Notion States

The many nationalisms colliding in the Manipur violence

Smoke billows in an Imphal street after a confrontation between security forces and a mob on 15 June. AFP / GETTY IMAGES
17 June, 2023

As I write this, a month after ethnic violence broke out in Manipur, in early May, the state has turned into a war zone. Armed militias have dug in at sandbagged positions. Security forces of all stripes patrol the streets. Over a hundred people have been killed. Thousands of homes have been burnt. Tens of thousands of residents have fled the state. Anger has hardened on all sides into resolve.

The Coordinating Committee on Manipur Integrity, a conglomerate of organisations representing the state’s Meitei majority, has declared a “national war against the Chin–Kuki narcoterrorists.” Meitei organisations have demanded the implementation of the National Register of Citizens in the state and the expulsion of Kukis, whom they consider illegal immigrants from Myanmar. Kuki organisations and their elected representatives, meanwhile, have demanded a separate administration for areas inhabited by their tribes, citing fears of massacres. “Our people can no longer exist under Manipur as the hatred against our tribal community reached such a height that MLAs, ministers, pastors, police and civil officers, laymen, women and even children were not spared, not to mention the destruction of places of worship, homes and properties,” the ten Kuki members of the state legislature said in a media statement, issued on 12 May. “To live amidst the Meitei again is as good as death for our people.” In a memorandum submitted to the union home minister, Amit Shah, a week later, the Kuki MLAs added that the violence has effectively partitioned the state, through massive transfers of population. “There are no tribals left in Imphal Valley. There are no Meiteis left in the hills.”

This “unmixing of peoples” is the product of the collision of at least five nationalisms. Meitei nationalism seeks to preserve the existing boundaries of the state and the political status quo that the community dominates. Kuki and Naga nationalisms seek a measure of autonomy from the dominance of Imphal, which can range from extending the provisions of the Constitution’s Sixth Schedule to the creation of independent countries that transcend existing borders. There is also Burmese nationalism, which has plunged Myanmar into civil war since the coup of February 2021, leading to an influx of refugees into India, as well as Indian nationalism, backed by the formidable might of the state. The debates that led to the Partition of India and decades of ethnic strife in the Northeast—the question of whom a nation belongs to and who belongs to a nation, and the fear of perpetual domination by a majority community over minorities—continue to inform attempts to redraw the map of the region today.

Among the areas where Kukis have raised the demand for a separate administration is the district of Kangpokpi, which is also claimed by Naga tribes as part of their ancestral domain. In 2016, amid a reorganisation of the state’s administrative divisions, Kangpokpi, which has a Kuki majority, was carved out of the Naga-dominated Senapati district. The United Naga Council, a representative body of Nagas in Manipur, protested by blockading the arterial highways that are used to ferry goods into the state. The blockade lasted 139 days. In a region where every ethnic group has its own militant army and its own expansive imagined map of the territory that rightfully belongs to it, any kind of map-making is a fraught exercise.