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Quo Vadis, Manipur?

Anto Akkara Anto Akkara
05 Jun 2023
“Kukis have left the (Imphal) Valley and Meitei’s have left the Hills.... The separation is complete. There is nothing more to separate,”

Imphal: Hardly any state in India has undergone, in the last decade, the chaos, lawlessness and suffering heaped on the hapless population of Manipur due to the abject failure of the state machinery amid bloody ethnic conflict. Hundreds of charred vehicles, many of them lying on the road, commercial buildings and skeletons of torched houses could be seen as one traveled to Churuchandpur in the south, across Imphal valley and to Kangpopki hill district in the north. 

The unrest in Manipur, as Chief Minister Biren Singh admitted, was “due to security and intelligence lapses of the state government.” He further stated that “the government was ready to take all the blame.”

Amid the worsening situation, Home Minister Amit Shah, during his visit to the state -- four weeks after the bloodshed began -- announced several measures including Rs. 10 lakh ex-gratia for the dependents of those killed. 

But sadly, even as the Home Minister made these assurances and appealed for peace meetings, gun-shots rent the air in Imphal valley and elsewhere. Villages around Sunulu town continued to smolder with smoke billowing from the embers of burnt houses and churches. Priests and nuns have fled for safety amid belligerent Meitei outfits engaging in gun-fights with Assam Rifles soldiers.

According to conservative government estimates, 120 people have been killed during the month-long ethnic conflict. However, leading daily Shillong Times has put the death toll at 160 as on May 10 under the headline “Manipur will never be the same again” cautioning that the toll ‘may rise rapidly’. That raises the question if dependents of all those who perished in the conflict would get the Rs. 10 lakh each promised by the Home Minister and the Rs. 5 lakh assured by the Chief Minister.

Shah skips contentious claims 

Prior to landing in Manipur, the Home Minister made a categorical statement in Guwahati on May 26: The clashes in Manipur was “because of a court judgement… We have to find a way forward through dialogue and peace. Injustice should not be done to anyone…. This is the policy of the Modi government.”

This declaration was a rebuttal of the claim that the BJP government of Manipur made at the Supreme Court on May 17 that “the genesis of ethnic violence in the state was the crackdown on illegal Myanmar migrants, illicit poppy cultivation and drug business in the hills…” Manipur High Court Bar Association told the Chief Justice of India D Y Chandrachud, “Agitation against possible grant of ST status to Meitei community was a ruse and the protest was against the crack down.” This claim had been parroted by dozens of saffron-friendly news outlets and web-portals, setting the saffron narrative on the ethnic conflict on the nation as the internet remained suspended in Manipur. 

However, as the Home Minister hinted, there can be no denial that the Manipur conflagration was triggered by the Tribal Solidarity March of May 3, protesting against the controversial March 27 order of Manipur High Court for inclusion of the majority ethnic group – the Meitei community -- that accounts for over 52 percent of the state’s 3.8 million people in the ST category.

The fact that the Home Minister desisted from endorsing the contentious reasons put forward by the Manipur BJP government displayed political wisdom at a time the bloody conflict has polarized the state on ethnic lines.

However, Biren Singh remained adamant on his government’s claim in the Supreme Court on the eve of Amit Shah’s arrival in Manipur that “the latest clashes were not between rival communities, but between Kuki militants and security forces.”

The Chief of Defence Staff General Anil Chauhan told reporters on May 30 in Pune, “Unfortunately, this particular situation in Manipur has nothing to do with counter-insurgency and is primarily a clash between two ethnicities.” This apparently contradicts the stand of the BJP Chief Minister.

Contradicting the embattled Chief Minister further, Sushant Singh, a former joint director with the Intelligence Bureau, was quoted by The Telegraph that Biren Singh’s comment was “uncalled for and appeared to vilify all Kukis as terrorists.”

“This is nothing but vilifying a community and giving credence to the narrative of the Meiteis who have been calling the Kukis illegal immigrants. This is not expected from a Chief Minister of a state that is burning amid ethnic violence,” reiterated the veteran intelligence officer.

Deep polarization on ethnic lines

“Kukis have left the (Imphal) Valley and Meitei’s have left the Hills.... The separation is complete. There is nothing more to separate,” Wilson Lalam Hangshing, general secretary of the Kuki People’s Alliance, supporting the ruling BJP regime in Manipur, told The Wire in an interview with Karan Thapar.

This reporter noticed several instances of this unprecedented division between the Meiteis and the Kukis. Hundreds of Kuki houses, mansions and businesses had been burnt in Imphal. Similarly, commercial buildings of the Meiteis in downtown Churuchandpur, 70 km south of Imphal, have been razed to ground with bulldozer (while I was trying to document this wanton act, my Canon Digital SLR camera was destroyed).

