‘Shoot-at-sight’ order in India’s northeastern state after ethnic tension leads to violent clashes

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Authorities in India’s northeastern state of Manipur issued “shoot at sight” orders in some extreme cases on Thursday after spiraling violence in the region between the Kuki tribe and the majority Meitei community.

The order issued by the state government headed by India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government was issued on behalf of the governor, reported Press Trust of India.

The order said “shoot at sight” could be resorted to when persuasion, warning, and reasonable force “have been exhausted and the situation could not be controlled”.

Violence was reported in several districts of Manipur, which first broke out on Wednesday following a ‘Tribal Solidarity March’ called by the All Tribal Students’ Union of Manipur (ATSUM), reported The Indian Express.

The march was organised in protest against the demand for inclusion of the majority Meitei community in the Scheduled Tribe (ST) category, following a 19 April Manipur High Court directive.

Under Indian law some government jobs, college admissions and elected seats – from village councils to parliament – are reserved for communities under the scheduled tribe category as a form of affirmative action to tackle historical structural inequality and discrimination.

The high court order directed the state government to submit, within four weeks, a 10-year-old recommendation to the federal ministry of Tribal Affairs for the inclusion of the Meitei community in the ST list.

Tribal groups have opposed the Meitei community’s inclusion in the list fearing opportunity and job loss due to the group’s demographically and politically advantageous position.

The outlet reported that violence first started in an area bordering Bishnupur and Churachandpur districts.

By Wednesday evening, violence had spread from the hill districts of the state to other parts including capital Imphal.

On Thursday violent mobs burnt houses and torched vehicles allegedly belonging to a tribal group.

Two churches have also allegedly been torched.

In hill districts of Churachandpur and Kangpokpi, pockets with Meitei residents were allegedly under attack.

Mobs also blocked arterial roads in Imphal as paramilitary forces and police tried to bring the situation under control.

No official figures have yet been released on the number of casualties.

On Thursday, an internet shutdown order was issued for the next five days in the state, reported EastMojo.

In a video message on Thursday, chief minister N Biren Singh said “precious lives have been lost” besides “damage of property of residents”.

He called the developments “very, very unfortunate” and said that the situation was born out of a prevailing misunderstanding between two sections of the society.

According to a report in The Hindu, Manipur’s Imphal valley makes up about 10 per cent of its landmass and is dominated by the non-tribal Meitei community which accounts for over 64 per cent of the state population and sends around 40 legislators to the state’s 60 MLA-strong assembly.

On the other hand, the state’s hill districts include 90 per cent of geographical area and is inhabited by more than 35 per cent recognised tribes and sends only 20 MLAs to the Assembly.

While a majority of the Meiteis are Hindus followed by Muslims, the 33 recognised tribes, broadly classified into ‘Any Naga tribes’ and ‘Any Kuki tribes’ are largely Christians.

While the immediate trigger of the violence is believed to be the Meitei community’s demand to be included in the ST list and the high court order, the Kukis have been unhappy over the government’s multiple eviction drives on their lands as well as claims that they are “illegal immigrants” from neighbouring Myanmar.

On Friday, authorities said around 20,000 people had been evacuated and moved to camps under army protection.

“The situation is not fully under control but it is gradually improving,” P Doungel, the state’s top police official told reporters in Imphal, reported Reuters.

“More soldiers were being deployed to strengthen security and about 20,000 people were evacuated from violence-hit areas,” he said, adding that three makeshift camps had been set up to lodge and protect people.

Following the violence, federal home minister Amit Shah cancelled his trip to poll-bound Karnataka to monitor the developments in Manipur.

Neighbouring states, including Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Tripura, have offered their support to Manipur as well.

The North East Frontier Railways has suspended all train operations through Manipur for the next 48 hours due to the prevailing unrest.

Federal government teams of the Rapid Action Force (RAF), a specialised force to handle riots, for deployment in violence-hit areas of the Northeastern state have also been sent to the state.

A defence spokesperson told the Press Trust of India that 55 columns of the Army and Assam Rifles have been deployed across the state to contain the violence.

An additional 14 columns have been kept on standby.

The violence in the state has also drawn condemnation for the BJP from opposition parties which have accused the government of ignoring Manipur due to the upcoming polls in Karnataka.

Congress’s Randeep Singh Surjewala wrote: “While BJP ruled Manipur today burns, PM Modi & HM Shah, look the other way!”

Former parliamentarian Rahul Gandhi tweeted: “The Prime Minister must focus on restoring peace and normalcy. I urge the people of Manipur to stay calm.”

Olympian and former Rajya Sabha MP boxer MC Mary Kom also appealed to the prime minister to help her state on Thursday.