Authorities in the northeastern Indian state of Manipur have issued “shoot-at-sight” orders after violence broke out this week between tribal and non-tribal groups that saw properties and vehicles set ablaze.
The state’s governor, Anusuiya Uikey, issued the order on Thursday in a bid to “maintain public order and tranquility,” a statement from Manipur’s home department said.
Shoot-at-sight orders were authorized for “extreme cases whereby all forms of persuasion, warning, reasonable force etc. had been exhausted” and the situation “could not be controlled,” according to the statement.
Skirmishes broke out on Tuesday after thousands of tribal people took part in a rally organized by the All Tribal Students Union of Manipur, against the potential inclusion of the state’s majority Meitei ethnic group in India’s “Scheduled Tribe” grouping.
The Meitei community, who make up about 50% of the state’s population, have for years campaigned to be recognized as a scheduled tribe, which would give them access to wider benefits including health, education and government jobs.
Scheduled tribes are among the most socio-economically disadvantaged groups in India and have historically been denied access to education and job opportunities.
If the Meitei community are given scheduled tribe status, other tribal groups say they fear they will not have a fair chance for jobs and other benefits.
On Tuesday, clashes reportedly broke out between the Meitei community and some tribespeople. Video and photos broadcast on local television showed vehicles and buildings set on fire, with thick black smoke billowing from the streets.
Manipur’s government announced the suspension of mobile internet services for five days, while troops from the Indian army have been deployed to violence-affected areas of the hilly state and are carrying out evacuation operations.
Former boxer and Olympic medalist Mary Kom, who is from Manipur, told CNN affiliate News 18 that the situation was “very bad.”
“From the bottom of my heart, I appeal to the central (federal government) and state governments for ensuring the safety of everyone,” she said.
About 25% of India’s population of 1.4 billion are grouped under the scheduled castes (Dalits) and scheduled tribes (Adivasis) in India’s constitution.
India’s caste system was officially abolished in 1950, but the 2,000-year-old social hierarchy imposed on people by birth still exists in many aspects of life. The caste system categorizes Hindus at birth, defining their place in society, what jobs they can do and who they can marry.
Adivasis are indigenous Indians who have been socially and economically marginalized for centuries.
Both groups have long endured social isolation, and jobs that Dalits and Adivasis have been forced to take for centuries include cleaning, manual scavenging and waste picking.
Many Adivasis do not have national ID cards, which are required to access many government schemes including getting subsidies and direct cash transfers, and health insurance under the prime minister’s health project, as well as to open a bank account.
“It has been seen that most Dalits and Adivasis, find it difficult to get these government ID cards … or ration cards. Either the information doesn’t reach them, or the enrollment camps to get biometric IDs are never set up in their villages and mostly they are asked to pay huge bribes to get these IDs made,” Alladi Devakumar, executive secretary of Dalit Bahujan Resource Centre, told CNN in 2020.
And poverty makes these groups more vulnerable during emergencies, according to the findings of a 2013 study by the International Dalit Solidarity Network, a network of international human rights groups fighting Dalit discrimination.
For example, after the 2004 Asian tsunami, Dalits were forced to remove bodies and debris, for very little if any pay, and weren’t offered any psychological support.
Some Dalits and Adivasis also reported an increase in social isolation and discrimination during the coronavirus pandemic, with no social safety net to ensure they don’t fall deeper into poverty.