ASIA/INDIA - Five months after the start of violence in Manipur, a way forward is sought to start peace talks

Thursday, 5 October 2023 peace   dialogue   ethnic minorities   armed conflicts  

Imphal ( Fides News Agency) - "The path to seek peace is a steep, difficult, impassable one," says Thomas Menamparampil, Archbishop Emeritus of Guwahati who, at the head of the "Manipur Interfaith Forum for Peace and Harmony". He is one of the people who is raising his voice, moving his legs, raising his arms to the sky to seek a path of peace and reconciliation in Manipur, a state in northwestern India wracked by interethnic violence. Five months into the conflict, which erupted on May 3 between groups of the Kuki and Meitei ethnic groups, 178 people have been killed (according to official figures from the authorities), while civil society groups estimate this number at more than 200 casualties. Some 60,000 people have been displaced, while moments of high tension are being experienced in the territory because, according to explanations, fundamental justice issues underlying the outbreak of violence have not been addressed and resolved.
With the other leaders of the Interfaith Forum, the Archbishop has met in recent days with leaders of ethnic Kuki Christian communities and some of the Meitei leaders to listen to their needs and seek together a path to peace. Menamparampil, who normally resides in Guwahati, in the neighboring state of Assam, has visited Manipur four times since the May 3 violence, in an attempt to initiate a path of dialogue that first resulted in the establishment of the Interfaith Forum, of which Menamparampil is coordinator. Menamparampil remarked on "the urgency of mutual respect and openness to dialogue at such a sensitive time." Among the participants, Dominic Lumon, Catholic Archbishop of Imphal, one of the founders of the Interfaith Forum, said, "We are a humble group of religious leaders from Manipur who wish to end the cycle of violence in all its forms," by stopping aggressive actions, threats or provocative statements. And, to stop violence," he suggested insightfully, "one must start with the narrative, with words, which should not be exaggerated or exploited.
The meeting was attended by leaders and leaders of the Kuki and Meitei communities, who shared a call "for an all-out effort for peace in Manipur." The group of leaders called to "avoid any form of exaggeration or mystification in describing events, and to give a negative projection about the future."
Participants agreed on the need to encourage media support for peace and to promote initiatives such as the signature campaign for a public and shared truce to end the violence. From words to deeds: the forum called for "every effort to be made to initiate peace talks at the local level, collaborating in every way possible." Among the most important demands was that "no obstacles must be placed in the way of the movement of relief materials, including medical assistance and humanitarian aid of various kinds."
It was noted that in order to sustain this path toward peace talks, support is needed from the various components of civil society: the Forum looks forward to similar efforts by women's groups, intellectuals and other people of good will on both sides.

Manipur State, an area of fertile valleys and lush hills bordering Myanmar, is home to some three million people who have seen their lives disrupted: five months after ethnic conflict began, Internet access remains blocked and normal economic and social life has been disrupted for the population.
"While the clashes seem to have subsided in the past two months, the militarization of the territory remains in place and, most importantly, there is no political will to resolve the situation and get to the root of the conflict, so that the violence could re-explode at any time," Archbishop Menamparampil explained.
Many of those affected by the violence are still hoping for some form of justice. For example, as local media have reported, the mother of 21-year-old college student Hanglalmuan Vaiphei from Churachandpur (a predominantly Kuki area), who was lynched by a mob on May 3, wants justice and has no word on whether or how her son's case is progressing. In another case cited in the press, Kavita Singh, a resident of Imphal, does not know whether her husband, a government employee, is alive or dead. He and another meitei man were last seen near Kangpokpi district on May 6, and have not been heard from since.
A serious concern around the conflict touches on the looting of state armories: in total, nearly 4,500 weapons and about 650,000 rounds of ammunition have disappeared. Of these, only 1,500 weapons and about 15,000 rounds of ammunition have been recovered.
Given the deep divisions that exist, "buffer zones" have been created in Manipur between the meitei- and kuki-dominated areas. Between Churachandpur and Imphal, for example, there are four barricades with checkpoints manned by armatek forces to prevent further clashes from occurring. The fragmentation of the territory, on the other hand, like the phenomenon of widespread internal migration, complicates Manipur police operations.

The underlying issue, which India's central government has so far failed to address, touches on the relationship between the two ethnic groups, the Meitei (who are the majority group in the state, are also referred to as "Manipuri," number about 1.5 million, and are Hindu) and the Kuki, an ethnic minority of the Christian religion. The Meitei live mainly in the prosperous Imphal Valley, which makes up about 10 percent of Manipur's territory. The rest of the territory, i.e., the hilly areas occupied by forests and farmland, is home to indigenous minority groups, including the Kuki, who have been granted "tribal community" status. This recognition provides constitutional protection aimed at protecting the land, culture, language and identity of India's most historically disadvantaged communities. Therefore, the Meitei were not allowed to acquire land in those hilly areas.
On May 3, Kuki tribes held demonstrations and marches to protest the decision to grant tribal status to meitei as well. In fact, in a provision of the Manipur High Court, the Manipur government is asked to send a recommendation to the central government for it to include meitei communities in the category of "Scheduled Tribe" (known tribe), which would allow them to access benefits and especially land reserved for other indigenous groups.
Violence began from those demonstrations, which soon escalated into open confrontation. The Kuki accuse the meitei extremist groups of carrying out targeted attacks against their group's families living in Imphal and surrounding areas. According to the meitei, participants in the kuki march began vandalizing and assaulting people. Five months after those clashes, meitei and kuki are completely segregated with each forbidden to enter areas inhabited by the others.(PA) (Fides News Agency 5/10/2023)