Conflicts, contrary to what many believe, are not just fuelled by guns, ammunition, and mortars. Words and ideas can drive them in equal measure, especially when spoken or iterated by individuals in positions of high power.
On August 9, Union Home Minister Amit Shah, during a discussion on a no-confidence motion in Parliament, offered a contorted explanation of the ongoing ethnic strife in Manipur. He said the violence was triggered by an influx of Kukis from Myanmar into Manipur, which “created insecurities among Meiteis”.
Until now, Shah had attributed the violence in Manipur to the precipitous Manipur High Court judgment in April that suggested the Scheduled Tribe status for the Meiteis. This was the first time Shah had named a particular community for the crisis in Manipur. And, he made a grievous “error” while doing so.
“A Kuki Democratic Front started a movement there, and the military rulers launched a crackdown on them. As there is no border fencing, a large number of Kuki brothers came to Manipur and Mizoram as refugees,” Shah told Parliament. He was referring to the armed resistance against the junta in Myanmar and the attendant refugee movement across the India-Myanmar border.
But here’s the thing—no group by the name “Kuki Democratic Front” exists in Myanmar.
Simple rhetoric versus complex borders
Shah’s speech in Parliament drew a sharp reaction from Manipur’s 10 Kuki MLAs, including eight from his own party. Embittered by what they saw as unjust insinuations against the Kuki community, the tribal lawmakers urged the Home Minister to clarify his remarks. The Indigenous Tribal Leaders’ Forum (ITLF), an influential Kuki-led civil society organisation, too sent a note of complaint to the Home Minister.
But, two days later, the ITLF spokesperson, Ginza Vualzong, made a startling revelation in an interview with Barkha Dutt. He claimed that A.K. Mishra, adviser to the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and New Delhi’s interlocutor with the Kuki and Naga groups, told him that Shah had made a “slip of tongue” in Parliament. The Home Minister, Vualzong claimed, had meant to say “People’s Democratic Front” and not “Kuki Democratic Front”.
The distinction between both cannot be trivialised, not least because one of the two groups is fictitious. In fact, what Vualzong referred to as the “People’s Democratic Front” is, in reality, called “People’s Defence Force” or ‘PDF’. These are pro-democracy, anti-junta militias that sprang up across Myanmar in response to the February 2021 military coup. Many of them are affiliated to the parallel civilian government of Myanmar, the National Unity Government (NUG), and draw cadres from not just the Kuki-Zo community, but virtually all of Myanmar’s ethnic groups.
This is not to say that there are no Kuki-Zo armed groups in Myanmar who operate close to the Indian border. But there is no evidence to indicate any direct causal link between their armed resistance to the junta and the refugee exodus. One of these groups, the Kuki National Army-Burma (KNA-B), a minor armed faction that splintered from the India-based Kuki National Army (KNA) in 2013 and is fully based in Myanmar, wrote to the Lok Sabha Speaker in response to Shah’s statement, claiming that none of its units had crossed over into Manipur.
The Chin National Front/Army (CNF/A), another armed group belonging to the larger Chin-Kuki-Mizo ethnic supergroup, is operationally confined to parts of Chin State that borders Mizoram, and not Manipur. So are other newly formed Chin militias fighting the junta since 2021, such as the Chinland Defence Force (CDF) and the Chin National Defence Force (CNDF). None of their activities has had any direct bearing on Manipur. In fact, sources from the CNF told this writer that the group neither has anything to do with the crisis in Manipur, nor wants to publicly comment on what they see as India’s internal affair. Even the NUG has asked displaced Myanmar citizens in India to stay away from the ethnic turmoil.
Another Kuki-Zo armed group, the Zomi Revolutionary Army-Eastern Command (ZRA-EC), which is a newly formed faction of the Zomi Revolutionary Army (ZRA), mainly operates in northern Chin State’s Tonzang Township. But it is not even actively resisting junta rule. In fact, the ZRA-EC remains tactically aligned with the coup regime. The ZRA, on the other hand, is based in India and is currently part of a ceasefire agreement with the Central government.
Among the active militant groups that are based in Myanmar and have used the border as a launchpad to foment trouble in India, the seven odd Meitei insurgent groups, often referred to as the ‘Valley Based Insurgent Groups’ (VBIGs) and which are part of the so-called ‘Coordination Committee’ (CorCom), are the most prominent. These groups, which have so far refused to join a ceasefire agreement with New Delhi, have been freely operating in Myanmar since the 2021 coup with the blessings of the Burmese junta. This is the same junta that the Narendra Modi government continues to engage with bilaterally on amicable terms.
One of these Meitei VBIGs, Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL), was involved in the deadly ambush of an Indian Army convoy in Manipur’s Chandel district in June 2015, which resulted in the deaths of 18 troopers. On June 25, during a search operation conducted in the Imphal Valley amid the flaring ethnic violence, the Indian Army’s Spear Corps apprehended 12 KYKL cadres, including the mastermind of the 2015 ambush.
