The recent ethnic conflict in Manipur state is located in the northeastern part of India, which borders two regions of Myanmar’s Sagaing Region to the east and Chin State to the south.
The majority of Meitei and minorities tribal communities have been making headlines in the state’s local news. While the conflict has been described by many as a Chin-Kuki-Mizo-Zomi-Hmar hill tribes-Meitei conflict, it is important to note that it is not just a conflict between these two constitutionally recognized groups, but rather a conflict between different southern tribes and the Meiteis.
The southern tribes, Chin-Kuki-Mizo-Zomi-Hmar hill tribes’ communities who united under a common cause, and other tribals were also targeted in Imphal by Meitei mobs. Thus, more accurate terms for this conflict would be the Zo-Meitei conflict& Meitei-Tribal conflict, as it involves the tribal Zo ethnic group, which includes Mizos who were also affected, although not directly targeted.
The causes of the conflict are complex and involve issues such as poor law and order, tribal protests against the inclusion of Meitei in the ST category, disputes over reserve forest land, name-calling, etc. However, one factor that has received little attention from experts and the media is the role of social media, especially Facebook and WhatsApp, in inflaming the situation.
“The current violence in Manipur “had nothing to do with counter-insurgency and was primarily a clash between two ethnicities,” Chief of Defense Staff General Anil Chauhan said on Wednesday.
This is particularly relevant because the Manipur chief minister N. Biren Singh had earlier claimed that there were no rivalries between communities in the state – and the clashes were a result of fights between Kuki militants and the security forces.
Additionally, the rise of newly-formed Meitei civil bodies has added fuel to the fire. While civil societies among the tribal communities in Manipur are not new and have played an important role in the governance of these communities, there has been no ethnic-wide organization or civil society that specifically represents the Meiteis or acts as an unofficial government within the community, unlike those that exist among the tribals. For much of modern history, the largest organization that has a semblance of an organized institution with members for a common cause among the Meitei is most probably the Lions Club, which is an international organization.
However, things changed in Manipur, especially after Biren Singh's second tenure in the legislative assembly, as many different Meitei civil societies began to pop up. One of the most interesting and important groups that rose to prominence is the controversial Valley-based group called the "Arambai Tenggol," which is a group supposedly named after a Manipuri weapon.
However, the group transliterates its name into English as "Warrior's Blood." This group has a significant presence on Manipuri social media with heavily edited and mastered videos that almost appear propagandistic. Their videos often show men in black shirts learning how to fight, showing off skills, and emphasizing Meitei culture. Their group symbol, as seen on their social media handle where underaged children wearing black printed T-shirts including girls is that of a group of Manipuri cavalry in red against a dark backdrop. They perform rallies in uniforms and, to the untrained eye, appear as a civil militia group.
Their presence has been ever-increasing since the start of 2023, and the narrative of Meiteis being in danger and the narrative of Kukis being refugees gained traction on social media such as Facebook and WhatsApp. It is, therefore, not surprising that the group is now being called out for the recent violence in Manipur by many tribals, including Saikot MLA Paolienlal Haokip, who despite being a BJP lawmaker, proclaimed in an interview with The Wire that Arambai Tenggol is a radical group emboldened by those in power in the state and accused them of being responsible for many of the things that happened in Manipur on the 3rd, 4th, and 5th of May, 2023.
While Arambai Tenggol has refuted claims of their involvement in Manipur state in India violence, many videos have surfaced where men in black shirts do appear to have participated in Manipur’s strive. It is also important to note that, despite their denial of responsibility, the Arambai Tenggol group has been often called upon by Meitei social media users when there is a distress call among the Meiteis allegedly perpetrated by the Kukis.
While the violence has subsided for now, Meitei's social media accounts and influencers continue to thank the group for what they have "done" and for saving "Meiteis." The group has asked the public to stop using its name and denied charges such as looting of guns from Manipur police barracks and its involvement in the violence.
However, not only tribals but also Christian Meiteis have accused the group of vandalism and arson against their community.
A Moirang resident who appeared to be a member of the Arambaitenggol posted a post thanking the group soon after the arson of Churachandpur’s Kangvaiand Torbung village near Moirang on May 3rd, 2023.
