Here’s why India’s Manipur state has been gripped by months of violence | CBC News

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday condemned the alleged sexual assault of women in Manipur state as “shameful” and promised tough action in his first comments on deadly violence in the remote northeastern region.

The clashes began in early May and much of the violence was initially put down within days. However, sporadic violence and killings resumed soon afterwards and the state of 3.2 million people, which shares a border with Myanmar, has remained tense since.

Here’s why tensions have been simmering in Manipur, and why they’ve flared up again.

Special economic benefits

The conflict was sparked by an affirmative action controversy in which Kukis and members of other predominantly Christian tribal communities protested a ruling that granted the mostly Hindu Meiteis a special status that would give them benefits including access to forest land, cheap bank loans, health and educational facilities, and more government jobs.

The Meiteis account for more than half of Manipur’s population and most live in the prosperous lowlands, which make up about 10 per cent of the state’s total area. The Kuki and other tribes mainly live in the surrounding hill districts.

The Kuki and other minority leaders say the majority Meitei community is comparatively well-off and granting them more privileges would be unfair. Kukis, who already have special tribal status, believe granting the Meteis the same status will eat into their chunk of economic and government benefits.

The Meiteis say employment quotas and other benefits for the Kukis would be protected.

How did violence erupt?

A protest on May 3 by Kuki students over the court ruling was met with violence, and within hours groups had begun to clash. Houses, shops, churches, temples and businesses were destroyed and about 60 people were killed in the first two days of violence.

Since then, clashes and the torching of villages have continued. More than 4,000 weapons have been looted from police armouries and officers say they are often unable to control the anarchy that descends on to the streets, described by India’s deputy foreign minister — whose house was among those recently attacked with petrol bombs — as “a complete breakdown of law and order..

A person walks through the wreckage of a building that was set on fire and vandalized by mobs in Khumujamba village, Manipur, on May 9. (Arun Sankar/AFP/Getty Images)

At least 125 people have been killed, hundreds have been injured and more than 40,000 have fled their homes.

The violence prompted the federal government to rush thousands of paramilitary and army troops to the state. The internet was also shut down for weeks.

Now, on both sides, the Kuki-dominated regions and the Metei-dominated regions, there are barricades and heavy-artillery to protect territories. The Kukis have asked for a separate state.

Modi breaks silence

Until Thursday, Modi had not made any public remarks about the trouble in the state ruled by his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

He finally commented on the state’s affairs after a video showing the sexual assault of two women in Manipur triggered massive outrage and went viral late Wednesday.

Police said the assault on the two women happened May 4, a day after the violence started in the state. According to a police complaint filed May 18, the two women were part of a family attacked by a mob that killed its two male members. The complaint alleges rape and murder by “unknown miscreants.”

WATCH | Protesters march in India to protest Manipur sexual assaults:

Protesters march in India to protest Manipur sexual assaults

Outrage over video showing women being assaulted in Manipur, India, has sparked protests in the streets of New Delhi, as throngs of people pressed up against barricades constructed by police to contain the surging crowds.

The Indigenous Tribal Leaders’ Forum, a tribal organization in Manipur, said in a statement that the two women are Kuki.

“The guilty will not be spared. What has happened to the daughters of Manipur can never be forgiven,” Modi told reporters ahead of a parliamentary session in his first public comments related to the Manipur conflict.

He urged heads of state governments to ensure the safety of women, and said the incident is “shameful for any civilized nation.”

A person gestures while speaking into microphones as people on either side of them look on.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, centre, speaks in New Delhi on Thursday. (Manish Swarup/The Associated Press)

India’s main opposition Congress Party president Mallikarjun Kharge, however, accused Modi’s ruling BJP of “turning democracy and the rule of law into mobocracy.”

Kharge said Modi should speak about Manipur in parliament, a demand that has been made by other opposition parties and rights activists.

“India will never forgive your silence,” he wrote on Twitter.

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