Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 12 July 2023


Ruth Pollard

India’s Northeast Is on the Brink. Where’s Modi?

The Indian leader talks a good game of tolerance and statesmanship on the world stage. At home, a brutal ethnic conflict is boiling over.

Shops and cars burned in Churachandpur, Manipur

Shops and cars burned in Churachandpur, Manipur

Photographer: Arun Sankar/AFP/Getty Images

This is India’s hidden war. Angry mobs have burned thousands of homes and razed hundreds of churches. More than 120 people are dead and nearly 60,000 displaced. Upward of 4,700 weapons have been looted from armories, including AK47s, rocket launchers and mortars. They are now being used by civilians and village defense groups to attack each other and the estimated 24,000 military, police and internal security forces  embroiled in this conflict in the northeastern state of Manipur.

There have been reports of beheadings as armed gangs swept through villages, and many fear tensions could escalate further, spilling into the neighboring states of Mizoram, Assam and Nagaland — and to Myanmar, where the military junta is increasingly conducting air strikes on civilians. Then there’s India’s tense border with China, from where the army’s 57th Mountain Division has been taken and redeployed to help quell Manipur’s ethnic strife. 

Through it all, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been neither seen nor heard. Since the violence escalated in May following tensions over the government’s move to evict tribal residents from forest land, Modi has been to Japan, Australia, Papua New Guinea, the US and Egypt, and this week he’ll travel to France. He’s laid foundation stones in the states of Rajasthan, Telangana, Chattisgarh and Uttar Pradesh, flagged off several trains, and launched the National Sickle Cell Anaemia Elimination Mission in Madhya Pradesh, among other official trips. Of the violence engulfing Manipur — a state governed by his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party — he has said nothing, nor has he visited to meet local groups and help cool tensions. 

Modi’s absence sends a terrible message, but it is not without precedent. Through India’s devastating second wave of Covid, when hospital directors in New Delhi were begging for oxygen on Twitter, the prime minister was silent. As he was during the year-long farmers’ protest that blocked a key highway out of  the capital and, more recently, on the scandal that has engulfed one of India’s richest men, Gautam Adani, a long-time ally. With his eye on the G-20 Leaders’ Summit that he’ll host Sept. 9-10, Modi appears willing to let this deadly unrest run on. 

At the heart of the conflict is a demand by the politically dominant, mostly Hindu Meiteis, who constitute more than 50% of Manipur’s population, to gain access to forest lands, jobs and seats in educational institutions set aside for tribespeople under India’s affirmative action guarantees. One of the main tribal groups, the mostly Christian Kukis, make up 16% of the population. They fear that giving special status to Meiteis would lead to their removal from the hills. The conflict in Myanmar is also a complicating factor: The junta there is backing the Meiteis, while the resistance fighters support the Kukis, and there’s a steady flow of weapons across the border.

The remains of a church in Langching village.
Source: AFP/Getty Images

The state is now split into two heavily protected ethnoreligious zones — the Kukis in the hills and the Meiteis in the valley — with a militarized buffer in between. It’s the closest to a civil war that independent India has ever been, says Sushant Singh, a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in India and a visiting lecturer at Yale University. “These are unprecedented levels of attacks on Christians by regular people,” Singh told me, describing ugly videos circulating of Meities celebrating in the remains of churches they had burned to the ground.

Manipur has long faced insurgencies — between 1980 and 2008, rebel groups fought an armed struggle that only ended when the warring sides signed a peace deal with the federal government — but civilians picking up arms en masse is another thing entirely. Christian groups from other states, who face increasing religious and caste-based prejudice as India grows more hardline under Modi, are watching the violence with alarm. “It is with deep concern that we note the resurgence of the targeting and persecution of Christians,” Archbishop Peter Machado from the Archdiocese of Bengaluru said in May. Another described the violence as “ethnic cleansing.”

Adding to the sense of fear and isolation for the 3.5 million citizens, the state government cut internet services May 3 when the clashes intensified following a protest march. It was only last week that the Manipur High Court directed authorities to reinstate limited access. 

Modi’s comments in Washington last month that “regardless of caste, creed, religion, gender, there’s absolutely no space for discrimination” in India seem more out of touch with reality than ever. His powerful home minister, Amit Shah, visited the state in May without bringing an end to the clashes. Manipur’s chief minister, N. Biren Singh, insists the situation is stabilizing, though accounts from those on the ground indicate otherwise.


Leaving the military and security forces to deal with Manipur’s crisis has only entrenched the divisions, with some personnel dividing along religious and ethnic lines and taking their weapons with them. A conflict like this doesn’t get resolved with a show of strength, or by absentee leadership. It takes political will, along with genuine efforts to bring rival communities together. Modi must step up before the worst happens, and this grows into a civil war in one of the country’s most volatile regions.

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