Imphal: “A day before Amit Shah’s arrival in Imphal, my grandmother was burnt alive, and we could only cremate her head,” said Sarokhaibam Premkanta Meitei. Serou Awang Leikai village in Kakching district, Manipur, once had 300 houses, and around 6,000 people were living in the village. Sarokhaibam’s family was one of them. The village is surrounded by Kuki villages: Nazareth, Singtom, Thingkhangphai, Zalengkot, Phaimon and Hingen.
The village is now empty and according to the Meitei community has been taken over by Kuki militants.
Sarokhaibam’s grandmother S. Ibetombi, the wife of freedom fighter S. Churachand who won several awards, including one from A.P.J. Abdul Kalam on August 9, 2004 and one from Indira Gandhi in 1972, was allegedly burnt alive by Kuki militants in this village. Photos accessed by The Wire show only a person’s skull, and the family claims it belongs to Ibetombi.
Ibetombi’s son, S. Churachandra, told The Wire, “We had two houses in Serou, and my mother used to live in the other house. Violence began in Manipur on May 3, and later, by the end of May, Amit Shah finally decided to visit. This incident happened a day before his visit.”
After the incident, the family filed an FIR in the Sugnu police station. The FIR, accessed by The Wire, indicates that a large number of unknown armed miscreants suspected to be Kuki militants have been accused of the crime. Sub-inspector H. Amitkumar Singh of the Kaching police station was appointed as the investigating officer in the case.
The FIR lists the following charges: IPC Sections 148 (rioting armed with a deadly weapon); 149 (all members of an unlawful assembly guilty of an offence committed in the prosecution of a common object); 295A (outraging religious feelings by insulting religious beliefs or religion); 302 (murder); 307 (attempt to murder); 326 (voluntarily causing grievous hurt by dangerous weapons); 400 (gang of dacoits); 427 (mischief for causing damage of the value of 50 rupees or more); 436 (mischief by fire or explosive substance); 506 (criminal intimidation); and 34 (joint liability of persons for acts done in furtherance of common intention).
The FIR states, “Today i.e. 28/05/2023 at about 02:40 am, a large number of unknown armed miscreants suspected to be Kuki militants attacked the Sugnu Police Station, Kakching District, Manipur from different angles with heavy volume of firing from their sophisticated weapons.” It further explains that the security personnel at Sugnu police station were already on maximum alert, and they retaliated to protect the police station.
During the incident, suspected armed Kuki militants attacked security personnel discharging their duties at different locations and check posts. The Kuki militants and their supporters also attacked Meitei villagers in different locations, resulting in damage to many houses and valuable properties of the Meitei community under Sugnu PS jurisdiction, the FIR states. The indiscriminate firing by the unknown armed Kuki militants towards security personnel and villagers resulted in casualties and injuries.
Following the incident, a large number of unknown Meitei young people organised a mob that damaged houses and properties of the Kuki community. The situation was eventually brought under control by security personnel around 5:50 pm. Consequently, a suo moto case was registered against the unknown armed culprits.
Ibetombi’s family claims that no action has been taken by the police so far. The FIR was registered on May 28 at 6:15 pm, and now almost two months have passed with no investigation. Ibetombi never imagined that the riots would escalate to such an extent, her son said. The day before her death, the family had lunch together, and Churachandra cooked her favourite urad dal. Churachandra remembered, “My mother told me that this would not escalate to the point of killing each other and that things would be fine in a few days. I never thought she would be burnt alive the very next day.”
According to the FIR, not only did the militants attack Meitei villages, they also attacked the Sugnu police station, resulting in casualties amongst the security personnel. The community is also disappointed with the role of the Assam Rifles in the past two months, as they allege that the force is assisting Kuki groups.
A Meitei villager who wishes to remain anonymous shared a video with The Wire showing Assam Rifles personnel surrounding the Sugnu police station and not allowing police personnel to leave. In the video, police questioned Assam Rifles jawans, “On whose order are you doing this?”
NL 11C 0003, an olive green truck, can be seen standing outside the Sugnu police station’s main gate in the video. The Wire found out that the truck belongs to the director general of Assam Riffles and is registered in Kohima, Nagaland. Locals say that the video is from June 2. The Wire reached out to Assam Rifles to ask about this video. This article will be updated when they respond.
On May 28, when alleged Kuki militants started burning houses in Serou village, everyone started running towards safety. Ibetombi, who was 80 years old and needed a stick to walk, could not run. According to the family, Ibetombi asked her daughter-in-law to leave her alone and come back later to take her with them, as she was confident that the Kuki militants would not kill her due to her age.
When Ibetombi’s grandson found out that his grandmother was still inside the house, he decided to come back and try and save her life. But by the time he returned, he saw her burning in her house. “My grandmother used to live with her daughter-in-law, and I used to live with my wife, father, mother and sister. It was 2 AM when our village got surrounded by Kuki militants, and they started firing into our houses. Everyone started running, but my grandmother couldn’t,” said Sarokhaibam.
Sarokhaibam also suffered two bullet injuries and is recovering at RIMS Hospital in Imphal. He returned to save his grandmother, but by the time he reached Serou, he saw his house burning, and he received two bullet wounds, one on his hand and the other on his lower abdomen. “I realised that my grandma is no more, and for the last rites, we only had her head,” said Sarokhaibam.
Sarokhaibam also registered a separate FIR for his bullet injuries, but no action has been taken by the police so far.
Before the parliament session began on July 20, a video of Kuki women being paraded naked went viral on social media, prompting the prime minister to speak about Manipur. The Meitei community in Imphal says that once internet returns to the valley, there will be thousands of videos showing their people being killed by Kuki militants, which they want to share with the prime minister. The community shared two such purported videos of brutal killings with The Wire.
Churachandra has appealed to both the state government and the Union government to find a solution to this violence. He said, “We want to go back to our village and live there again. The government should arrange for our safety and provide security to all the villagers.” As the son of a freedom fighter, he wants the prime minister to take notice of the situation and provide a solution.