Greeshma Kuthar


“I DIDN’T shut up. I asked them how they can behave like this with another woman,” an 18-year-old Kuki woman told me, recalling her abduction and assault, in which Meira Paibis had played a major part. The Meira Paibis—the name translates to “torch-bearing women”—are a Meitei civil-society movement that rose to prominence through their protests against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which grants the military sweeping powers. In the ethnic violence that has engulfed Manipur over the past three months, pitting the majority Meitei community against members of Kuki tribes, who constitute a quarter of the population, the Meira Paibis have helped Meitei mobs target Kukis throughout the Imphal Valley and its surrounding foothills.

The 18-year-old woman’s family belonged to Churachandpur, a Kuki-majority district to the south of the valley, but had been living in the state capital for years. “Imphal has been my home all my life,” she said. When the violence broke out, on 3 May, her family, like most Kukis in Imphal, fled to the hills. The woman, who was enrolled in a cosmetology course, decided to wait out the carnage, expecting that the state government would soon restore order. She began living with a Kuki friend who was married to a member of the Pangal community—Meitei Muslims, who make up about eight percent of the state’s population.

Things did not get better. Mobs led by Arambai Tenggol—a Meitei militia that enjoyed the patronage of senior Bharatiya Janata Party leaders, including the chief minister, Biren Singh, and Manipur’s titular king and Rajya Sabha MP, Leishemba Sanajaoba—were scouring the city, looking for Kukis in passing cars, in houses and in hostels. The woman decided that, although the Pangals were hiding her, she would be safer among her own people. Her parents transferred some money to her account, which she was to use to pay a Pangal driver to take her to Kangpokpi, a Kuki-majority district to the north where they had found shelter.

On the evening of 15 May, she went to Imphal’s New Checkon market to withdraw the money. Outside an ATM, she was accosted by four men, who asked her to show them her Aadhaar card. She told them that she did not have it, but they gathered from her accent that she was Kuki. They forced her into their car and took her to Wangkhei Ayangpali, a Meitei neighbourhood around two kilometres away, where they handed her over to a group of Meira Paibis, who beat her with sticks, despite her protestations. The Meira Paibis asked the men to kill her. After one of them made a phone call, an SUV arrived with four armed men wearing the black shirts with red insignias that make up the Arambai Tenggol uniform.

According to a police complaint she later filed, these men drove around, looking for a suitable place to kill her. Along the way, they repeatedly slapped her and hit her with the butt of a gun. They eventually reached a remote hilltop, in Bishnupur district, south-west of Imphal, where they dragged her out of the car and beat her until she passed out. When she regained consciousness, three of the four men raped her. The men began arguing over whether to kill her, in the midst of which one of them accidentally hit her with their car. She rolled down the hill until she reached a road at the bottom.

In the ethnic violence that has engulfed Manipur over the past three months, the Meira Paibis have helped Meitei mobs target Kukis throughout the Imphal Valley and its surrounding foothills.

There, she told me, she was found by a Pangal autorickshaw driver who was transporting vegetables to the market. He helped her onto his vehicle and hid her under the vegetables. As the four men gave chase and fired at them, he drove her to the Bishnupur Police Station, which they reached around 4 am. They told the police personnel on duty that they were being chased. When the police attempted to stop and search the SUV, however, it sped away. The constables at the police station asked them to wait there until the senior officers arrived in the morning. Since they were all Meiteis, the autorickshaw driver told the woman that it might not be safe and offered to drive her back to Imphal. Her assailants had taken her phone and all her money, but he told her she did not need to pay him anything. He dropped her off at New Checkon and did not leave until he was sure she was safe.

At New Checkon, Kuki volunteers took her to the house of TT Haokip, a former state legislator who lived nearby. She was too afraid to go to a hospital, so Haokip’s wife, Mary, administered first aid and took care of her for the next two days. They were eventually able to secure transport to take her to the relief camp where her parents were staying. She was admitted to a hospital in Kangpokpi district, which referred her to a hospital in Kohima, where a medical officer recorded her diagnosis, on 24 May, as an “alleged case of assault and rape.”

Her parents thought about filing a complaint but decided against it, fearing reprisals. The woman told me that, when the Arambai Tenggol men were considering whether to let her go, they warned her that they would kill her if she went to the police. She was emboldened to do so, on 21 July, soon after a video of two Kuki women being paraded naked circulated on social media, drawing worldwide condemnation and renewed attention to the situation in Manipur. The incident had taken place on 4 May, after Meiteis burned down the village of B Phainom, in Kangpokpi district. The women had been part of a group of five people who were being taken in a police vehicle to Thoubal, around twenty kilometres away. (The first-information report that was registered about the incident said that they had fled B Phainom and sought police protection, but one of the women told me that the police had been part of the mob that burned their village and had picked them up from near their homes.) A Meitei mob stopped the vehicle, killed the two men in the group, stripped the three women and gang raped the youngest of them, who was 21 years old.

By all accounts, the police left the three women to their fate. The Saikul Police Station, in Kangpokpi district, registered an FIR on 18 May—Thoubal district, where the incident took place, is under Meitei control—but the officer-in-charge was reportedly transferred two days later. No arrests were made for over two months, before the outrage over the video spurred the police into action. Seven people, including the man who shot the video, have been arrested so far. On 28 July, Meira Paibis in Thoubal organised a rally to protest the arrests.

No arrests have been made in the 18-year-old woman’s case. When I met her, in early June, it was evident that she was traumatised and scared that the men would make good on their threats to find and kill her. “When I close my eyes, I can see their faces,” she told me. Her friend had also been targeted but was still safe, she said. Another Kuki–Pangal couple she knew was not as fortunate—a Meitei mob attacked them and killed their son.

AT A PROTEST organised by the Meitei Pangal Intellectual Forum on 10 July, at Kwakta in Bishnupur district, the primary demand from the speakers was to stop the violence. There have been a few instances of firing between Meiteis and Kukis in Kwakta, and an IED explosion on 21 June injured four people, including three children. On 8 July, another bombing in Kwakta injured at least one person.

Some speakers at the MPIF protest maintained the neutrality of the community, which has had an uneasy relationship with Hindu Meiteis. Thirty years before the current conflict began, between 3 and 5 May 1993, Meitei mobs killed over a hundred Pangals across the state following a reported clash between a Muslim arms dealer and members of a Meitei separatist group. Meiteis have often stereotyped them as criminals and illegal immigrants, and accused them of encroaching in the state’s forests. In 2018, the Biren Singh government demolished the homes of around four hundred Pangals in a forest where they had been living since the 1970s. The government also sought to evict Pangals living on agricultural land where it wanted to construct housing for state legislators, invoking the Manipur Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Act—even though Meitei settlements on paddy land have largely remained untouched.

Nevertheless, when the violence broke out this year, the Pangals of Kwakta were active in sheltering Meiteis fleeing the neighbouring Churachandpur district. This has not protected them from being attacked. A Muslim resident of Kwakta, whose mother housed around a hundred Meiteis, told Al Jazeera that, when he went to Imphal to help retrieve a Kuki colleague’s car, he was assaulted by a group of Meiteis who accused Pangals of aiding Kukis. “When the media is biased and provocative in favour of the Meitei, and the powerful politicians of the valley are hand in glove, how will this be brought to an end?” Rafi Shah, the MPIF general secretary, said at the protest. “We are caught in between, told by the Meitei that we are supporting Kukis, and vice versa. It has been 67 days since this madness started. When will we see its end?”

