2023 Kuki-Zo Violence: Pogrom- not a riot!
2023 Kuki-Zo Violence: Pogrom- not a riot!
What occurred on the 3rd of May, 2023 and in the weeks that followed is an instance we have grown quite accustomed to within the Indian sub-continent- yet another intercommunal clash- this time between the Kuki-Zo and the Meiteis in Manipur. The violence erupted in Imphal and Churachandpur as a reaction to a ‘Tribal Solidarity March’ led by the ‘All Tribal Students Union of Manipur’ in multiple districts across Manipur. The raison d'etre for this rally was to protest against a recent recommendation made by the Manipur High Court to the State Government encouraging them to include the state-majority Meiteis into the Schedule Tribe (ST) category. This category was created with the intention of assisting those disadvantaged sections of society that could benefit from having a reservation quota set aside for them to enter into educational institutions and government job opportunities. The Union argued that it was unjust for the Meiteis to be provided the same benefits that had been set aside for the Tribals- while already reaping the benefits of being the majority-ethnic group in the state all while living in the Centre of Manipur- Imphal(p.22), which is arguably more developed than the rest of the state- all while wielding majority political power with Meitei politicians holding 40 out of 60 seats in the local state assembly.
What should have been a peaceful protest turned violent with rumours being spread that the Anglo-Kuki Centenary Gate at Leisang-Monglenphai in Churachandpur was set on fire by “unidentified miscreants”, that a Meietei woman was raped, and that “Hindu-Manipuris” were being attacked in Kuki-Zo tribal dominated areas. In the first couple days the violence was estimated to have resulted in over 75 confirmed deaths, the destruction of 1000s of buildings, and the displacement of over 35,000 people! While the subject of this violence had primarily been the Kuki-Zo people, local media attempted to frame the violence as equally affecting both the Kuki-Zo and the Meitei community and further asserted that retaliatory attacks were carried out by the Kuki-Zo people who reportedly took up arms. 2 days after these inter-communal clashes occurred, the Chief Minister of Manipur Biren Singh claimed that the violence was a result of “a prevailing misunderstanding between two communities.” Attempts are largely being constructed to categorise these events as inter-community clashes or as ethnic-riots.
Given the nature of the violence carried out and the purposefulness with which the Kuki-Zo people were targeted- the mounting evidence will show that this was not a riot but in fact a pogrom! Before delving into why this ongoing conflict can/should be categorised as such, a clear distinction will have to be made between a riot and a pogrom. This will be done by identifying three parameters: i) Target & Intent, ii) Nature & Scale, and iii) Organization & Planning, with an overview being provided in the following table.
Based on the above outlined criteria and different characteristics between a riot and a pogrom- the remainder of this article will provide argumentation showcasing why the ongoing Meitei-Kuki-Zo conflict is a Pogrom.
- Target and Intent
Manipur is a state which can broadly be split between two regions- the Hills primarily occupied by the Kuki-Zo & the Nagas (who together comprise 33 of the government recognised scheduled tribes), and the Valleys with the economically and politically dominant Meiteis inhabitants. This distinction between the hill and valley districts is important- keeping in mind the historical divide between the Kangleipak kingdom and the tribal chiefdoms further consolidating into cultural, and religious divides and differing levels of economic development within the two regions.
It is important to note that the Kuki-Zo in Manipur belong to the same ethnic groups as the Mizos in Mizoram and the Chins in Myanmar- the ethnic group being the same, yet the naming convention differing per region. This factor is used as a justification for a lot of the problems between the Meitei and Kuki-Zo communities with the former alleging that it is the Chin communities that are illegally immigrating from Myanmar after the recent coup who then settle in the hill-foot regions and thereby blend in with their “Kuki” cousins. They further allege that these same communities engage in the cultivation of opium and thereby contribute to the growing drug problem in the region.
The main caveat that one must consider to understand the cause for this conflict is the geographical claims/limitations of a majority of the total state population- around 60% as per the 2011 census- living within the Imphal Valley area which is a lot smaller than the surrounding hill districts/areas. As the ‘Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms Act, 1960’ implements safeguards for the surrounding hills area to be protected & preserved for Scheduled Tribes- the “general”-Meitei folk can only gain access to settling in these areas through purchasing land after seeking approval/permission from the local District Council and Deputy Commissioner (Manipur Land Reforms and Land Revenue Act, 1968, Section 158). The granting of ST status to the general Meitei population would pave the way for the majority group to have free-access & complete ownership of land within these “protected” areas. An interview conducted by the Wire of Meitei MLA Nishikant Sapam highlighted how he felt it unjust for the Meitei folk being restricted to only purchasing land within the valley while the Tribal population could purchase land within both areas freely. This interview echoes the general sentiment a lot of Meitei people feel- that they are restricted, that this restriction is limited to their side, and that their land is further being encroached upon by “illegal populations.” These fears are combined and become the focus of propagandists to elicit discord and lacerations within Manipuri society.
