrupt retired bureaucrats, backed by their militias,” Samom said.

In the hill districts, said independent researcher Siam Thangsing, the voters, angry with forced displacement of Kuki-Zo from the valley areas, were more set on defeating the BJP than on supporting the Congress – despite the fact that seven of the 10 Kuki-Zo legislators in the Manipur assembly are from the BJP.

Congress parliamentarian Alfred Kanngam S Arthur, who defeated Timothy Zimik of the Naga People’s Front (NPF), a BJP ally, from the Outer Manipur constituency, said the results would help lift a veil on what the state has been through over the past year.

“Now that we are in parliament, people of this country will hear what is happening here from the horse’s mouth,” Alfred told Al Jazeera.

NPF president and state minister Awangbow Newmai refused to attribute the loss to the BJP government’s handling of the violence, or the alleged failure of the federal government to control the crisis.

“They have been doing everything from the beginning to control the violence, but we respect the nature of a democracy, and the mandate of the people,” Newmai told Al Jazeera. “We are working to restore normalcy in the state.”

As the BJP returns to power in New Delhi, questions are being raised on how it will deal with the Manipur crisis, including whether Chief Minister N Biren Singh will continue to stay in office.

Researcher Thangsing fears the newly-elected Congress legislators will not do much to help the Kuki-Zo community, given the party’s stand in the conflict so far.

“While the [Congress] central leadership seems to be talking about peace in Manipur, we don’t see that from the state leadership,” she said.

Congress leaders in Manipur have been accused of being silent spectators to the civil war – unlike the party’s national leadership which has repeatedly attacked the BJP for failing to stop the violence and has promised to work for a political settlement to the conflict.

“How Congress addresses this contradiction could potentially determine if they will work towards ending the conflict,” Thangsing said.

*Name changed to protect identity for fears of reprisal

Source: Al Jazeera