Imphal: Four men kneeling in a makeshift bunker face a lush paddy field, their guns propped against a wall of cement sacks. Bamboo poles support the corrugated tin roof. Wearing homemade bulletproof vests, they train their weapons — mostly old single- and double-barrel shotguns — on a rival bunker less than a mile away. A cartridge belt hangs from a pole.
The men are all civilian members of the “village defense force”—among them a driver, a laborer, a farmer, and Tomba (whose name we’ve changed to protect his identity). Tomba ran a mobile phone repair shop in India’s northeastern state of Manipur before deadly ethnic conflict erupted in May.
The separation of communities in this corner of the world’s fastest-growing major economy feels like a heavily militarized border separating countries at war.
“We have to protect ourselves because we don’t think anyone else will. I’m scared but I have to hide it,” Tomba said.
He and the other three in the bunker belong to the majority Meiteis community, who mostly follow Hinduism.
A sense of fear has spread across Manipur since shocking violence erupted between their community and minority Kuki groups, with brutal killings and sexual crimes against women. More than 200 people have been killed, nearly two-thirds of them Kuki, a collective name for the Kuki, Zomi, Chin, Hmar and Mizo tribes, who are mostly Christians.
On May 4, two Kuki Zumi women were stripped naked by a mob of Meitei men. A young woman was allegedly gang-raped, her father and 19-year-old brother were beaten to death.
We met her mother. According to Indian rape laws, the family cannot be identified.
“To see how my daughter was treated, after my husband and son were killed, it made me want to die. My husband was an elder in the church. He was gentle and kind. His arms were knives. “My son was a gentle boy in class 12 who never fought with anyone. He was brutally beaten with sticks.” She cried as she spoke.
“He was killed because he ran after them to save his sister. My daughter has not recovered. They were killed in front of her.
“He has trouble eating and sleeping. I can never be at peace after the way my family was treated.”
Despite a police complaint filed in May, no investigation into the incident took place until her video surfaced on social media in July. This is when the conflict in Manipur caught the attention of many people in India and around the world.
This is also when Prime Minister Narendra Modi broke his silence on Manipur.
Accounts of how the violence began vary. The Meitei community lives mostly in the state’s more prosperous Imphal Valley, which comprises about 10% of Manipur’s area.
The rest of the state – the relatively backward hilly regions – is home to minority groups, including the Kukis, who are given tribal status. It is a constitutional protection aimed at protecting the land, culture, language and identity of India’s historically marginalized communities.
This is the reason why Meiteis are not allowed to buy land in the hills. Kukis can buy land anywhere in the state.
On 3 May, the Kuki tribes held protest rallies against the move to grant tribal status to the Meiteis.
The Kukis accused hard-line Meitei groups of carrying out systematic attacks against minority families living in Imphal and nearby areas. Meiteis says it was the people who participated in the Kuki march that became violent first.
The BBC cannot independently confirm what happened, but those killed in the first few days of violence were from the Kuki minority.
Hundreds of houses of people of both communities were burnt or destroyed, churches and temples were burnt. About 60,000 people from the two communities are estimated to be displaced, most still living in schools, sports complexes and other shelters, unable to return home.
Four months later, Meiteis and Kukis are completely physically segregated, forbidden to enter areas where the other dominates.
While traveling 60 kilometers (37 miles) from Meitei-dominated Imphal to Kuki-dominated Churachandpur in the south, we had to cross seven police and army checkpoints.
On both sides, we also had to show our press badges and answer numerous questions at checkpoints manned by dozens of civilian women. We could not enter without their approval – an indication of the lack of government control.
When we met Tomba in the Meitei Bunker, we were surprised to see how openly he and others were carrying weapons, apparently unafraid of being caught by the police or security forces. In both Meitei and Kuki areas near the de facto borders, we often saw civilians walking around freely with weapons, sometimes in the presence of police and security forces. The BBC also saw minors carrying guns.
“I was trained to use a gun by ex-military personnel from my village two months ago,” Tomba, who is in his thirties, told us. “The villagers collected these guns and gave them to us.”
They say they are on 24-hour vigil. “It is mandatory that one man from each family shifts at the duty post, and one woman is posted at the check post.
“In our experience, the police are not deployed on time. And we do not trust the security forces run by the national government. They are deployed on the Kuki side, so how come the Kukis still come to our villages?”
As we stepped out of the bunker, there was an explosion that sounded like a mortar shell. It is difficult to tell from which side it was fired.
Tomba’s response exposes another layer of this complex conflict. The Manipur Police reports to the state government, which is headed by Chief Minister N Biren Singh. People from the Kuki community have told us that they do not trust Mr. Singh or the Manipur Police.
Manipur also houses troops from the Assam Rifles, a counter-insurgency force that reports to the national government of India. People from the Meitei community have told us that they believe the Assam Rifles are supporting the Kukis.
