Indian farmers pick up guns to protect homes as Manipur violence blights villages

Deadly clashes between Meitei and Kuki tribes have claimed at least 140 lives since early May

Powered by automated translation

Ngobi Singh is a farmer in a tiny village surrounded by lush green hills in India’s Manipur. However, for nearly three months, he and his fellow villagers have been keeping an armed watch to protect their homes amid deadly ethnic violence in the state.

Mr Singh, 28, from the Meitei community, lives in the valley area of Imphal West district, about 16km from the state capital Imphal. There, residents are manning sandbagged positions to defend against possible attacks from members of the Kuki tribes that live in the hills.

He is one of the thousands of men from the warring communities engaged in confrontation since May 3, when widespread clashes between the two groups erupted, leading to the deaths of at least 140 and displacing tens of thousands.

Mr Singh wears military fatigues and holds a double-barrel shotgun as he stands guard in the bunker perched on a small hill that overlooks rice fields.

“They have blocked the main road of our village and set up a camp there. To stop Kukis from entering our village and protecting our people, I have taken up arms,” he told The National.

“The war is not over yet. It is our responsibility to protect our village. We will not flee our village. I don’t have a bulletproof vest but I can die for my village and people.”

Manipur is divided between hills and valleys. The hilly areas make up 90 per cent of the land and are inhabited by the mostly Christian Kukis, whereas the valley is home to the predominantly Hindu Meiteis, who account for more than half of the population. Violence between the groups broke out over a government policy that would have given Meiteis the right to buy land in the hills.

The clashes spiralled, leading to incidents of arson in Churachandpur and eventually in other parts of Manipur, forcing the state government to call in the military.

Despite security forces on the ground, the rival groups regularly engage in gunfights.

To control any flare-ups, the government has banned the rival communities from entering each other’s territory.

But Mr Singh alleges Kukis raid Meitei villages in the valleys and foothills at night and fire bullets to scare the community.

“They have foreign automatic rifles, AK-47s. Our weapons are not on par with theirs – I am carrying this licensed double-barrel – but if they come close to us, at least we can protect ourselves,” he said.

There is similar anger and fear in Churachandpur, about 60km away, where armed Kukis man checkpoints and patrol roads to stop Meiteis from entering.

“Things have gotten out of hand and we can’t sit and watch them attacking us,” an armed Kuki man said. "It is escalating, it is not a war of one or two days. We have to volunteer to keep our village safe. If we don’t take up arms, our land will be gone forever."

As men from both communities take up arms to protect their homes, their women and children struggle at relief camps, many of them set up in converted schools.

At one such camp at Kanto in the Lamshang area, Inobi Kath said she desperately wants to return to her home.

“We ran from our homes thinking it would be a matter of one day but it has been nearly three months,” she told The National. "How long can we live here? What is our future, we don’t know … If this continues we will fall sick or lose our heads."

Ms Kath, 41, said she ran away from her home with her two sons, aged eight and 10, in Leimakhong Chingam village on May 4 after Kukis allegedly threatened them on loudspeakers.

“We were having breakfast. We left the village at 10.34am, by 3.34pm they started burning down our homes. We carried no clothes, no belongings. No one had thought we would be at a relief camp after three months,” she said.

Ms Kath alleged that despite curfews, gunfights have continued around her village.

“Kukis start firing around 6pm every evening," she said. "We sit silently. What else can we do? We want to go back to our village but there is no protection. They still fire guns.”

At a school turned into a relief camp in Churachandpur, a group of women cut vegetables for meals cooked for the residents in big cauldrons over woodfires.

More than 70 families, including 176 men, 177 women, five of them pregnant, and 172 children live huddled in big halls on two floors.

As men leave to stand guard, women look after the children who spend their days playing football, marbles or watching saved videos on mobile phones. The internet remains blocked.

Jessica Lamnunmawi, 14, who was shifted to the camp with her 12-year-old brother by her father, said she missed her studies and was desperate to go back to school.

“Me and my younger brother are here. In our village, they have been attacking us every day,” she said.

Their father lives in a different relief camp while their mother, who has separated from their father and remarried, lives outside the state.

“I miss my school. I had a lot of friends there,” she added. "My father said I will continue school next year in neighbouring Mizoram state. He doesn’t think it is good for us to be here."

Updated: July 28, 2023, 3:24 PM