A day ahead of Union Home Minister Amit Shah's scheduled visit to violence-hit Manipur, fresh clashes erupted across several districts of the state, with sporadic incidents of shooting and arson being reported.
On May 28, clashes were reported from several areas in Manipur including at Sugnu in Kakching, Kangvi in Churachandpur, Kangchup in Imphal West, Sagolmang in Imphal East, Nungoipokpi in Bishenpur, Khurkhul in Imphal West and YKPI in Kangpokpi, as per sources. Addressing the media in the aftermath of the violence, Chief Minister Biren Singh said that the clashes were not between two communities but between security forces and “Kuki militants”. He added that “40 armed militants" involved in torching houses and firing at civilians have been killed by security forces since they began a “de-arming” operation to bring peace to the northeastern state beset by ethnic rioting.
The chief minister reiterated that the latest round of “conflict is not between communities but between militants and security forces”. Separately, police officials said on Sunday that at least two persons were killed and 12 injured in different instances of firing upon civilians and clashes between militants and security forces since the early hours of the day.
At Phayeng in Imphal West district, one person died and another sustained bullet injuries after being fired at by suspected militants, police officials said. Sources claim that four minors were injured in the clashes between villagers and armed security personnel in Gothol village in Churachandpur, and one of them succumbed to injuries on the spot.
The latest clashes began after the army and para-military forces commenced combing operations to de-arm communities in order to bring peace, officials said. Singh also said that there had been cases of armed militants firing at civilians with AK-47s, M-16 and sniper rifles. These militants were targeted by security forces in counter-attacks.
Activist and apex Kuki civil body Manipur Kuki Innpi spokesperson Thangminlen Kipgen tells Outlook that seven people from the Kuki side were killed in the clashes on Sunday, May 28. “It’s confusing what the CM means when he says “40 terrorists”, he adds. “The people killed were all village guard volunteers who were armed with licensed guns. There are no militants here,” he states.
He also states that in the CM’s news clipping, he showed images of terrorists with M16s and AK-47s. “But in the photo, you can only see licensed guns. Similarly, it’s a false report that 40 terrorists were killed,” says Kipgen.
Kipgen adds that since the violence on May 3 and the ensuing week, incidents of firing, and violence have been reported from both sides, especially in the border areas. “These attacks take place at night. We are not sure who these people are but they come with sophisticated, automatic weapons. All our border areas are now sealed by our own village guard volunteers. We have requested everyone with licensed guns to lend it to us so that we can maintain peace in the border areas,” Kipgen states.
Meanwhile, Churachandpur, the epicentre of the violence that broke out on May 3, remains tense. DJ Haokip, General Secretary of the Kuki Students’ Organisation and Churachandpur resident states that villagers are living in constant fear of attacks and clashes. Haokip claims that on Sunday, several armed security personnel arrived in the Churachandpur district along with unidentifiable armed men, and attacked villages. “Several Kuki villages have been burnt down on Sunday. The armed forces in uniform came in the night with members of Arambai Tenggol and Meitei Lipul,” Haokip alleges.
Haokip also alleges that in the name of “de-arming” and combing operations by the armed forces, innocent Kuki village guards armed with licensed “kartoos” were being picked up. “Today morning (Monday) some village guards from the Churachandpur area were picked up by paramilitary forces. We are not sure why,” he adds.
Starting May 3, Manipur was engulfed by ethnic clashes between the Meitei and Kuki communities. It all seemingly started during the tribal solidarity march being led by several Kuki organisations against the Meitei demand for Scheduled Tribe (ST) status turned violent in Churachandpur and spread to other parts, killing at least 71 people and displacing nearly 50,000 including women, children and elderly. Many from both Kuki and Meitei sides blamed the government for the spread of violence. “The government could have stopped the violence if it had taken action at the right time,” Manipuri anthropologist, lawyer, and director of Human Rights Alert Babloo Loitongbam told Outlook in Delhi.
“The matter is more complex than just an ethnic clash between two communities. It’s a clash backed up by armed groups with basic military training and organisation” he adds.
There are at least 30 known Kuki militant groups of which 25 are under the tripartite Suspension of Operations (SoO) agreement with the Government of India and state government of Manipur. According to the Biren Singh government, the protest rally which was organised amid Section 144 in Churachandpur on May 3 and turned violent was influenced by the two groups under SoO, namely Kuki National Army (KNA) and Zomi Revolutionary Army (ZRA). Meanwhile, there were also reports of several such designated SoO camps being looted for arms and weapons.
Meanwhile, several activists from the Meitei, as well as Kuki communities, have blamed new-found Meitei groups like Aramabi Tenggol and Meitei Leepun for the violence. “These groups have been carrying on hate campaigns at the ground level for some years,” states Kuki Innpi and Congress member L Haokip of Kangpokpi. “They wear black shirts and mobilise indigenous Meitei and Hindu nationalism. Many of these members have photos with Manipur government officials,” he adds.
Speaking with Outlook, Independent Manipur MLA Haokholet Kipgen from Saitu states that the state government is totally against the Kukis. “I have myself supported BJP in the past. But the government is targeting Kukis, even though many Kukis supported BJP,” he says.
He along with nine other Kuki MLAs have pushed for separate administration demand for the hill districts of Manipur. “Kuki government officials, professionals, even police officers cannot enter Imphal and there are no offices elsewhere. How can we carry on governance like this?” he states. Meanwhile, Amit Shah, who is expected to visit the violence-struck districts of Manipur today, has previously assured Biren Singh that “Manipuri integrity” will be maintained.
During his visit, Shah is expected to take stock of the situation and resolve the ethnic crisis. He is likely to meet with representatives of both communities and has been urging them to maintain peace and harmony.
Meanwhile, anger continued to be mounted at the centre with the Congress launching a scathing attack on Prime Minister Narendra Modi over the recent violence, saying a horrific tragedy is unfolding there while the PM is obsessed about his "self-coronation".
A delegation led by Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge will be calling on President Droupadi Murmu on Tuesday morning regarding the situation in the state, according to party general secretary Jairam Ramesh.
The violent clashes in the region were also recently referred to in a statement issued by the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk as he gave a speech marking 75 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN initiative ‘Human Rights 75’.
In his statement, Turk said, “In a number of situations, we see the consequences when different groups incite and stoke hatred and division between communities. The recent violence in Manipur, Northeast India, revealed the underlying tensions between different ethnic and indigenous groups. I urge the authorities to respond to the situation quickly, including by investigating and addressing root causes of the violence in line with their international human rights obligations."
Turk referred to Manipur in tandem with other violations of human rights of the Rohingya in Myanmar, Sudan, the killing of George Floyd, violations of LGBTQ rights, racial abuse faced by Real Madrid football player Vinícius Júnior in Spain, sentences against human rights defenders in China and misogyny by the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The violence-hit region has so far seen internet shutdowns, extended periods of curfew and deployment of Indian army and paramilitary forces to prevent further escalation of violence.