Clashes between rival ethnic groups in Manipur, a remote state in India’s northeast, have reportedly killed dozens of people in recent days, and the situation remains volatile, even as the authorities rush troops to the area to quell the disorder and seek to control the flow of information.
The unrest, which began Wednesday, arose from a dispute over who gets to claim a special tribal status that grants extra privileges. The largest group in the state, slightly over half the population, is seeking that designation for itself.
By Thursday, the violence had reached an extraordinary level, as people set fire to homes and vehicles, churches and temples. There has been no government confirmation of a death toll widely reported in Indian news outlets as more than 50, though one official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to confirm a figure, described it as accurate.
In response, the Indian Army has flown nearly 10,000 troops and paramilitary forces to Manipur, a state of less than 3 million people near the borders with Bangladesh and Myanmar, more than 1,000 miles from New Delhi.
On Friday the state’s governor issued “shoot-at-sight” orders, giving the security forces the authority to fire on mobs “in extreme cases.” It is not clear if they have done so, and if this accounts for any of the 54 dead that Indian news outlets report have been counted at three different hospitals.
A military spokesman said on Friday night that they had secured “firm control” over the most affected districts. But because the authorities have also shut down the internet, imposed a curfew, and canceled trains into the region, it is impossible to say if this is true.
Paojel Chaoba, the executive editor of The Frontier Manipur, a local news site, described a “total breakdown of law and order” as he had never seen before in Manipur. “The house of the state’s top police officer has been attacked, and the body count is constantly going up,” he said in a telephone interview.
Thousands of Manipuris have fled, many west into the neighboring state of Assam, a police superintendent there told an Indian news wire.
Some stayed behind, like Lenkhohao, a 60-year-old chief in charge of an 80-household village in Churachandpur district and a member of the Kuki ethnic group.
“I have never seen anything like this before,” he said in a phone interview, adding that gunfire could be heard throughout the day on Friday, as well as the sound of roving mobs of people. That evening, he said, a group of about 200 members of the Meitei group, accompanied by Manipur police officers driving jeeps, mounted an attack on his village.
“We had only about four or five guns, but they had many more. We fired many rounds both ways and ran to find cover in the rice fields,” said Mr. Lenkhohao, who uses only one name. “But we fought back fiercely, and they were forced to retreat.”
He said at least four people had been killed in a neighboring village.
India’s northeast is a patchwork of groups, differing by language and religion, and often at odds with each other and the national government over internal borders and human-rights issues.
The recent unrest started with a student group holding a march to protest efforts to reclassify Meiteis, the state’s largest ethnic group, as a “scheduled tribe.” Currently only the state’s Naga and Kuki peoples, who inhabit the rugged hill country, enjoy this designation, which among other things gives an advantage in securing government jobs.
A group representing the Meiteis had filed a petition for scheduled-tribe status more than 10 years ago. Last month, Manipur’s High Court issued a ruling noting the long delay and giving the state government just four weeks to recommend a plan to the national government.