As more time lapses between the initial conflict that began on the 3rd of May and in the 2 months that have passed since, OSINT reports that leak on social media and other reports demonstrate that it is the Kuki-Zo community’s communal and individual properties that are being ransacked, looted, and burned. Social media news also indicated how before the start of the pogrom certain houses were reportedly spray painted with a red color so as to indicate which houses belonged to Kuki-Zo families within Churachandpur & Imphal. Moreover, this destruction was not limited to simple families but also targeted Kuki-Zo government officials such as the house of Additional-Director General of the Police (ADGP)- Clay Khongsai. Despite this isolated incident, it is important to highlight that this was not an act of violence enacted against the State or those “in power” but primarily due to the ethnicity of ADGP Clay Khongsai who is Kuki.
Reports from a lot of survivors of the initial pogrom show that the ethnicity of any individual suspected to be a Kuki-Zo tribal was verified through the forced checking of the individual’s IDs- with their aadhar card mentioning the surname and therefore betraying/surrendering the individual's ethnicity. The violence was non-discriminatory when it concerned the position of the Kuki-Zo individual involved- Mrs. Gouzavung Gangte (57) who served as Under Secretary of the Agriculture & Veterinary department was caught fleeing with her family who after being identified as Kukis were all dragged out from their car and attacked- with Mrs. Gangte and her son losing their life.
Furthermore, recent news articles go on to show how Meitei-militant groups have- after a frail peace was established in the cities of Churachandpur and Imphal- switched to targeting Kuki-Zo settlements and villages on the outskirts that are more remote. This has led to the Kuki-Zo inhabitants in these villages having to select between fighting, fleeing & forsaking their property, or remaining back and risking their lives.
All of these incidents demonstrate a direct contrast to the narrative being pushed by the local media at framing this violence as an intercommunal conflict with both sides being targeted and aggressive equally. The main recipient of this violence is the Kuki-Zo population- with Naga individuals escaping from these interrogations and attacks relatively unscathed. One can clearly see how the intention then alludes towards the targeted intimidation, persecution, and killing of the Kuki-Zo population on the basis of politically engineered divides. The next section will attempt to trace the nature and scale of the ongoing violence to further discern the necessity to categorize this as a pogrom.
- Nature and Scale
Albeit being posed/framed as an intercommunal clash between the Kuki-Zo & Meitei communities within Manipur (Imphal & Churachandpur) by the government and local media- the reality could not be distorted any further from the truth. One of the key markers that discern a riot from a pogrom is the increased ratio of killing to injuries- riots produce more injured than killed, while pogroms increase the ratio in favor of killings. As per recent reports the violence over the past 2 months has resulted in over 137 casualties, and over 70,000 Kuki-Zo being displaced and fleeing to nearby states and safer/major cities. Further reports from the ‘Indigenous Tribal Leaders’ Forum’, a conglomerate of recognised tribes in Churachandpur district, mention that over 253 churches of the Kuki-Zo minority were targeted within the district of Churachandpur alone! The execution of this violence was far from senseless and served the strategic purpose of intimidating and displacing the Kuki-Zo populations from these regions. An eerie example of this being a recent news article that reported how 4 Kuki men that had been left behind to keep guard on their Kuki village were brutally murdered- with one of the guards being beheaded- with his head being erected on a pole as a means of intimidation.