There was a method to the madness. Although the violence had been precipitated by the Manipur High Court directing the state government to expedite the longstanding Meitei demand for Scheduled Tribe status, the order came amid an escalation in the Biren Singh government’s concerted campaign to stir up majoritarian sentiments against Kukis, using the same tactics it had employed against the Pangals. The scale of this campaign, however, is exponentially higher.

In fact, the carnage in Manipur can justifiably be referred to as ethnic cleansing, which was defined by a United Nations committee of experts as “a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.” In the course of my reporting in Manipur, over the last two months, I found the Biren Singh government and the Meitei mobs it enables using most of the coercive practices listed by the committee, including murder, torture, arbitrary arrest, extrajudicial executions, sexual assault, displacement of civilians, attacks on civilian areas, the use of civilians as human shields, and the destruction and theft of personal property. The result was a state caught in a humanitarian crisis of the BJP government’s own making, with the demonisation of a community being followed by wanton violence against it, leaving it facing an uncertain future of starvation, permanent displacement and possible expulsion from the state. (The chief minister’s office did not respond to a questionnaire I sent.)

The state is caught in a humanitarian crisis of the BJP government’s own making, with the demonisation of a community being followed by wanton violence against it, leaving it facing an uncertain future.

Like the Pangals, the Kukis have been branded as criminals, encroachers and illegal immigrants. In February, the Biren Singh government began an eviction drive in Kuki villages, accusing them of being built in protected forests. In March, Meitei groups held a protest demanding that the National Register of Citizens be extended to Manipur in order to curb the alleged rise in illegal immigrants, particularly in the wake of the civil war in Myanmar. The state government also unilaterally withdrew from Suspension of Operations agreements—a ceasefire signed in 2008 to initiate peace talks—with three Kuki insurgent groups, accusing the SoO groups of harbouring immigrants, enabling poppy cultivation and inciting opposition to its eviction efforts.

Tribal groups mobilised against these provocations, particularly in the wake of the high-court order, which the Supreme Court later denounced as “completely factually wrong.” On 27 April, the Indigenous Tribal Leaders’ Forum called for a total shutdown in Churachandpur district the following day, when the chief minister was scheduled to visit and inaugurate an open-air gym. That evening, unidentified people set fire to the gym. There were sporadic clashes between Kukis and security forces, as prohibitory orders were issued under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure and the internet was shut down in the district.

Over fifty thousand people attended a march organised in Churachandpur by the All Tribal Students’ Union Manipur, on 3 May, to demonstrate against ST status for Meiteis. When they heard about attempted arson at a nearby memorial commemorating the Anglo-Kuki War of 1917–19, many attendees gathered at the spot. Others clashed with Meitei counter-protesters, who had been mobilised by Meetei Leepun, another militia that has cultivated close ties with the government, in the villages of Kangvai and Torbung. What initially began as stone-pelting soon escalated to the burning of houses, cars and businesses. There were reports of violence in other hill districts as well.

Meanwhile, in the Imphal Valley, Meitei mobs led by Arambai Tenggol and Meetei Leepun, often supported by police commandos, sprang into action. They raided police armouries and carried out massacres in tribal neighbourhoods throughout the valley, killing over seventy people and destroying nearly two thousand houses. (In January, the Imphal municipal corporation had carried out a survey of Kuki neighbourhoods, marking their houses with paint.) According to the Catholic archbishop of Imphal, Meitei mobs burned down 249 churches within thirty-six hours. The home department asked the director general of police, a Kuki, to stand down and subsequently replaced him. It was only late on 4 May, after much of the carnage had been committed, that the state government issued shoot-at-sight orders that enabled central security forces to step in and restore a semblance of peace.

These troops, which now include the Indian Army, the Assam Rifles and 144 companies of various central armed police forces, organised the relocation of Meiteis living in the hills and tribals living in the valley. Over fifty thousand displaced people are currently in relief camps across the state, often lacking access to food or healthcare. Another twelve thousand people have taken refuge in neighbouring Mizoram, while three thousand were airlifted to other states.

Besides their evacuation efforts, however, the central forces have not managed to stop the violence, with the death toll now at nearly two hundred, the vast majority of whom are Kukis. Nearly three hundred Kuki villages have been burned down, while Meitei mobs have razed to the ground almost all Kuki properties in Imphal. The troops have not managed to retrieve the weapons looted from police armouries either. According to security officials who spoke to the journalist Sumir Kaul, 4,537 weapons and over six hundred thousand bullets are currently missing, with almost ninety-five percent of the looted arms and ammunition being held by Meiteis. For the moment, the central forces are limited to establishing “buffer zones” between the hills and the valley, trying—and often failing, in the absence of clear orders—to prevent Meitei militias from attacking Kuki villages further.

The Narendra Modi government has remained steadfast in its support for Biren Singh, despite his partisan role in inciting the conflict and failing to control it. Modi has extended the same courtesy to Singh that he was extended by the national party when he presided over pogroms in Gujarat that killed over two thousand Muslims, in 2002, by refusing to ask for his resignation or to impose president’s rule. Unlike Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was prime minister in 2002, he has refused to criticise the chief minister or even appeal for an end to the carnage.

Modi’s first statement on Manipur came on 20 July, nearly eighty days after the violence started. He was compelled to speak because of the national outrage over the video of the Kuki women of B Phainom, with the opposition threatening to disrupt the monsoon session of parliament over the issue. Even as he expressed the pain and anger he said he felt over the sexual assault, he made an equivalence between Manipur and two Congress-ruled states. “I request all chief ministers to strengthen law and order in their states,” he said, in a statement that lasted all of one minute. “Particularly for the protection of our mothers and sisters, they should take the harshest actions, no matter where the incident occurs, whether in Rajasthan or Chhattisgarh or Manipur.”

Missing from the statement was any sort of acknowledgement that the assault was part of a conflict that had been raging for almost three months, or even that this was not the only case of sexual assault that had taken place in Manipur. Modi did not acknowledge the role of the police in the incident and did not comment on the internet shutdown in the state, which prevented any news about it from spreading and thus delayed any sort of serious investigation. The prime minister has since been missing from parliament, where opposition MPs are demanding that he make a proper statement on Manipur. Even as the parliamentary secretariat refuses to let MPs ask questions about the violence, the speaker of the Lok Sabha accepted a no-confidence motion against the Modi government on the issue, on 26 July. While Modi is expected to survive the motion, the debate over it may finally force him to break his silence. But the people of Manipur need more than just words.


“WHEN MEITEI PILGRIMS used to lose their way looking for Simtongbung, I used to help them out,” 69-year-old Tongkhohao Haokip told me, recalling his childhood, when relations between ordinary Meiteis and Kukis were not as strained. “So did my family and others around me. Kuki villages on the way gave them shelter if the rains turned heavy. We would provide food or other forms of refreshment for them.” Simtongbung is the local name of Koubru Peak, in the Saitu–Gamphazol subdivision of Kangpokpi district, where Tongkhohao was born and brought up. There are around forty Kuki villages in the surrounding hills.

Referring to forests in Manipur is synonymous with referring to the hill districts, which cover around ninety percent of the state’s total area and contain all its forests.

At the centre of the Koubru Range are the disputed sacred sites dedicated to the Meitei deities Koubru and Lai Pukhri. In October 2022, the Biren Singh government declared these, as well as another dedicated to the deity Thangjing in Churachandpur district—around ten hectares in total—protected areas under the Manipur Ancient and Historical Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act. The order was part of a campaign waged by the chief minister, in which, from time to time, there were attempts to create controversies about the sites’ apparent neglect. The government organised events where Biren Singh would lead groups to these sites for different purposes, such as to plant saplings.