There were seven women on both sides of the ethnic divide who have been parroting the political stance of their clan. 

I hoped to find graphic details of people’s suffering when a banner headline in a local daily read: “Women market representatives seek Governor's intervention for peace and normalcy in Manipur”. They talked about their travails of lost business amid extended curfews and internet shutdown, paralyzing normal life altogether. The hapless people had no window to share their grievances to the outside world due to internet shut down; hundreds were lamenting about loss of online jobs and students struggled without internet access as they prepared for the Civil Service exam. 

The short supply of essential items and skyrocketing of prices were manifest with petrol being sold at three times of normal price in bottles in front of closed petrol pumps in Imphal. With commodity supplies crippled by the bloody ethnic conflict since May 3, the aam admi were flocking to even church centers pleading for staple food of rice and other items.

The women marketers had ‘greater priorities’ when they met the Governor as manifested in their press statement. According to reports, “the women representatives expressed their opposition to the demand for a separate administration, stating that it goes against the territorial integrity and unity of the people of Manipur. They urged the Governor to implement the National Register of Citizens (NRC) to address the issue of illegal immigrants in the state. Additionally, they requested the Governor to ensure that the Suspension of Operation (SoO) groups remain confined to their designated camps and called for measures to open and lift the economic blockade along the Imphal-Dimapur National Highway, enabling the regular flow of essential commodities.”

On May 22, Kuki women under the banner of ‘Indigenous Women’s Forum’ held a dharna at Kangpopki – a tribal stronghold that is an hour’s drive to the north of Imphal -- with banners: "Why is the central government still silent when our people are killed, raped and our houses and churches burnt?"

They questioned why (Meitei vigilante groups) Arambai Tenggol and Meitei Leepun were not declared outlawed organizations even after a number of government-issued service weapons were confiscated from their possession. “There will be no peace and harmony unless we are separated from the valley people as we have lost faith in this government as well as in our neighbouring Meitei community," reported the ‘People's Chronicle’.

As this reporter travelled to the Kangpopki district, there was a stunning sight at the district border. Less than a hundred metres from the army check post, dozens of Kuki women were stopping and verifying the identity of those in vehicles and checking their baggage being carried into the Kuki area. On return too, the Kuki women cadres were doing it while army personnel stood nearby, looking helpless (Taking photos even with a mobile phone could have landed me in trouble and so, I desisted from any adventure). 

Apart from that, trucks coming in on the Dimapur-Imphal national highway had to wait for days to get the green signal from Kuki cadres manning the mountains to enter the Imphal Valley. 

The local media has elaborated on the vertical divide even among medical staff, government officials and police officers fleeing rival areas for their safety. The government too fanned the flame of ethnic division with senior police officials holding key positions transferred to prevent them from exercising executive power over rival communities.

As if in an exodus, convoys of refugees from both sides were moved to safer areas by the army during the initial days of the conflagration. 

The deep mistrust and fear came to the fore when this reporter requested senior Meitei contacts to take me to relief camps of Meitei refugees shifted to Imphal Valley from the Kuki-dominated hills. But they pleaded helpless: “It will be dangerous for us and also to you, a Christian.”

That explained why a leading daily sent not a Hindu or a Christian but a Muslim correspondent to report on Manipur.

Such an unprecedented situation made the leading Manipur daily ‘The Sangai Express’ come out with an editorial on May 24 cautioning: “The longer the situation is allowed to prolong, (the) greater the chances of pent-up anger exploding and nothing will be more unfortunate than this."

Few reports on arrests

Despite the unprecedented bloodshed in Manipur’s history, conspicuous by absence in the media were reports of arrests of culprits. With the Chief Minister being widely accused of supporting the Meitei vigilante groups, the situation has been deteriorating steadily from the beginning.  

“We do not know what is our future and what to do next as the violence continues and I cannot go back to join my government job,” a government official (pleading anonymity), who fled Imphal with family, told me from a relief camp on Meghalaya border with Assam.

When a Meitei mob attacked their Kuki tribal village near the residence of the Chief Minister itself, he said the Christians ran into the nearby camp. But army officials told them politely, “we have no permission to let you in.” 

Fearing imminent attack by a huge Meitei mob, brandishing deadly weapons, the men among the Kuki families broke the fencing of the army camp and managed get the families in. When the Kuki refugees showed me videos of their houses going up in flames (videos taken from the army camp), I was wondering about the pathetic state of democracy in Manipur.

A PG student who reached Guwahati by air, after fleeing from Manipur university, narrated how two Kuki girl students who decided to hide under the bed of their private hostel room were raped and killed.

