The Manipur Conflict: Rights of the Internally Displaced Get Compromised
About the author: Adrija Guhathakurta is a law student with an ardent interest in international human rights law, gender justice, public governance, and technology governance. Adrija is currently pursuing a 5-year integrated BALLB Course at National Law University, Odisha. Adrija's research and experience involves Indian law, especially the application of the Indian Constitution, Special Acts for Women's Rights, State laws on Primary Education, Corporate & Commercial Laws, Administrative and Maritime Laws.
Image by D. Talukdar depicting the Meitei Community in Moirang, Manipur. Available here.
In March 2023, India’s Manipur High Court granted the Scheduled Tribes (ST) status to the Meitei community, affording them special protections like job quotas and land purchase rights. This decision intensified the long-standing disputes between the Meitei and Kuki-zho ethnic groups centered on property and resources. Concerns with Meitei’s potential dominance in India led to protests by the Kuki community and other minority tribes. Such tension escalated into violence on May 3, 2023, with a Kuki-led tribal coalition protesting across Manipur’s districts. Notably, the conflict is an ethnic one, not religious, despite a mischaracterization by the EU Parliament in a draft resolution on July 13, 2023. This resolution and numerous news sources indicated significant casualties and 60,000-70,000 internally displaced individuals. In response, the Manipur State Government deployed paramilitary forces on May 3, 2023, and the Union Government established a judicial commission and a peace committee, despite that the involved parties distanced themselves. Additionally, an internet shutdown from June to July 2023 hindered the media coverage.
Since the violence erupted in the region, there have been multiple instances of migration of internally displaced persons to the nearby relief camps. Reports show that they do not even have the basic amenities required to survive during such conflicts. This blog explores how the situation has led to violations of the international standard of protection for internally displaced persons.
Overview of the International Frameworks
The United Nations acknowledges the absence of a universal special status for internally displaced persons (IDPs), with the current terminology being descriptive. Nonetheless, the UN Economic and Social Council has formulated the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement (GPID), establishing global standards that member states are expected to follow to protect the rights of IDPs. These principles define IDPs as individuals forced to leave their homes within their country’s borders due to armed conflicts, widespread violence, or natural disasters. Noteworthy organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), and the United Nations Council of Human Rights (UNHCR) play essential roles in researching and aiding IDPs worldwide. IDPs face key challenges including insufficient resources, safety issues in temporary settlements, and the persistent threat of violence in their new surroundings.
What Does the Manipur Situation Mean for the Internally Displaced?
The IDMC’s reports on India showcase that the majority of internal displacements are attributed to natural disasters. Therefore, there is a lack of internal displacement legislations in India that serve specifically the needs of people displaced due to conflicts and violence. The Disaster Management Act of 2005 and the Land Acquisition Act of 2013 provide certain rehabilitation and resettlement recourse to persons within the territories of India who have been displaced due to natural disasters. Apart from this legislation, there are only certain sets of fundamental rights, which protect all citizens and non-citizens and can be extended to include IDPs. Examples include Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, which provides for every individual’s right to life, and the Directive Principles of State Policy enshrined in the Indian Constitution, which list the maintenance of proper environment and livelihood of people as duties of the State.
Regardless, the situation in Manipur has worsened over the last few months, as thousands of internally displaced individuals find refuge in relief camps without appropriate security or assistance. Amnesty International highlighted that IDPs in those camps have not been afforded proper housing, sanitation, food, or other necessary resources. This violates the very premise of the GPID, given that the first paragraph of its introductory note highlights these issues as the key concerns and Principle 7(2) mentions these parameters as primary assistance factors by the States.
Women Have it Worse
A recent video emerged and depicted the assault and public humiliation of two women in Manipur, leading to nationwide outrage. In response, on August 7, 2023, Chief Justice of India D.Y Chandrachud announced the formation of a three-member committee, consisting of former High Court Judges, dedicated to addressing issues related to sexual violence against women. The committee focuses on overseeing relief efforts, compensation, rehabilitation, and tackling the ongoing problem of sexual violence.
Interviews have demonstrated the significant hardships that internally displaced women face in securing a stable livelihood in IDP camps. They begin their mornings with fear of being assaulted and many have not been able to bring their essential belongings, such as clothes and sanitary resources, with them to the relief camps. It is also important to note that India lacks specific legislations to safeguard women and children during conflicts. While laws like the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act (2013) and the Domestic Violence Act (2005) offer some protection, the scope remains limited. Only Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code, which addresses rape, is directly relevant, but such criminal allegations involve lengthy legal processes, making the pursuit of justice especially difficult for internally displaced women.
