The 16-day-old baby girl of Zamkholal Lhungdim cries incessantly inside a damp house in Churachandpur. Her mother, Lhingneikim, comforts her, but it provides little relief to the girl. “She hasn’t stopped crying since the day we watched her father and uncle being lynched by a mob,” she says.
On May 3, when ethnic violence broke out between the Meitei and Kuki communities in Churachandpur district of Manipur and spread across districts like wildfire, Lhingneikim was getting discharged from the hospital. She had just delivered a baby on May 1 and her entire family, including her mother, brother and mother-in-law, had come from Churachandpur to Imphal, where she stayed with her husband in Khongsai Veng.
“We heard that in Churachandpur, the Kukis burnt Meitei villages after the Meiteis attacked the Kukis. It was very confusing and we knew something ominous was about to happen,” she recalls.
On May 4, armed mobs invaded Khongsai Veng and started raiding and setting fire to churches, schools and the homes. “We don’t know who they were. But they were beating everyone. My husband and brother tried to defend the elderly and the women. That’s why they got beaten up first,” she says. Lhingneikim and her mother in-law managed to escape.
Khailum Khongsai, a pastor of Khongsai Veng Christian Church, who is currently at a relief camp in Kangpokpi district, confirms the chain of events. He narrates how about 2,000-3,000 people came to Khongsai Veng to attack the residents on May 3. “We locked the gates. So they came back the next day with JCBs and broke the gate. Three of my church members were killed. Two were lynched and one was shot by a sniper,” he adds. The pastor remains in disbelief that something like this could happen in Imphal—the church is close to CM Biren Singh’s bungalow.
Some 30 km away in Sekmai’s Khurai Sajor Leikai Relief Camp, run by the Meitei community on the outskirts of Imphal, Kamala recalls fleeing from her home in Churachandpur’s Chug Tampa Meitei Leikai. “They came like a volcano down the hills. They were armed and beat up many of us. We had no time to even pack our things,” she recalls with horror.
With three small children, Kamala hid in the forest until some personnel from the Assam Rifles came and rescued them. Kamala says the rioters looted everything in her house and set it on fire. She does not know whether her relatives are dead or alive. And she too, like Haotinkhup Simte—a police personnel from Senapati district’s Singda Kuki village—has just one question. “Where was the government? Where were the security forces? Why were we left on our own like orphans?” she wails. Similar stories echo all across the hallways of schools, churches and community centres in Manipur that have been turned into temporary shelters for the thousands displaced by violence.
Starting May 3, Manipur was engulfed by ethnic clashes between the Meitei and Kuki communities. Apparently, it all started during a tribal solidarity march against the Meitei community’s demand for Scheduled Tribe (ST) status when rumours of Meiteis allegedly vandalising and setting fire to an ‘Anglo Kuki war memorial’ in the Kuki-dominated Churachandpur started doing the rounds. The Meiteis claim that the riots were ignited after the Kukis started attacking and burning the nearby Meitei villages as well as residents living in the mixed population villages in the border area between Churachandpur and Bishnupur, which is Meitei-dominated.
The official records say 71 people were killed—41 deaths were due to violence while rest were due to other causes, including drug overdose. The exact number of casualties from each community has not been revealed to avoid exacerbating communal tensions. At least 35,000 people from across the state, including Kukis and Meiteis, have been displaced due to the violence and fires that consumed village after village. Several schools, churches, temples, homes, even police stations have been burnt to ashes.
“No one is sure what happened that day. But once the violence started, it was uncontrollable,” says scholar Helun Touthang. A Kuki, he had been pursuing his PhD in political science at Manipur University and was in the hostel library when mobs started gathering at the gates of the university.
“There are reports that the mobs searched for Kuki students inside hostels. We had to hide in drains and wait for help,” he says. At present, he too has taken refuge in Kanpokpi. His own village was burnt down. “The mobs burnt the books and properties of many of the Kuki students living in hostels. It was quite a systematic attack,” he adds.