Another group that has suffered as a consequence/by-product of the ongoing conflict are the women in Manipur. A woman, her neighbour and her 7 year old son were being transported to a hospital when the ambulance they were being transported in was set on fire by a mob. To add additional context they were travelling from an Assam Rifles relief camp due to the father being a Kuki-Zo man when the child was struck by a stray-bullet and had to be transported to the nearest hospital in a Meitei-dominant area. The ambulance despite being accompanied by Assam Rifles vehicles were stopped by men reported to be from the Meitei Leepun before tragedy ensued. Similarly, Kuki-Zo women attempting to escape mobs during this period became victims of sexual violence and in extreme cases death. The ominous and lawless nature of a conflict often results in men taking advantage of chaotic situations to enact horrifying unspeakable acts upon countless such women who face similar situations with their experiences usually going unreported and undocumented. The pinnacle of this violence and the effect/feelings it inculcated within the Indian household was the release of a video that circulated on social media that depicted two Kuki-Zo women who were paraded around naked, groped and molested by a group of men before then being directed to a nearby field and gang-raped by men reportedly alleged to be Meitei miscreants.
Between the 5th and the 30th of May multiple mobs consisting of 1000s of people invaded, assaulted and ransacked multiple police armouries in the districts of Imphal West, Imphal East, Thoubal and Kakching- with a First Incident Report revealing that as many as 811 guns such as AK rifles, INSAS LMG, MP5, carbon bayonets and at least 77,060 pieces of ammunition were stolen- with the Manipur police further stating that at least 500,000 rounds of ammunition and over 3,500 arms were stolen in these attacks. The deliberate targeting and the large swathes of people that were mobilized to ransack these police armouries are indicative of this being a well-planned activity. These weapons have since been utilised in the conflict and despite some reports referring to "retaliatory attacks"- it is important to note that these are outlying instances as it is the Kuki-Zo people that have borne the highest number of casualties in this “inter-communal” conflict. Moreover, if it were not for the involvement of the CAPF Assam Rifles in defending the outlying Kuki-Zo villages then the number of casualties would be a lot more severe.
The numerous killings, the reports of sexual assaults, the desecration of Kuki-Zo communal property and religious sites, all demonstrate how these large-scale attacks are fastidious, deliberate and are being committed by cunning Meitei actors upon the smaller-more marginalized Kuki-Zo.
An interesting point to highlight is that despite both Kuki and Nagas participated within the ‘Tribal Solidarity March’ organised by the All Tribal Students Union of Manipur it was only the Kuki, Zom & other tribal groups that fall within their bracket that were flagged as troublesome and targeted- with the Naga communities getting away relatively unscathed. An argument could be put forward that this is due to the Naga militant groups being larger, more powerful, and more trained than the Kuki militant groups. This targeting of the Kuki-Zo over the Nagas serves to reveal the nature of this conflict- that it is a pogrom primarily drawing from the differences in ethnicity. The Kuki-Zo are the minority-ethnic group both overall in Manipur and within the greater-Imphal area, where a major chunk of violence took place, and OSINT evidence points towards this event being a well-orchestrated large-scale event against them by a much larger community (Meiteis) which based on the earlier outlined criteria qualifies this as a pogrom. The next subsection will attempt to focus on this intentionality which serves as the key-differentiating factor between a riot and a pogrom.
III. Organization and Planning
The violence which is ongoing and occurs sporadically has not yet been quelled by force despite the deployment of armed forces. This violence seems rather well-engineered- receiving the support or at the very least ‘intentional negligence’ from those imbued with the power and who took oaths to uphold peace for all of their constituents. There are 4 arguments that must be considered to demonstrate that this violence is intentional and therefore a pogrom.
1. The conditions necessary for this conflict were premeditated
The recruitment of miscreants/hooligans/unemployed individuals are the first necessity in the creation of a force that can be galvanised into carrying out objectives. The inception of Meitei extremist groups such as the Arambai Tenngol & Meitei Leepun began a little over 2-3 years ago with these groups reportedly recruiting hundreds of individuals within the greater-Imphal area. During the initial outbreak of violence, dozens of eyewitnesses and surviving victims narrated/claimed that the primary individuals responsible for the violence dressed uniformly in black T-shirts similar to those worn by members of the Arambai Tenggol. Another group of similar members clad in black were seen to have been carrying weapons and ammunition ransacked from police armories. Furthermore, members from these groups moved around in large numbers on motor-bikes carrying weapons and utilising them to wreak havoc, setting arson on properties owned by Kuki-Zo and robbing villagers.
Intriguingly, pictures have been captured that depict Chief Minister of Manipur Biren Singh & the current “titular” king of Manipur- Maharaja Leishemba Sanjaoba participating in meetings organized by both groups- with further reports alleging that the swearing-in ceremony for new recruits also occurred within Sanjaoba’s residency. Moreover, CM Biren Singh’s prejudice against Kuki-Zo and considering them as “belonging to Myanmar '' has been the subject of much controversy through his engagements and deleted threads on Social Media. While it may be far-reaching to claim that these 2 individuals- who both belong to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)- may or may not be complicitly involved in instilling/propagating this violence- this does tie-in to the second point of a disappointing and ineffectual response from the Government.
