The Indian government’s treatment of the Manipur crisis has raised concerns about both the status of India as a democratic state, as well as the nature of democracy as the rule of majority. On Thursday, 22nd June 2023, during his visit to the United States, Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi stated “Our constitution and our government and we have proved democracy can deliver. When I say deliver, regardless of caste, creed, religion, gender – there is absolutely no space for any discrimination [in my government]”. Contrary to this statement however, the escalating situation in Manipur, tells a paradoxically opposite story.
The Indian state has launched a suppressive movement against protesting Kuki minority (Christian) in Manipur, against the majority Meti community (Hindu). If India is a democratic state, then the status of minorities in democracies, is a matter of concern. Indian constitution has materialized ethnic and caste-based divisions, into Scheduled caste (they can avail public quotas) and non-Scheduled caste (they can not avail public quotas) and are considered to as Other Backward Castes (OBCs). The treatment of OBCs in India is a matter of grave humanitarian concern, recent episode of Manipur incident falls under the same shadow. Keeping in view the salience of existing situation, US envoy to India stated on 6th July, 2023 that northeast of India is a geographically significant region, Manipur and its people are important for US and therefore US is ready to assist with the resolution of ongoing conflict, keeping the sovereign concerns of India intact.
Manipur: A Chink in India’s Armor
Manipur is a northeastern state of India, significant due to its heterogeneous ethnic composition and strategically sensitive location. The northeastern flank of India has been prone to tumultuous ethnic uprisings throughout history; considering the case of Nagaland, Assam, and now Manipur. The geographic location of the Northeastern flank makes it a chink in India’s armor, as it is connected by a 17km wide chicken-neck corridor to India while being surrounded by Bhutan, China, Myanmar, and Bangladesh from Northern, Eastern, and Western fronts respectively. Therefore, ethnic uprisings in these peripheral states can raise challenges for the already eroding democratic status of India.
Escalation of the May 2023 Episode
Manipur is home to three major ethnic groups, the Kukis (Christians residing in the hilly areas) , the Nagas and the Metis (Hindus residing in the valley, closer to the capital Imphal). Recent episodes of clashes escalated when the Manipur high court passed the order directing the state government to grant Meitis the status of Scheduled Tribe; in response to which the All Tribal Students Union Manipur (ATSUM) started protesting in various districts of Manipur. Resentment surfaced because declaring Metis as Scheduled Tribe would allocate all the quotas in the region to the already dominant Majority community.
The government of India, instead of looking deeper into the prevailing ethnic security dilemma among minorities of the region, invoked Article 355 of the constitution, to securitize the issue as a threat to the state. This provision has granted the state with the charge to take immediate action against the threat, internal or external, without investigation or jurisdiction. As a result, troops of Indian army have been relocated to the region with “shoot at sight” orders, curfew has been in place, internet services have been restricted; as a necessary response to what has been declared as a security threat for the state.
Underlying Causes behind the Kuki’s Protests:
Kuki is the minority community of Manipur, as against Metis (more than 50% of populations), that are Christians and reside in the hilly areas of the state. Behind the protests that broke out in May against the court’s order, there is a history of persisting grievances that Kuki’s hold against Metis. Metis being Hindus and supporters of BJP, enjoy perks and privileges of obtaining educational facilities as well as public sector jobs in the region.
Employment rate of Manipur is 79%, but most of these facilities are available in the capital and are thus engulfed by the Metis. In March 2023, government of Manipur enforced evacuation of Kukis from hilly areas to reserve forests. Furthermore, Article 371 c of the constitution of India delegated authority to Hill Area Committee (HAC), to conduct legislation and execution of laws in the hilly areas where Kukis reside. However, recent intrusion of the central government has bypassed the only mode of representation held by Kukis. In addition to this, Kukis have always had to face allegations for being foreign sponsored groups, posing threat of session.
Region of Manipur has been economically and politically marginalized in general, however the Kuki community in particular has been deprived of the little bit of resources provided to the region. Manipur has a total of three seats in the central government; 2 in Lok Sabha and 1 in Rajya Sabha. In August 2021, Shri Alferd Kanngam Arthur (representative of Hill Areas Committee) highlighted the asymmetric distribution of resources among the hill and valley areas, with the latter always gaining more. This indicates that the ethnic grievances are rooted in economic and political deprivation of the Kuki community, and it has been persisting for years. The decision of the high court to grant scheduled class status to metis would provide them with quotas for jobs and government representation; further marginalizing the kukis as a minority.
Eroding democratic apparatus of India:
After the case of Muslims in Kashmir, Nagas in the Nagaland and Bengalis in the Assam, the Kukis in Manipur as well are at the mercy of majoritarian rule in India. Instead of mitigating political and economic grievances among minorities, it has further strengthened the Hindu majority in the region. The Bhartia Janta Party (BJP) government has either relied upon suppressive machinery to mitigate the voices of dissent or upon rhetorical justifications to turn a blind eye toward ground realities. 53 days into the conflict, there have been estimated 114 deaths and more than 60,000 displacements due to conflict.
Only statement issued by PM Modi is about the infallibility of Indian democracy. On his visit to U.S., unreceptive protests from the Kuki community hailed him outside the White House. The challenge thus emerged is not only internal, as this time it’s the American audience (as well) that is voicing the concern. Nevertheless, the question about failure is yet to be settled; is it the failure of the Indian government to take the democratic route to solve the issue or the failure of democracy in general to locate the concerns of minorities?
Ayesha Shaikh is an MPhil scholar at National Defence University and a Research Assistant at Strategic Visions Institute.