India's opposition leader Rahul Gandhi condemns the Modi government over violence in Manipur

India's top opposition leader Rahul Gandhi, center, arrives at the Parliament in New Delhi, India, Monday, Aug.7, 2023. India's Parliament on Monday reinstated Gandhi as a lawmaker three days after the country's top court halted his criminal defamation conviction for mocking the prime minister's surname. (AP Photo)
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NEW DELHI (AP) — India’s top opposition leader unleashed a strong condemnation Wednesday of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government for its failure to control bloodshed in a remote northeastern state that he said has been divided.

Rahul Gandhi told Parliament that the army should have been able to stop the violence already. But despite the presence of troops in Manipur, the violence has festered for over three months. More than 150 people have died in Manipur and over 50,000 people have fled in fear since clashes erupted in early May.

"The army can restore peace in a day. You are not using the army,” Gandhi said, and called for the firing of the state government run by Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

The conflict was triggered by an affirmative action controversy in which Christian Kukis protested a demand by mostly Meitei Hindus for a special status that would let them buy land in the hills populated by Kukis and other tribal groups, and get a share of government jobs.

Gandhi, who was reinstated as a lawmaker three days after the country’s top court halted his criminal defamation conviction for mocking the prime minister’s surname, was participating in a debate on a no-confidence motion moved by the opposition against the Modi government in the lower house of India’s Parliament. A vote is expected on Thursday.

Gandhi accused the Modi government of killing the spirit of India in Manipur state by silencing people’s voices. He also accused Modi of choosing silence while Manipur state burned, creating a situation of civil war.

That led to an uproar as Modi's party objected to Gandhi's criticisms. Kiren Rijiju, Minister of Earth Sciences, demanded an apology.

Modi is expected to speak on the no-confidence motion on Thursday, though there is no threat to his government as his party and allies control more than 360 seats in the 545-member Lok Sabha, the powerful lower house.

Home Minister Amit Shah said Wednesday the government was deeply concerned about the violence in Manipur state, which he described as a ``dance of fury.”

He said so far 152 people have lost their lives, 68 of them in the first three days of violence that started in May. Shah said he was working with both Meiti Hindus and Christian Kukis to end violence.

Shah said the influx of Kukis by the thousands through a porous border after the army takeover in neighboring Myanmar in 2021 has created a sense of fear among the majority Meiti community of a change in the region’s demographics.

Rumors that these refugees would be absorbed in Manipur state and a court verdict in the affirmative action controversy led to rioting in Manipur state, Shah said.

He also said the Indian government has taken up the issue with Myanmar's military and started fencing the border to stop the inflow of Kukis from Myanmar.

Shah recalled that ethnic violence has been a decades-old problem in Manipur state, where 700 people were killed in 1993 and the government took a year and a half to restore normalcy in the region.

He rejected the opposition’s demand to sack the state's top elected leader, Biren Singh, who belongs to his party and said he was cooperating with the federal government in ending violence in the state.

Three weeks ago, Modi broke more than two months of public silence over the conflict in Manipur when he briefly spoke to reporters at the entrance of Parliament and condemned the mob assaults on two women in the state who were paraded naked — but he did not directly refer to the larger violence. He has also not visited the state since the violence broke out.

A fiery critic of Modi and his main challenger in the 2024 polls, Gandhi was expelled from Parliament in March after a court convicted him for defamation over mocking the prime minister’s surname. He was reinstated as a member of Parliament on Monday, after India’s Supreme Court temporarily halted his conviction. The move is likely to strengthen a struggling opposition and their new alliance, which will take on Modi’s BJP in next year’s general election.

India’s Parliament has been locked in an intense impasse for weeks over the crisis in Manipur. Sessions nearly every day have been adjourned over protests and sloganeering from the opposition.

Home Minister Amit Shah visited the state in May and held talks with community leaders and groups, but the violence persisted.