India’s interior minister lands in Manipur amid ongoing violence; his party is blamed for sectarian response to crisis

75 killed, over 150 churches burned, hundreds of homes destroyed

Local residents stand next to shops in Churachandpur as violence hit the northeastern Indian state of Manipur on May 9, 2023. More than 50 people have been killed in the hilly border region in clashes between the majority Meitei people, who are mostly Hindus, and the mainly Christian Kuki tribe. Thousands of troops have been deployed to restore order, while around 23,000 residents have fled their homes for the safety of ad-hoc army-run camps for the displaced. | ARUN SANKAR/AFP via Getty Images

As the fiery tide of violence engulfs Manipur, India’s Home Minister, Amit Shah, arrived Monday to evaluate the state’s deteriorating security landscape. This northeast region has recently witnessed violence claiming 75 lives, with the majority being Christians, and arson causing the destruction of more than 150 churches and hundreds of homes.

The violence, initiated on May 3, chiefly swept across the Imphal Valley and Churachandpur district, inciting at least four days of unrest. Members of the largely Christian Kuki-Zo tribal communities residing in Churachandpur have pointed fingers at two factions within the predominantly Hindu Meitei community in Imphal as the culprits of the violence.

Security forces in the state, along with central reinforcements, neutralized over 30 alleged Kuki militants within 48 hours of Shah’s visit, reported The Times of India. Shah belongs to the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

In an attempt to clarify the actions, Manipur’s Chief Minister, N. Biren Singh, who is also from the BJP, argued Sunday that those killed were Kuki “terrorists” implicated in arson and firing at civilians.

However, critics have asserted that the BJP-led government, under Singh’s leadership, failed to handle the tensions impartially.

In an editorial, Indian newspaper The Hindu wrote, “Partially, this was a consequence of the inability of the State government led by the BJP Chief Minister, N. Biren Singh, to rise above the fray and to act in a manner that was unbiased against particular communities.”

Analysts are closely observing Shah’s handling of the situation, his response to the allegations against his party, and the potential policy changes that could result from his visit.

His actions and decisions in the coming days will have profound implications for the BJP, the state of Manipur, and the broader narrative surrounding India’s internal security and communal harmony.

The situation remains volatile, with incidents of violence involving guns being reported daily. There’s also a significant weapons stockpile within the rival communities, according to media reports.

About 1,700 homes have been damaged or set aflame, prompting roughly 50,000 individuals to vacate their residences, and the number is increasing by the day.

Among the displaced, an estimated 35,000 are from Christian tribal communities. Simultaneously, Meitei households in the Christian tribal-majority Churachandpur have also suffered damage and destruction.

The region has witnessed an unprecedented demographic shift as tribal residents have left the Imphal Valley and all Meiteis in Churachandpur, including government and police officials, have also abandoned their homes.

This exodus has been aggravated by videos posted online showing police complacency and alleged involvement in violence against tribal people.

A memorandum submitted to Shah by 10 Kuki lawmakers of Manipur has highlighted the dire state of affairs. The legislators have lamented the deep-seated distrust the tribals hold toward the Manipur government, necessitating a separate administrative body for Kuki-Zo-dominated districts.

This plea, laced with serious allegations, was summarily dismissed by Singh and Shah, aiming to uphold Manipur’s territorial integrity.

Long-standing ethnic tensions in northeast India have intensified in Manipur.

Land ownership disputes and affirmative action policies have historically strained relations between the Meiteis and the tribal communities. These tensions escalated when, following BJP's 2017 state election victory, tribal settlements were reclassified as reserved forests, essentially treating them as illegal immigrants.

Adding to the unease, Manipur’s highest court recently directed the government to consider the Meiteis’ plea for recognition as a tribal group. This prompted a protest from a tribal student group, triggering the recent outbreak of violence.

The Meiteis have historically exerted dominance in the state’s political and economic spheres. Critics also accuse Singh of issuing orders to demolish churches in Imphal under allegations of illegal construction, thereby exacerbating inter-community relations.

The spiraling violence, with Christian communities at the receiving end, has sparked apprehensions about the rise of religious conflict in Manipur. The conflict, up until now, has been predominantly ethnic in nature.

The once bustling Imphal Valley and Churachandpur have turned into ghost towns, with deserted homes and streets bearing the scars of the recent violence.

The future of Manipur now hinges on the government's ability to build trust, establish peace, and ensure the equitable treatment of all its citizens, irrespective of their community affiliations.

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