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On Saturday, a retired Lieutenant General of the Indian Army tweeted out a sombre message about the situation in Manipur. “The state is now ‘stateless’,” wrote Nishikanta Singh. “Life and property can be destroyed anytime by anyone just like in Libya, Lebanon, Nigeria, Syria, etc.”. Soon, a former chief of the Indian Army added to his call. “An extraordinarily sad call from a retired Lt Gen from Manipur,” wrote Ved Malik. “Law & order situation in Manipur needs urgent attention at [the] highest level”.

Manipur has been ignored by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and much of the big television media based in the National Capital Region. Yet, the comparison with war-torn regions such as Syria by a person none other than a former army officer living in Manipur is a wake-up call about the level of chaos in the state. Not only has there been horrific ethnic conflict in Manipur, even major symbols of the Indian state have been battered in the violence.

On Friday, the home of a minister in the Modi government was burnt down, with the helpless minister complaining about the “total failure” of law and order in a state governed by his own party. Even worse, the central paramilitary forces have been harassed by mobs. As a convoy of Assam Rifles was blockaded for weeks, the troops ran out of rations to feed themselves. Although it is a paramilitary force, Assam Rifles is controlled by the Indian Army and has played a critical role in India’s restive North East.

Reduced state

Manipur has rightly been flagged as a serious humanitarian concern. However, another aspect of the civil war has been less commented on: the serious hit to the prestige of the Indian state. Although the government of India has, for all practical purposes, taken over the administration of Manipur, it has struggled to protect the people of Manipur. In fact, as the burning of the minister’s houses and the blockading of troops shows, it has struggled to even protect itself.

The North East has a long history of conflict even since the British empire brought the region into the administrative purview of the government of India. However, the past few decades have seen a remarkable reduction in violence and an assertion of control by the Indian state. Manipur dramatically reverses this trend. Even more troublingly, this shift is not limited to Manipur: the past decade has seen similar examples across the country where the power of the Indian state has waned.

An even-more widespread example of state retreat was seen in the second Covid wave in 2021. In states such as Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and Gujarat, the health system simply collapsed. Even elites struggled for a bed in a hospital. The Ganga was filled with bodies as the death toll rose so high, people simply did not bother with funerary rites. So scarring was this collapse of government that many commentators, including India Today magazine, started to use the term “failed state”. This “failed state” criticism was so pervasive, the Bharatiya Janata Party had to rebut it.

Flailing state

To put this retreat of the state in perspective, India has always been a weak administration. The modern Indian state was set up by the British and was a skeletal affair given that the Raj was interested in governing only enough to extract wealth. Even after the transfer of the state to Indian hands in 1947, the state was largely weak because it did not have a stark economic take-off, unlike some countries in east and Southeast Asia.

A famous 2009 paper by Lant Pritchett, an economist at Harvard University, used the phrase “flailing state” to describe the fact that a highly-trained class of elite bureaucrats presided over a state that failed to deliver even basic services such as nutrition, sanitation and health to its people. This flailing state means that Indians have some of the lowest standards of living in the world and even poor countries such as Bangladesh beat it on basic human development metrics like life expectancy and infant mortality.

Populism hit

On top of this has been added political chaos in the past decade. Many of the gains made in strengthening the Indian state have been frittered away by the sudden rise of populism since 2014. For example, a senior minister in the Modi government felicitated a man convicted of murdering a Muslim cattle trader as part of a move to legitimise the actions of violent cow-protection gangs. In 2019, a cow-protection mob even killed a policeman in Uttar Pradesh. Despite this, the alleged killers were hailed as heroes in the state.

In 2020, threats by a BJP leader Kapil Mishra, were followed by widespread rioting in the national capital, as the Indian state struggled to control mass violence in the very seat of its power. A similar dynamic in fact played out in Manipur, as the BJP encouraged both Meitei and Kuki groups for political gain. A report in Scroll explained that Kuki armed groups canvassed for the BJP as a quid pro quo for Home Minister Amit Shah promising to meet their demands if voted to power.

One of the basic axioms of state formation in the modern age is that the state will have a near-monopoly on legitimate violence. This was always weak in India. However, the encouragement given to non-state violence in the past decade has made this proposition even weaker. As a result, the Indian state stands diminished.