“As all these sacred sites are located in the hill districts, as an extension, the message sent out is that we are neglecting the hills,” Lamtinthang Haokip, the general secretary of the Committee on Protection and Preservation of Mount Koubru, told me. He said that the COPPK has resisted attempts to hoist the Salai Taret flag—a Meitei nationalist symbol—on Koubru Peak, since Kukis also perform rituals on the mountain. “We’ve been clear that the peak is open for everybody, across religions, and are against one community claiming exclusive rights to it.”

Since Arambai Tenggol came to prominence, over the past two years, its leaders have claimed that combating deforestation is one of its central objectives. During a 2021 visit to the Koubru, which his government had declared part of the Kanglatongbi–Kangpokpi Reserved Forest, Biren Singh asserted that all land belongs to the state government, which has the authority to develop it in the public interest, and asked the people to refrain from thinking that they owned the land. Referring to forests in Manipur is synonymous with referring to the hill districts, which cover around ninety percent of the state’s total area, as all forests in Manipur fall in these districts.

The administration of Manipur’s forests has a complex history. The writ of the princely state of Kangleipak—the old name for Manipur—rarely extended to the hills, besides the extraction of tribute, and Kuki lands were customarily held by village chiefs. After the British took over the state’s administration, in 1891, they exerted indirect control over the hills through intermediaries, recognised the authority of the chiefs over their villages and restricted their land reforms to the Imphal Valley. They did, however, classify the state’s forests into three categories: village reserved forests, which came under the jurisdiction of the chiefs; state reserved forests, which were administered by the forest department; and open reserved forests, where there were no restrictions on grazing, firewood collection or shifting cultivation. Following the end of the Anglo-Kuki War, in 1919, control over the hill areas was transferred to the state durbar, which did not have any tribal representation. The durbar controlled the management of forests, including the extraction and sale of forest produce.

The postcolonial Indian government made several attempts to undermine the authority of the village chiefs and make them subordinate to district officials. It also declared large swathes of the hill districts to be protected forests, without consulting the people who lived there. Although the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms Act, 1960 is not applicable to hill areas, it has been extended over the years to many villages in the hill districts, which are forced to pay both the tax payable under the Manipur Hill Areas (House Tax) Act and land revenue under the MLR&LR Act. A presidential order under Article 371C of the Constitution, issued when Manipur attained statehood, in 1972, provided for a hill areas committee in the state legislature, which must be consulted on matters affecting hill districts. However, unlike other states in the Northeast with significant tribal populations, Manipur is yet to provide protections for the land of the indigenous by bringing the hill districts under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. As a result, both the hill areas committee and the district councils, which have not held elections since 2020, have very limited power and autonomy.

In 2014, the Congress government in Manipur attempted to amend the MLR&LR Act in order to make it applicable throughout the state. It also introduced a New Land Use Policy that sought to discourage jhum, a local form of shifting cultivation. The following year, another amendment sought to remove the restrictions on transferring tribal lands to non-tribals, while two other laws sought to impose a restrictive definition of who qualified as a Manipuri and to ban “outsiders” from setting up businesses in the state. These measures were immensely popular among Meiteis—RK Ranendrajit, an Imphal-based editor and activist, had warned, during a 2011 public meeting, that “a civil war may break out in Manipur if the MLR&LR Act is not enforced uniformly all over Manipur”—but opposition from tribal groups halted their passage.

BIREN SINGH was a Congress legislator at the time, defecting to the BJP before the 2017 assembly election. During his first term—leading a coalition government with the Naga People’s Front, the National People’s Party and the Lok Janshakti Party—he articulated close ties with the hill tribes, helming a “Go To Hills” campaign meant to demonstrate outreach to remote communities. “He used to insist on travelling to the hill districts, even for something as small as inaugurating an ATM,” a student leader from Churachandpur told me.

There have been regular demands for improving infrastructure in the hill districts, but to no avail. The deprivation is visible to anyone who visits these regions, be it the extremely poor roads or the complete absence of streetlights in towns. It is the result of historical neglect—neither the princely state nor the colonial authorities attempted to improve the lives of people in the hills, despite extracting tribute and taxes from them. This did not improve following Independence. For instance, the entire town of Moreh, an important trade entrepôt on the Myanmar border, had only one functional ATM when I visited in early July. Saikul, the largest subdivision in Kangpokpi district, has just two health centres, each staffed by fewer than eight doctors and nurses.

None of the hill districts have any facilities for sport, a demand Kukis have raised for decades. Biren Singh’s aborted visit to inaugurate an open gym in Churachandpur district, on 28 April, was hardly adequate in this regard. One such open gym can be seen at the Peace Ground, opposite the mini-secretariat in Churachandpur. It is merely fifty metres in length, with some basic equipment for light physical activity, not one that a competitive athlete would benefit from.

“We haven’t been treated well since the formation of the state, yet we are being told that we are treated well,” Gracy Haokip told me. “The majority community says that they are victimised by our presence and what we allegedly do in the hills, while our land is being grabbed and our people being evicted.” Gracy’s father is the village chief of K Songjang, which was razed to the ground by forest officials on 20 February. K Songjang is a machete village, split from its parent village, Kungpinaosen. The practice in Kuki villages is that when a chief’s brother wishes to create his own village, the chief allots him a portion of his land, where the brother sets up a new village from scratch. Kungpinaosen has five such machete villages. In August 2022, two of these villages were issued show cause notices, with the allegation that they fell within the Churachandpur–Khoupum Protected Forest.

“Forests are in our blood,” Tongkhohao Haokip said. “We are the forests. Do the people of the valley have to teach us how to protect our forests?”

Since the BJP returned to power with an absolute majority, in 2022, the Biren Singh government has increasingly accused Kukis of encroaching on forest land. Many villages in the hill districts received similar show cause notices. In November, the forest department issued a notification derecognising 38 villages—with a total population of over a thousand—that had allegedly encroached in Khoupum. The forest had been declared as protected, in 1966, through a gazette notification. In 1971, the forest department appointed an assistant settlement officer to conduct an inquiry into the rights of communities living in protected forests. The ASO’s report, published in 1986, excluded Kungpinaosen from the territorial jurisdiction of the Khoupum forest. However, the forest department nullified this exemption, arguing that the ASO had not been “authorised or empowered to exclude lands from the protected forest.”

“For years, my parents were unaware of these announcements,” Gracy said. In an interview with The Print, her father said that he had not known about the existence of the protected forest until receiving the show cause notice. Although he has hill house tax receipts for the village dating back to 2008 and the government’s revenue department records the existence of K Songjang in 2018, the forest department has argued that there is no record of the village splitting from Kungpinaosen and that villages created after the notification of a protected forest cannot be recognised under forest laws.

A photo posted on Arambai Tenggol’s Facebook page shows members of the militia meeting the chief minister, Biren Singh, and the state’s Rajya Sabha MP, Leishemba Sanajaoba.

On 12 April, with Kukis throughout the hills protesting against the demolition of K Songjang, Paolienlal Haokip, a BJP legislator representing a constituency in Churachandpur district, wrote to the environment minister, Biswajit Singh, challenging the state government’s argument that it had to specially authorise exemption orders, since the ASO is a statutory authority under the Indian Forest Act. He added that the delay in processing the villages’ claims, another reason cited in the notification, “must have been caused by the failure on the part of the government to declare its intent to constitute a protected forest, as required under the Indian Forests Act, 1927, in vernacular, keeping the largely illiterate chiefs of those days in the dark and unaware.” He also asked whether the forest department was using Google Maps to identify encroachments because of the absence of survey data—which, he argued, would make the initial notification invalid—and whether such surveys were being carried out in all protected forests. “Unless it is a comprehensive exercise,” he wrote, “the present exercise is perceived to be selective and targeted in nature, causing public angst.”

