For the past month, there has been increasing conflict and violence in Manipur state in Northeast India, with more than 130 dead, 60,000 displaced, and ongoing attacks on villages and refugee camps. The conflict between and among different ethnic communities in Manipur, and recently between the Meiteis and the Kukis, has long been used by the Government of India to safeguard the interests of the privileged few in the region while violating the rights of Indigenous Peoples to self-determination and development.
The State of India fosters divisions between and among Indigenous Peoples and tribal groups in India by promoting and weaponizing government policies against Indigenous Peoples and tribal groups, such as the Scheduled Tribe Act.
The Scheduled Tribe Act, a colonial policy remnant of the former British control over India, discriminates against Indigenous Peoples and excludes those identifying as or claiming to be Indigenous Peoples. This exclusion violates the right of Indigenous Peoples to determine their own identity, as stated in the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Indigenous Peoples’ right to self-identity is crucial to their right to self-determination. The Government of India has used this policy in favor of their interests to divide Indigenous Peoples in Northeast India and weaken self-determination movements in the region.
At the start of the recent conflict in Manipur between the Meiteis and the Kukis, reports highlighted the cruel non-action by the Government of India despite widespread cases of looting, mob lynching, and torching of villages. State security forces descended into villages, but reportedly did not even lift a finger to defend civilians from the violence of the conflict.
Indigenous women have taken the lead in protecting their communities and blocked the entry of state security forces into their homes, stating that security forces have done nothing to protect their communities. Other reports have mentioned security forces assaulting journalists in Manipur, who were covering the events as they unfolded.
A brewing humanitarian crisis
The government’s response to the complex conflict in Manipur has always been extensive militarization. This can be traced to the passing of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958, which puts ‘disturbed’ areas under de facto martial law, giving security forces increased influence over Manipur. With the ongoing violence, the government of Manipur has already deployed 40,000 security forces that were reportedly ordered to shoot at anyone disobeying the law, along with imposing a curfew, restricting travel, and suspending phone data and internet broadband services. Despite the stress on the role of security forces and law enforcement agencies, they have failed to contain the violence. They have reportedly condoned arsoning of villages and direct violence, leading to large-scale displacement. Furthermore, discontent grows with the Modi-led government over their failure to contain the ongoing unrest in Manipur, despite heavy military deployment.
The government’s militarized approach breeds a humanitarian crisis in Manipur. Villages and refugee camps that were attacked and burned have been displaced and forced to relocate. Some are currently seeking refuge in the Chin state of Myanmar, also a site of ongoing conflict with the leadership of the military junta. Main highways are blocked, cutting off Manipur from the rest of the country and restricting people’s movement. With this, civilians, especially displaced communities, face shortages and rising prices of essential commodities, including food and medicine. Schools and workplaces have been shut down due to increasing violence, affecting children and the daily wage earners.
Issues of development underlying tensions
Land grabbing, job insecurity, loss of livelihoods, and militarized attacks are faced by all ethnic groups in the state. These have been brought about by the imposition of the neoliberal economic framework and development aggression, leading to worsening poverty and inequality among the peoples of Manipur.
For the past decades, the natural resources of Manipur have been exploited by corporations and financial institutions. Indigenous groups and communities have been displaced under the pretext of development, with the implementation of large-scale infrastructure projects, forest conservation measures, and the crackdown on poppy cultivation.
Communities have been heavily militarized to facilitate the extraction of resources and implementation of development projects, leading to massive social and environmental impact, with Indigenous groups bearing the brunt of these.
Addressing conflict, ensuring development, and standing in solidarity
The Reality of Aid-Asia Pacific (RoA-AP) and the International Indigenous Peoples Movement for Self-Determination and Liberation (IPMSDL) stand in solidarity with the peoples of Manipur, calling for the end of violence and attacks on the people and for proper measures and remedies to be enacted for just, lasting peace among the ethnic groups in the state.
Recognizing the brewing humanitarian crisis in the state, the network echoes the demands of civil society organizations from Manipur in calling for urgent intervention and assistance from multilateral institutions and development actors like the United Nations. These institutions must ensure that provisions of International Humanitarian Law are upheld, an independent and impartial investigation is conducted to deliver justice to all victims, and that, ultimately, peoples’ rights are protected. Development actors must provide humanitarian assistance, untied aid, and support to local, community-based organizations that provide an immediate response to all affected victims’ needs. The aid should integrate humanitarian, development, and peace initiatives that can holistically address the persisting conflict in the state.
While India voted in favor of the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples, the challenge for the Government of India to recognize and respect the rights of Indigenous Peoples to land, territories, and resources remains. The Government of India’s brutal militarization in rural communities and Indigenous territories must end now. We join the appeals of our members and networks in Northeast India calling for the urgent repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958, which only worsen tensions in the region through increased militarization. We urge the Government of India to strictly monitor the SoO Agreement and foster spaces for Indigenous Peoples and CSOs to have constructive and inclusive dialogues that tackle persisting issues and discuss rehabilitation and peace-building methods.
The complex causes of conflict can only be genuinely addressed through people’s democratic ownership over their development priorities determined through inclusive processes with communities, Indigenous Peoples, and CSOs. Forwarding a rights-based and people-centered development is a step towards ensuring repair, reconciliation, and a just, lasting peace among the peoples of Manipur.
Stand in solidarity with the peoples of Manipur! Uphold Indigenous Peoples’ rights! Promote rights-based, people-centered development!