But the army was compelled to hand them over to a local leader when a huge mob led by the Meitei women’s group, Meira Paibi, staged a blockade. Later, security officials told an English language daily that the BJP MLA from Andro constituency, Thounaojam Shyamkumar Singh, was the one who negotiated the release of the KYKL cadres—a charge that the lawmaker denies.
The KYKL, much like other Meitei VBIGs, continues to maintain a strategic presence across the India-Myanmar border, which Indian security forces had crossed in 2015 as part of a rare ‘hot pursuit operation’ to neutralise those behind the Chandel ambush. But this time, neither has any action been taken against those who facilitated the release of the key mastermind of that ambush nor has the Modi government pulled up the Myanmar junta for sheltering the VBIGs who pose a serious threat to India’s national security and, especially, in the volatile situation in Manipur.
Shah’s sweeping statement glossed over these uncomfortable realities of the India-Myanmar borderlands where various non-state armed groups continue to jostle for power, influence, and representation along different ethno-political lines. It also painted an overly simplistic picture of what is essentially a very complex ethno-political battlefield in post-coup Myanmar, whose impact on Manipur and India is much less than what the government, dominant civil society groups, and the media have projected.
Cornering a community
More worryingly, Shah’s statement gave a new lease of life to the divisive rhetoric propagated by the Imphal-centric political class and civil society who lay all blame for the violence in Manipur on the State’s Kuki community. For instance, despite the glaring factual inconsistency, Rajkumar Imo Singh, BJP MLA from Imphal West District’s Sagolband constituency, welcomed the Home Minister’s statement on X (formerly Twitter) as “facts” that “the whole of India needed to know”.
In a similar vein, during his Independence Day speech in Imphal, Manipur Chief Minister N. Biren Singh attributed the violence to a “foreign plot to destabilise the country” without offering any explanation. Earlier in March, as Kukis took to the streets to peacefully protest against the State government’s forced eviction policy, Singh had claimed in a television interview that “illegal immigrants from Myanmar” engaging in “poppy plantations and drug business” were destabilising Manipur.
In a recent letter to the European Union, Jeetendra Ningomba, the coordinator of the Meitei-led Coordinating Committee on Manipur Integrity (COCOMI), blamed “narco-terrorist activities... primarily operated and managed by the armed (illegal) immigrants and their drug cartel syndicates in India from Myanmar belonging to Chin-Kuki tribes who are Christian”. Even Naga civil society groups, such as the Tangkhul Naga Aze Longphang (TNALP), have argued that “illegal immigrants” and “narco-terrorists” from Myanmar are the “root cause behind the conflict”.
In this polarised context, the Home Minister could have been more circumspect in framing the conflict, especially since he himself described those fleeing from Myanmar into Manipur as sharanarthis (refugees). This becomes even more important because the Kuki-Zo side has so far believed that New Delhi understands its grievances. But, Shah’s statement, as well as Solicitor General Tushar Mehta’s recent submission in the Supreme Court that the unidentified bodies in Imphal’s morgues are of “infiltrators”, have shaken this trust.
They also make one wonder if the Modi government is leaning on the Myanmar refugee crisis to blur the focus on its own failures in Manipur. Or is New Delhi simply buying into the Meitei majoritarian narrative on “illegal migrants” to draw larger political capital out of it? Or is the Modi government genuinely uninformed about the reality of the India-Myanmar border?
Whatever be the case, the manner in which the Myanmar asylum crisis has been weaponised to rationalise the exercise of majoritarian power in Manipur does a disservice to not just the political discourse around the crisis, but also India’s regional aspirations.
- Union Home Minister Amit Shah said the violence in Manipur was triggered by an influx of Kukis from Myanmar into Manipur, which “created insecurities among Meiteis”.
- The conflict’s roots are more intricate than portrayed, with Myanmar’s internal dynamics also contributing to it. Meitei insurgent groups too have a significant role in this.
- The lack of a cohesive refugee policy adds to the complexities. The blame game and divisive rhetoric also undermine regional stability and India’s ‘Act East Policy’.
Refugees, not infiltrators
Since the violence began in early May, the Imphal-based political elite, media, civil society, and some of their national compatriots, have framed the Myanmar refugee crisis in conspiratorial terms. They have projected it as foreign aggression and threat to India’s national security, adopting some of the same prejudicial terms used by various state and social institutions to disenfranchise Bengal-origin Muslims in Assam. The Biren Singh government in Imphal has also temporarily suspended the Free Movement Regime (FMR) along the Manipur-Myanmar border as a way to stop refugee crossings. But the reality is sobering and rather tragic.
It is, first and foremost, a humanitarian crisis. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 88,000 people from Myanmar have fled to neighbouring countries since the 2021 coup. Of them, more than 50,000 have fled to India mostly to the border States of Mizoram and Manipur from Chin State and Sagaing Region where some of the worst fighting is taking place. Among these, according to various reports, at least 4,000 have taken refuge in Manipur. The State government, however, identified only 393 as of January, while a sub-committee headed by State Cabinet Minister Letpao Haokip put the number at over 2,000. Many of these refugees come from socially marginalised backgrounds or belong to disadvantaged groups, and are in constant need of medicines, food, shelter, and psychological counselling.