Tongmang Haokip, the chief of Saitu, who had filed an objection against the state government’s decision to declare Koubru Peak a sacred site, told me that none of the villages in Saitu–Gamphazol were consulted before parts of the subdivision were declared to be part of the Kanglatongbi forest. “I am well within my rights under various Indian laws, ranging from the Constitution to the Indian Forest Act of 1927, when I say that only with our consultation can such announcements be made, but we were not approached once,” he told me. “They have not provided any documents to us, other than the announcement in the gazette in 1968. Why should we accept it?”

Despite the state’s attempts to seize Kuki lands in the name of protecting forests, many tribal officers who work in protected forests do so with the consent of village chiefs. Many villagers assist the forest department in afforestation efforts. The department is also aware of the forms of self-government within the Kuki community, which often marks out areas where nobody is allowed to cut trees. “Forests are in our blood,” Tongkhohao Haokip told me. “We are the forests. Do the people of the valley have to teach us how to protect our forests?”

But systematic neglect of the hills also impacts the economy within. Even following the usual methods of agriculture in the hills is not easy, as subsidies meant for farmers hardly reach the hills, an officer working in the state government’s agriculture department told me, on condition of anonymity. “This is where poppy entered the scene,” they said. While jhum is used for growing ginger, rice, fruits and vegetables, their procurement rate is very low. Farmers earn much more when they are asked to grow poppy.

In a recent interview with The Week, Thounaojam Brinda, a former assistant superintendent of the Manipur Police for narcotics and border affairs, said that poppy farmers “face extreme poverty and struggle to provide even the basic needs of their children,” whereas the profits were cornered by intermediaries, militants and financiers. “It is important to note that these groups comprise individuals from all communities,” she said. “Affluent individuals from various communities actively finance the poppy business. Some of the wealthiest elites across communities are involved in supporting and investing in the poppy cartel.” In July 2020, Brinda had accused Biren Singh of trying to force her to release a politician who had been caught with over four kilograms of heroin. She has since faced a severe backlash, including threats to her life, and the chief minister has sued her for defamation.

Poppy causes more deforestation than jhum but, as Brinda has mentioned in many interviews, this cultivation would not be happening in the first place without well-backed financiers. Despite a senior Meitei police officer puncturing the claim, however, Biren Singh and his political allies continue to blame the Kuki community for the drug trade.

THE ALLEGATIONS of Kukis encroaching on forest land and participating in the drug trade are among the various methods that the Biren Singh government and local media outlets, most of which are owned by Meiteis, have employed to create a sense of victimhood among the majority community. On 25 July, the Imphal Free Press used allegations of Kukis setting fire to a temple on Koubru Peak, in 2021, to justify the destruction of 249 churches within the first two days of the violence. A contemporaneous report published in the Sangai Express suggests that it was the house of the temple’s chowkidar, and not the temple itself, that was set on fire, and the Kuki Inpi—the community’s apex body—blamed the fire on a family feud. Nevertheless, such allegations were used by Meitei groups to posit Kukis as an obstacle to reclaiming their ancient faith of Sanamahism.

It is no secret that Biren Singh was facing internal resistance, with around fifteen BJP legislators travelling to Delhi to seek his ouster in the weeks before the violence erupted.

This revanchist project, seeking to restore the status of the state’s official religion until the eighteenth century, when the Manipuri king Pamheiba adopted Hinduism, was at the core of Arambai Tenggol’s existence. In 2008, the Meitei scholar Thingnam Kishan Singh published a series of articles critiquing Hindu proselytisation in Manipur, which, he wrote,

brought about an upheaval resulting in dramatic changes in the hitherto self-contained world of the Meeteis and the hill tribes of Manipur. Prior to the conversion to Hinduism, the Meetei society was totally alien to the concept and practice of caste system. It was fundamentally a casteless society. One of the tragic implications for the people of this ancient land was to face the ramifications of casteism as the Meeteis including members of the royal lineage were declared Kshatriyas. The Brahmins who enjoyed exclusive patronage remained a separate caste outside the Meetei society.

Gradually, the consolidation of this caste system led to the seclusion of the non-Hindu Meetei Lois and the hill tribes and the Shan Buddhists in the Kabaw valley, which was then a part of Manipur. Casteless society based on traditional Meetei faith had seen cordial relations between the valley people and the hill tribes. With the widening gap between the valley and the hill people due to steady polarization on grounds of seclusion and ostracisation practiced by the Hindu converts zealously, intermingling and intermarriage declined rapidly. For the first time, rules of commensality, concept of pollution and dietary differences began to be used to exacerbate this widening gap. Increasing practice of casteism led to a widening gap between the people in the valley and the hills. This widening gap consequently weakened Manipur in the face of conflicts perpetrated by forces from outside.

This process, catalysed by the steady migration of Brahmins from other parts of the subcontinent, has been a subject of great debate among scholars in the valley, some of whom are pro-Hindu while others are not. Some have also opposed the homogenisation of Meiteis, as the community is divided into seven clans, which, according to the royal chronicle Cheitharol Kumpapa, spent over a millennium fighting each other.

When organisations such as Arambai Tenggol declare that their main intention is to protect their identity and their old faith of Sanamahism, it raises the question of whether this can be done while pledging loyalty to the state’s ruling party, which is the product of the country’s largest Hindu nationalist organisation. The appropriation of indigenous faiths is a common strategy of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, as can be seen in Arunachal Pradesh, where it has projected the animist religion Donyi-Polo as a variant of Hinduism.

The Meetei Leepun chief, Pramot Singh—a former member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the Sangh’s student wing—has said that his group is open to followers of both Hinduism and Sanamahism, even as he calls Manipur the “last outpost of the purest form of sanatan dharma.” Arambai Tenggol seems to not have addressed the role of Brahminism in the subjugation of the Meiteis’ ancient faith. Instead, it has submitted to the Sangh’s modern solutions to such questions, projecting Hinduism as an amalgamation of indigenous faiths. This approach provides the Sangh opportunities for “reclamation” of these religions without leaving the “political Hindu” fold. It is the sort of ambiguity that can allow the RSS to hail Biren Singh as the “protector of Meitei interests,” as it did before last year’s assembly election, while now calling on him to address the “genuine concerns” of Kukis, whom it considers Vanvasis.  At the same time, it restricts relief efforts to displaced Meiteis while parroting the government line of blaming Kuki militants for their plight.

The other component of this solution is using an outsider as a rallying point to mobilise the majority community and elide the contradictions that lie within it. The supposed reclamation of Sanamahism has come at the cost of demonising the Kuki community—tactics BJP leaders have often used when they fear losing influence over certain communities or face impending political defeat. It is no secret that Biren Singh was facing internal resistance, with around fifteen BJP legislators travelling to Delhi to seek his ouster in the weeks before the violence erupted. Moreover, the union government had put out feelers that, on 8 May, it would announce that it had reached a consensus with the SoO groups over the future governance of the hill districts.

THE BIREN SINGH GOVERNMENT has responded to dissent against its policies with arbitrary arrests. On 27 April, Hanglalmuan Vaiphei, a 21-year-old geography student at Churachandpur College, posted on Facebook a message he had received over WhatsApp. The post blamed Meitei politicians for funding poppy cultivation and blaming tribals for it in order to grab their land, and called Meiteis “racist” and “anti-India.” In the context of the hate and disinformation that was being spread unchecked on social media against the Kuki community, it was relatively mild. However, his family told me, the Churachandpur police arrested Vaiphei, three days later, and handed him over to police commandos, who took him to Imphal.

