Armed youth take matters into own hands in strife-torn Manipur

In village after village, armed volunteers have formed groups to protect communities amidst the ongoing Meitei-Kuki conflict

 A 'village volunteer' stands guard at a bunker in conflict-hit Manipur (photo: PTI)
A 'village volunteer' stands guard at a bunker in conflict-hit Manipur (photo: PTI)


Every day in shifts, morning and night, a group of armed youngsters patrol roads around Manipur's Kotruk village. Their objective: to keep residents safe from the warring factions of the Meitei and Kuki, two communities that have been in conflict over the past year.

The youngsters, mostly in their late 20s and early 30s, identify themselves as volunteers and say they have taken up the responsibility to keep their own safe as security forces "could not do enough to protect us".

Kotruk in Imphal Valley is one of many villages in the state being 'protected' by groups which identify themselves as 'village volunteers', 'village volunteer force', 'village defence force' and 'village protection force'.

These groups, officials say, are not associated with any security agency or armed forces. Trained in basic combat tactics, the village forces have vowed to keep their areas safe from the ethnic violence that has left hundreds dead and many thousands injured and displaced.

Their presence in villages in the valley and Churachandpur in the hills cannot be missed. They are in uniform and can be spotted manning bunkers made of sandbags or patrolling with weapons, including sticks, batons and rifles — some country-made, some stolen or smuggled.

Patrolling duties are assigned through a roster system. Each shift lasts between six and seven hours, with small groups of five to six sent out to keep watch on highways, village roads and narrow pathways that pass through hills and dense forests.

"Clearly our (security) forces could not do enough to protect us. Now, we know that they cannot be trusted with the task of ensuring our safety. So, we had to do it ourselves, and decided to take up the task according to our calibre and capacity... we were forced to take matters into our own hands," a village volunteer told PTI on condition of anonymity.

The volunteers operate independently of security agencies and are trained in basic combat (photo: PTI)
The volunteers operate independently of security agencies and are trained in basic combat (photo: PTI)

Though patrolling is effective, drones allow teams to keep vigil over a wider area, he said. "Earlier, we were operating drones, but now jammers have been installed by the Central forces, so we cannot assess the situation that way," he said.

The PTI reporter visited a camp of these volunteers, most of whom earned their living from farming. There are also those who have left their jobs or studies for the security of their villages. They showed this reporter the bullet holes on walls of houses and measures in place to nullify threats.

As some volunteers prepared for morning patrol, others, including women from displaced families that now reside in relief camps, attended to daily tasks, including cooking.

Recalling an incident of violence, another volunteer said, "We were having dinner when bullets started raining from above (hills)... we could hear it and thought we were safe inside. But a bullet pierced through our wall... luckily my father escaped it. The next morning, we decided to send women, the elderly and children to relief camps in the valley, and set up bunkers."

On their training, another village volunteer said, "It varied from 20 days to up to two months, including basic NCC skills. Some training in country-made weapons too." He refused to comment on who trained them.

Local officials maintain caution, allowing their activities as long as they "remain peaceful".

"We do recognise their presence...we do not object unless they appear with weapons in front of security forces or government officials because then we are bound to ask for a (firearm) licence and take action under the Arms Act. As long as they are guarding peacefully, we do not interfere," an official said, requesting anonymity.

A volunteer's primary task is to patrol the roads and look out for signs of violence or intrusion (photo: PTI)
A volunteer's primary task is to patrol the roads and look out for signs of violence or intrusion (photo: PTI)

Areas in the hills and the valley have been marked following the ethnic violence — some locals describe it as "new borders". And keeping vigil on these borders are these volunteers, who screen passing vehicles and occasionally frisk people to prevent "unwanted intrusions".

Be it at the border between Bishnupur and Churachandpur, or Imphal West and Kangpokpi, the situation remains precarious, with checkpoints resembling those at boundaries between hostile nations. These volunteers, numbering more than 50,000 in Meitei-dominated regions and more in Kuki areas, operate under commanders.

Kuki and Meitei cannot travel between the hills and the valley. Others, such as Nagas and Muslims, can move between the regions, provided they pass certain checks. They are given an escort from border checkpoints.

This PTI reporter, who travelled to Churachandpur earlier this month, was stopped at four of these checkpoints. She was asked several questions, including where she was going, who she was meeting, and whether the person she was meeting was a government official or civil society group leader.

"We stop every vehicle and ask for their ID. We maintain a register of who is visiting and for what purpose. We keep vigil to ensure that no Meitei gets to enter the hills. Meitei volunteers do the same," a volunteer at the Bishnupur checkpoint said.

The region remains on edge, with even a small incident such as sporadic clashes between volunteer groups capable of tipping it over. More so as security agencies are yet to recover all the firearms looted during the violence last year, which left over 200 dead and displaced 60,000 people.

Reported by Gunjan Sharma

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