Why Manipur Shouldn't Surprise Us: A Roundup of Civil Violence Cases Since 2014

The past few years have seen their share of unrest and protests, to which governments often responded with internet shutdowns. But not so much has been seen by way of reconciliation or other mechanisms to resolve issues underlying the troubles.

New Delhi: Turmoil continues and there has been no word from the prime minister regarding the serious trouble being witnessed in Manipur. Campaigning for the state assembly elections in Karnataka, including by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and home minister Amit Shah, continued unabated despite serious violence having broken out in the north-eastern border state.

But Manipur is not the only instance of such violence. The past few years have seen their share of unrest and protests. These have often been serious disruptions in ‘law and order’ without much that has been visible by way of reconciliation or other mechanisms put in motion to resolve issues underlying the troubles.

Given below are instances of when life was upended and the internet suspended for long periods of time. This frequent disruption of the internet has also led to India being infamously termed the internet shutdown capital of the world since 2017.

1. 2023 Manipur ethnic violence

At least 98 people died, more than 26,000 others were displaced and a month has passed without internet in Manipur as ethnic violence grips the state. The warring groups are the state’s numerically dominant Meitei community on the one hand, and its Kuki tribal community on the other.

The violence followed tensions between the two communities after a Manipur high court judge directed the state government to recommend that the Union tribal affairs ministry grant Scheduled Tribe (ST) status to the Meiteis.

Having ST status would give the Meiteis access to forest lands and entitle them to reservations in government jobs and educational institutions. But Manipur’s existing tribal communities – a group that includes the Kukis – fear that this will endanger the lands they have lived on for centuries and reduce the reservation available to them.

A day after the clashes began, Manipur chief minister N. Biren Singh of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said the two groups were having a misunderstanding and appealed for peace. But weeks after the violence continued to rage, he changed track, saying that there was “no fight between communities” and the unrest was against the government’s policies instead.

Union home minister Amit Shah made his first statement about the violence 23 days after it began, resolving to solve the rift between the two communities through dialogue and conversation. Prime Minister Modi has not yet publicly acknowledged the situation.

Also Read: Union Government Sets up Three-Member Committee to Probe Manipur Violence

2. 2022 Agnipath protests

The Union government’s decision in June 2022 to reform how the armed forces recruit new soldiers was met with violent protests.

Under the new scheme, which was named ‘Agnipath’ (meaning path of fire in Hindi), applicants aged between 17.5 and 21 years would be recruited on a four-year contract, at the end of which up to a quarter would be retained in the forces. The others would retire without a pension.

A policeman stands near a train-coach set ablaze by a mob at the Secunderabad Railway Station in protest against the Central government’s Agnipath scheme in Hyderabad, June 17, 2022. Photo: PTI

The government said Agnipath would benefit the military by increasing the proportion of young soldiers in it.

Analysts said the scheme was aimed at helping the government save money on pensions and salaries, which consumed more than half the country’s defence budget, although the military denied this.

In an economy where jobs failed to catch up with the rate of people entering the workforce, many young people feared this move would reduce their chances of securing a prestigious job with career prospects and benefits.

They took to the streets to protest the scheme, and many turned violent, burning train coaches, smashing bus windows and pelting passers-by with stones.

In response to the protests, some state governments suspended internet services, and the military said it would make Agnipath recruits pledge that they did not protest against the scheme.

Also Read: Here’s What’s Likely to Happen to Indian Army’s Discharged Agniveers

The Union government refused to roll back Agnipath, although it offered temporary concessions, asked police forces to accommodate Agnipath retirees, and said it would hire more recruits for the scheme with time.

3. 2020-21 farmers’ protests

Thousands of farmers from northern and northwestern India rallied outside Delhi for fourteen months in protest of three new farm laws the Union government had passed in September 2020.

File image of farmers blocking a highway to mark 100 days of their ongoing protests against farm laws near New Delhi, March 6, 2021. Photo: PTI

The new laws provided a national framework for farmers to sell their produce directly to private players, a move that the government said would boost investment in India’s agricultural sector, which most experts agree is in urgent need of reform.

But many farmers worried this would leave them open to exploitation by powerful corporations once the government phased out its mandi system, where it purchases produce from the majority of India’s farmers at ‘minimum support prices’.

The Union government initially took a conciliatory approach to the protests and held 11 rounds of talks with the farmers, though they were all inconclusive.

