Ethnic cleansing and brewing civil war in the case of India’s Manipur

This blog post contains references to sexual violence. Please be advised that the post may contain allusions and descriptions that could be triggering for some readers. Reader discretion is strongly advised, and we encourage those who may find such content distressing to approach the material with caution or consider skipping this particular entry.

In the Indian state of Manipur over 140 people have been killed and 54,000 displaced following clashes between Meitei and Kuki Zo tribes. The Supreme Court of India has taken suo motu cognizance following footage of two women being paraded naked and raped. In this blog Himangshu Kalita, dives into the ramifications of ethnic cleansing in an era of mass violence.

The North Eastern part of India is home to various tribes and is particularly volatile. The majority group in the state of Manipur is Meitei, making up 53% of the population and occupies the Imphal Valley (plains), which is 10% of the state’s area. They are followed by tribal groups like Kuki-Zo and Naga comprising 40% of the population and occupies the hills which cover 90% of Manipur. The Meitei community is predominantly Hindu whereas the Kuki community is mostly Christian. However, the Meitei community holds political power in the state, with them holding 40 seats out of 60 in the state assembly.

While the conflict was triggered in late April 2023, the build up of such sentiments has been growing for quite some time. The Meitei community has shown concerns over illegal immigration from nearby Myanmar and the consequent high population growth rate of 24.5% in Manipur. The tribal groups have denied any illegal immigration. Demonstrations and protests by the Meitei groups have been reported for implementing the National Register of Citizens (NRC) to filter out all illegal immigrants in the state. Another important factor here is ownership of land. As per Section 158 of the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Revenues Act, 1960, non-tribals including Meitei people are restricted from purchasing tribal land. Land and illegal immigration are at the core of this tussle.

Legal developments and human rights violations 

An order of Manipur High Court order issued on 20th April directing the state to consider granting the Scheduled Tribe (ST) status to the Meitei community was the tipping point in this conflict. As per Article 366 (25) of the Constitution of India, the Scheduled Tribes are defined as; 

“Such tribes or tribal communities or part of or groups within such tribes or tribal communities as are deemed under Article 342 to the Scheduled Tribes for the purposes of this [Indian] Constitution.” 

Article 342 deals with the provisions related to Scheduled Tribes. It states that the President may, with respect to any State or Union territory, and where it is a state, after consultation with the Governor thereof by public notification, specify the tribes or tribal communities or parts of or groups within tribes or tribal communities which shall, for the purposes of this constitution, is deemed to be scheduled tribes in relation to that State or Union Territory, as the case may be. 

This ignited a chain of events and the fear of tribal groups that their land would be taken away and their benefits hampered, grew bigger. The Supreme Court criticised the High Court and remarked it as ‘factually wrong’ as it is not within the court’s power to do so. The SC bench had said that there were several judgments of the Supreme Court which held that the High Court cannot direct the grant of Schedules Tribe (ST) status to a community. 

As the conflict progressed, the state authorities imposed an internet ban in the state from 27 April 2023. The Supreme Court of India denied the urgent listing of a plea challenging the internet shutdown citing duplication of proceedings. Much later, on the 9th of July 2023, the Manipur High Court ordered the state to partially lift ban on the internet. Kris Ruijgrok in the study titled ‘Understanding India’s Troubling Rise in Internet Shutdowns’ finds that a BJP-ruled state is 3.5 times more likely to impose an internet ban. 

The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in a 2012 resolution affirmed that the “same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular, freedom of expression.” It also condemned all measures to disrupt access to information online, deeming them human rights violations. The disruption of internet connectivity is a serious violation of fundamental human rights as recognised under the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)

In January 2020, the Supreme Court of India ruled in Anuradha Bhasin vs Union of India, the case concerning the legality of the internet ban in Jammu and Kashmir, that freedom of speech and expression through the medium of the internet attracted protection under the Indian constitution. 

The situation became really tense as even the Central Government invoked Article 355 of the Indian Constitution on 5th May 2023 taking responsibility of the security of the state. 

Article 355 states that “It shall be the duty of the Union to protect every State against external aggression and internal disturbance and to ensure that the government of every State is carried on in accordance with the provisions of this Constitution.” 

The Manipur Tribal Forum filed an Interlocutory Application (IA) on 15th June 2023 praying for full control by the army for the protection of Kuki and other tribal groups. They alleged ethnic cleansing of the tribals in the state. The Supreme Court yet again denied urgent listing of the plea. The Supreme Court remarked that it cannot run law and order, it is for the elected government to handle. Further, it sought reports on actions taken by the state acting on the court’s directions. 

The European Parliament passed a resolution on the issue and urged India to safeguard the minorities. The resolution was condemned by India and was termed a ‘colonial mindset’. 

A video surfaced on 19th July 2023 where two women from the Kuki tribe were paraded naked and were raped. The incident is from 4th May 2023 and sparked massive outrage. The National Commission for Women have written to the state authorities but the commission allegedly ignored previous complaints filed on 12th June 2023. The video prompted PM Narendra Modi to speak on it after being silent on the issue for more than two months. The Supreme Court took suo motu cognizance and warned of actions by the court if the government doesn’t act to prevent human rights violations in the state. Another concerning development is that the tensions are now spreading to nearby states as well as in the case of the neighbouring state of Mizoram. The current situation shows how rape and abuse against women is weaponised in conflict. 

Sexual violence varies in cases of ethnic and non ethnic conflicts. Since an ethnic conflict involves identities and bring an existential threat, they involve more human rights violations including rape. A very recent example can be witnessed in the case of the Ethiopian civil war where rape is heavily weaponised as reported by the United Nations.

International conventions such as the Geneva Convention form the backbone of international humanitarian law. It mentions the prohibition of sexual violence in armed conflict. Article 27 of Convention IV states “Women shall be especially protected against any attack on their honour, in particular against rape, enforced prostitution, or any form of indecent assault.” Article 3 of all four Geneva Conventions safeguards against violence including those of a sexual nature and deals with non-international armed conflict. India was one of the first countries to ratify the convention and should adhere to it while protecting the human rights of those involved and suffering due to the ongoing conflict. 

The authorities have not been able to prevent sexual violence and such cases are allegedly numerous. In the recent context, there are even reports of electricity and water supply cuts in the Kuki-dominated areas. Killings and clashes continue to occur with no signs of stoppage. Adding more complexity to it is the fact that now another community, the Nagas have resorted to deploying ‘volunteers’ to keep out armed members of Meitei and Kuki communities from their areas. The silence from the Prime Minister with regard to the conflict is also deeply concerning. It indicates a gross failure of state administrative machinery to protect basic human rights and life of people. 

All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE Human Rights, the Department of Sociology, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Image credit: Daniel Stuben. on Unsplash

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