The ethnic conflict in Manipur between the tribals and the Meiteis is taking a toll on the ethnic Meiteis, who are becoming increasingly polarized. This controversial valley-based organization "Arambai Tenggol" has now been accused of targeting churches belonging to the Meitei community in the Meitei heartland.
While several tribal churches in Imphal lie in ruins following attacks by angry valley mobs, multiple Meitei churches and church establishments in the valley have also been vandalized or destroyed. Tribals in Manipur are largely Christian by faith, and the religion is often associated with tribal identity, seemingly making Meitei Christians a target of some radical valley groups currently at odds with the tribals of Manipur.
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In one particularly shocking viral video, a supposed Meitei church in Thamnapokpi, Moirang subdivision, was reportedly vandalized by members of Arambai Tenggol. The video (https://www.facebook.com/watch?ref=search&v=6526176764070139&external_log_id=a073885e-9af6-4483-97f4-583abfd0acf0&q=meitei%20church%20attack)purportedly captured by a church member, shows a vandalized church and surrounding quarters. The person filming mentions they were Meitei and had just returned from the “scuffle” as Meiteis, only to find their churches and properties vandalized. The person in the video called out the group Arambai Tenggol as responsible and described them as "mindless. "
There have also been reports of Arambai Tenggol burning churches and forcing Meitei Christians to renounce their faith. In a post made by the Facebook page Meitei/Meetei Christian on May 6 accused the group of attacking Meitei Christians, quoting, “As per our knowledge, we know all the Meitei Christian churches are demolished. And now Arambai Tenggol is forcing to renounce their Christian faith among the Meitei Christians.”
The post makes a plea for help, claims that the government hasn't taken any action on the matter and accuses Arambai Tenggol of trying to wipe out Meitei Christians in the valley, where they reside. The post was soon removed after facing criticism from Meitei most of whom supported the Arambai Tenggol. It is not known exactly how many Meitei churches have been allegedly destroyed in the state by the controversial valley-based organization.
As uneasy calm prevails in Manipur, which is witnessing unprecedented ethnic violence, Meitei Christians in the valley are increasingly finding themselves targets of vandalism and harassment in the Meitei heartland. The internal conflict within the Meitei community could further escalate the situation in Manipur into an ethnoreligious conflict within Meitei community and potentially exacerbate the already extremely violent ethnic conflict between the Meiteis and the Tribals in Manipur.
Throughout history, perpetrators of orchestrated conflict and mass atrocities have required a well-organized, well-disciplined, well-indoctrinated, and highly radicalized youth group to spearhead their dirty works, and some valley organizations in Manipur do appear to embody certain characteristics of such organizations.
Meanwhile, the state’s integrity and the newly-launched Meitei Resurgence Forum (MReF) responded with a strongly-worded statement, blaming Kuki militants involved in ‘suspension of operations (SoO)’ agreement for the “pre-planned attack” targeting Meiteis. Under the SoS agreement signed by the Union government, the state government and the insurgent groups, the members of such groups are supposed to be lodged in designated camps.
According to Oinam Doren Singh, MReF general secretary said that the violence was a show of “narco-terrorism unleashed by the SoO Kuki militants at the behest of the Kuki drug mafia, politicians, intellectuals and frontal organizations”.
The attacks were “funded by drug money and illegal migrants from Mizoram state and Myanmar and Bangladesh”, he alleged.
Besides, organizations like the World Meitei Council have started pressing for the implementation of an Assam-style National Register of Citizens in Manipur to identify illegal immigrants, especially those from Myanmar. The Kukis have been opposed to such an exercise in the state, as many in the community are believed to have settled here from Myanmar. The Kukis in Manipur live mostly in the hills adjacent to the Myanmar border.
It is one of the worst cases of large-scale violence and deadliest conflicts since the state attained statehood in 1972. Internet services remained suspended for over 28 days. The northeastern state Governor ordered “shoot-on-sight” and the Army and other paramilitary forces had to be deployed to bring the situation under control. Indefinite curfews are still imposed in the Meitei-dominated Imphal West, Kakching, Thoubal, Jiribam, Imphal East, and Bishnupur districts, as well as in Kuki-majority Kangpokpi, Tengnoupal, and Churachandpur districts.
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