Hindutva agenda

‘The Organizer’ -- mouthpiece of the RSS -- came out with a shocking editorial on May 16 alleging that the bloodshed in Manipur was carried out ‘with the support of the churches’. 

The wild allegation was dismissed as ‘baseless’. “Church does not support or organize violence,” asserted Archbishop Dominic Lumon, head of the Catholic church in Manipur.

This outlandish claim can be seen as typical Sangh Parivar strategy of cover-up – to divert attention from the fact that over 300 churches had been torched, desecrated or destroyed across Manipur. 

So, if the Churches are portrayed as the ‘villain’ behind the conflict, the systematically and clinically executed vandalism by the Meitei vigilante groups like Arambai Tenggol and Meitei Leepun could be covered up at least in the vast saffron friendly media. Indeed, ‘Truth is the first casualty in war’, goes the adage.

247 Meitei churches destroyed

An unnoticed dimension that has been ignored or escaped media attention during the scary two nights of May 3-4 was the torching and destruction of 247 churches belonging to different denominations of the Meitei Christians alone, besides 50-odd other churches. 

In 36 hours, Arambai Tenggol and Meitei Leepun (more virulent and violent outfits compared to saffron foot soldiers of Viswa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal) carried out clinical operation targeting the churches across the sprawling Imphal valley that houses 90 percent of 38 lakh population of Manipur.

Arambai Tenggol & Meitei Leepun

The more organized Arambai Tenggol (named after a traditional darting weapon of the Meiteis), along with the other group, enjoy, according to secular critics, full patronage of Maharaja Leishemba Sanajaoba, titular king of Manipur, and BJP member of Rajya Sabha, along with Chief Minister Biren Singh. The outfits had even hired bulldozers to pull down the Meitei churches as they considered Christianity as a threat to the indigenous ‘Meitei culture’.

These black uniformed groups had initially looted arms from police stations. Amid the BJP government making half-hearted pleas for complete return of the looted weapons, May 28 witnessed another huge looting of police arms by the Meitei vigilante groups.

Indeed, behind the synchronized attacks on the Meitei Christians, there is certainly ‘a method in the madness’, to quote Shakespearean dictum from ‘The Hamlet’. Not a single Meitei Christian has been killed despite the synchronized simultaneous attacks on 247 churches carried out with meticulous planning. 

The modus operandi 

The modus operandi of the Sangh Parivar displayed in Kandhamal in 2008 is being repeated in Manipur in copycat manner. Pastors of destroyed or damaged churches have been made to sign affidavits that they will not return. 

On the last weekend of May, I was informed by a prominent Meitei Christian leader that a pastor who went to file FIR against the desecration of his church was threatened by the police. They called the Meitei vigilante group who proceeded to completely destroy the partially damaged church. There are several parallels with Kandhamal pogrom in Manipur.

St Paul’s Church desecration 

The sprawling Pastoral Training Centre of the Catholic Church near the airport in Imphal was raided four times from the night of May 3 with the mob looking for ethnic tribals and verifying the identity of the 50 inmates undergoing catechism training.

Half a dozen vehicles on the campus were torched during the raids with even chicken, fish, and piggery farm emptied; the centre was gutted along with St Paul’s parish church on the campus next day, with the hapless director and parish priest Fr Isaac Honsan remaining a mute spectator throughout.

During the fourth raid on the second day, the hooligans carried cooking gas cylinders from the Pastoral Training Center, put together all the pews in the church and set fire inside the church.

“I can never forget the experience of witnessing the church going up in flames,” said Fr Honsan when I visited the charred church and the nearby Pastoral Training Centre. The police never responded to my repeated plea for help, he added. 

“Such organized attacks cannot just happen unless it was premeditated and planned,” a senior church official remarked.

Though the police had never rushed to the spot despite repeated desperate pleas, I found it quite amusing that half a dozen policemen were relaxing on the church stage in the open ground two weeks later. 

Modi’s Silence & PIB cover up

‘The nation wants to know’, to quote TV motormouth Arnab Goswami’s pet phrase, why Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who tweets promptly even on minor mishaps like train derailment or boat capsize, remained silent on the Manipur bloodshed and mayhem. He did not hesitate to raise attack on Hindu temples in Australia with his counterpart during his visit there. 

In typical media management under his beck and call, the Press Information Bureau (PIB) issued a ‘press note’ that was carried by the Manipur media: “Manipur and North East – PM’s favorite on MKB” (Man Ki Bath). The PIB article emphasized that “Prime Minister Modi has made it a priority to celebrate the vibrant culture and linguistic diversity of the North-East.” So, one may presume, that the bloodshed would not fall under this priority category.