Take, for example, the recent influx of 718 asylum seekers into southeastern Manipur from Khampat in southwestern Sagaing Region. In a press release put out on July 24, the Manipur government’s Home department, citing information received from the Assam Rifles’ 28 Sector HQ, flagged the “illegal entry” of the refugees as a matter of “utmost sensitivity”. It asked the paramilitary force why the refugees were allowed to enter Manipur, and urged it to push them back to Myanmar. Yet, no one bothered to find out why exactly these 700-odd people fled to Manipur. According to reporting by Radio Free Asia, they were fleeing two consecutive days of airstrikes by the military junta. One of the displaced survivors told RFA Burmese that among the asylum seekers, there were “several sick people and others who had to run [from the fighting] with only the clothes on their backs...”. These heartbreaking truths did not feature in the Home Minister’s speech in Parliament.
The social and political apathy towards these refugees is aided by the glaring absence of a national refugee policy and protection-centric legal doctrine in India. Asylum seekers from Myanmar automatically become ‘illegal immigrants’ when they enter India. They have access to neither the UNHCR refugee status determination system at the points of entry, nor the FRRO foreign national registration mechanism that people from other neighbouring countries do. This makes them liable to criminal prosecution, detention and, potentially, forced deportation. So, unless the Centre or a particular State government proactively takes them in and tends to them—as has happened in Mizoram—refugees from Myanmar find themselves in a perilous limbo.
In Manipur, for the mostly Kuki-Zo refugees, this limbo had taken on a menacing face long before the current spate of violence began—manifesting in heightened police surveillance, house-to-house searches, facial recognition and biometric identification drives, frequent detentions, threat of forced deportation, and civil society statements calling for a National Register of Citizens (NRC). All of this is tightly framed in the anti-humanitarian, hyper-securitised conceptualisation of asylum seekers as “illegal immigrants”—a term that even sections of the international media have used uncritically to draw a straight line between Myanmar and Manipur.
These longstanding pathologies of Manipur have now culminated in a grand victim-blaming exercise. Those at the shortest end of political violence on either side of the India-Myanmar border are now being dragged to the public square for supposedly instigating violence.
On July 16, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar met his counterpart from the Myanmar junta, U Than Swe, on the sidelines of the Mekong Ganga Cooperation (MGC) meeting in Bangkok. There, he noted how peace and stability along the India-Myanmar border “have been seriously disturbed recently”. But he also mentioned the need to “expedite” the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway and proposed “people-centric initiatives” in Myanmar.
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The trilateral highway project, envisioned years ago, has now become a flagship of India’s eastward connectivity push alongside the Kaladan project. But here’s the thing—the proposed highway enters Myanmar at Moreh, the otherwise bustling entrepôt in Manipur’s Tengnoupal district that has now become a tense flashpoint for ethnic conflict. Right across Moreh sits the Burmese border town of Tamu, which too has become a hotspot for violent clashes between the junta and rebels. In the last week of July, junta forces reportedly shelled parts of the town indiscriminately and also strafed rebel camps from a helicopter gunship. Earlier in March, junta troopers reportedly razed a village to the ground, following which the displaced fled towards the Indian border.
In such a turbulent context, one wonders how New Delhi plans to resume its connectivity endeavours along its eastern frontiers without finding a permanent resolution to the Manipur crisis. How can it open the door when its threshold is in flames?
In fact, the Manipur imbroglio holds the ominous possibility of spilling over across communities—both within the State and across State and national boundaries. This would then drag in sympathetic elements from both Kuki-Zo and Meitei communities in neighbouring Mizoram, Assam, Nagaland, Tripura, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. There are already signs of this happening with the beginning of a war of words between the Chief Ministers of Manipur and Mizoram, and between ethnic civil society organisations in Assam and Mizoram.
It is obvious that once the conflict spills over beyond Manipur, its dynamics will change and involve other volatile elements. If so, there is a strong risk of an unprecedented regional conflagration that could sweep India’s north-east. The logical corollary of this is bleak—a steady unravelling of India’s ‘Act East Policy’, which aims to build bridges, both metaphorical and literal, with South-East Asia via the north-eastern region. What will probably matter the most then is the goodwill of the various communities that inhabit these fractured border-worlds on both sides of the border. It is they who will shape the social contract needed to facilitate state-led development and regional linkages.
But when India’s Home Minister stands up in Parliament and attributes a devastating ethnic conflagration to one of the largest transborder communities in the north-eastern region, the future of India’s eastern grand strategy, if there is any such thing at all, begins to look not just shaky, but completely dark. One can only be sanguine and hope that it will not come to that.
Angshuman Choudhury is Associate Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.