Guwahati: With hostilities between the Kuki-Zomi tribal community and the non-tribal Meiteis in Manipur having entered its second month, the death toll and number of injuries over the past few days have increased. In the fringe areas of the state, the violence has reportedly resulted in hundreds of houses being set ablaze and thousands fleeing their homes.
Since the beginning of the conflict last month, over 100 deaths have been reported from across the state, with more than 300 wounded, some grievously.
The situation remains tense in the villages along the foothills of Imphal West and Kangpokpi districts, and in the areas connecting Thoubal and Churachandpur districts. The likelihood of an end to the hostilities seems low.
Speaking to ThePrint Tuesday, Thajalembi Chanu, a resident of Sugnu described the situation over the past few days as “war-like”, saying that people are living in fear and uncertainty.
“We guard our areas at night and are armed with sticks for self-defence. The men stand guard at the borders,” said Chanu.
The situation is made worse by the alleged differences between the paramilitary force of Assam Rifles and the Manipur police commandos, the latter largely comprising Meiteis. The two forces deployed in the foothills have reportedly “exchanged heated arguments” on certain occasions. Differences have cropped up also over the standard operating procedures (SOPs) during combing operations, sources told ThePrint.
The area along Imphal-Kangchup-Tamenglong road is currently being manned by the paramilitary force of Assam Rifles and Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF) besides Indian Reserve Battalion troops of Manipur police.
Meanwhile, security forces have been conducting combing operations in “denotified” areas — from where Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, or AFSPA, had been withdrawn — to “recover snatched weapons and ammunition” in presence of magistrates.
Security Forces launch Joint Combing Operations in Hill & Valley areas across #Manipur to dominate sensitive areas & recover snatched weapons & ammunition. Locals in possession of such weapons being urged to surrender them to the Security Forces for the sake of peace & harmony. pic.twitter.com/SOWJE3004I
— SpearCorps.IndianArmy (@Spearcorps) June 7, 2023
The District Magistrates (DMs) of Tengnoupal, Churachandpur, Pherzawl, Chandel and Kamjong in the hills and Imphal West, Imphal East, Kangpokpi, Kakching, Bishnupur and Jiribam are accompanying the forces in these operations. A tweet by the Indian Army stated 29 weapons, mortar and hand grenades were recovered from the hills and valley areas in combing operations Wednesday.
In the midst of such a charged atmosphere, the larger threat is from disinformation and spread of false or misleading content, said security personnel.
“The Kuki and Meitei villagers in the foothills had agreed to live amicably. But a fear psychosis was built, fuelled by rumours that have led to attacks,” a defence official, who wished to not be named, told ThePrint.
Incidents of violence
Most recently, on the intervening night of 5 and 6 June, firing between security forces and “unidentified group of insurgents” at Serou and Sugnu areas, which fall under the Kakching subdivision of Thoubal district, resulted in the death of one Border Security Force (BSF) personnel and left two Assam Rifles jawans injured. This prompted the deployment of seven columns, five of Assam Rifles and two of BSF in these areas Tuesday.
The situation also remains volatile in the Kangchup foothill range in Imphal West. Earlier, three persons were killed in a gun fight between the two communities Monday at Kangchup village under Lamshang subdivision. Four others injured in the firing were taken to Regional Institute of Medical Sciences (RIMS), Imphal, for treatment.
The same day, firing was reported at K. Songlung and Phayeng villages in the foothills that continued for hours — from around “11 am till 6 pm”, according to sources.
Overlooking the plains of Imphal, Kangchup-Songlung (K. Songlung) is a Kuki village in Manipur’s Kangpokpi district. Phayeng, a Meitei village in Imphal West district, lies at a distance of about a kilometre from K. Songlung.
Over the past few days, houses were burned down in both these areas — K. Songlung and in Kangchuk Chingkhong junction, which falls on the road to Phayeng.
On 4 June, an injured minor and his mother had died in a mob attack near Lamshang in Imphal West, defence sources confirmed to ThePrint. They were travelling in an ambulance from the Assam Rifles camp in Kangchup to Imphal for treatment. Another woman accompanying them also died in the attack.
Defence and civilian sources said the child had suffered “splinter injuries” during “unprovoked firing” at Kangchup area outside the Company Operating Base of Assam Rifles.
“The child, around 8 years old, received basic treatment at our camp. He was healthy and doing fine. A senior Manipur police official came to the camp at around 5:15 pm along with an ambulance, which was then escorted by police when it left for RIMS Imphal. We later came to know that the ambulance was burned down, but what circumstances led to the death of the individuals is not known,” said an officer of the Assam Rifles unit at Kangpokpi.
The victim’s uncle said the child had been hit by a stray bullet inside the camp while intense firing continued outside.
“They had been at the camp for a month. The day the incident took place, the Assam Rifles requested the police for an ambulance. We could hear signals in walkie-talkie sets from the other side — voices saying that an ambulance is on its way to Imphal…. The mob missed the vehicle at different points along the route — at Phayeng, Lairenkabi, Heibongpokpi. It even crossed the Lamshang police station, but was stopped at Iroisemba, near the station,” he said.
“We don’t know what exactly happened, but received news that my nephew, his mother and a neighbour accompanying them died in the attack. We don’t know where their bodies are,” he added.
Last month, violence was also reported from the state ahead of Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s four-day visit to Manipur from 29 May to 1 June. Starting 27 May, resistance built up in the fringe villages and escalated into incidents of firing and arson.
“On 28 May, past midnight, we heard the sound of bullets and stones being hurled from catapults onto the tin roof. We keep a few things ready in case of an emergency — a few clothes and documents. We left home to seek shelter at a neighbour’s house,” said Thajalembi Chanu, a resident of Sugnu.
“In the wee hours (of 28 May), we could see smoke from a burned vehicle. Soon, the houses were engulfed in flames. The firing continued till the morning hours. As of now, we are taking shelter at a public relief camp at a nearby village. No help has been received from the state government. Only neighbours are helping each other,” she added.
Armed & not backing down
The village defence parties (VDP) — formed in the 1990s to arm villagers with basic licensed weapons against any intervention by insurgent groups and during ethnic conflicts — have been on alert since clashes first broke out on 3 May in the hills and valley areas.
However, allegations have been levelled on both Kuki and Meitei civilian forces, including the VDP, of using unauthorised weapons in the spate of the recent violence.
Since 3 May, more than 4,000 weapons and lakhs of ammunition were reportedly looted from the state government armories. The government has made several requests for people to surrender seized weapons. Till 7 June, 868 weapons had been recovered with searches being carried out for the rest.
However, the Coordinating Committee on Manipur Integrity (COCOMI), a conglomerate of valley-based civil society organisations, Wednesday announced its resolution to “not allow military operations by security forces in the valley areas”.
Thousands attended the COCOMI convention at the Iboyaima Shumang Leela Shanglen auditorium in Imphal Wednesday, where it was also resolved that they will “not surrender arms” until the government reins in and disarms “Kuki terrorists waging a war in the foothills”.
Chief Minister N. Biren Singh, while speaking to the media last month, had branded the armed Kukis as “terrorists”, adding that as many as “33 Kuki terrorists” have been killed in offensives, and were found to be using guns against the civilian population.
During his visit, Amit Shah, too, had asked people to surrender the illegal weapons or be prepared for strict action once combing operations begin. He also had a warning for Kuki armed insurgents under Suspension of Operations (SoO), stating “any violation of SoO in any form will not be tolerated.”
(Edited by Zinnia Ray Chaudhuri)
Source: The Print