Thousands of weapons were looted from the police armory in Meitei-dominated areas.
The Manipur Police and the Assam Rifles did not respond to the BBC’s questions about whether they had sided with any one community and why all armed citizens were not being rounded up and their licenses checked.
Police directed us to his account on X, formerly known as Twitter, where he was posting photos of the weapons he seized. At least six police officers have been reported killed in Manipur since the violence began.
The Director General of Assam Rifles sent us a pre-recorded video address saying that they are confiscating arms and performing their duties impartially.
Less than a mile from Tomba’s position, in a similar but opposite bunker, Khakham (not his real name), sits holding a double-barreled shotgun. From the Kuki Zomi tribes, he is a laborer and subsistence farmer.
“We are not here with bad intentions. We do not want violence. We are forced to take up arms to defend ourselves against the Meiteis,” he said.
“There have been instances when the police have allowed them to go out. They cannot be trusted completely,” he claimed.
Khakham’s account of how he acquired his gun and training was similar to Tomba’s.
The language of war is being used on both sides. The area between the two bunkers is called the “front line”, “buffer zone” or “no man’s land”.
“We can never live with the Meiteis again. It’s impossible,” Khakham said.
When you hear the details of the violence, it’s easy to understand how the rivalry got so bitter and so deep so quickly.
David Tuolor, a 33-year-old Kuki-Hmar man, was part of the Langza “village defense force”. David’s family says he was captured from their village and killed by a Meitei mob on July 2.
In a video that surfaced online shortly after his death, his severed, severed head is seen stuck to a fence.
David’s younger brother Ibrahim told us, “It’s very painful to see. I’m having trouble sleeping.” “I don’t even put pictures of him on my phone, because when I look at them he keeps coming back. It hurts and I start thinking about disturbing things.”
Abraham says that David was tortured and strangled, and his remains were burned. They have only found a few bones that they believe are his.
Five days after David’s death on July 7, 29-year-old Ngaleiba Sagolsem, a Meitei man, went missing near the Kuki-dominated area of northern Manipur.
A day later a video surfaced of him kneeling on the ground, hands tied behind his back, his face covered in blood, as he was beaten by a group of men. Two months later, another video surfaced showing him in the same position, then being shot in the head and pushed into a ditch.
Ngaleiba’s family believes he was killed by Kuki men.
He met his wife Silbiya 10 years ago and fell in love when they were still in school.
“He was a simple man, loved by everyone. He had a childlike quality and loved to play with our children. Our life was full of happiness and contentment,” said Silbiya with tears rolling down her cheeks.
Their two boys are four and seven months old.
“My elder son keeps asking where his father is. Since we haven’t found his body, I sometimes think he will come back. I open the door and look for him. I call his phone. ” she cried.
In the city of Imphal, another family is living in despair, dismayed by the news of their daughter. On July 6, 17-year-old Meitei girl Linthoingambi Hijam went missing with her male friend Hemanjit Singh near the Kuki-majority area.
Their phones were switched off. With the help of people in his community, her father Kulajit Hijam claims that they learned that the boy’s phone had switched on after a few days with a SIM card registered in the name of a Kuki woman.
“No one is helping us to find out what happened to my daughter,” he said.
“I know if she’s able to talk to the people she has, she’ll convince them to let her go. I feel like she’ll surprise me by coming back. ”
With no communication facility between the two sides so far, and the police unable to visit Kuki areas, people like Kulajit have nowhere to turn for answers.
Land rights only partially explain the tension. Meiteis have more political influence in the state, with most of its chief ministers hailing from the community.
Another point of tension is the influx of tribal people similar to the Kukis from war-torn Myanmar, who share a long border with Manipur. Illegal poppy cultivation in the hills has also been a source of friction.
People from the Meitei and Kuki communities have told us they are unhappy with the Manipur state government – the Kukis accuse it of supporting violence against them, while the Metis accuse it of trying to stop the violence from spreading. Didn’t do anything.
Manipur Chief Minister Biren Singh’s office did not respond to the BBC’s request for an interview or to our emailed questions.
Both communities express frustration with the national government of India.
“I was disappointed that PM Modi only spoke after the Kuki women video. It made me unhappy. Isn’t Manipur a part of India? Then why are we being ignored?” Tomba Meitei asks sitting in the bunker.
The Manipur government is also run by Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). And so, many in the state believe that the national government can resolve the crisis quickly if it wants to.
“We haven’t heard anything from them [the Indian government] for months. We feel they don’t care about the lives or suffering of many innocent Indian citizens. We are clearly not a priority,” Khakham added. Requesting a Kuki for Separate administration in the state.
Prime Minister Modi has said: “Peace is slowly returning to Manipur.”
But there have been at least five incidents of violence in the past three weeks alone, the latest on Sunday when an Indian soldier on leave was abducted and killed from his home in Imphal.
With thousands of armed, agitated and frightened civilians, the situation is extremely volatile.
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