Thousands of people in India’s north-eastern Manipur state have fled their villages after their houses were burnt down following deadly clashes between a tribal and non-tribal community.
At least 60 people have been killed, more than 230 injured and 1,700 houses burnt to the ground after unrest between Christian tribes and a Hindu group in Manipur last week, state Chief Minister N Biren Singh said on Monday.
More than 20,000 people have been left stranded in shelters run by army and civil right groups, Mr Singh said. His government has started efforts to rehouse some in their relatives' homes.
Many of those who fled, including the elderly, women and children, have expressed not only shock but their fear for their future.
The undulating Manipur, which borders Myanmar and Bangladesh, is governed by Mr Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
About 34 ethnic tribes, comprising about 40 per cent of the state's population, have traditionally inhabited the hilly areas that make up 90 per cent of the land.
The Meiteis, who account for more than half of the population and dominate the valley areas, are confined to only 10 per cent of the land.
The community has been agitating to be granted scheduled tribe status, a motion opposed by Christian-majority Kukis.
Jang Kholal Khongfai, from the village of Haotak Phailen in Churachandpur district, is among those whose house was torched.
The 35-year-old farmer is now at a camp with his wife, five children and his ageing parents.
“Most of the village's women and children had already escaped and we were defending our villages,” Mr Khongfai told The National by phone. "They [the Meiteis] first came at 10pm but we used our single-barrel guns to scare them away.
“But they returned after four hours in about 30 to 40 vehicles, carrying automatic rifles and burnt down our village. We ran for our safety.
“We lived together all these years. The Meiteis lived in the neighbouring villages. We didn’t expect that they would come and burn down our village. we didn’t have the time to prepare or defend."
The violence began after a mob torched a new gym in Churachandpur that Mr Singh was scheduled to open. The Meiteis were angry over a government's decision to carry out a land survey in the forest region of the state.
While the state’s forest is a protected zone for tribes such as Kukis, the government proposed including the dominant Hindu Meitei community in the tribal list, triggering resentment.
The government order followed a court order late last month asking the authorities to send recommendations to the federal government for the inclusion of Meiteis in the tribal list.
The gym incident was preceded by street clashes, which broke out after a rally organised by the Indigenous Tribe Leaders Forum on May 3, leading to several fires being lit in Churachandpur and eventually in other parts of Manipur, forcing the state government to call in the military.
Authorities issued a “shoot-on-sight” policy in extreme cases and imposed internet shutdowns.
Although the situation is under control, people who fled to safety camps are worried about returning.
“It is shocking, these sort of atrocities, communal violence we had never expected. There was no enmity between the people earlier,” Lian Buite of the Kuki community from Kamuching village in Senapati district, told The National.
“Our village is surrounded by the Meitei villages and we fear that if we go back, we will be killed. We don’t feel protected. We have no hope for our future.”
Mr Buite, a businessman, was forced to flee his house after a mob ambushed his village on May 3.
He, along with his 88-year-old grandmother, his parents in their 60s, wife and two young children fled for safety and spent three days hiding in a jungle before contacting the army.
“A mob of 600-1,000 people came and completely burnt down the entire village ... 190 houses. They looted our livestock, stole our clothes, food that we had stored,” Mr Buite said.
“We ran for our life and hid in a jungle. We were hiding for three days without food. We saw the village being burnt. We were defenceless and watched the barbaric act. We are scared of returning now.”
He has accused the government of supporting the Hindu community and provoking the violence.
“The government wants to capture the tribal area through the Meitei people,” Mr Buite said. "They are trying to create a religious divide between the people.
At the camps the situation is challenging, with people huddled into small tents and relying on donated clothes and food.
Kiran Kumar Meitei, a volunteer with the Co-ordination Committee of Manipur Integrity, is helping people who fled their homes in capital Imphal and were shifted to a camp in Churachandpur.
“At least 4,000 people of the Meitei community from Imphal fled their homes after their houses were burnt down,” he said.
"They are facing challenges with clothes and food. One child was on her mother's shoulders when she asked if they were going home. The woman was inconsolable as her house was burnt down. It was heartbreaking.”
Mr Meitei said while communities had lived in harmony, there were recent attacks from both sides.
“The houses of those who lived in the border areas of the community villages and those in hilly areas were burnt down. Many houses of those people engaged in government wok and living in developed districts of Churachandpur and Moreh districts have been burnt down,” he said.
“The casualties are from both the communities. But we want the situation to improve. It is still a critical situation and normality will take time to return.”