Manipur violence: As death toll jumps, CM Biren Singh appeals for peace in region

Manipur violence: As death toll jumps, CM Biren Singh appeals for peace in region

Manipur over the last few days, was brewing for some time as a long history of mutual suspicion between ethnic groups in the Imphal valley and its surrounding hills turned into a simmering conflict after the BJP-led Manipur government started a drive to evict tribal villagers from reserved forests.

The escalation in violence in Manipur has its roots in an over 10-year-old demand by the Meitei community for a Scheduled Tribe tag.

The Meitei people, the largest single ethnic group in the state and are predominantly Hindus, have been agitating to be granted scheduled tribe (ST) status, but the other recognized tribes in Manipur who are largely Christian oppose that move.

India reserves some government jobs, college admissions and elected seats, from village councils to the parliament, for communities under the scheduled tribe category as a form of affirmative action to tackle historical structural inequality and discrimination.

The immediate reason for this violence, however, is a Manipur High Court order directing the state government to recommend to the Union Tribal Affairs Ministry by May 29, an ST tag for the community. The petitioners have argued that this community had once enjoyed the ST tag prior to the merger of Manipur with the Indian Union and have sought the restoration of this status.

The ST designation gives communities special constitutionally backed protections including reserved seats in the parliament and state legislatures, affirmative action in education and employment, and property protections.
But believing that this categorization would dilute their own protections and political representation, Mainpur tribal groups have long fought this change.

While area leaders believe that the violence was largely a reaction to this political decision, they see its viciousness and severity, particularly the attack on churches, as the growth of the influence of BJP and the RSS. Radical Hindu ideology historically has struggled to find a foothold in Manipur, because of its mix of tribal, Hindu, Christian, and Muslim communities.

In the wake of the violence, the government has imposed a curfew and suspended internet access. The severity of the situation has led the Indian government to deploy military to the affected areas and authorize it to use lethal force in “extreme cases” in addressing the increasing violence. The federal government has additionally invoked Article 355, giving it authority over the state of Manipur. More than 7,500 people have been evacuated to safer places.

With churches being vandalised, burnt and desecrated in clashes largely between tribals and the Meitei community in Manipur, Christian leaders say government must ensure peace, security and freedom of religion.

CM Biren Singh once again appealed to citizens in the state to maintain peace and exercise restraint. "I appeal to everyone in Manipur to restrain themselves from any form of violence. The state police and the paramilitary have been given strict instructions to take action against those who create disturbances in the law & order of the state," Biren Singh said in a statement on Saturday.

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