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Top Indian Officials Press Manipur State Leaders to Engage Warring Ethnic Groups in Talks

FILE - A person on a scooter rides past a damaged water tanker that was set afire during a protest by tribal groups in Churachandpur, in the northeastern Indian state of Manipur, May 4, 2023.
FILE - A person on a scooter rides past a damaged water tanker that was set afire during a protest by tribal groups in Churachandpur, in the northeastern Indian state of Manipur, May 4, 2023.

Top Indian government officials are pressing their state-level counterparts in northeastern Manipur state to engage warring ethnic factions in talks as they try to defuse weeks of deadly violence between majority Hindu Meiteis and Christian tribal Kukis.

The move comes shortly after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi chaired a meeting about the Manipur crisis. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) controls Manipur where violence has left at least 115 dead and 300 injured in nearly two months.

Modi, who has been criticized repeatedly for not discussing the interethnic crisis publicly, convened the high-level Cabinet meeting Monday just hours after returning from a two-nation trip to the United States and Egypt. During the meeting, he was briefed by senior ministers about steps being taken to restore normalcy in the lush and hilly northeastern state.

Following the Cabinet meeting, Manipur state government officials were asked to talk to all stakeholders in the divide between the Meitei and Kuki communities.

A rare all-party meeting, convened by Home Affairs Minister Amit Shah in Delhi on Saturday, gave BJP lawmakers and all opposition political parties a chance to discuss the conflict — an apparent acknowledgment that the situation in Manipur was spiraling out of control.

Since May 3, more than 5,000 incidents of arson were reported in the state, and thousands were forced to flee their homes. Both Meitei and Kuki mobs have engaged in violence, several sources reported.

Following Saturday’s meeting, N. Biren Singh, chief minister of Manipur state, said the federal government was serious about defusing the crisis and that his state government would work in tandem with federal officials to restore peace.

Shah “has assured [me] that the central government will take all possible steps to bring normalcy in Manipur,” Singh tweeted Sunday after meeting with Shah in Delhi.

Manipur-based political opposition leaders recently issued a memorandum criticizing Singh for his handling of the violence and questioning Modi's “stoic silence” on the matter.

At Saturday's meeting, Singh also said that Manipur opposition leaders had been camping in Delhi since June 10 as part of an effort to meet with Modi, who did not grant an appointment.

Shah told the Saturday meeting that “there has not been a single day” when he did not discuss the Manipur crisis with Modi, who has been giving him instructions on the crisis.

“Most of the young men [who took part in violence in Manipur] have surrendered their weapons to the police. We have taken suggestions from all the parties [during the meeting], and steps are being taken in the right direction,” Sambit Patra, who heads the BJP in Manipur, told reporters in Delhi.

Although Saturday’s meeting failed to outline a plan to contain the violence, at least two opposition parties suggested that an all-party delegation visit Manipur to engage directly with those affected by the violence.

“To boost the confidence of the people of Manipur and to provide a healing touch, the All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) demands an all-party delegation be sent to the state next week,” said an official AITC statement released after the meeting.

“The message which has gone out [so far] is that the Union government is ignoring the Manipur crisis. That needs to change [in order] to heal, care, restore peace and harmony,” the statement said.

FILE - In this image made from video, smoke rises from burning houses in Manipur, India, May 28, 2023.
FILE - In this image made from video, smoke rises from burning houses in Manipur, India, May 28, 2023.

Root of violence

More than 6,000 houses, businesses, churches and temples in northeastern Manipur — which borders Myanmar — have been set ablaze in the violence sparked on May 3 after the nontribal Meiteis sought access to benefits and quotas in education and government jobs reserved for ethnic tribal groups, including the Kukis.

The Meiteis make up more than half of Manipur’s estimated 3.3 million population and mostly live in the valley, while the Kukis are located mostly in the hill areas of the state.

The violence started when the Kukis protested the Meiteis’ demands. Violence between the two communities worsened after mobs looted more than 4,000 guns from police armories and used them during clashes.

While some of the looted arms have been voluntarily returned, three-fourths of them have yet to be recovered.

Some 60,000 people have been displaced and taken shelter in close to 350 relief camps or homes of friends and relatives, while more than 40,000 security personnel — army and paramilitary — have been deployed across the state to curb the violence.

Sporadic killings and arson are continuing.

In Manipur’s capital, Imphal, last Friday, a mob set fire to $14.63 million worth of pipes earmarked for a government sewage project. Several vehicles and the BJP office in Imphal were also set ablaze. Security forces foiled attempts to torch a government minister’s residence in Manipur.

The federal government had made some efforts to bring the warring sides to the negotiation table. Shah visited Manipur in late May and tried to organize a “peace panel” made up of a cross-section of people. But both sides refused to participate in the process.

In early June, New Delhi approved a $12.4 million relief package for people displaced by the violence.

The Kukis allege that Meitei-dominated government agencies, including the police, have taken a partisan role and are supporting the Meiteis.

Many Kukis living in the valley area of Imphal and other towns have fled to the hills since the violence broke out. Some Meiteis who live in the hill areas have withdrawn to the valley, resulting in an increasingly divided society of deepening mistrust.

Manipur hasn’t witnessed this kind of violence since the state was incorporated into the Union of India in 1949, said Binalakshmi Nepram, a social activist from Manipur.

“A violent ethnic conflict has been ‘engineered’ by people who are close to guns, drugs and political power, between two ethnic communities who have been living together for decades,” Nepram told VOA. “The situation is like a civil war where both sides are arming themselves while New Delhi and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have maintained a stoic silence on the crisis.

“This is the darkest moment in Manipur's history, and the people of Manipur have felt completely abandoned by the Indian state,”Nepram said.

New Delhi-based senior BJP leader Alok Vats agreed that the situation in Manipur is “still very volatile.”

“We are indeed concerned about the situation in Manipur. The central leadership of the BJP is trying its best to resolve the crisis and restore peace in Manipur,” Vats told VOA.

“Mobs looted arms from police armories and are using them fiercely in violence. There are over 40 ethnic militant groups in Manipur. Many of them are suspectedly siding with the warring groups. We are still hopeful that the efforts of our central leadership will succeed to bring the warring sides to the negotiating table and resolve the crisis.”

Last week, retired Lieutenant General L. Nishikanta Singh said in a tweet, “The state is now ‘stateless.’ Life and property can be destroyed anytime by anyone just like in Libya, Lebanon, Nigeria, Syria etc.”

Following Monday's Cabinet meeting, Manipur state government officials were asked to talk to all stakeholders in the ethnic divide between the two communities.