Principle 7(d) of GPID explicitly highlights that the State authorities should give particular attention to the internally displaced women. Principle 18 further states that there should be full involvement of women in distribution of supplies during internal displacements. Principle 19 highlights the requirement for special healthcare aid for internally displaced women. The current situation of women, as reported by various news agencies and confirmed by Amnesty International, does not live up to the international standards and violates the principles of GPID mentioned above.
The Internet Shutdown was an Unnecessary Hindrance
In Manipur, ongoing violence prompted the government to impose an internet shutdown, which lasted until July 25, 2023. At that point, partial internet access was granted to residents but without a specified end date, making the partial access indefinite. On August 12, 2023, the Manipur High Court ordered the State Government to allow mobile internet services on a case-by-case basis by whitelisting devices. The Office of the United Nation’s High Commissioner of Human Rights’ (OHCHR) 2022 report on internet shutdowns highlighted that complete internet bans hinder humanitarian aid and government support in healthcare during violence, particularly for IDPs. The UNHCR’s 2020 report emphasized the importance of internet communications for aiding IDPs. Legislations like the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act of 1979, which grants contractors substantial discretionary power to decide on the provision of healthcare and accommodation to migrant workers, could severely impede access to healthcare and assistance for displaced workers during prolonged internet shutdowns. A joint report by Human Rights Watch and IFF documented the challenges faced by displaced workers, who relied on government programs for rural employment during such shutdowns.
According to OHCHR, restrictions on the freedom of expression should be “necessary, proportional and non-discriminatory.” Article 19(3) of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides two grounds for limiting the right to freedom of expression, including restrictions by virtue of law or in lieu of protection of national security, public order, public health, or morals. General Comment 34 of Human Rights Council (HRC) highlights that the restriction should not jeopardize the right itself. In the Manipur situation, the internet shutdown went on for almost two months, and the lack of internet connections barred the residents from communicating the situation to the outside world. This led to a growing sense of immunity amongst people who would inflict violence, leading to instances as depicted in the video about sexual assault. The internet shutdown was evidently disproportionate to the intensity of the violence and is not supported by law, as Rule 2(2A) of Telecom Suspension Rules 2017 (amended in 2020) clearly states that internet shutdowns should not continue for more than 15 days.
The situation in India’s IDP camps needs to be addressed immediately. Women are living in fear, and the internet ban has still not been lifted fully, as people in Manipur cannot use the internet on their mobile phones. The relief camp establishments have been reported to harbor as few as 20 toilets for hundreds of displaced individuals, along with minimal food resources available. First, the situation of the heightened risk of sexual violence against internally displaced women of the region should be carefully addressed. The all-women committee set up by the Supreme Court should not only look into matters concerning those affected within the boundaries of Manipur, but also make detailed accounts of the situation of internally displaced persons in the nearby relief camps, specifically in the case of women, children, people with disabilities, and other marginalized individuals.
Second, the Indian Government should establish effective internet governance in Manipur, following the UNHRC’s report on Internet Governance in Internal Displacement, and emphasize the importance of connectivity in disaster or conflict-affected regions with mass migration of the internally displaced persons. The concept of Internet Governance, as highlighted by UNHRC, seeks to connect IDPs with assistance mechanisms including governmental and international agencies. Initiatives should begin by lifting the internet ban in Manipur and potentially imposing the President’s rule, under Article 356 of the Indian Constitution, which allows the Union Government to suspend the State Government and take over the administration through the centrally elected State Governor. This would ensure the facilitation of a centralized administration and the control of security forces by the Union Government. This would further enable central collaboration with organizations, including the UN’s Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC) and local NGOs, such as All-Manipur Kuki Displaced Persons Association and Women Action Development Agency. Further, as demonstrated in the case of Mizoram, where the government raised funds for IDPs, funding and involvement from other state governments would enhance these collaborative endeavors.
The long-term goal of India should be to focus on inculcating, in the existing legislation on protection of vulnerable groups, the duties of the State in serving the needs of internally displaced persons during both natural disasters and internal violence and conflicts.