It ultimately withdrew this approach when some protesters turned violent on Republic Day in 2021, responding with sedition cases against journalists covering the protests. The Haryana government also dug trenches at roads bordering Delhi and cut internet access in the state.

Also Read: The Updated List of India’s ‘Anti-Nationals’ (According to the Modi Government)

The government ended up repealing the new laws in late 2021. Critics say it could have avoided its protracted struggle against protesters if it hadn’t ‘railroaded’ the laws through parliament, and had instead used the legislature’s consensus-building tools to assuage farmer concerns and get expert opinions.

4. 2019-20 CAA/NRC protests

Dozens of lives were lost and property worth hundreds of crores of rupees damaged during the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests.

They began in early 2019 in Assam when the Lok Sabha passed the Citizenship Amendment Bill, which proposed to tweak India’s citizenship law to give amnesty to illegal immigrants of various religions except Islam who came to India from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan before 2015.

Anti-CAA protesters at Malerkotla. Photo: Twitter/@natashabadhwar

Concerned that the Bill would cement the presence of Bangladeshi immigrants in the state, altering its demographic makeup and increasing competition for jobs, protesters torched BJP offices and surrounded the state secretariat on many occasions.

But the government went ahead with the Bill anyway, enacting it into law in December.

One reason behind its persistence was that a census exercise conducted in Assam to sift citizens from illegal immigrants ended up classifying many Bengali Hindus – a significant source of support for the BJP – into the latter group.

Protests broke out in Assam once again in December and turned violent in some cases, prompting the state government to detain hundreds of people and cut off internet access in the state for 10 days.

Protests also occurred outside Assam, although in this instance responding to the Act’s use of religion to grant amnesty. Internet services were suspended and a colonial-era curfew law – Section 144 – was gratuitously implemented.

Watch: Women, Homemakers Lead Protests Against CAA at Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh

“The fact that the establishment has not been able to offer any kind of structured interaction for a protest that has been going on for two months, shows the government prefers wielding force over face-to-face interaction,” journalist Sagarika Ghose said in a Times of India piece.

Modi blamed the opposition for the violence and said that arsonists “can be identified by their clothes”, a comment that has been understood to refer to Muslims.

Towards the end of the protests, a threat issued to an anti-CAA procession in Delhi by a BJP state legislator sparked riots that saw scores of deaths and hundreds of injuries.

5. 2016 Haryana Jat reservation agitation

In 2016, Haryana’s Jat community protested for caste-based reservations. They are land-owning and relatively affluent, and sought reservations after farming incomes became less lucrative and private sector jobs did not grow quickly enough.

Balana: Heavy security deployment on account of the ongoing Jat protests in Balana village on the Ambala-Hisar highway, near Ambala, on Sunday. Photo: PTI

The initially peaceful protests turned violent. At least 30 people died and over 320 others were injured. Protestors even managed to disrupt water supply to Delhi by damaging an important canal, prompting the Union government to ask for army intervention.

Ultimately, public property worth hundreds of crores of rupees were damaged during the protests.

Also Read: Administrative Failure and Other Learnings From Haryana’s Jat Riots

The Haryana government agreed to reservations for the Jats and passed a Bill granting it to them a month after the protests began, even though the Supreme Court had denied them reservation a year before on the grounds that they were not a backward community.

6. 2015 Gujarat Patel reservation agitation

Members of Gujarat’s Patel (also known as Patidar) community clashed with police as they held public demonstrations demanding to be included in the state’s reservation system under the Other Backward Classes (OBC) category.

Like Haryana’s Jats, the Patel community is prosperous and politically powerful. But protesters said they were not all well to do and faced the brunt of reservation for other disadvantaged groups.

Eight people died, and 40 police stations as well as 70 buses were set on fire in the violent protests.

File image of people from the Patel or Patidar community attending a reservation rally led by Hardik Patel (center) at Bapunagar in Ahmedabad in 2015. Photo: PTI

The state government responded with internet restrictions in Ahmedabad, its largest city. Cases of police brutality were also reported.

Ashutosh Varshney, a political scientist at Brown University, told the Financial Times that a solution to such demands had to be found outside India’s ever-growing reservation matrices.

“This problem is basically intractable. Until the Indian growth model becomes more employment-intensive, this sort of caste protest about jobs is one that he [Modi] will find hard to escape,” he said.

Gujarat’s government conceded to the reservation demands in 2016, although it granted it in the form of a 10% reservation to the poor among the state’s ‘general category’ castes, to which the Patels belonged.