It is sad and shocking that Modi, who has visited the North-East 60 times since 2014 when he adorned the mantle of Prime Minister, has no time to visit Manipur when it is bleeding – in its darkest hour. 

For three weeks, since Manipur went up in flames, no Central leader from the ruling BJP bothered to visit Manipur. In fact, the entire BJP top brass including Modi and Shah were busy electioneering and holding roadshows in Karnataka while black fumes of burnt business establishments, churches, houses and vehicles were billowing over Imphal and other places in the State. 

(Names of vulnerable sources have been deliberately withheld to ensure their safety)  

Brought Back to Life from Mortuary

As in any calamity, there will always be heart-rending stories of survival. During the 2015 Nepal earthquake, I had the honour of reporting the amazing story of four-year old Sujina whose ‘body’ had been kept among the dead for cremation until her mother came and found her alive. I was lucky to reach her aunt’s house when she was airlifted by helicopter to Kathmandu.

While in Churachandpur, I was told by Dominic Munluo, a retired government official, active in running the relief camp as secretary of Churachandpur unit of All Manipur Catholic Association, about the miraculous survival of a 22-year-old labourer David Liansianguan.

The poor labourer, eking out a harsh life in Imphal, was beaten with clubs and iron rods on May 4 by Meitei mob when the ethnic conflict broke out. Finding him motionless, police took him to RIMS (Regional Institute of Medical Sciences) morgue. A nurse noticed him breathing. He was rushed to the ICU. Later, an official rushed the injured labourer to a hospital in the Christian heartland of Churachandpur, 70 km south of Imphal.

When I accompanied Munluo to the hospital to meet the lucky youth who defeated death in mortuary, luck did not favour me. David had been taken for surgery; hence I had to return disappointed. However, Munluo later told me, “David is ok now and has been discharged from hospital.”


Who are Kukis?

The Kuki clan consists of Gangte, Hmar, Paite, Thadou, Vaiphei, Zou, Aimol, Chiru, Koireng, and many others. The term ‘Chin’ is used for the people in neighboring Chin state of Myanmar whereas Chins are called Kukis in India. While Kuki is not a term coined by the ethnic group itself, the tribes associated with it came to be generically called Kuki under colonial rule.


Camera Destroyed

The caution many expressed when I decided to set out for bleeding Manipur came true at the Kuki heartland of Churachandpur on May 20. Accompanied by a couple of Kukis, I was out to visit relief camps, when an army flag march was proceeding ahead of us. Despite curfew, thousands had gathered at downtown Churachandpur where a bulldozer was pulling down damaged Meitei buildings.

Those accompanying me were ahead of me, nor did they brief me about what was going on. 

Presuming that the buildings were being pulled down by the government, I asked a couple of people in front me to move away and made a couple of clicks when someone patted my shoulder. He was a smart well-dressed Kuki leader. As I was talking to him, a hot-tempered Kuki came from behind, snatched my Canon Digital SLR camera, thrashed it on the ground and flung the pieces into the concrete structure that was being pulled down. 

Everything happened at such a lightning speed that the even the Kuki leader I was talking to was shocked and apologized to me. He led me safely out of the crowd that had gathered menacingly around me and spoke to top political leaders who wanted to meet me. 

In the Kuki office, they apologetically told me, ‘you are lucky to get out with head on the neck’ as the situation was volatile and they had banned photography at the site. I thanked God and moved on taking photos with my mobile phone during the rest of the days.

India Today correspondent Afrida Hussain too had a scary experience on May 30. She was literally hounded with calls, and the ‘Imphal Hotel’ she was staying in was thronged by Arambai Tenggol women cadres. This happened after she had reported that Meitei vigilante groups were snatching weapons of Assam Rifles. Army officials rushed to the hotel and rescued the reporter safely to the airport.

Northeast bishops make fresh appeal for peace in Manipur

The Catholic bishops of northeastern India have made a fresh appeal for peace amid news of growing tension and violence in Manipur state.

“It is with great pain and intense anxiety that we have been following the great tragedies that have taken place in Manipur recently. We grieve with our brothers and sisters who have fallen victims to violence and have suffered in consequence,” says the May 28 message signed by Archbishop John Moolachira of Guwahati, chairman of the North East India Regional Bishops’ Council.

“The loss of precious lives and property has been immense. A large number of people have moved out of the state. The atmosphere continues to be tense. Painful incidents are still reported. While we have initiated relief work, we are far from a position to cope with the situation. We cry for help on behalf of those who suffer,” the statement bemoans.

The appeal was made after the bishops in the region held an emergency meeting at Assam’s Silchar at the backdrop of the episcopal ordination of Auxiliary Bishop Joachim Walder of Aizawl, Mizoram.

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