Hanglalmuan was produced in court on 3 May and granted bail. The police immediately arrested him again under a second FIR that had been registered against him, based on the same post. He called his family, telling them that he was being taken to the Manipur Central Jail, in Sajiwa. He called them again, the following day, when he was produced before a magistrate for judicial remand, telling them that he needed another lawyer for the next hearing, a week later. Later that day, his family tried calling the phone number he had used, but got no response. On 5 May, they called the investigating officer, who told them that Hanglalmuan had died.

According to an FIR registered in the case, the police were taking Hanglalmuan to the Sajiwa jail when a Meitei mob stopped them and seized their weapons. As the police personnel ran away, the mob allegedly beat Hanglalmuan to death. The family told me that no one from the police had contacted them since and that they did not know where his body was. The National Human Rights Commission has listed Hanglalmuan’s killing as a custodial death and issued notices to the state government in the case.

Hanglalmuan’s killing has heightened fears among the families of Kukis who have been imprisoned in various cases. There are around two hundred Kuki prisoners in the Sajiwa jail. They include Mark Haokip, an academic and activist who was arrested in Delhi, in May 2022, for social-media posts that, among other things, debunked the notion that Kukis are illegal immigrants, commented on the geographical boundaries of Manipur when it joined India and accused the state government of grabbing tribal land at Koubru in the name of religion. When Kuki organisations protested his arrest, Biren Singh claimed that he was an outsider attempting to destroy the unity of the state. A court granted Mark bail, but the police re-arrested him, claiming that it had found documents that revealed he was the leader of a secessionist group.

Mark’s family has been unable to contact him for over two months and fears for his safety. Like the families of many other Kuki inmates, they have heard of threats being made since the violence began. These families petitioned the union home minister, Amit Shah, when he visited the state, asking him to have the prisoners transferred elsewhere. They have received no response. When I asked Lunsieh Kipgen, the inspector general for prisons, about this, he rubbished the fears. He told me that the families could talk to the inmates once a week if they visited the jail. I pointed out that the conflict meant that Kukis could not travel to Imphal, to which he replied that the inmates were safe. I then asked him how he could guarantee their safety, since, as a Kuki, he was unable to travel to Imphal either. “I am in constant touch with my officers,” he said.


KWAKTA IS PART of a buffer zone between Meitei villages in Bishnupur and the hills, starting from Phouljang. The central forces are expected to patrol these areas and respond to any violence from either side, and Meiteis from the valleys and Kukis from the hills are not allowed to come within five hundred metres of their posts. The buffer zones were created because most of the killings in the early days of the conflict took place in these peripheral areas, where Meitei mobs could act with impunity, in the presence of the police. The burning of B Phainom was one such incident. Another took place in Leimakhong.

Videos that surfaced from Khamenlok, which was attacked by Meitei militias between 12 and 14 June, showed men lobbing bombs into houses, as if for fun, accompanied by applause and jubilant celebration.

On the evening of 4 May, officers of the army’s Sikh Regiment asked residents of Leimakhong, a town in Kangpokpi district with a mixed population, to guide them to L Tangnuam, a Kuki village that was under attack. Haominthang Chongloi, a 29-year-old Kuki, joined their convoy. On the way, they were stopped by a Meitei mob that pulled Haominthang out of the convoy and killed him. “They told me that they were outnumbered by the mob and had to leave,” Haominthang’s brother Ngulbimu told me. “It was only after a day that they went back to retrieve my brother’s body.” The body has not been handed over to the family. It lies in a government morgue in Imphal, where they cannot travel.

Such incidents occurred for weeks, but it took until the first week of June for the central forces, led by the state’s new security advisor, Kuldiep Singh, to draft a plan to protect these peripheral areas. Even as deployments into the region were in progress, Meitei groups breached the buffer zones and burned down several Kuki villages, often with the assistance of Meira Paibis, who would block the entry of troops. The Meira Paibis have acted as accomplices to the militias. Whether it was the pogroms in Imphal or the burning of Kuki villages, they have had an active role in orchestrating different forms of violence.

Between 12 and 14 June, soon after Amit Shah visited the state and promised that the central forces would control the situation, Meitei mobs burned down ten Kuki villages in the Khamenlok area of Kangpokpi district. In Saikul, the subdivision that includes Khamenlok, 81 villages have been burnt. In the Island subdivision, almost all the Kuki villages—48, according to official estimates—have been wiped out. In my conversations with residents from these villages who fled, the one common factor was the presence of the police. Ngahneilhing Kipgen, a resident of Bhongbal Kullen, one of the first villages to be burned down, showed me videos in which police vehicles could be spotted next to the village as it was burning.

In Khamenlok, the Gurkha Regiment of the Indian Army assured residents that it would ensure their protection, a week before the village was attacked. Thangkongam Toutham, a resident of D Leikop, a village in Saikul, told me that the central forces were no match for the mob that had gathered to burn down the village. “They just left after one of them was injured by the mob,” he said. “They were too few in number. How would they protect us?”

On 14 June, after six of the villages in the area had been burnt down, I spoke to the commanding officer of the Gurkha Regiment unit, asking him if they were trying to protect the four remaining villages and bring the situation in Khamenlok under control. He refused to comment. Later that day, the four villages were also destroyed. Biren Singh, as well as the environment minister, Biswajit Singh, and the Rajya Sabha MP, Leishemba Sanajaoba, allegedly spent the day in Nongsum Leikai, the closest Meitei village to Khamenlok.

Lucy Chongloi, a resident of H Khopibung, the first of the ten villages to be put to the torch, had returned after escorting her fellow villagers to safety. Having walked for six hours over hilly terrain, she found that everything, including the village church, had been burnt to the ground. She told me that she had not seen any central forces in the region.

In videos that surfaced from Khamenlok, the metadata of which I have verified, I saw men lobbing bombs into houses, as if for fun, accompanied by applause and jubilant celebration. In a joint press statement, the chiefs of the ten villages said that, on the night of 13 June, “having learned that several armed Meiteis were seeking shelter at partly burnt Aigejang village to carry out further campaigns of destructions of the neighboring villages, the Village Defence Volunteers in a last-ditch attempt to thwart their design carried out a daring attack on the armed Meiteis taking shelter at Aigejang and inflicted several casualties mainly through our piped guns.” Among Kukis, it is customary that a village has to be defended until death is inevitable. Every family has to volunteer at least one member to guard their village at wartime.

Mangneilun Vaiphei was beaten up by a Meitei mob and left to die in a ditch. His wife, Vavah, fought her way through the mob and returned to her village to find him. GREESHMA KUTHAR

What happened in Khamenlok is pretty straightforward. Kuki villages were attacked, and central forces were not able to push back the ever growing mobs and eventually gave up. The Kuki volunteers opened fire and killed 12 Meiteis, which the chiefs accepted in their statement. However, almost all media houses blamed “Kuki militants” for the violence. Some, such as the Sangai Express, even alleged that these militants, and not Meitei mobs, had set fire to the villages. Such misreporting—following Biren Singh’s contention that the violence in Manipur is between the state and Kuki militants, which has been debunked by both the union home minister and the chief of defence staff—has only escalated the violence in the state.