Land Protection, ‘War on Drugs’
With its demographic diversity, Manipur presents a complex mix of indigenous, religious, and tribal identities that are simultaneously complementary and at odds with each other. The Meiteis, who form the influential majority and account for nearly 60 per cent of the population, live in the Imphal Valley region that constitutes about 10 per cent of Manipur. The valley is surrounded on all sides by lush hills that make up the rest of the 90 per cent of the state. This region is home to tribals—mainly Kukis and Nagas of Manipur. But it isn’t just them. Around 35 tribal communities live in Manipur.
D. J. Haokip, a resident of Churachandpur and General Secretary of the Kuki Student Organisation (KSO), one of the organisers of the solidarity march where the violence reportedly began, states that the march was held to show the tribals’ resentment against the incumbent government and the Meiteis’ ST demand.
“The tribals in Manipur are safeguarded by Article 371C of the Indian Constitution and land is the very basis for tribal identity. Without land, there is no existence for tribals. The violence that took place is the culmination of anger against the government and now the Metei communities’ repeated attempts to grab our tribal land,” says Haokip.
The Kuki student body leader alleges that the government has been meting out step-motherly treatment toward the tribals and had for long been indulging in a hate campaign against the Kukis, who have been facing a series of evictions for various reasons.
“First, there is the arbitrary and illegal notification of tribal lands as reserved or protected forests under FRA (Forest Rights Act). Then, there is eviction of Kukis from their land in the name of 'war on drugs'. And now, the Meitei are claiming our tribal land. It’s all aimed to displace Kukis from their own lands, which our ancestors fought to defend,” he adds.
Experts, however, believe that the current context of the ST demand is only the trigger, not the origin of the conflict. Instead, it is the culmination of a long history of marginalisation, discrimination and ‘othering’ faced by the Kukis at the hands of the politically and economically stronger Meiteis.
People from the valley mainly practice settled agriculture while the Kukis practice shifting agriculture (slash and burn method). Settled agriculture creates surplus which is essential for starting the process of state formation, says Imphal-based senior journalist Pradip Phanjouban. If you have surplus, you have people who are not necessitated to work in paddy fields and can focus on other aspects of economics and polity. It also gives rise to a class of urban professionals. But in the hills, that isn’t the case.
Another important factor is the land ownership pattern among the Kukis. The chief of every Kuki village owns everything in that village, and the chief can technically throw people out of his village. So the villagers are at the mercy of the chiefs. This results in many villagers dispersing to nearby areas and setting up their own villages. Additionally, if the chief has more than one son, he cannot inherit the chiefship. So they also tend to disperse as well to set up their own villages.
This often puts them in conflict with the neighbouring tribes, especially the Nagas who also inhabit the hill districts.
“This difference in agricultural practices and land ownership patterns continues to be at the heart of the conflict between communities in Manipur today. Essentially, it’s a fight over custody of land, the most important resource in hill states,” Phanjouban adds.
Such conflicts flare up in response to government policies and narratives that tend to target minorities and tribals.
“That sense of being targeted is quite strong among the Kukis because the new policies—be it eviction from forests under FRA or the fight against poppy plantations—that mainly affects the Kukis. They may not be implemented with a sense to antagonise Kukis, but they nevertheless do because they are always at the centre of those controversies,” Phanjoubam states.
In February, the BJP government started a drive to evict tribals from reserved forest lands. One of the first villages to get evicted in the Churachandpur area was K Songjang.
“Sixteen households were evicted, including mine. We have not been given any alternate place to settle,” says Gracy, a member of the Indigenous Tribal Leaders’ Forum (ITLF) and daughter of the village chief. “They call us poppy cultivators, even though the community has been actively advocating against drug use and poppy,” she says.
Gracy and others in the area have been working with the district administration for the Nashamukht Bharat Abhiyan to advocate against poppy cultivation and made six villages in the district “drug free”.
