IMPHAL, India — The capital of India’s Manipur state, Imphal, until very recently boasted shiny showrooms featuring international brands and hosted delegates from the world’s wealthiest countries for Group of 20 meetings, showing this border province as part of a prosperous, new business-minded India on the rise. Now it is a city of blackened and abandoned buildings and is filled with soldiers, relief workers and the displaced.
For much of the first week of May, mob violence raged through this state of 3 million people, leaving 70 dead, 48,000 displaced and whole villages, including temples and churches, in flames as simmering ethnic tensions, fueled in part by disputes over refugees from neighboring Myanmar, burst into the open. Spasms of violence continued throughout the month.
The 2021 coup in neighboring Myanmar, also known as Burma, caused a rush of refugees across its thousand-mile porous border with India — and nearly a quarter of that border is with Manipur, an impoverished province of hilly forests that has its own history of ethnic strife. The upheaval is the latest indication of how Myanmar’s woes are affecting the region and how the policies of India’s governing Hindu nationalist party can exacerbate long-standing ethnic and religious friction in the country.
“Since the coup, this recent violence is the first time where we see that a large number of refugees have come in and created internal problems,” said Gopal Krishna Pillai, a former home secretary and joint secretary in charge of India’s whole northeast, echoing the official line that the refugees are to blame for the unrest.
Like much of India, Manipur has a complicated demography, with three major ethnic groups: a majority group, the Meiteis, which is mostly Hindu and dominates the political landscape; and two mostly Christian minority groups — the Nagas and the Kukis. The Kukis share strong ethnic links with Chin tribes of Myanmar that have been fleeing across the border. There also is competition over land ownership, with the Meiteis resenting the special legal protections enjoyed by the tribal communities.
The Meitei-dominated government of Manipur — run by a chief minister who is a member of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — has painted the Chin refugees as a threat, angering the Kuki tribes, which welcome those fleeing Myanmar.
Government measures seen by the Kukis as discriminatory prompted widespread protests that escalated into attacks on homes by each side. News of atrocities has sparked revenge attacks, and the government has throttled the internet in Manipur for the past three weeks to silence incendiary rhetoric.
“The Kukis who lived here and the refugees who came after the coup in Myanmar got together for the looting and burning,” said Khamba, a Meitei who was evacuated from the border town of Moreh this month. He said he saw people ransack homes and set fire to temples. He sat in a converted hostel in Imphal, where boys played badminton with their flip-flops and a pile of donated clothing towered above the roughly 450 residents.
“We had to leave our homes because of illegal immigrants from Burma. We want to go back to our home because this is our country,” he said, using only his first name out of fear for his safety.
Just 30 miles away in the town of Kangpokpi sat Letminlal Hoakip, a Kuki who fled Imphal after people set fire to homes and churches there. “We feel very angry when they call us Burmese refugees,” he said as he ate a meager meal of rice and lentils with 200 other displaced people in a church compound. “They call us Burmese to politicize the issue, make it international, so the government will take some action against us.”
Kim Gangte, a former member of the Indian Parliament who also fled Imphal, accused the BJP-led government of allowing the situation to escalate.
“Why have more than 200 churches been burned down in a democratic country like India, where everyone must enjoy the freedom of religion?” she said. “I am sad to say that the leadership did not take any precautions to cool down the tempers of people who fought so much in the media.”
In 2021, the Myanmar military overthrew the democratically elected government, sparking a civil war that sent a new spate of refugees, mostly Chins, into India. With no official count, estimates of post-coup arrivals are as high as 70,000.
Officials also argue that the instability created by the civil war in Myanmar has boosted cross-border drug smuggling, with poppy cultivation and the opium trade escalating — a trend confirmed by a report in January by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
The Manipur government has justified its crackdown on what it calls illegal immigrants as part of its war on drugs, alleging that the Kuki-Chin tribes have links to the Myanmar drug mafia.
“The Chin-Kuki brothers … are encroaching everywhere and planting poppy and doing drugs business,” Manipur Chief Minister Nongthombam Biren Singh said in a television interview in March. “So the government has gone all-out against these elements.”
But some observers maintain that the government is scapegoating the tribal peoples. “Now, it is easier to target the Kukis as illegal immigrants,” said Angshuman Choudhury, an expert on the region at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research. “The Kukis who have been living in Manipur for centuries are much older than the border.”
Ajoy Kumar of the opposition Indian National Congress party visited Manipur this month as part of a delegation, and in a news conference Wednesday, he accused the BJP government of “creating cracks between the two communities.”
“Words like ‘illegal migrants’, ‘narcos’ and ‘poppy cultivators’ were used for our own countrymen belonging to the Scheduled Tribes by Biren Singh himself,” he said.
Since the coup, the Manipur government has escalated eviction and demolition drives in Kuki villages and has set up a population commission in response to rising demands from Meiteis that citizenship documents be checked to weed out illegal immigrants.
The government also accuses the Kukis, who live predominantly in the forested hills, of damaging the environment and used that as a grounds for their eviction. Once the violence began, many of the state forestry offices in Kuki regions were destroyed by rioters as symbols of state overreach.
Kuki elected officials in the state, most of them from the BJP, have submitted a letter to the Indian government demanding a separate administration, saying the state has been “partitioned” and that “our people can no longer exist under Manipur.” Kuki BJP legislative member Paolienlal Haokip, who signed the letter, told The Washington Post that the “dangerous narrative” about illegal immigrants made the “civil strife imminent.”
As for the rise in poppy cultivation, Moirangthem Arunkumar a professor at Imphal’s Manipur University, said the war on drugs should not target growers, who are not the financiers but the daily-wage earners without other livelihood options. “The war on drugs feels like a war on a particular community.”
India also has avoided condemning the Myanmar coup or classifying the fleeing Chin as refugees, partly to keep from antagonizing the Myanmar junta and out of fear of that country’s turning to China, India’s regional rival.
It was not always this way. When unrest in Myanmar sent refugees over the border in 1962 and 1988, a much poorer India welcomed them in the thousands with open arms and even backed the pro-democracy movement in 1988 before the military crushed it.
“That was a very different India. Our reflexes have changed,” said Gautam Mukhopadhaya, a former ambassador of India to Myanmar.