Violence returns to India’s troubled Manipur state amid elections

Security personnel fire tear gas as students protest against the killing of two missing students and to demand peace in India's northeastern state of Manipur amid ongoing ethnic violence, in Imphal on September 27, 2023.
Security personnel fire tear gas as students protest against the killing of two missing students and to demand peace in India's northeastern state of Manipur amid ongoing ethnic violence, in Imphal on September 27, 2023. | AFP via Getty Images

Two tribal Christians guarding their village have been killed in attacks that involved gunfire and mortars in the northeast Indian state of Manipur, as per allegations by a local Kuki-Zo tribal organization. The attacks were reportedly carried out by central forces and Hindu Meitei insurgents, who then engaged in acts of dragging, mutilating and stomping on the bodies.

The Indigenous Tribal Leaders’ Forum has accused the central forces, which are deployed to ensure peace, of collaborating with Meitei militants in the attacks that led to the deaths of 23-year-old Kamminlal Lupheng and 25-year-old Kamlengsat Lunkim in Manipur’s Kangpokpi district last week. The men were part of a civilian guard, a necessity borne out of the persistent ethnic conflict that has gripped the state since May 2023.

According to ITLF, a combined force of militants from the Arambai Tenggol and the insurgent group United National Liberation Front began attacking tribal areas last Friday and openly boasted about their exploits on social media platforms. “When clashes broke out (last Saturday) between the two sides, central security forces posted nearby resorted to firing heavily (witnesses said it was raining bullets) towards the hills. They also fired mortars, which killed (the two volunteers) and forced other volunteers to retreat from their bunkers,” the ITLF reported.

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Meitei insurgents accessed the area and found the two Kuki-Zo volunteers and dismembered their bodies, as shown in videos that circulated on social media and messaging apps in the region.

This resurgence of violence reflects a deep-rooted conflict that has plagued Manipur since May 2023, leading to over 200 deaths and displacing more than 75,000 people.

After a brief period of calm, the latest incidents have reignited fears among the local population, many of whom are now disinterested in the ongoing elections, which began last Friday.

Some members of the Kuki community are considering a collective vote for “NOTA” — none of the above — expressing their discontent with the lack of effective intervention by the central government.

Incidents of violence and intimidation disrupted the first phase of the national election in the Meitei-dominated Inner Manipur constituency. Armed Meitei individuals caused chaos at several polling stations, Hindustan Times reported.

In Thamnapokpi, Bishnupur district, gunmen fired shots into the air, prompting voters to flee, leading to increased security measures. In the districts of Imphal West and Imphal East, armed men forced party agents out and intimidated voters, leading to some voters damaging Electronic Voting Machines and other election materials in protest.

The second phase of the national election will be held in Manipur on April 26.

The violence in Manipur began following a Manipur High Court directive that contemplated granting tribal status to the majority Meitei community, which would enable the Meitei to purchase land in territories traditionally inhabited by the Kuki-Zo tribes. The judicial consideration sparked widespread protests among the Christian tribal communities, which rapidly deteriorated into violent clashes characterized by the spread of disinformation and extremist rhetoric beginning May 3, 2023.

The conflict is also deeply rooted in economic factors. The Kuki-Zo regions, known for their rich natural resources, including significant oil deposits, have attracted the interest of both government and corporate entities, intensifying the tensions and stakes involved in the dispute over land and tribal status.

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