Ethnic violence strikes in Manipur, India

For the past decade, the Meitei Hindu community in Manipur, India, has been trying to get classified as a Scheduled Tribe.

Ethnic violence strikes in Manipur, India
A scooterist rides past a damaged water tanker that was set afire during a protest by tribal groups in Churachandpur in the northeastern state of Manipur, India, May 4, 2023. Reuters/Stringer

The backstory: To right historical wrongs, India gives certain privileges to its Scheduled Tribes, which mostly consist of Indigenous communities that have been oppressed in the past.  The country reserves government jobs, college admissions and elected seats at all levels for the tribes to try to level the playing field.

For the past decade, the Meitei Hindu community in Manipur, India, has been trying to get classified as a Scheduled Tribe. Manipur is a remote northern state bordered by Bangladesh and Myanmar. The Meitei is also the state’s largest ethnic group, making up about 50% of its population of about 3 million. The Meitei used to have tribal status, but they lost this when Manipur merged with the Union of India in 1949.

But other tribes in Manipur aren’t on-board with this designation. They’re worried they could lose some of their ancestral forest lands if it goes through.

More recently: In April, Manipur’s High Court issued a ruling on the government’s delay when it comes to the Meitei classification. It gave the state a deadline of four weeks for making a decision. Last Tuesday, thousands of tribal people held a march called by the All Tribal Students Union of Manipur to oppose the Meitei’s classification change.

The development: A day later, violence between tribal and non-tribal groups broke out in Manipur. On Thursday, people started setting houses, cars and religious buildings on fire. The unrest has reportedly led to dozens of deaths, and thousands of people have fled the region. The Indian Army sent almost 10,000 troops to the state to deal with the situation. And, on Friday, Manipur governor Anusuiya Uikey made a “shoot-at-sight” order so that security forces can fire on mobs “in extreme cases.” Authorities also shut down the internet, put the state under a curfew and canceled trains. Now, a military spokesperson has said the situation is mostly under control, but without open communication lines, it’s a little hard to tell what’s going on.

Key comments:

"We have reports of about 18 to 20 deaths in the few days although we are still verifying whether these deaths took place due to the recent violence or related to some other incidents," Kuldeep Singh, security adviser to the Manipur government, told journalists on Saturday.

“What we are witnessing here, unfortunately, is there seems to be a very systematic, well-planned series of attacks. The execution is almost clinical, and they know exactly the houses where people from tribal communities reside,” a youth tribal leader told CNN, asking to stay anonymous. “A lot of houses are burnt, all our churches have been vandalized, some have been burnt. I barely escaped – the mob was already in the house. I climbed the fence over to the neighbors’ house. I just came with my laptop bag to this camp. I don’t have anything.”

“My humble appeal to everyone in the State to cooperate with the Government in maintaining peace & harmony at this hour,” the chief minister of Manipur, N. Biren Singh, tweeted on Thursday.