For other dominant communities in Manipur like the Nagas and Pangal Muslims, the violence brings back memories of previous clashes. In 1993, the Nagas and Kukis were involved in a deadly clash that led to over 200 deaths and the displacement of lakhs of people, mostly Kukis, one of the economically weakest communities. Incidentally, it was also the year when the Meiteis clashed with the Pangal Muslims.
Together, the Nagas and Pangal Muslims (a minority in Imphal), have remained neutral, and both communities have reportedly helped save several lives of both Kukis and Meiteis by providing asylum to victims of violence during clashes, often at the cost of their own safety. Both communities, while condemning the violence, have nevertheless maintained their distance from both sides and seem to be keenly watching further developments.
“We Nagas have just one demand and one concern—the Naga solution,” states Naga social and political activist Ashang Kasar from Thangkul village in Kamjong district. “Our peace talks with the Centre have been going on for a while and we don’t want to get involved in the issue between Meiteis and Kukis in Manipur. However, as Manipuri Nagas and tribals, we are with the Kukis in opposing the Meitei demand for ST,” he adds.
Across the minority communities, there is a growing sense of foreboding against a strengthening Meitei nationalism and identity, propagated by new-found groups like Arambai Tenggol and Meitei Lipun. These groups, though relatively recent and non-militant, have been accused by several victims of carrying out violence against Kukis during the clashes.
On the other hand, the known presence of suspended militant organisations dominated by Kukis is a constant source of anxiety to many in the valley. Surrounded on all sides by Kuki dominated hill districts, Imphal has become a landlocked fortress that Meiteis can only access by air. Within just days of the violence, prices for groceries and amenities have shot up and locals worry that a scarcity is impending. There are long queues outside ATMs and hundreds have lost their livelihoods due to the violence. Even those with jobs like Asad have been affected due to the restriction in movement between the hills and the valley.
Division and separation
Amid such divisions, 10 Kuki MLAs have now demanded a separate administration for the hill areas. These include seven who have supported the BJP.
“The Kukis were chased away from Imphal and our MLAs cannot return anymore. How will they take part in state governance? The children who were studying in Imphal because of better schools and colleges cannot go back anymore, neither can IPS or IAS officers,” says Thangminlen Kipgen, spokesperson of Kuki Innpi Manipur, the apex body for Kukis in the state.
“Now, the state police and security forces are dominated by Meiteis. Only the central forces have been helping to protect the Kukis, but even they will do nothing to stop violence if it breaks out again. If we get our own administration, we can get our own police forces to protect us from violence,” he says.
Despite the somewhat peaceful coexistence for decades, the anger and hate between Meiteis and Kukis seems permanent now. However, both communities, including victims of violence, journalists, political observers and activists echoed the same questions: Where was the government? Why did it allow the violence to go on?
“This incident is an institutional failure. Why did the state government not act at the right time?” asks Kasar. The situation started to go bad in April itself—the Kukis were protesting very aggressively and effigies of the CM were burnt. On April 27, a gym that Biren Singh was supposed to inaugurate in Churachandpur was burnt by angry mobs. “We all knew something was about to happen. So why didn’t the government take measures to stop it? Why did they not impose Section 144? Why didn’t they ban the internet to stop the spread of rumours?” asks Kasar.
Amuba, who has been heading a relief camp committee in Moirang in Bishnupur district (bordering Churachandpur) where over 400 displaced Meiteis have taken shelter, says that even after the violence was controlled, the government has remained missing from relief activities. “We have so far received just water from the government. The villages in Moirang are donating money for the upkeep of the refugees,” he says.
What now? Where will the thousands of displaced persons go? For Haotinkhup and Kamala, the answers remain clouded in smoke. When asked about the future, both remain mum. “Our previous life feels like a dream now—all the good memories, our home, the village… there is nothing, but ashes left now,” Haotinkhup laments.
Rakhi Bose in Imphal and Churachandpur
This appeared in print as "Scarred And Displaced"