WHEN THE KHAMENLOK VILLAGES were attacked, the central forces maintained that many of its personnel were still new to the region and that there was a lack of clarity in orders, especially those pertaining to being faced with mobs. However, weeks later, when the violence began in Samulamlan, in Churachandpur district, and spread to Kwakta, over two thousand Meira Paibis were able to block the Assam Rifles from intervening.

This episode began on 2 July, with the burning down of Langza village by Meitei mobs and the beheading of David Thiek, a resident of the village belonging to the Hmar tribe. This was followed by three days of firing, with Kukis attacking Awang Lekai, a village on the outskirts of Kwakta that Meitei militias were using as an outpost. Several people died on both sides. There were attacks in Kangpokpi district as well, in the buffer zones at Phaileng, Kangchup, Leimakhong and Thingsat. Here, however, central forces were able to push back the armed Meiteis, in spite of the presence of the Meira Paibis.

Most attacks in the buffer zones have followed the same template, with huge mobs, usually led by Meira Paibis, obstructing the functioning of central forces while armed militias burn down villages.

On 24 June, the only road leading to Phaileng, on the border between the Kangpokpi and Imphal West districts, was dug up by a mob led by Meira Paibis, in the presence of the police. Multiple attacks have taken place in this area. Armed members of Arambai Tenggol have been filmed trying to breach the buffer zone, while police commandos have been seen opening fire at the Assam Rifles. “We have been facing attacks since May,” Haominthang Misao, the chief of Phaileng, told me. “There are regular instances of firing from commandos and IRB”—the Indian Reserve Battalion, a central paramilitary force—“even at the Assam Rifles.” In the third week of July, the central forces came under fire from the Imphal West police as well. They carried out an operation, on 21 July, to clear the surrounding hills, which Meiteis had occupied after breaching the buffer zones. The central forces have now occupied the hills as well to prevent any escalation of violence.

Also on 24 June, the army’s Spear Corps arrested 12 armed cadre of the Kanglei Yaol Kanba Lup, a Meitei secessionist outfit, including a self-styled commander who was the alleged mastermind of a 2015 ambush that killed 18 soldiers. A mob of Meira Paibis, accompanied by a BJP legislator, forced them to release the militants. Five days earlier, another mob of Meira Paibis had forced the army to release four members of the United National Liberation Front, another proscribed Meitei group, in Thoubal district. (A significant portion of the over five hundred members of underground Meitei groups who had surrendered over the past year reportedly went on to join Arambai Tenggol.) No one from these groups has been charged, and no FIRs have been registered by the police. The Meira Paibis were also responsible for burning down an ambulance carrying a Meitei Christian family, in Imphal West, on 7 June.

Most attacks on buffer zones in the past month have followed this template, with huge mobs, usually led by Meira Paibis, obstructing the functioning of central forces while armed militias burn down villages. The central forces maintain that they have no clear orders on how to handle these mobs, with security officials telling PTI that they need more women paramilitary personnel. With the role of the Meira Paibis in the violence becoming clear, the absence of political will to address such exigencies suggests connivance at various levels.

WHILE WITNESSING ATTACKS on Kuki villages, I was often astounded by the level of firepower possessed by the Meiteis. There were certain days when the Meiteis would keep shooting aimlessly, round after round. For every hundred bullets they fired, there would be one from the hills. “We can’t afford to shoot like them,” Lelboi Haokip, the commander of Kuki volunteers defending three villages in the Phouljang area of Churachandpur, told me. “There are days when we’ve had to fundraise for ammunition for the next day.”

It can no longer be disputed that the Meiteis have the support of the state police, and the weapons they were able to loot from police armouries have played a major part. For instance, an IRB document listing the weapons taken from its headquarters at Khabeisoi, in Imphal East, on 28 May, includes 139 self-loading rifles, with 130 magazines and 22,970 rounds of ammunition; 58 submachine guns, with 226 magazines and 6,437 rounds; 68 automatic pistols, with 140 magazines; 28 INSAS light machine guns, with 257 magazines and 30,690 rounds; 165 INSAS rifles, with 237 magazines; one Excalibur rifle, with 44 magazines; ten Amogh carbines, with 19 magazines and 1,2oo rounds; and eight AK assault rifles, with 164 magazines and 6,610 rounds. The list also includes one MP5 submachine gun, three teargas guns, 13 bulletproof helmets, five bulletproof jackets and a pair of night vision binoculars.

In photos I have seen and verified of the militias attacking Khamenlok, Meiteis can be seen carrying guns with white markings, indicating that they belong to an armoury. Police commandos can be seen standing next to civilians with these looted guns. I also found photographs of a car that had been used to transport weapons to various battle sites. It was marked “AMUCO”—referring to the All Manipur United Clubs’ Organisation, a Meitei civil-society group. A mobile phone found inside the vehicle belonged to Thounaojam Shantikumar Meitei, who was, as of 2021, the secretary of Bright Way Club, a constituent of the AMUCO.

The AMUCO, like most Meitei politicians and media outlets, has blamed Kuki SoO groups for the violence. “This is wrong,” a Kuki government employee whose house was burned in Imphal told me. “We have been fending for ourselves. We’ve been feeding our displaced by ourselves. We’ve been defending our land by ourselves.” On 9 June, the Hindustan Times quoted army officials who said that recent searches by the police and the Assam Rifles in 14 camps of SoO groups had revealed that almost all their weapons were locked up, as per the agreement, and around sixty percent of the cadre were present in the camps, as opposed to seventy percent before the violence started. I met several Kuki families who barely have money for essentials but have had to contribute to the volunteers’ fundraising drives to buy ammunition.

Through my conversations with the volunteers and other Kukis, I gathered that, over the last decade, a sense of disillusionment towards the SoO groups has set in among the community. “Nobody is allowed to have an opinion of what is right or wrong, let alone critique,” Lamtinthang Haokip, the COPPK general secretary, told me. In 2020, when he was a Congress candidate in a by-election for the Saitu assembly seat, Lamtinthang had alleged that cadre of a SoO group had opened fire at a campaign rally. He accused the groups of influencing 3lections. “Only if they support an individual will they be returned to power,” he said. “The SoO leaders have crushed leadership from within the community.”

Like many others, Lamtinthang believes that aligning with Biren Singh—the election of ten Kuki legislators in 2022 was essential to the BJP attaining its majority—is the biggest political blunder the community has committed. “You don’t deal with the devil and expect anything good out of it,” he said. Several young Kukis told me that the central government’s delay in stemming the violence made them regret the decision, but some of them added that, for the first time, SoO leaders were being pulled up for their lack of accountability over the past decade.

On 3 July, the house of Sailen Haokip, the spokesperson of the Kuki National Organisation, was burned down, a day after the KNO and the United People’s Front, the two main umbrella organisations of SoO groups, announced that they would lift a blockade of a national highway connecting Imphal and Dimapur, the largest city in Nagaland, following secret talks with Himanta Biswa Sarma, the chief minister of Assam. “These groups were on the verge of losing their legitimacy amongst the community,” one village chief told me, on condition of anonymity. “The central government chooses to speak to them as our representatives, and so be it. But, if they falter after what we’ve faced as a community, they’ll not go unquestioned this time.”


LHINGBOI CHONGLOI is the sole breadwinner of her family, which consists of her mother, two nieces and a nephew, whom she has cared for since her brother died. She used to work as a teacher at a school in Aigejang, close to Bungte Chiru in Kangpokpi district, and as a farmer, tilling her family land to cultivate ginger, pineapple, vegetables and rice. Her village was burned down on 3 May. After an ordeal of three days, she and her family, as well as others from her village, made it to Churachandpur. She initially stayed with relatives but, as the days went by, their food supplies started to dwindle. The family now lives in a church at Bijang, which is functioning as a temporary relief camp. “Even when there wasn’t much income in the past, we had our land and our means of production,” Lhingboi told me. “We never starved. Now that we’ve lost that and are not in a position to produce anything, there is an impending food crisis that I foresee.”

