Manipur Violence: A Test Of Modi’s Leadership And Secularism – OpEd


The ethnic violence in Manipur, a northeastern state of India, has killed more than 150 people with over 300 injured and displaced more than 40,000 people, mostly from the Christian Kuki tribe, since May 2023.

The violence was triggered by a demand from the Hindu Meitei community, the majority group in the state, for a special status that would give them access to the lands and rights of the Kukis and other tribal groups. The violence has posed a serious challenge for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government who have been criticized for their inadequate, ineffective and insensitive response. The aim of this analysis is to examine the causes and consequences of the violence and to evaluate Modi’s performance and implications for his political future and image. 

Causes of the Violence

The violence is rooted in the complex history and geography of Manipur, which has witnessed several conflicts over land, resources, autonomy and identity among more than 30 ethnic groups. The British colonial rule (1826-1947) exacerbated these tensions by introducing administrative divisions, land revenue systems and missionary activities that favored some groups over others.

After India’s independence in 1947, Manipur faced several challenges such as political instability, economic underdevelopment, corruption and insurgency. Several armed groups emerged among different ethnic groups, demanding either secession from India or greater autonomy within it. The Indian government responded by imposing harsh security measures such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which grants immunity to security forces from prosecution for human rights violations. 

The immediate cause of the current violence was a court order issued in April 2023 that directed the state government to consider extending the benefits of Scheduled Tribe (ST) status to the Meiteis. The ST status is a constitutional provision that grants special rights and privileges to certain indigenous communities in terms of land ownership, political representation, education and employment quotas. The Meiteis have been demanding this status since 2012, arguing that they are also indigenous to Manipur and face discrimination and marginalization from other groups. They also claim that they need this status to protect their culture and identity from external influences such as illegal immigration from neighboring countries like Bangladesh and Myanmar. 

The Kukis, on the other hand, have been opposing this demand, fearing that it would dilute their existing benefits and rights as STs. They accuse the Meiteis of trying to grab their lands and resources by seeking access to the hill areas. They contend that they are the original inhabitants of Manipur and have been living in the hills since time immemorial. They also allege that they have been victims of violence and genocide perpetrated by both the Meiteis and the Nagas in the past. 

The court order sparked protests and counter-protests from both sides, leading to clashes and violence that soon spread across the state. The violence was further fueled by inflammatory speeches, rumors, fake news and social media posts that incited hatred and fear among different communities. 

Consequences of the Violence

The violence has had devastating consequences for both human lives and social harmony in Manipur. More than 130 people have been killed and more than 60,000 have been displaced since May 2023. Most of these casualties belong to the Kuki community, who have borne the brunt of the attacks from Meitei mobs. Many Kuki villages have been burnt down or looted by Meitei assailants forcing thousands of Kukis to flee to relief camps or neighboring states. The violence has also affected other tribal groups such as the Nagas, who have been caught in the crossfire or targeted by both sides. 

The violence has also violated the dignity and rights of women, especially from the Kuki community. A shocking video that went viral on social media in July 2023 showed two Kuki women being paraded naked and assaulted by a Meitei mob before being gang-raped. The video sparked outrage and condemnation across the country and the world prompting Modi to break his silence and call the incident “shameful” and “unforgivable”. 

The violence has also disrupted the normal functioning of Manipur, affecting its economy, education, health and governance. The state has been under curfew and internet shutdown for most of the time since May 2023 hampering communication, trade, transportation and public services. The state has witnessed frequent bandhs (strikes) and blockades by different groups, affecting the supply of essential commodities such as food, fuel and medicine. The state has also suffered from a lack of adequate medical facilities and personnel to deal with the pandemic and the violence. Moreover, the state has faced a political crisis, as the ruling BJP-led coalition government has been accused of failing to maintain law and order and protect the lives and rights of the people. 

The violence has also had implications for the national security and foreign policy of India. Manipur is a strategically important state that shares borders with Myanmar, Bangladesh and China. The violence has increased the risk of infiltration, smuggling and trafficking of arms, drugs and people across these borders. The violence has also strained India’s relations with its neighbors, especially Myanmar which hosts many Kuki refugees and insurgents. The violence has also tarnished India’s image as a democratic and secular country that respects diversity and human rights. 

Response and Performance of Modi and his Government

The response and performance of Modi and his government in dealing with the Manipur violence have been widely criticized as inadequate, ineffective and insensitive. Prime Minister Modi has been accused of being silent, indifferent and apathetic towards the Manipur crisis. He did not make any public statement or visit the state until July 2023 when he condemned the sexual assault video and promised justice for the victims. He also did not convene any high-level meeting or form any special committee to address the situation. He also did not reach out to any opposition leader or civil society group to seek their cooperation or input. 

Modi’s government has also been blamed for failing to prevent, contain or resolve the violence in Manipur. The government did not take any proactive or preventive measures to defuse the tension between different groups before it escalated into violence. The government did not deploy adequate security forces or impose strict curfew or lockdown to control the situation. The government did not provide any relief or rehabilitation assistance to the affected people or ensure their safety and security. The government did not take any legal or punitive action against the perpetrators or instigators of the violence. 

Modi’s government has also been accused of being biased, partisan and communal in its approach to the Manipur violence. The government has been seen as favoring the Meitei community over the Kuki community.  The government has been accused of ignoring or downplaying the atrocities committed by the Meiteis against the Kukis, while highlighting or exaggerating those committed by the Kukis against the Meiteis. The government has also been accused of using divisive and polarizing rhetoric that portrays the Kukis as outsiders, intruders or enemies, while portraying the Meiteis as insiders, natives or victims. 

The Manipur violence has also prompted an unprecedented move by the opposition parties in parliament to bring a no-confidence motion against Modi’s government in July 2023. The motion was moved by INDIA , a coalition of 26 parties led by Congress that opposes Modi’s policies and actions on various issues. The motion accused Modi’s government of failing to protect the constitutional rights and human dignity of the people of Manipur and demanded his resignation. The motion also sought to highlight Modi’s failures on other fronts such as handling the pandemic, reviving the economy, creating jobs, fighting corruption, ensuring social justice and safeguarding national security. 

Implications for Modi’s Political Future and Image

The Manipur violence has had negative implications for Modi’s political future and image as a leader who can maintain peace and stability in the country. Modi’s silence and inaction on the Manipur crisis have eroded his credibility and popularity among various sections of society especially among women, minorities, tribals and human rights activists. Modi’s failure to address the Manipur crisis has also exposed his weakness and vulnerability as a leader who can handle complex and sensitive issues that require empathy, diplomacy and consensus-building. Modi’s bias and communalism on the Manipur crisis have also damaged his reputation as a leader who can uphold India’s secularism, pluralism and diversity. 

The Manipur violence has also affected Modi’s prospects in the upcoming national elections in 2024. Modi’s party, the BJP, which came to power in Manipur for the first time in 2017 with a thin majority, faces a tough challenge from its rivals such as Congress which is trying to capitalize on Modi’s failures on Manipur and other issues. The no-confidence motion moved by INDIA has also shown the unity and strength of the opposition parties, who are trying to form a formidable alliance against Modi and his party. The motion has also put Modi on the defensive and forced him to answer the charges leveled against him and his government.

The Manipur violence is a test for Modi and his government as well as for India as a nation. The way they handle this crisis will determine their fate and future. They have a choice to either act wisely and responsibly, or to act foolishly and recklessly. They have a choice to either heal or hurt, to unite or divide, to build or destroy.

Altaf Moti

Altaf Moti writes on diverse topics such as politics, economics, and society.

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