Anger, distrust and grief: Manipur's ethnic divide widens amid violence

The north-eastern state is home to 34 tribal communities and the centre of India's ethnic violence

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Jessica Lalaneiphiek’s voice trembles with emotion as she speaks about her cousin David Thiek, whose severed head was found hours after he was allegedly attacked by Meitei militants in Churachandpur, a district in north-eastern India’s Manipur state, which has suffered two months of ethnic violence.

Mr Thiek, 31, was patrolling his village with other men in the early hours of July 2 when Meitei militants allegedly opened fire at them and in the ensuing gunfight, he was captured and allegedly tortured and decapitated.

“We are angry. He was my cousin, he lived with us for ever and he was killed,” Ms Lalaneiphiek told The National.

“He was patrolling the village, keeping the village safe, but he was caught.”

Mr Thiek is one of the estimated 140 victims of ethnic violence in the tiny north-eastern state that is divided between hills and valleys and is home to 34 tribal communities.

Mounting Anger

Manipur borders Myanmar and Bangladesh.

Since May 3, the state has plunged into violence as the majority Meitei Hindus and Christian Kuki tribal groups clash over a government policy that would grant greater benefits to Meiteis.

About 40 per cent of the state's population have traditionally inhabited the hilly areas that make up 90 per cent of the state’s land.

Meiteis account for more than half of the population and dominate the valley areas, but have been demanding to be included in the tribal list that would allow them to buy land in the hills dominated by tribes including the Kuki people.

The violence increased almost two months ago after a mob set fire to a gym in Churachandpur in protest against the state government's proposal to put Meiteis on the tribal list.

It was preceded by street clashes after violence at a Kuki rally.

Eventually, clashes between the communities broke out in other parts of Manipur, leading to large scale arson, sexual violence, and killings.

Media in India reported that Meena Hangsing, 45, a Meitei Christian who was married to a Kuki, and her seven-year-old son, Tonsing, were burnt to death in mob violence on the outskirts of Imphal on Sunday.

As the burning of properties continued, women, children and elders were forced to flee to army camps, while young men from both communities volunteered to keep vigil in their villages, including guarding the localities with “licensed arms”.

Mr Thiek was one of the volunteers.

“Most of the men were patrolling the village at night when we heard the sound of bullets. We woke up and shifted to a safer place, a big hall, but men were out there patrolling. It was around 3.30am (and) when the gunfight stopped after an hour, his mutilated, charred body was found. Meitei militant group Arambai Tenggol caught him,” Ms Lalaneiphiek said.

“Not only did he die. They cut his limbs, decapitated him and burnt his body parts. We are angry and in a lot of pain. There has been no stopping of these clashes.”

Growing distrust

While there was always an undercurrent of ethnic tension in the state, the unprecedented scale of violence, brutality, torching of properties, sexual assaults and killings has destroyed what remained of trust between the two communities.

In Churachandpur, the distrust and resentment is palpable.

The roads leading to the hilly district are fortified with back-to-back army checkpoints. No Meitei person is “officially” allowed to enter the district and similarly Kukis are not allowed to leave the area.

Next to the army checkpoints, Kuki women thoroughly check every approaching vehicle to ensure that no Meitei enters their stronghold. Gunmen replace the women at night.

“We are checking every vehicle to ensure that no Meitei sneaks into our land. The way they drove us from our homes, we won’t allow them to step into our pious land,” a woman volunteer said.

Agnes Neikhohat Haokip, 23, is another victim of the clashes.

She was allegedly attacked by a Meitei mob a day after violence broke out in Churachandpur.

Ms Haokip was a nursing student at Nightingale Nursing Institute in the state capital Imphal, a Meitei dominated area, when, a day after the first clashes, she alleged that a mob went door-to-door seeking Kuki students in the hostel.

Eight tribal women managed to escape. Ms Haokip alleged that the mob, men and women, got hold of her and a junior student, both from a Christian tribe, and beat them “black and blue”.

“The mob identified us by our name. They asked us to come out of the room and took us out of the campus. They then started hitting, beating us. My junior was unconscious. Two men hit me in the head and I lost consciousness. I felt dizzy. They left us thinking we were dead,” Ms Hoakip told The National.

She was taken to hospital for two days of treatment in the intensive care unit before being moved by police to a relief camp set up by the Indian Army. Her parents managed to take her back to Churachandpur after two weeks, but she could not return as her home was destroyed.

“My village was burned down. I was hospitalised at the time. My family had to flee the village,” she said.

Nearly three months later, while her injuries have healed, Ms Haokip said that she has lost faith in the “other community” and never wants to return to Imphal.

“I don’t think I will go back to Imphal. I was shocked by the attack. I am scared but I don’t want to be with those people” she said.

Anguish over sexual assault

The growing divide has been exacerbated after a video of two tribal women being stripped and paraded in public was shown on social media, sparking outrage.

Ngaineikim, the President of the Kuki Women’s Organisation for Human Rights, which is based in Churachandpur, condemned the assault.

“There is no question of going back, it is next to impossible. How can we trust them again after they have raped our women, assaulted our women and brutally killed us?” Ngaineikim, who goes by one name, said.

“We have no heart to forgive them. Women are assaulted, beaten, raped and killed. Not just that viral video, there are many cases of assault which are still hidden under the carpet.”

Updated: July 25, 2023, 9:23 PM