In some of the relief camps I could visit in the Imphal Valley, Meitei refugees told me that various groups were organising medical check-ups almost every day. They expressed gratitude for their legislators, who, they said, were helping them access such facilities even during a war. This was in stark contrast with the experience of the displaced in the hill districts.

Even though the Biren Singh government decided to invoke a no-work-no-pay principle for its employees, many Kukis are too traumatised by incidents of lynching to even consider returning.

Many officials I spoke to believe that a food crisis is imminent, considering that the state government is not helping the hill districts with supplies. Even central supplies, such as rice for the public distribution system, are stuck because of blockades in Bishnupur and Thoubal districts. But the immediate cause for concern is access to medical facilities in the hills. The supply is so bad that the central forces had to airlift life-saving drugs to Churachandpur.

“We also are no longer in a position to afford medical treatment,” Lhingboi said. “Many in relief camps cannot afford it as we don’t have money and are now hesitating to even approach hospitals.” She told me about the death of a two-year-old in her relief camp. Lenminlun’s parents had fled with him from New Keithelmanbi, in Kangpokpi district, after their village was burned down, on 3 May. The village was located in an area with very poor road connectivity, and it took weeks for the family to reach Churachandpur, travelling through forests mostly on foot. Lenminlun received some medical attention when they arrived, but his parents were not able to access a doctor when he fell sick again. They eventually managed to take him to a government hospital, where he died on 11 June. At another camp in Churachandpur, a woman died two days after giving birth, since her family could not afford to get her treated for too much bleeding.

Mangneilun Vaiphei was beaten up by a mob and left to die in a ditch, in the Island subdivision of Kangpokpi district. His wife, Vavah, fought her way through the mob and returned to their village to find him. She lugged him with her towards the hills, eventually making it to Motbung, a village in Saitu–Gamphazol, where they now stay in a relief camp. Mangneilun can no longer use his right eye and experiences excruciating headaches. He was not able to afford medical care. Civil-society organisations tried to help, but there is not a single CT scan facility in the district. Vavah is hoping to take him to Nagaland once she can afford it.

Tinhoivah Vahboi, a 25-year-old Kuki woman I met in a Churachandpur camp, told me that her Meitei husband had hidden her away in their home in Moirang, a town in Bishnupur district that is dominated by Meiteis, until the end of June. Her mother-in-law, however, informed the Meira Paibis about where she was hiding. Fearing an attack, Tinhoivah fled with her two-year-old child.

ALMOST ALL GOVERNMENT OFFICES are located in the valley, and, even though the Biren Singh government decided to invoke a no-work-no-pay principle for its hundred thousand employees, on 26 June, many Kukis are too traumatised by incidents of lynching to even consider returning. On 4 May, Vungzagin Valte, a BJP legislator from Thanlon, in Churachandpur district, was returning home from a meeting with Biren Singh when his vehicle was waylaid by a Meitei mob. His personal security officer, a Meitei, was spared, but Valte and his driver were taken to a community hall and tortured with electric shocks. The driver died, while Valte is currently paralysed and being treated in a Delhi hospital. An income tax official was dragged out of his quarters and killed, while an undersecretary in the government’s veterinary department was dragged out of her car and left for dead. The houses of several Kuki legislators, police officers and bureaucrats were burned down.

“This is the second time the state is waging a war on us, but we are still standing tall and proud,” Chungjalen Haokip, a Congress politician and former leader of the Kuki Students’ Organisation in Chamdil district, told me. The first instance he was referring to was the conflict between Kukis and Nagas in the 1990s, when the chief minister, Rishang Keishing, was a member of the Tangkhul Naga tribe. According to government figures, 473 Kukis and 208 Nagas were killed in the fighting, which largely centred on Moreh between 1992 and 1997. What is common between the two conflicts is that the political establishment, be it legislators or government officials, is still predominantly Meitei. During the Naga–Kuki conflict, they remained neutral and helped both communities. In this war, however, the Meiteis in power in the valley have ensured that there are different forms of cornering the Kukis in the hills.

One is, of course, the strict blockade of resources. The people in the hills face severe shortages, as do the central forces, whose supplies continue to be blocked in Bishnupur district. The second is by restricting travel between the hill districts, as travel through the Imphal Valley is now impossible for Kukis. All the villages and routes between Kangpokpi and Churachandpur had been destroyed by the end of May. The crucial bridge over the Manipur River at Sugnu, in Kakching district, was also burned, on 28 May, cutting off access to Churachandpur district from the east. Travelling from Kangpokpi to Churachandpur without passing through Imphal takes anything between fifteen hours to two days, depending on the weather. Travelling from Churachandpur to Tengnoupal, the border district that contains Moreh, can take over seven hours, provided one manages to cross the Manipur River. Reaching Mizoram can take more than fourteen hours, again depending on the monsoon rains, which have made the roads worse than usual. Even travel within a district, such as between the towns of Kangpokpi and Saikul, is harrowing, as the roads have not been repaired in over a decade.

The third form of marginalisation is the way in which the land of the displaced is being treated. In the hills, Meitei settlements are being stripped down by people from across communities, both local and non-Manipuri. Iron rods, bricks, whatever possible, is being taken away. But, along the buffer zones in Churachandpur, many of these properties, though partially burned, remain untouched and are being monitored by security forces. Some soldiers told me that, while they have distributed any produce they found in the houses among the locals, instead of letting it rot, they have ensured that nothing is taken away.

This is not the case elsewhere. On 11 June, Dingo Singh, the minister for social welfare, had a bulldozer clear burnt Kuki houses in Kangchup Songlung, in Kangpokpi district. Similarly, when I was in Imphal, I was able to verify reports that Paite Veng, a neighbourhood founded sixty years ago, had been renamed. The entrance had a board calling it Kwakeithel Ningthemkol, with two Salai Taret flags on top. The family of Vungkham Hangzo, one of the founders of the Kuki neighbourhood, told me that they had fled on 3 May, after which all the houses were burned down by Meitei mobs. The arch at the entrance was erected before Amit Shah’s visit, and journalists are no longer allowed to visit. “They erased our existence,” Hangzo’s daughter Niang told me. Her 86-year-old mother, a Meitei, fled Manipur with the rest of her family on 6 May.

TENGNOUPAL DISTRICT, on the Myanmar border, is facing an economic blockade, with essential supplies being blocked by those in the valley. “If we don’t receive rice in the next month, we are bound to starve,” Mangboi Haokip, who lives in the Kuki village of Molnoi, told me. District officials said that they are doing what is needed, but the supplies are being blocked by Meitei mobs in neighbouring Thoubal district.

Nenghoithem, a history student living in H Lhangcham, a border village, told me that there was fear among the people because of the conflict but that her family felt reassured due to regular patrolling by the Assam Rifles. “The only worry for us is survival,” she said. “The Burmese borders are sealed, and we no longer have access to essentials that businesswomen on scooters used to bring to us.”

The narrative around “illegal immigrants” has made Indian security forces ban Kenbo, a commonly used fuel-efficient two-wheeler that Burmese women used to ferry vegetables and essential supplies to those living in border villages. Such supplies were more reasonably priced in a region that is experiencing peak inflation. The border villages now face a food shortage, and their residents, most of them farmers, have bare minimum facilities even at the best of times. There is no health centre anywhere, and they have to travel to Moreh to see a doctor. This is a problem during medical emergencies, as their movement is highly restricted by the security forces due to the conflicts in Manipur and Myanmar.

