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The Challenges of Ethnic Conflict in India

Published: 27th Jul, 2023


In the past few months, Manipur, a north-eastern Indian state, has experienced repeated inter-ethnic clashes between two local communities, the Meitei and Kuki. However, such conflicts are not uncommon in India's Northeast, where powerful individuals have exploited the identities of different ethnic groups to serve their own interests.

The Land of Jewels:

  • Manipur, which means “Land of Jewels,” consists of a valley surrounded by mountain ranges.
  • The state is home to 39 ethnic communities following different faiths, including Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, as well as Indigenous religious traditions such as Sanamahi.

  • Root of dispute: Opposition to the manner of Manipur’s merger with India in 1949 laid the groundwork for the nascent stages of resistance and separatist movements and remains at the heart of the dispute between New Delhi and many restive portions of the Northeast.
  • AFSPA: To quell this resistance, the Indian government imposed the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act in 1958.
    • The actprovides broad-based powers for the military and paramilitary groups to “[maintain] public order,” in “disturbed areas”.
  • Today, the region features multiple conflicting claims to ethnic and communal homelands — and armed insurgent groups to defend those claims.
  • In Manipur, there are
    • at least four valley-based armed groups
    • several Naga groups
    • nearly 30Kuki armed insurgent organizations
  • The proliferation of armed groups — at one point estimated to stand at around 60 — contributed to the sense of a “war within a war” in the state.

What Sparked the Latest Violence in Manipur (the immediate trigger)?

  • ST Status to Meitei: The recent violence in Manipur was sparked by the Manipur High Court's suggestion to consider granting Scheduled Tribe status to the Meitei community, which is the majority population in the state.

Scheduled Tribes

  • Constitutionally recognised, this official designation gives certain protections to tribes and communities.
  • This status would offer constitutional protection and benefits, including reserved government seats.
  • The Meitei community had been requesting this status for a long time, but there were concerns that it could deepen ethnic divisions, particularly with the Kuki and Naga Indigenous communities.
  • Protests & Violence: Protests ensued after the court's announcement, led by the All-Tribal Students Union of Manipur. The violence led to retaliatory attacks, with Kuki communities burning Meitei-inhabited villages, and Meitei communities torching Kuki localities, resulting in several casualties.

The Rival Parties

Meitei Community

The Naga and Kuki tribes

  • The dominant largely Hindu community, which is based in the state’s capital city of Imphal, forms more than 50 percent of the state’s population of 3.5 million, as per India’s last census in 2011.
  • While the Meiteis are mostly based in the plains, they have a presence in the hills as well.
  • The two mostly Christian tribes form around 40 percent of the state’s population, and enjoy “Scheduled Tribe” status, which gives them land-owning rights in the hills and forests. They are the most significant tribes residing in the hills.
  • Other tribal groups, including the Mizo, also constitute the diverse ethnic makeup of the state, which borders Myanmar

Decades of Unresolved Ethnic Tensions:

  • While the protests served as an immediate trigger, tensions between Indigenous communities had been rising in Manipur for years.
  • Particular targeting of communities: The state government's handling of Indigenous land rights issues, particularly targeting Kuki communities in hill areas, has been a source of contention.
  • Land imbalance: Land imbalances between Indigenous communities, where Meiteis cannot buy land in hill regions but others can buy land in the valley, also contributed to the conflict.
  • Refugee influx: Moreover, the influx of refugees from Myanmar following the 2021 military coup, particularly those with ties to the Kuki community, added to the sense of insecurity for the Meitei Indigenous community.

Common Features of Ethnic Conflicts:

  • Conflicting economic and political interests: Ethnic conflicts indicate that whatever be the manifest cause - language, region or religion - the latent cause is not rooted in cultural disparity. Conflicting economic and political interests form the basis of the latent cause.
  • Deprivation of rights: The tensions generally arise when a minority group feels deprived of an equal position in either the economic or political sphere as compared to the majority group, using the primary ties to motivate and activate their ethnic group against the dominant group.
  • The allegiance or the basis of group loyalty depends on the principle of mutual interest.
    • For instance, during the 1972 Assam riots, the Bengali Muslims, who share cultural similarities with Bengali Hindus did not side with them, instead, they supported the Assamese in exchange for not being ousted from their land, by the politically active Assamese.
  • Security Forces' Actions: Heavy-handed responses by security forces to address conflicts can lead to human rights abuses, further aggravating the situation.
  • Displacement and Refugees: Conflicts can result in the displacement of communities and create refugee populations, adding to humanitarian challenges.
  • Interplay of Nationalism and Regionalism: The struggle between national identity and regional aspirations can lead to clashes between different ethnic groups and the central government.
  • Identity and Cultural Differences
  • Competition for Resources and Territory
  • Inadequate political representation of certain ethnic groups
  • Socio-economic Disparities
  • Historical Grievances
  • Communalism and Identity Politics

Implications of Ethnic Conflicts for human rights:

Some ways in which ethnic conflicts and human rights are interconnected include:

  • Grave violation of the right to life (Article 21): Ethnic conflicts are characterized by violence, including killings, torture, and other forms of harm to civilians.
  • Violation of the right to freedom of movement and the right to a home and property (Article 19): Ethnic conflicts frequently lead to the forced displacement of communities, causing them to flee their homes in search of safety.
  • Violates the principles of equality and non-discrimination (Article 15): Ethnic conflicts are often rooted in discrimination and marginalization of certain ethnic groups.

