Imphal/Churachandpur/Bishnupur: Almost 25 days after the violence started in Manipur, Union home Minister Amit Shah is all set to visit the state today (May 29). However, even on the eve of his visit, the situation continued to remain tense across the state, despite heavy deployment of state and Central government security forces.
Chief minister N. Biren Singh said yesterday that the government agencies would leave no stone unturned to take on what he termed as “terrorists” – militants “from the Kuki community”. The Meities and the Kukis are engaged in almost a war-like situation ever since May 3 in the state. Meiteis are predominantly Hindus while Kukis are Christians.
The chief minister also claimed yesterday that more than 30 “militants from the Kuki community” have been killed. However, the statement of the chief minister, who belongs to the Meitei community, has hardly helped build any confidence among the Meiteis, let alone the Kukis. The Meiteis say the chief minister has been giving such statements for a long time now but their houses continue to be torched allegedly by the Kuki militants despite the security forces being right there.
In Bishnnpur villages on Saturday, The Wire met small teams of Meitei men, armed with double-barrel guns and bullets, to chase away Kukis. “My family is in a relief camp. I have come on the front line to see to it that the Kuki militants don’t advance further,” says Kanta, one such man in a Bishnupur village. The men, some of whom had come home during Covid and are working with IT companies or are businessmen, alleged that the Kuki militants who live on the hills are coming down to burn their houses in the plains.
The Wire could see BSF, RAF and state police forces standing alongside these armed men. Even the women are on the front line now. Wardha Rani, 35, a Meitei woman in Torbunj, was visibly angry with the fact that the central agencies were not able to save the community. She said that the state police was trying but was not proving enough in front of the assailants.
Echoing what most Meiteis said, she also believes that the inaction of the Central government security forces to take on assailant had made their situation worse. Hence now, small teams of Meitei woman are blocking the highway using boulders every few kilometres, to see to it that the Central agency forces don’t come to their villages anymore. They only want a greater number of state police commandoes.
The Kukis, on the other hand, have completely lost faith in all agencies of the government, state or Centre, and allege that it is at the behest of the Biren Singh government that their “houses are being burnt, their people are being killed and their churches are being destroyed”. When The Wire visited Churachandpur, a Kuki-community dominated area and one of the worst violence-hit areas, the citizens said not a single government representative has come to them to ask as to how they were living in the relief camps and how are their burnt houses going to be rebuilt. “We have turned foreigners in our own land,” said Hautuk Khullen, 32 a homemaker and a mother living in a relief camp at an evangelical church managed by the community.
On the question of the Kuki militant killing and maiming the Meitei people, the Kukis at the first place dismiss the charge, saying there is a tripartite agreement between the Kuki militants, the state and the Central governments known as ‘suspension of operation’ (SOO). As per the SOO, the governments at the Centre and the state know the exact count of arms and ammunitions, and so the government is it easily catch the militants, the Kukis say.
On being pressed further, members of the Kuki community our team met say even if some of the militant groups are indulging in unlawful activities, it is the job of the government to catch them and jail them, and to see to it that is not the entire community bears the brunt and suffers violent attacks.
Mangthang Hokip, a 35-year-old Kuki farmer in a relief camp, claimed that the state police commandos are ‘covering’ the Meitei men, letting them fire at the common Kuki people, and are burning and destroying their houses. “The state police has turned into a mob for us,” he said, while living in a relief camp. He, like many other Kukis, also alleged that a private militia group of Meiteis, Arambai Tenggol, had their men and women.
The Kukis say since they have absolutely zero hopes from the state government, now they will only settle for a separate administration for the tribals. All Kuki men and women unequivocally say this. Many Kuki volunteer organisations have now put up posters and banners on the national highway reflecting this demand.
“Our emotional separation is complete. What we, the tribals, now want is an administrative separation from the state of Manipur,” said a Kuki person who didn’t want to reveal his identity, fearing that he may later be victimised. A church pastor, Zason Samuen, said more than 200 churches have been burnt across the state till yesterday.
Both sides showed many video recordings to The Wire team alleging that one or the other agency of the government was supporting the other side in perpetrating the violence. The Wire could not independently verify any of those videos.
The district hospital at Churachandpur continued to receive victims of clashes on Sunday. Jangkhogin, a 35-year-old man, arrived after surviving a bomb blast as he was on the front line, trying to save his home on Sunday. He was out of danger but an X-ray film showed that four bomb blast particles were inside his body, which would now require surgical removal. He had come from Sugnu village of Churachandpur, he told The Wire.
Another victim, Paukhansiam, a 22-year-old man, arrived from a village in the same district with a bullet injury in his leg in the afternoon. The doctors in the hospital said that they were facing a shortage of even essential drugs at movements were restricted, and even the routine healthcare of the patients at the hospital was getting impacted.
Meanwhile, over the last two days when The Wire, team has been in the area, one could see pitched gun battles starting in villages from late noon or evening. Many times, the sounds of the shots could be heard even while travelling on highways. One of the Central security agencies’ jawans told The Wire that they can’t fire in retaliation unless they get very specific orders. Till late midnight, such battles continued. On Sunday, even in Imphal, the sound of gunshots could be heard coming from the neighbouring villages.
Long queues outside petrol pumps were common sights in all areas The Wire‘s team visited. People would queue up from the early morning or even the preceding night, hoping to get fuel the next day. The curfew continues to remain in force. The roads are empty and shops are completely shut. Even the state capital is facing a shortage of supply of essential daily items. The ATMs have dried up; people are scared to go out even when the curfew is relaxed for few hours.
While both Meiteis and Kukis are unhappy with the media and openly call it biased, it must be mentioned here that many local newspapers and TV channel based in Imphal are carrying stories of Meitei houses being burnt and them being killed or displaced. But there is hardly anything about the violence suffered by members belonging to the Kuki tribe who are also in the line of fire. Among the Kukis especially, we found near complete distrust of the media. They allege that the state and large parts of the national media is toeing the line of the state government and labelling all of them as ‘militants’.