Why did the Indian state of Manipur erupt into ethnic violence?

(CNN) Violence gripped India’s northeastern state of Manipur as inter-ethnic unrest left buildings torched and charred vehicles strewn on roads, leaving at least 58 dead and tens of thousands more homeless.

Repeated appeals by officials for calm appeared futile, prompting the Indian army to deploy troops in an attempt to restore law and order, and authorities to block internet access for the state’s estimated population of 3 million.

Residents of Manipur say there is a breakdown in law and order. The state government, led by India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), last week issued “shoot on sight” orders for “extreme” cases, while the army said on Sunday it had “significantly stepped up” its surveillance in the state .

Authorities say they have the situation under control, but as the unrest enters its second week, the situation remains hostile in a complex, ethnically diverse and diverse region that has struggled with insurgency, violence and marginalization for decades.

Here’s what you need to know.

People are evacuated by the Indian army to a temporary shelter as they flee ethnic violence that has hit the northeastern Indian state of Manipur, near Imphal on May 7, 2023.

Where is Manipur?

Manipur, a lush, hilly state that borders Myanmar, has had a long history of civil strife since the creation of modern India. The country is home to an ethnically diverse group of Sino-Tibetan communities, each with its own unique language, culture and religion.

Like Kashmir to the north, it was once a princely state under British rule and was incorporated into India only in 1949 – two years after the country gained independence from its former colonizers.

Many in the state disagreed with the move, believing it was rushed and completed without proper consensus. Since then, the region has struggled with violent insurgencies as well as ethnic conflicts that have resulted in hundreds of deaths and injuries over the decades.

The current outbreak of violence is one of the worst in decades.

What caused the clashes?

Clashes erupted in the state capital Imphal on May 3 after thousands of people from the Naga and Kuki tribes took part in a rally against the granting of special status to the majority Meitei ethnic group under India’s Scheduled Tribes grouping.

The Meitei community, a predominantly Hindu ethnic group that makes up about 50% of the state’s population, has for years campaigned to be recognized as a tribe, which would give them access to wider benefits, including healthcare, education and government jobs.

A scooter rider walks past a damaged water tanker that was set on fire during a protest by tribal and non-tribal groups in the northeastern state of Manipur, India, May 4, 2023.

Scheduled tribes are among India’s most disadvantaged socio-economic groups and have historically been denied access to education and employment opportunities, prompting the government to formally recognize certain groups in an attempt to redress years of injustice.

If the Meitei community is granted scheduled tribe status, other ethnic groups – many of whom are Christian – say they fear they will not have a fair chance at jobs and other benefits.

Clashes turned violent, with video and photos showing angry mobs setting fire to properties. Eyewitnesses told CNN that homes and churches were burned as frightened families desperately tried to leave the affected areas.

A youth tribal leader in Imphal, who spoke to CNN on condition of anonymity, said his house was ransacked and vandalized, forcing him to stay in a military camp.

In this photo taken on May 4, 2023, security personnel fire tear gas as tribals from the Meitei community protest to demand inclusion under the Scheduled Tribe category, in Imphal, the capital of India’s Manipur state.

“What we are witnessing here, unfortunately, is that there seems to be a very systematic, well-planned series of attacks. The execution is almost clinical and they know exactly the houses where people from tribal communities live,” the leader said.

“I barely escaped… the crowd was already in the house. I climbed the fence to the neighbors’ house. I just came with my laptop bag to this camp. I have nothing.”

Who is at the center of the collisions?

The divide between the Meiteis and the other ethnic groups cut sharply across political and geographic lines.

While last week’s protests appear to have sparked the recent violence, tensions between the two groups have simmered for years over a complex set of issues, including land rights and repression of minority groups.

The Metei dominate positions in government and are dedicated to greater economic and infrastructural progress than other ethnic groups.

They live mostly in the more developed but geographically smaller Imphal Valley, while the Naga and Kuki groups live mostly in agriculturally rich and geographically larger protected hill areas.

People wait in a temporary shelter at a military camp after being evacuated by the Indian army as they flee ethnic violence that has hit the northeastern Indian state of Manipur on May 7, 2023.

The Naga and Kuki groups fear that the change in status could result in their permanent removal from a protected area they have occupied for decades and make them vulnerable to exploitation.

In addition, tensions in Manipur have increased since the bloody 2021 coup in neighboring Myanmar, after thousands of ethnic people fled a brutal crackdown by the Burmese military.

The Kukis, who are of the same ethnic group as the Chin, say the government has unfairly cracked down on the group since their arrival, leading to a sense of persecution and abandonment.

What did the authorities say?

Manipur Chief Minister N. Biren Singh has said he was “constantly in touch” with India’s home minister Amit Shah to monitor the situation, adding that the situation “continues to improve and normalcy is returning”.

On Monday, Shah told India Today that the situation was under control. “There is no need for any person or group to be afraid,” he said.

Modi, who is in the southern Indian state of Karnataka to campaign for a state election, has yet to speak publicly about the unrest, sparking widespread anger among Manipur residents.

Opposition politicians accused Modi and his BJP of mismanagement.

“As the violence in Manipur continues, all right-thinking Indians must ask what happened to the much vaunted good governance we were promised,” Shashi Tharoor, an MP from the opposition Congress party, wrote on Twitter.

CNN has reached out to the state and federal governments, but has yet to hear back.

What is the situation now?

Many people have fled to neighboring states including Mizoram, Meghalaya and Nagaland. Other Indian state governments are arranging special flights for their residents to be transported to safety.

The Indian military said about 23,000 civilians had fled the fighting, with displaced people housed in military bases and garrisons in the state. A May 7 statement said there was a “ray of hope” and a lull in the fighting due to the rescue work carried out by 120-125 Army and Assam Rifles who “worked tirelessly… to rescue civilians in all communities, curb violence and restoring normalcy.”

Although levels of violence are not as widespread as last week, outbreaks of clashes continue to erupt in some parts of the state.

Photos and videos shared with CNN show some Kuki villages barricading themselves against attacks, using wooden posts as a makeshift gate. Malls are ablaze as reports of looting and arson emerge.

And thousands of people remain in makeshift camps, not knowing when they will be able to return home.

Fears hover over their well-being. Video published on social media shows many people crammed into one building, with women, men and children sleeping huddled together. CNN has not independently verified the video.

Tensions remain high and the situation remains volatile. It is not clear when or how the unrest will end, but residents of the state and their loved ones abroad or overseas have appealed for calm and restoration of law and order.

CNN’s Vedika Sud, Sania Farooqui and Kunal Sehgal contributed reporting.

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