National shame:

The viral video from Manipur, showing a mob of men parading naked, and sexually assaulting two Kuki women has shaken the whole country.

  • Violation of the right to liberty and security of person (Article 21): During ethnic conflicts, security forces may carry out arbitrary arrests and detentions without due process. This constitutes a violation of the right to liberty and security of person.
  • Freedom of Expression and Information (Article 19-22): In times of conflict, freedom of expression and access to information may be restricted to control the narrative and suppress dissent.
  • Sexual Violence and Gender-Based Abuse: Women and girls are particularly vulnerable during ethnic conflicts and may experience sexual violence, exploitation, and abuse, violating their rights to dignity, safety, and security.
  • Child Rights Violations: Children are disproportionately affected by ethnic conflicts, facing issues such as forced recruitment, sexual violence, and limited access to education and healthcare.
  • Humanitarian Access and Assistance: Ongoing conflicts can impede the delivery of humanitarian aid to affected populations, depriving them of essential resources and services.
  • Destroying Cultural Heritage: Ethnic conflicts may result in the deliberate destruction of cultural sites and heritage, depriving communities of their cultural identity and history.
  • Impunity and Lack of Accountability: In many cases, perpetrators of human rights violations during ethnic conflicts may escape accountability, contributing to a culture of impunity.

Major Ethnic Conflicts in India:

  • Kashmir conflict: A long-standing dispute between India, Pakistan, and China over the region of Jammu and Kashmir. It involves multiple ethnic and religious groups, including Kashmiri Muslims, Kashmiri Hindus (Pandits), and Buddhists in Ladakh.
  • Naxalite-Maoist insurgency: An ongoing armed conflict in several states, particularly in Central and Eastern India, involving radical leftist groups known as Naxalites or Maoists. The conflict is based on socio-economic and political grievances and affects tribal communities significantly.
  • Northeast Insurgency: Various insurgent groups in the north-eastern states have been seeking autonomy or independence. States like Assam, Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram, and Tripura have witnessed prolonged conflicts involving different ethnic groups.
  • Punjab conflict: Also known as the Khalistan movement, it was a violent separatist movement in the state of Punjab, primarily involving the Sikh community in the 1980s and early 1990s.
  • Assam conflict: A complex conflict involving different ethnic groups and illegal immigration issues in the state of Assam. The conflict has led to violence and unrest over the years.
  • Mizoram Insurgency: A past insurgency in the state of Mizoram, which has seen violence and separatist movements involving the Mizo community.
  • Tripura Insurgency: An insurgency in Tripura, involving tribal groups and the indigenous population seeking autonomy.
  • Involvements of different ethnic communities
    • Bodo Conflict: The Bodo community in Assam has been involved in clashes with other ethnic groups over issues of identity and territorial rights.
    • Garo-Khasi Conflict: In the state of Meghalaya, there have been conflicts between the Garo and Khasi communities over land and political representation.
    • Karbi-Anglong Conflict: The Karbi and Dimasa communities in Assam have been engaged in conflicts over territorial autonomy and resource control.
    • Mizo-Hmar Conflict: In Mizoram, there have been clashes between the Mizo and Hmar communities over land and political representation.
    • Gorkhaland Movement: The Gorkha community in Darjeeling, West Bengal, has been demanding a separate state called Gorkhaland, leading to periodic conflicts.
    • Chakma-Hajong Conflict: In Arunachal Pradesh, clashes have occurred between the Chakma and Hajong communities over land and citizenship issues.
    • Naga-Kuki Conflict: In Manipur, there have been historical conflicts between the Naga and Kuki communities over land and political representation.
    • Kokborok-Bengali Conflict: In Tripura, tensions have arisen between the Kokborok-speaking tribal community and Bengali-speaking settlers.
    • Others:
      • Tripuri-Riang Conflict
      • Maratha-Dalit Conflict
      • Rajput-Gujjar Conflict
      • Kodava-Tulu Conflict
      • Garo-Assamese Conflict
      • Mishing-Rabha Conflict
      • Meghwal-Mali Conflict
      • Vanniyar-Dalit Conflict

Concluding thoughts:

In the current conflict, the identities of different ethnic communities were exploited to serve the interests of a few, while women and children bore the brunt of the violence.

Putting an end to the present violence and promoting lasting reconciliation are two distinct yet interconnected goals. Achieving reconciliation requires addressing the enduring impacts of violence resulting from various insurgencies and the government's sometimes harsh responses, which have left deep scars of trauma within the state.

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