As Prime Minister Narendra Modi prepares for India’s upcoming general elections, he seems to rule with one goal in mind: making India the world’s emerging superpower. Indeed, over his nine years in office, Modi has made numerous changes that have bolstered India’s economy and set the nation on track to becoming a global force. With elections looming in the near future, he has been ardently campaigning and meeting with leaders such as President Joe Biden, Elon Musk, and Tim Cook to discuss economic goals, technology partnerships, and military alliances. However, despite his numerous media appearances, the Prime Minister has remained mostly silent about the ongoing ethnic violence in India’s northeastern state of Manipur.
Since the beginning of May 2023, a near-civil war has erupted in Manipur, resulting in more than 150 casualties and 60,000 displaced. The conflict is chiefly rooted in a clash between two ethnic factions: the Meiteis, constituting the majority of the population and dwelling in the plains, and the Kuki tribes in the hills. Given the Meiteis’ hold over state governance, the Kukis have long accused them of discriminatory efforts to establish dominance in the region and drive the Kukis out of their homes in the hills. These efforts have been manifested through forced evictions, unfounded drug allegations, and attempts to label the Kukis as illegal migrants.
While tensions are ingrained in the region’s history, violence broke out after May 3rd, 2023, when a student-led group of Kukis marched in protest against the extension of affirmative action quotas to the dominant Meiteis, which would give them permission to purchase lands in the hills and make them eligible for government jobs previously reserved to the Kukis. The protest quickly escalated: police armories were raided, villages were burned, and 56 civilians were dead within two days.
Months later, the violence continues. Many have sought refuge in makeshift camps, and those still at home have taken to painting their ethnicity on their doors as a safety measure. Some Kukis who tried to escape to safety were beaten and burned alive. A shocking number of their women have been raped, tortured, or even beheaded in a series of revenge attacks, after widespread misinformation claiming that Meitei women had been raped and killed by Kukis. Adding to the tragedy is the disconcerting failure of the police force to intervene. There have been far too many incidents where they have served as bystanders while young women were being raped and ambulances sabotaged.
In the face of this escalating crisis, Modi’s government has barely addressed the conflict, opting instead to shield it from the gaze of the global community. While Modi briefly broke his silence when condemning the viral, graphic video depicting two women being publicly stripped and assaulted, he has turned a blind eye to most of the violence. Even after this publicly shamed incident, four of the aggressors were arrested only 70 days after the attack, a stark deviation from Modi’s assurance that “The guilty will not be spared.”
How has the Indian government allowed such blatant violations of human rights to go on uninterrupted for several months? This conflict represents the danger of ignoring underlying issues while chasing the luminous title of a “global superpower”. While India has undoubtedly seen tremendous growth since its birth in the late 1940s, there remain significant challenges that need to be addressed. As a result of economic globalization, many tribes in India have lost their lands to hydroelectric power and other large firms. In addition, the vastness of the territory and political fragmentation within different regions such as Manipur make implementing nationwide policies and long-term planning extremely difficult.
While maintaining silence on the Manipur conflict might seem like a tempting solution to hide India’s political instability from international scrutiny, ignoring a situation that is harming millions of innocent civilians should never be the solution. One of Modi’s initial tactics to cover up the terror was to shut down the internet. This is nothing new for India: there have been 84 shutdowns in 2022 and 106 in 2021. The government defends its actions by claiming that the internet shutdown has limited the spread of misinformation. This is partially true. Social media has served as both a blessing and a curse to the victims of the ongoing conflict – particularly for its female victims. However, while circulating fake news such as false claims of Meitei women being sexually assaulted by Kuki men has fueled a lot of the rage behind individual attacks, the viral video reporting the public assault of two women has managed to play a significant role in calling the world’s attention. The public outrage has encouraged more victims of recent sexual abuse in Manipur to report incidents to the police – incidents which they had been too ashamed, or too scared to report sooner. These shutdowns are also making it incredibly hard for aid groups to collect donations, and are preventing foreign pressure to push the parliament to rise to action.
There is no doubt that India is a growing nation in today’s world. Yet, rather than avidly pursuing a status it may not yet be fully equipped to embrace, it must deal with its internal conflicts first. This means acknowledging Manipur’s suffering and dedicating a significant portion of the nation’s resources to help all displaced citizens and negotiate peace talks. It also means taking necessary steps to improve the police force in times of crisis. Innocent civilians fear for their lives every day, and many have seen their homes and loved ones vanish brutally in front of their eyes. Only after Manipur is recognized publicly, and after the government stops avoiding accountability, can the question of India’s progression toward global superpower status be contemplated.
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