New Delhi: When Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived at the White House on Thursday, hundreds of Indians were waiting near the South Lawn to catch a glimpse of him. At the same time, another group of protestors gathered near the North Lawn at the Black Lives Matter Plaza.
Several of the protesters were members of the Kuki tribe from Manipur, who brought up the ongoing ethnic violence in the state and the government’s alleged apathy and even support for the Meitei community. They held banners reading “Stop attacking Kuki-Zomi villages” and “PM Modi: Hear the cries of Kuki-Zomi, stop the state-sponsored pogrom in Manipur, India”.
Lien Gangte, a member of the North American Manipur Tribal Association (NAMTA), talked about how his family was among thousands of victims of mob violence. He said, “Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been deafeningly silent. Are we to be forgotten? Will we become one of the forgotten casualties in the integrationist majoritarian drive that has encircled us? We demand that the prime minister break his silence and visit the state as a first step towards bringing some form of normalcy to this ongoing crisis.”
Since June 3, Manipur has been experiencing violence, with over 50 days without internet, more than 5,000 displaced people living in relief camps, and over 150 deaths. “Why is the prime minister still silent and not taking control of the situation?” asked Gangte Lien.
Another protestor, lawyer Arjun Sethi, stated, “Hundreds of us gathered outside the White House to demand that President Biden and the Congress ask tough questions to Prime Minister Modi regarding human rights abuses, internet blackouts and hate violence against Dalits, Muslims and other minorities in India.”
“The United States is enabling Modi’s human rights abuses by hosting him for a state dinner,” he added.
People from the Kuki tribal community were disappointed that no questions related to their community were raised during the joint press conference addressed by Biden and Modi.
NAMTA also submitted a letter to Biden emphasising the plight of the minority Kuki-Zomi tribes in Manipur. The letter appealed to the president to take immediate action before the crisis escalates further. NAMTA expressed their unwavering trust in Biden’s commitment to safeguarding human rights as they called for his leadership and the deployment of a UN peacekeeping force to address the ongoing crisis.
In another letter which NAMTA submitted to the Embassy of India in the prime minister’s name, the group said, “From May 3rd 2023, over 6100 tribal homes have been burned and looted, 350 churches set ablaze and more than 115 villages attacked in the extended Imphal valley.”
NAMTA made the following demands before Modi:
1) Declare President’s Rule in the state of Manipur to provide impartial support for all essential services and security to all communities—tribals and non-tribals alike.
2) Constitute a Justice Committee from civil society in Manipur and neutral third-party personalities well-respected by all sides to account for every victim’s loss and thereby bring about peace.
3) Establish a separate administration for the Kuki-Zomi tribes under provisions mentioned in the Constitution of India.
In an interview with CNN, former US President Barack Obama also raised concerns about the rights of ethnic minorities in India. He said, “Part of my argument would be that if you do not protect the rights of ethnic minorities in India, then there is a strong possibility India at some point starts pulling apart. And we’ve seen what happens when you start getting into those kinds of large internal conflicts.”
Gangte and other tribe members still hope that their voice will be heard.
Another protestor, Lydia Tombing Khuptong, questioned chief minister Biren Singh and Modi’s involvement in the Manipur violence “Silence speaks volume. Does the complicity of the current power end with the state or does it go beyond?” Khuptong asked.
Silas, who is among the media convenors of Kuki INPI USA, said he misses talking to his relatives over video calls. “My house is safe but all my auntie-uncles’ houses were burned down in Imphal – they all became homeless. I want to see my mother, brother but I can’t as there is no internet in the state. I am wondering what will be the situation on the ground – there’s no law and order in the state but the prime minister is is silent.”
When asked whether it would be enough if the Union government agreed to remove the chief minister, Silas responded, “Now it’s not about Biren, we won’t forget in our life how the Meitei people killed us and burned our houses and churches. Everything is broken – right from our relationship to the administration. A new administration is the only solution now. That’s why we want the US to intervene, and keep human rights at the helm.”