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Manipur death toll reaches 98 as violence enters its second month

The death toll from ongoing violence in India’s Manipur State between the Kuki and Meitei ethnic communities is said to have reached 98, according to a statement from the Manipur Chief Minister’s office on 2 June.

More than 300 people have reportedly been injured, there have been more than 4,000 cases of arson, and over 37,000 people are currently in relief shelters. Local sources say that the death toll is in fact over 200 people, and instances of violence continue to be reported on a daily basis. On 2 June, over 200 houses were burnt down in the Sugnu area. Local sources estimate that around 300 churches have been destroyed.

The ethnic conflict between the Kuki and Meitei communities began on 3 May and the situation has remained volatile ever since. The violence started after a protest march on 3 May, reportedly attended by over 60,000 people, organised by the All Tribals Students Union of Manipur in opposition to the Manipur High Court’s request to the state government to send a recommendation to the central government to include the Meitei community in the Scheduled Tribe (ST) category. The protest, which first turned violent in Churchandpur district, is also believed to have been triggered by the demolition of several churches by the state government as part of an eviction drive in April.

On 30 May the Union Home Minister Amit Shah visited the state and called for both communities to maintain 15 days of peace. Despite this, the violence is said to have worsened and there have been no effective measures to control it. Several reports claim that a large number of weapons were looted from the police armouries across the state, including grenades, AK-47 machine guns, tear gas and Sten guns.

India’s central government has set up a three-member commission to investigate the causes and spread of the violence leading up to 3 May which will also explore whether there were any lapses on the behalf of the authorities. The commission is expected to submit its report in no more than six months’ time, however the Kuki community is demanding a separate investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) as they feel it would be more neutral.

The Assam Rifles (a government-controlled paramilitary force) and state police have been deployed to restore peace and conduct combing operations in the state, however Kuki sources claim that the operations are largely carried out in tribal areas despite the weapons being looted largely by the non-tribal Meitei community.

Some activists and academics claim that Chief Minister Biren Singh must take responsibility for the escalation of violence. The Kukis allege that the security forces are working with the Meiteis to attack their communities, and that they are only retaliating out of self-defence.

Many of those from tribal communities feel that there has also been a clear bias in the way the media has reported the violence, with several reports suggesting that the latest instances of violence have been carried out by Kuki militants, resulting in clashes with the Manipur security forces. In a press conference, Chief Minister Singh also said that over 40 Kuki ‘terrorists’ were killed by security forces in defence operations against them.

However, a well-known academic who cannot be named due to security reasons claimed that due to the internet ban, which has now been extended to 10 June, and lack of access into the hill areas, media outlets only have access to the narrative of the Meitei community. 

There is a significant need for humanitarian aid; although the Home Minister has announced relief packages, communities claim that hardly anything has been made available to the tribal areas. Some members of tribal communities have also alleged that the state government is partly responsible for the violence and as such have been calling for President’s rule, which would result in the suspension of the state government and allow the central government to directly administer the state through a centrally-appointed governor, but these requests have been denied.

CSW’s Founder President Mervyn Thomas said: ‘Manipur has been in a state of shocking violence for over a month now and it is clear that the measures taken by the state and central governments thus far have been insufficient to halt this crisis. We extend our deepest condolences to all those who have lost loved ones in the violence, and stand in solidarity with those displaced from their homes. We call on authorities in Manipur to ensure that vulnerable communities are protected, that those who have been displaced are able to return home safely and afforded any assistance they may need to rebuild their lives, and that those responsible for these egregious acts are brought to justice.’

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