2. Ineffectual response from the Government
To begin with, the deployment of the army to restore balance was delayed to the 4th of May- a day after the violence and “communal-clashes” had already begun. Since Manipur was in a state of emergency and could be qualified/categorised as an ‘internal disturbance’- the local government should have been temporarily suspended and Presidential rule imposed upon the state- utilising Article 352 of the Indian Constitution to restore peace. Additionally, there was a certain dearth in a statement/response from the Central government of India- with Prime Minister Modi not making any official statement recognizing or shunning the violence that occurred until the 20th of July nearly 3 months after the tragic event at Leisang Spark transpired. Moreover, it took over 4 weeks before Union Minister Amit Shah made a visit to the state from the 29th of May to the 1st of June in an event that seemed largely symbolic rather than effective- visiting some sites and announcing rather ineffectual measures aimed at instilling peace which resulted in no definitive outcome.
3. Suspension of Internet services
Another countermeasure taken by the state/government was the suspension of internet services within Manipur- with the official reason being that this was aimed as a measure to prevent the further escalation of violence. A great deal of Kuki-Zo people feel that this is/was an active ploy by the State to conceal their failures and to restrict local news/voices from seeping out(p.5). The suspension of services within a disturbed area is a tool used quite frequently by the Government of India- where it serves as a means to suppress and censor the information coming out through OSINT instead pushing the government’s narrative through official media reports. By maintaining an internet blackout the officials are able to prevent local news and information from leaking out and thus gain control over the official narrative. If the argument was made that this was to prevent people from communicating and collaborating well-planned attacks, then it should also have been withdrawn after “peace” was restored. However, this is not the case and despite a period of 3 months lapsing after the violence began internet services have still not been restored. Rather than serving as a measure to prevent escalation of violence, it seems to draw from the fear of reprisal that will be received after all of the information from the citizenry of Manipur is eventually revealed.
Furthermore, despite the cessation of all broadband services and the banning of personal-mobile data certain news media houses such as ISTV, ImpactTV, & TOM TV were still provided with internet access and have been alleged by the ‘Zomi Students Federation Union’ (Media & IT Cell) to be reporting/circulating fake & communally-charged news. Most recently, the Home Department of Manipur ordered that a case be filed against the same student group for the book that they released titled as the ‘The Inevitable Split’ which documented the atrocities committed and designated the “ethnic cleansing” all onto the BJP government.
4. Convenient timing & design of the suspension of AFSPA
Finally, another questionable decision enacted by the government is the timing of the removal of the 1958 Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) from several jurisdictions within Manipur [Government of Manipur, Home Department. No. 2/8(6)/2022-H(AFSPA)]. The AFSPA grants extrajudicial powers to the Armed Forces to enter premises without warrant, to conduct preventative arrests, the right to conduct counterinsurgency operations, and a license to even shoot and kill. While the removal of the AFSPA from more jurisdictions in Manipur should have been a celebrated event- the timing of its removal on 24th March, 2023- a little over a month before the onslaught of the violence against the Kuki-Zo is too coincidental. Moreover, the jurisdictions from where the AFSPA was repealed are Meitei-dominated areas where a lot of the targeted violence against the Kuki-Zo occurred- which had the direct effect of handicapping the army’s ability to swoop-in and execute swift action. The presence of the AFSPA within these districts would have the remediating effect of being able to quell the violence and restore public order a lot sooner.
Albeit framed as an intercommunal clash between the Kuki-Zo & Meitei communities within Manipur (Imphal & Churachandpur) by the government and local media- the reality could not be distorted any further from the truth. The creation of Meitei-extremist groups, the apathetic response & arguable complicitness from State leadership, the suspension of internet services throughout the state with certain media houses being the exception, and the convenient timing & selective removal of AFSPA are all factors that are too coincidental and portray indications of this whole event being extremely well-organized and planned. For all the reasons detailed above- it would be unjust to call the ongoing conflict in Manipur as anything but a pogrom against the Kuki-Zo.
* The original article was released on 20th August as a Medium post and contains all the citations in proper academic formatting.