One year on: Manipur is state divided, people pulled apart

The conflict, which has impacted everyday life in myriad ways, has claimed more than 200 lives and displaced many thousands

Woman making baskets to earn a living at a relief camp in Imphal (photo: PTI)
Woman making baskets to earn a living at a relief camp in Imphal (photo: PTI)


Manipuris can point to the day their homeland became a state divided and society was pulled apart, separating families and neighbours who had lived together for generations and upending thousands of lives. It was exactly a year ago.

3 May, 2023. The date is imprinted on the collective memory of an entire people who mark the day two Manipurs came into being, divided as it were by a virtual line of control. That was the day a 'Tribal Solidarity March' organised in the hill districts to protest against the Meitei community's demand for Scheduled Tribe (ST) status led to ethnic clashes between the Meitei and the Kuki communities.

The conflict, which has impacted everyday life in myriad ways, has claimed more than 200 lives and displaced many thousands.

The three main ethnic groups in the northeast state have historically clustered in different parts of the state's geography - the Meiteis in the valley, the Kukis in the southern hills and the Nagas in the northern hills. But there has never been an absolute, hostile segregation of the communities. Until last May.

Now, the Meiteis population is concentrated in Imphal Valley and the Kukis have shifted to the hills.

Nothing illustrates the state's deep ethnic fault lines better than the bordering areas dividing the plain and hill districts.

Concertina coils, armoured vehicles, armed security personnel, sandbag bunkers... The checkpoints, be it at the border between Bishnupur and Kuki dominated Churachandpur, or Meitei controlled Imphal West and Kuki ‘area’ Kangpokpi, almost resemble boundaries between hostile nations. The conflict has segregated not just civil society but also police personnel and government officials.

"The state has gone back at least by two decades," said an official, echoing what many of his colleagues say.

Police personnel and those from forces belonging to either the Meitei or the Kuki communities are also confined to their respective areas and cannot commute to the other side.

Keeping vigil at these checkpoints are not just the forces but a battery of "village volunteers" mostly in their 20s and early 30s who claim to have taken up arms to ensure their families remain safe.

"There are forces but we do not trust that their presence is enough. If it was enough we would not have seen this situation in the first place. We had to take the issue in our hands to ensure our loved ones don't become part of the government statistics of casualties," a village volunteer on night vigil told PTI on condition of anonymity.

The volunteer left his graduate studies midway last May and sought basic training of using weapons.

Questioned about the gun he was carrying, he responded, "It is a licensed weapon. We refused to surrender it before elections."

While the travel from hills to the Valley and vice-versa is restricted for people from the other community, non Kuki and non Meitei people are able to travel provided they pass certain checks.

For every such check, the outsiders, essentially government officials and press reporters, have to rely on an aide who is either a Naga or a Muslim.

This PTI reporter travelled to Churachandpur and was stopped at four checkpoints. At each, volunteers asked who I was going to meet. Details, copy of the ID and local address were taken down meticulously.

Nagas and Muslims commuting between the two areas are mandated by the volunteers to make a donation, irrespective of the amount.

The continuing tensions have a ripple effect, affecting people in ways big and small.

With facilities in Imphal out of reach, people from Churachandpur have been travelling to Aizawl - a journey of over 12 hours - for a variety of reasons, including medical needs that cannot be met in the Churachandpur district hospital.

The process to catch a flight is similar as the Imphal airport remains out of bound for the Kukis. Groceries for relief camps in Churachandpur are also transported to Churachandpur through the same route.

Students are another casualty.

College students that stayed back in Churachandpur rather than seek a transfer to universities outside the state, an option provided by the University Grants Commission (UGC), have to deposit their answer sheets in sealed envelopes at the district commissioner's office; their fingers crossed their papers will be marked and not get lost.

The DC office in tandem with Assam Rifles sends these envelopes to colleges in the Valley in helicopters.

"All the teachers in the university are Meitei now and they are not marking our answer sheets submitted online giving vague responses. Our batchmates are not sharing notes and we have no way to carry forward our education in the state. The only feasible way out is to go out of the state but I do not want to abandon my family," a law student told PTI on condition of anonymity.

Meiteis, who account for about 53 per cent of Manipur’s population, displaced from the hills and now living in relief camps have their own issues. Their houses no longer exist.

"It takes decades to build a life, a house, livelihood...everything is gone. We just keep getting to know from our previous neighbours who are Nagas that our house is no longer there," said Sim Khang, a Meitei who used to run a transport business in Churachandpur.

While over 4,200 weapons looted from the armouries in the violence-hit state continue to be untraceable, seeing young men with weapons is a common site in the fringe areas.

The state went to polls in two phases for the two Lok Sabha seats -- 19 and 26 April.

Congress nominee from Inner Manipur and JNU professor Bimol Akoijam equated the violence in Manipur to "Rwanda-like ethnic conflict", saying separating Kukis and Meiteis geographically in violence-hit Manipur in the name of safety is against the "very idea" of India.

"The kind of situation we are seeing…we don’t believe that this can happen in a settled democracy like India…," he told PTI.

The BJP nominee from the seat and state law minister Basanta Kumar Singh, said his party does not endorse the segregation and stands for a "United Manipur".

"We as a party and government stand for a united Manipur … there should be no separatism of any kind," Singh told PTI in response to a question about the demands of the Kuki-zo community for a separate administration.

The sitting MP from the area, which voted on 19 April, is BJP’s Rajkumar Ranjan Singh, also a minister of state in the Union government.

According to officials, more than 50,000 people are still living in camps following the unrest.

As politicians chart their agenda, they wait for some semblance of calm and quiet to return to their lives along with thousands of others.

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