The Biren Singh 2.0 factor in one of Manipur’s worst ethnic clashes

Armed with an absolute majority, the BJP CM has been more aggressive; seen as more partial to Naga tribes, he has let resentments brew in Kuki-dominant areas

Nearly 60 dead, thousands displaced, homes razed to the ground, places of worship torched, a legislator brutally assaulted by a mob. These have been in the images of Manipur over the last few days.

The “tribal solidarity march” on May 3 — to protest against the inclusion of the numerically dominant Meitei Community in the Scheduled Tribe (ST) category — was just the tipping point. Political commentators say that the flare-up was long coming, especially in the backdrop of the actions of the Biren Singh-led BJP government in Manipur, particularly in its second term. From the crackdown on poppy plantations and eviction drives, to frequent allegations that the Kukis of Churachandpur were sheltering “foreigners” from Myanmar, the state’s southern hill — home to the community — had been on the simmer.

Strikingly, the present tensions follow a period of relative peace under Biren’s BJP government. In fact, the BJP went into the 2022 Assembly elections citing Biren’s governance record in the last five years. Manipur under Biren, the party claimed, had been “peaceful”, devoid of bandhs, blockades, and large-scale ethnic violence.

Indeed, Biren, in his first term as CM, stood out for his outreach to the state’s hill tribes. His flagship “Go To Hills” programme – an outreach initiative to ensure that people in remote places avail benefits of various welfare schemes – had its skeptics, but even critics acknowledged its symbolic significance.

So, what explains this sudden turnaround? Commentators attribute it to a mix of Meitei majoritarian politics, ethnic Kuki aspirations and the CM’s unwillingness to engage with them.

This article was originally published in The Indian Express in May 2023. Full article here.