World

Could Ethnic Conflict in India Become an Issue Modi Cannot Ignore?

It’s been business as usual lately for Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India — red carpet trips abroad, ribbon-cuttings and political rallies at home.

But he’s almost entirely avoided addressing the ethnic violence that has been raging in the northeastern state of Manipur for months now. More than 150 people have been killed and more than 60,000 displaced, as mobs from the majority ethnic Meitei community have burned down villages of the minority Kuki and other tribes, leaving a trail of death and destruction.

The chaos has been so widespread that tens of thousands of national security forces sent to quell the unrest have struggled to restore calm, with the territory effectively partitioned along ethnic lines in what residents are describing as a civil war.

Though some senior figures within Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party have gotten more involved in the crisis, the prime minister has maintained a studied silence.

The spark was a court ruling that threatened a delicate balance by essentially giving more government benefits to the Meiteis. Although they control the levers of state power, they have had a small share of the state’s land.

Tribal communities protested the ruling, and met with violence from Meitei mobs that activists and rights groups say have been enabled by the state government. India’s supreme court has since declared the lower court’s ruling “completely factually wrong,” but it was too late to stop the violence.

To force Mr. Modi to answer questions on the issue, India’s opposition parties resorted to something drastic last week: a no-confidence motion against his government in Parliament.

The move, the second such vote that Mr. Modi has faced in his near-decade in national power, is merely procedural; his government is at no risk of being voted out.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India arriving at the opening of the monsoon session of India’s Parliament in New Delhi, in late July. He has avoided speaking about the situation in Manipur.Credit…Sajjad Hussain/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

But it has highlighted how India’s most powerful leader in decades has reshaped the country’s parliamentary democracy. With an absolute majority in the legislature allowing him to block and derail debate; a cowed national media that largely follows his lead and buries uncomfortable issues; and an overwhelmed judiciary, Mr. Modi wields power increasingly unchecked by previous guardrails of India’s political system.

In addition, analysts say the situation in Manipur exemplifies India’s broader vulnerabilities even amid the nation’s rise as an economic and diplomatic power. Mishandling domestic fault lines in the hugely diverse country opens room that adversaries at its border could exploit.

It also stretches India’s military resources. The troops sent to Manipur come from a division primarily responsible for security at the long border with China, where the two sides have remained in a standoff for more than two years now.

Gaurav Gogoi, an opposition leader who initiated the no-confidence vote, termed it an effort “to force” Mr. Modi, who rarely attends sessions or participates in debates, to speak about Manipur.

Mr. Gogoi, deputy leader of the Indian National Congress party in the lower house of Parliament, said that the ethnic groups involved in the violence were spread across several states, and that “ripple effects” were possible. He added that mobs have looted police weapons depots, with about 5,000 weapons unaccounted for in a region with a history of violent insurgencies.

Kuki men guarding a checkpoint in Churachandpur District, Manipur, in July.Credit…Adnan Abidi/Reuters

“The fact that there are these weapons which are at large — massive number of sophisticated weapons — is a very huge risk to our national security,” Mr. Gogoi said in an interview.

Mr. Modi’s silence, analysts said, reflects how crucial his brand is for the calculations of his governing party, known as the B.J.P., around next year’s general elections. He is personally more popular with voters than the party he leads, which has let him rescue state and local elections where the B.J.P. was struggling. Party leaders want to avoid linking him in the public mind with Manipur.

Amit Shah, Mr. Modi’s home minister, visited Manipur last month, and told Parliament last week that he was willing to have a discussion on behalf of the government. He and other officials also told local news media that the government had been trying to restore order through security operations, legal action and talks between Meiti and Kuki groups, and that Mr. Modi had been frequently briefed.

Since India’s founding as a republic seven decades ago, its northeast has been rife with insurgencies rooted in tribal and ethnic grievances. Many have ended in fragile cease-fires, leaving a delicate balance among tribes competing for land and for resources — from New Delhi, and also from the share of illicit trade along the border. Successive national governments have prioritized connections through the northeast that could expand trade with neighboring Bangladesh, Myanmar and Southeast Asia more broadly.

Tribal women, mostly Kukis, formed a human chain along the route that India’s home minister, Amit Shah, would take on a visit in late May to Manipur.Credit…Saumya Khandelwal for The New York Times

The spiral in Manipur “brings into question more than just India’s domestic story, more than India’s connectivity story,” Avinash Paliwal, a scholar at SOAS University of London and the author of an upcoming book on India’s northeast. “You are opening up age-old wounds.”

The Meiteis are largely Hindu and the Kukis largely Christian, but the violence has been more along ethnic lines than religious.

Tensions had simmered for years as Biren Singh, the Meitei chief minister of the B.J.P., took an increasingly prejudicial approach to the tribal communities, particularly the Kuki and the Kuki-Zo, depicting them as outsiders usurping land. In the current crisis, he has described the conflict as between the state and what he termed “terrorists,” referring to Kuki groups.

The interior of a fire-damaged church in June in a Kuki locality. The Meiteis are largely Hindu and the Kukis largely Christian, but the violence has been more along ethnic lines than religious ones.Credit…Saumya Khandelwal for The New York Times

But the Indian Army’s chief of defense staff said the “situation in Manipur has nothing to do with counterinsurgency and is primarily a clash between two ethnicities.”

Mr. Singh has remained in his job despite widespread calls for his resignation, some from his own party. Tribal lawmakers from the B.J.P. have essentially accused Mr. Singh of complicity in the violence..

Instead of holding Mr. Singh accountable, analysts said, the government has tried to put a lid on Manipur, blocking internet access in the state.

Recently Mr. Modi spoke obliquely about Manipur when a viral video on Twitter evaded the internet shutdown. It showed a Meitei mob parading tribal women naked and assaulting them. His comment focused on the “shame” of the episode before lumping it with abuses against women and violence during local polls in opposition-run states.

His government moved to pressure Twitter into taking the video down, and officials told local news media that the man who had filmed it had been arrested.

In Ahmedabad, India, on Tuesday, police officers grabbed a supporter of the Aam Aadmi Party during a protest against the treatment of women in Manipur and across the country.Credit…Ajit Solanki/Associated Press

The government has effectively partitioned Manipur — keeping Mr. Singh as chief minister to look after the Meitei areas, while the areas of Kukis and other tribes are run from New Delhi, with the army trying to maintain a buffer zone, analysts and residents said.

“This should be a case study on how not to handle law-and-order situations, let alone ones of ethnic divides,” said Vikram Singh, a former senior police official.

Among those forced to flee was Ngaliam, a Kuki woman in her 60s.

When she and her brother escaped their village, her 38-year-old son, Thangkhochon, stayed behind. He was killed in an attack that the family said was carried out by a mob accompanied by the police. That claim could not be verified.

Ngailam, who uses only one name, is now at a relief camp in the Churachandpur area. Over the phone, she said she was at loss for how to piece her life back together.

Ngailam fled her village and lost her son to violence. “My home is destroyed,” she said. “What will happen after this relief camp?”Credit…Saumya Khandelwal for The New York Times

Volunteer nurses described her as inconsolable, and said she talks about how she feels guilty for leaving her son behind.

“In the middle of the night, she wakes up crying,” said Lunminthang Kipgen, one of the nurses, in a phone interview, “and saying ‘my son is looking at me and blaming me for being alive.’”

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