CURFEW HOURS WERE drawing near as I drove out of the Imphal airport on May 25. Outside, youngsters rode bicycles, women walked the pavements, and people chatted in shops.
I headed to Bishnupur, around 30km south of Imphal. It was here that groups affiliated to the Meitei community first formed a human chain in February demanding to be included in the scheduled tribes list. The issue escalated in April, after the Manipur High Court directed the state government to send a recommendation to the Centre favouring the protesters. Ethnic clashes soon erupted between the Meiteis in the valley and the Kuki tribals in the surrounding hills. More than 70 people across Manipur died in clashes that started on May 3, forcing the government to impose curfew and issue shoot-at-sight orders in violent pockets.
By the time I reached Bishnupur, dusk had fallen. An Army contingent was stopped by a human chain of Meitei women. “You come here and kill our people?” shouted the women, most of them elderly. “You side with Kuki terrorists—you have no rights to stay here.”
A junior commissioned officer in the contingent greeted them with folded hands. “No harsh responses, please,” he told his colleagues. “The protesters are just desperate.”
The JCO told the women, and the men behind the human chain, that they had come to save people of all ethnicities. Many Meiteis in Bishnupur district were caught in conflict zones, he said, and the troops were trying to rescue them. “We need to save the Kukis as well,” said the JCO. “But we are not siding with them.”
The contingent was held up for more than 30 minutes before it was finally allowed to pass. Apparently, it was part of the brigade that had been deployed in the district to prevent further Kuki-Meitei clashes.
The Meitei community is mainly a conglomeration of tribal groups who trace their roots to Bangladesh and Myanmar. From the early 20th century, Meiteis started embracing Vaishnavite traditions and worshipping Hindu gods. The community shares a common spoken language (Manipuri), but differences exist in the scripts used by various Meitei sects. The official script is Bengali-Assamese.
Meiteis make up 59 per cent of the population in Manipur, but they occupy only 30 per cent of the state’s territory. Kukis and other hill tribes—such as the Nagas, the Koms, the Paites and the Hmars—occupy the rest.
The Kukis have roots in Chin State in western Myanmar. The community has significant presence in Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya, and northern Bangladesh. It also has links with underground armed groups such as the Kuki National Army, the Kuki Independent Army, and the Kuki National Front. Rivalling them are as many as 32 Meitei groups, which have ties with such separatist outfits as the United Liberation Front of Asom and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland.
Religious zeal has escalated tensions. “In recent years, a good number of Meiteis have converted to Christianity. This gave birth to a radical Hindu Meitei group as radical as the [Christian] Kukis,” said Rev S.R. Onisema, chairman of the Manipur Baptist Convention.
It was in this volatile background that the ethnic clashes erupted. The Kukis in the hills allege that the Meiteis in the valley tried to carry out “ethnic cleansing”. The Meiteis accuse the Kukis of profiting from the illegal drug trade and engaging in militant separatism.
“Time has come to take action against Kuki militants,” Chief Minister N. Biren Singh told THE WEEK. “Manipur has become a base for the golden triangle.” The golden triangle is an opium-producing region between the borders of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. According to Singh, a significant number of drug traffickers arrested by the police in the past five years belong to the Kuki-Chin community from Myanmar. “The number of arrested Kukis is 873, while Muslims and other tribes are 1,083.”
According to Singh, the Kuki-Chins are the leading poppy cultivators in the state. They grow poppy in 13,121 acres, while the Nagas only cultivate 2,340 acres.
The current cycle of violence began in Churachandpur district, where Kuki militants allegedly terrorised the Meitei community and engaged in arson, loot and murder. The state government soon imposed curfew, suspended the internet and called in the Army and the Assam Rifles. Even as Army personnel and paramilitary forces began carefully implementing a bloodless crackdown, the police shot dead 40 Kuki militants in an alleged encounter.
The Kukis insist that they did not initiate the Churachandpur violence. “To destroy poppy, the state government created a private army of BJP youth leaders,” said Nongmindun Haokip, a Kuki Students Union leader in Bishnupur. “In the name of a ‘Clean Manipur’ drive, they attacked our men and women in Churachandpur.”
Nongmindun said the Kuki community did not support poppy cultivation. “But the way the private army of the chief minister tortured our men, it changed everything,” he said.
Kuki villagers say the Kumaon Regiment, which has been deployed in the hills, has created an unofficial border separating the valley. “We are guarding our village at night with arms—all of them licensed,” said James Haokip, deputy chief of a village in Bishnupur.
According to the Army, thousands of villagers in the hills of Bishnupur and Imphal West districts had gathered to take out a “peace march” on May 3. The Meiteis in the foothills, meanwhile, allegedly hit the streets carrying sticks, edged weapons and petrol cans. Their Kuki neighbours were allegedly forced to leave their homes after they were assaulted. Both Kukis and Meiteis say distress calls to the police went unanswered.
“The houses were pulled down in minutes, and churches vandalised,” said an officer of the Kumaon Regiment. “There were explosions inside the church at New Keithelmanbi village [in Imphal West]. The tin roof of the church was blown away.”
The death toll would have risen drastically had the Army not intervened. After the Kukis living in the valley were driven to the hills, they began leveraging their strategic advantage. Gunfire has forced thousands of Meiteis to flee their valley homes and take refuge in relief camps. With Kuki farmers refusing to come down to the valley, the sowing season in Manipur has been lost.
Around 4,500 houses have been destroyed, and an estimated 30,000 people are homeless. When Union Home Minister Amit Shah visited Churachandpur on May 29, he was reportedly stunned. “The home minister was shaken and speechless when he saw the houses that were pulled down,” said a joint secretary in the state home department.
Onisema of the Manipur Baptist Convention said the state government would find it tough to douse the fire as it had lost credibility. “There was mob rule for 48 hours. There was loot, rampage, arson, killing, torching of houses and churches and crimes against women. It was not expected from an elected government,” he said.
Both the communities are in no mood to extend an olive branch. “We want to tell the Meiteis that the war has just begun,” said Haokip. “We want peace, but under no circumstances will we stay with the Meiteis anymore. We demand Kukiland. If it is not possible now, the state has to be under President’s rule.”
Biren Singh has his task cut out—bring peace at any cost, or step down as chief minister. The Union government, too, is aware of the national security concerns that arise out of the unrest in a state that shares an international border.
“The law and order situation in Manipur is serious and will take time to control,” said Chief of Defence Staff Gen Anil Chauhan. “The Indian Army and the Assam Rifles are doing their job.”