Manipur: Meiteis feel alienated, Kukis demand separation

Tribal violence in the northeastern Indian state of Manipur has flared up again after a brief hiatus. The divide and mistrust between the majority and minority communities are deepening

Manipur: Meiteis feel alienated, Kukis demand separation (Photo: DW)
Manipur: Meiteis feel alienated, Kukis demand separation (Photo: DW)


The streets of Imphal bear traces of the ethnic violence Manipur, a state in northeastern India, has seen in the past month.

In the Uripok locality of the state capital, the air reeks of burnt tires. There are two burnt jeeps on the road. The groups of people standing alongside only add to the palpable tension in the air.

Uripok, like most of Imphal, largely comprises of Meiteis, the majority community in the state. The Meitei, who are predominantly Hindu, live mostly in and around the capital city.

The mainly Christian Kuki and Naga tribes, however, inhabit the surrounding hills.

How did the violence begin?

The events in Manipur were set in motion after the High Court directed the state government in April to consider the same affirmative action for the majority Meiteis as given to the minority tribes.

A peace rally organized by the hill tribes on May 3 served as the turning point, as violence broke out soon after with both sides blaming each other for the turmoil that left almost 100 people dead, 300 injured and thousands homeless.

After a brief hiatus, the violence has resurfaced.

The complexity of the conflict is highlighted by the fact that everyone has a different understanding of its origin.

"This is not a Kuki–Meitei, nor a Hindu–Christian clash, but rather a fight against narco-terrorism," Indiver Saikhomcha, a Uripok resident, told DW. "The Kuki militants from Burma (Myanmar) are engaging in poppy cultivation. Now they are demanding a separate administration so that their drug plantation can go unchecked."

Security forces on high alert

In Torbung, 50 kilometers (80 miles) from Imphal, Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel have been standing guard all night. Their patrol passes some burnt houses and destroyed vehicles — remnants of the initial violence. The houses are empty now, their inhabitants — once a mix of Meiteis and Kukis — long having fled.

The violence still hasn't abated. "There has been constant firing overnight for the past few days. Every time we feel there is a lull, the firing starts," one CRPF official says.

The unrest is also affecting the state economically: aside from the month-long internet shutdown, it is impacting supply routes. "There have been reports of trucks bringing supplies being burnt in Kangpokpi, which is a Kuki-dominated area. So, the goods coming in have to be diverted," Saikhomcha says.

In defense of their homes

A few kilometers ahead lies the Meitei village of Tronglaobi. Here, men are gathered in makeshift bunkers. They are keeping a watch across the fields, where they say Kukis from the neighboring villages came down and torched their houses. There has also been sporadic firing from that side.

There are 30 of them keeping a watch around the clock since May 3. They carry single- and double-barrel guns that look ancient. "We are here only for our defense. Our guns are no match for their sophisticated weapons," says Virjeet, a Tronglaobi resident. "But we have to do what we can to defend our homes."

Virjeet and his fellow villagers are clear about their demands. They want a revocation of the suspension of operations against Kuki militants, which has enabled the violence, the villagers say.

According to the agreement, Kuki militant groups were to maintain cease-fire and remain within designated camps to be monitored by security forces. The Meitei allege that Kuki militants have violated the agreement.

The Manipur government had already withdrawn from the tripartite agreement with the federal government in New Delhi and Kuki insurgent groups earlier this year.

Meiteis are also demanding the implementation of the controversial National Register of Citizens. Currently on hold, it was meant to be a register to check the illegal migration of foreigners into India. They feel this is the only way to keep in check the flow of Kukis crossing over to India from Myanmar.

Distrust of government and security forces

The women of Tronglaobi are standing guard on the highway. The children and the elderly of the village have been sent to a school building nearby, which is also serving as a relief camp for the displaced.

"We are here to stop the Assam Rifles (a government-controlled paramilitary force) from coming into our villages," says Reena Devi. "We are scared they would stop our menfolk from defending our villages from the Kukis."

Meiteis have a deep-rooted distrust of the central security forces. "The Indian Army and central forces have been mere spectators when Meiteis are attacked. Meiteis feel safe with the state police," a Uripok resident said earlier as a crowd cheered when a state police convoy passed through.

In Iroisemba, a young woman who was part of the Apunba Meira Paibi (a women's movement) says, "The government forces are on the side of the Kukis. We are just demanding that both sides be treated equally." She also questions the narrative of how the violence started. "The Kukis say they did not start the violence, but then who brings AK47s (assault rifles) to a peace rally?"

The violence that has torn the communities apart also has the Meitiei questioning their state government, which, they feel, has left them to fend for themselves. "We want justice from the government," says Kalpana. "Tell us, are Meiteis citizens of the country or not?"

Kukis demand political separation

In the hills of Churachandpur, a new movement is taking root. Across the district, its name is being removed from signs and replaced with "Lamka." The people here, predominantly Kukis and other hill tribes, say they no longer want to associate with the Meitei king Churachand Singh, after whom the place is named, and are reverting to the original name.

This is but a sign of the deepening divide between the Kukis and Meiteis. The sentiment is clear: there is no going back.

Scenes from a relief camp

The Don Bosco High School in Salem Veng, Churachandpur, is serving as a makeshift relief camp. Mercy is a volunteer working at the camp. In 2001, she had to leave Imphal and move to Churachandpur, 60 kilometers away, with her father following violence in the state then. "An IDP (internally displaced person) now looking after other IDPs," she says with a smile.

According to their data, in the district, there are 63 IDP camps, housing 91 pregnant women and 1,835 children, among others. "Some of their experiences are so gruesome, we suffer from second-hand trauma," she says. "We are not prepared for this, but we have to do this now."

Violence takes a toll

Outside the morgue of Churachandpur Medical College, local Kuki women have gathered to observe the Leng Khawm, a mourning of solidarity for those killed in the violence. Currently, there are 23 crisis-related bodies in the morgue, according to hospital data. Sangmuan says they have no idea about the actual number of Kuki casualties in Imphal because they have no access to the morgue there.

Surgeon Dr Mang Hatzaw says: "The casualty numbers had started to lessen but then have been on the uptick for the past few days."

The hospital is experiencing a shortage of supplies as no provisions are coming through, but the surgeon says that they have managed to procure them from the neighboring state of Mizoram. The Chins of Myanmar and the Mizos of Mizoram are related communities of the Kukis, referred to as Zo collectively.

Last outpost

About 20 kilometers away, somewhere before Moirang, beyond which the Meitei villages lie, there is a Kuki outpost. Don Vaipei and his men call it the last outpost defending Kuki lands. They carry a couple of single-barrel guns and homemade weapons. Vaipei says they had to resort to such weapons to defend themselves against the automatic ones used by the Meitei side.

Vaipei says the main issue is not poppy cultivation but, rather, a political war. The region has been economically and politically neglected, he says.

Kukis point to the Meitei Leepun and Arambai Tenggol as armed and radicalized Meitei organizations targeting the people of the hills with the help of the state police.

"We have to fire guns so that they can hear us in Delhi. Let us live peacefully, but let us remain on our lands," Vaipei says. "This is a war for our survival."

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