Though there has been additional deployment of the Border Security Force in the region, army sources told me that there is no additional threat from across the border, with the situation remaining the same as before 3 May. When I was in Moreh, however, there were rumours across the town that a leader of the United National Liberation Front had been spotted in the market and had an altercation with Kukis from SoO groups. Official sources from the Tengnoupal administration confirmed to me that around two hundred Meiteis, some of whose houses had been burnt in Moreh, had fled across the border and were being trained at camps belonging to various Meitei underground groups. This is cause for additional concern in the border villages, as the target for these groups is no longer just the central forces, as was previously the case.

There are many communities living in Moreh, including Manipuri Tamils. Community leaders maintain that they are neutral in the conflict, but one of them, who did not want to be named, narrated the chaos of its early days. On 3 May, they said, Kukis in Moreh told Meiteis to leave. Once they left, the Kukis began setting their houses on fire. Since the houses were made of wood and adjacent to one another, the fire spread to Tamil houses as well. “When this happened,” the Tamil community leader said, “a leader of the Kuki Students’ Organisation drove a fire engine to the locality and tried to douse out the fire.” Kuki leaders told me that they had tried, but failed, to stop the mobs from burning the houses. Soon after, an altercation broke out between the mob and police commandos, who killed two Kuki men. When a similar mob gathered on 28 May, the commandos opened fire again, killing one Kuki man and injuring a BSF soldier.

The Kukis have held animosity against the commandos ever since they were posted in Moreh, in 2012, to augment the Assam Rifles in counterinsurgency operations. Many Meitei leaders had alleged that the Assam Rifles stationed there unduly favoured the SoO groups over Meitei underground outfits. Over the past two months, Kuki organisations have held regular protests calling for the commandos’ removal. “No other hill district has police officers who are Meitei,” Thingneichong Gangte, the president of the Moreh unit of the Kuki Women’s Union, told me. “Why are they still here? We have been raped and killed in their presence, you think we’ll feel safe around them?” Because of these confrontations, the commandos have largely remained within their camp, not venturing out. On 26 July, after thirty abandoned Meitei houses were set on fire, the state government ordered the commandos to step out and control the mob.

Kuki organisations in Tengnoupal, meanwhile, are holding an indefinite protest against the state government’s decision to send more IRB personnel to the town. “We have no problem with IRB officers being posted here, but they can’t be Meitei,” Gangte said. “This has been our position about the commandos as well. They can post Naga officers, Pangal officers, even non-Manipuri officers. But, in the middle of this war, we won’t accept Meitei police officers being sent to our town.” The villages near Tengnoupal fear that they will be in the line of fire if the situation escalates further, having avoided the violence so far. The market in Pallel, for instance, continues to be accessed by both Meiteis and Kukis, thanks to the coming together of local civil-society organisations.

“AS MOREH remains volatile, the people who are suffering the most are the displaced from Burma,” the Tamil community leader told me. “They have to run away from the violence there and now they have to hide here.” They said that the narrative was not as skewed against refugees from Myanmar earlier as it is now. “When people we know face attacks from the militia across the border, they are left with no choice but to come over and take shelter among villages here,” Nenghoithem’s father, Ngamkholum, said. “Some of them were even arrested by the commandos in Moreh and called ‘illegal immigrants.’ We are living from hand to mouth and yet helping those in need, for which we are being called names.”

It behoves a mature democracy to fix accountability for such an utter breakdown of law and order, particularly when the state has played a nakedly partisan role.

The Zo people—who are known as Kukis, Mizos and Chins in different polities but share the same ethnicity—are spread across India, Myanmar and Bangladesh. The unrest in Myanmar has seen many of them flee their homes to border towns in India, where people known to them live. When the situation settles down back home, they return. Many of their settlements are temporary, unless their village across the border has been burned down by the Burmese army or militias. This provision of refuge by Manipur’s Kukis has been twisted to brand the entire community as “illegal immigrants.” Prominent Meitei organisations from Imphal have been exacerbating this rhetoric, with the government also supporting it. Even Kuki chiefs who provide space for Burmese refugees to stay are scared to speak up, lest they be targeted by local authorities.

Mizoram has been the only state to offer refuge to those fleeing the two conflicts. Its chief minister, Zoramthanga, a BJP ally, has been outspoken about helping those displaced by the war in Myanmar, but this is not the case with Kuki leaders in Manipur. Paolienlal Haokip, the BJP legislator who stood up for the residents of K Songjang, told me that they should have been more assertive about the issue of Burmese refugees as he believes that helping those affected by war is, after all, a humanitarian duty. But India’s policies regarding refugees—which depend on the government of the day, since the country is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees—have been disappointing in recent times. The refusal to address an issue such as this, where an international border is involved and the people living on either side are kith and kin, is also a reason for the malicious campaigns that have sprung up over the past few years, some spearheaded by Biren Singh himself.

On 29 July, the state government began collecting biometric data of 105 Burmese refugees who have been placed in a detention centre outside the Sajiwa jail. A few days earlier, the state’s chief secretary had asked the Assam Rifles to collect the biometrics of 718 refugees it had intercepted before deporting them. According to instructions received from the union home ministry, the biometric data of all “illegal immigrants” in Manipur is to be collected by September. This data is expected to be used to prevent the refugees from acquiring Aadhaar cards. Most of the detainees at Sajiwa were part of a group of 81 refugees—including ten children—who had crossed over into Moreh, in 2021, fleeing the violence back home. After they were arrested, in January this year, a court directed the government to provide them access to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. The outbreak of the violence prevented this from happening and stalled plans to build a shelter home for detainees near Moreh.

Even as the data collection drive commenced, the politics behind it were being made clear on the streets of Imphal, as over two hundred thousand Meiteis reportedly participated in a march organised by the Coordinating Committee for Manipur’s Integrity. The protesters raised slogans denouncing Kuki attacks, the SoO agreement and the demand for a separate administration in the hill districts. As the march concluded with a public meeting at the polo ground near the Manipur palace, the Imphal Times reported, the attendees “resolved to exterminate Chin Kuki Narco-Terrorists and Foreign Illegal immigrants from the soil of Manipur to end the present conflict.” In an editorial, the newspaper delivered a warning to state and central leaders, who were not doing enough to defeat the Kukis: “Time To Man Up Or Move Out Of The Way.”

The Meitei nationalism that Biren Singh had nurtured was threatening to overtake him. Whether or not the chief minister can keep the hatred he has stoked within his control, however, it behoves a mature democracy to fix accountability for such an utter breakdown of law and order, particularly when the state has played a nakedly partisan role. The restoration of peace in Manipur will require truth and reconciliation about how the state’s two largest communities were pitted against each other for political ends and how its government emboldened Meitei militias and gave them free rein to arm themselves and massacre Kukis under the garb of “protecting Manipur’s territorial integrity.” The union government will have to explain why it stood aside and let all this happen. Most importantly, it will need a lasting solution to heal the divide between the hills and the valley, and prevent such horrors from occurring again.

GREESHMA KUTHAR is an independent journalist and advocate from Tamil Nadu. She has authored an 18-part series on the rise of Hindu nationalism in southern Coastal Karnataka.

https://caravanmagazine.in/conflict/how-bjp-enabling-ethnic-cleansing-manipur has pictures. Please consider subscribing to and supporting Caravan.

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