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Suffering, Sound of Guns new Normal in Manipur

Fighting factions, even the State, seem to take access to prohibited arms for granted.
Manipur violence

Images by Aaisha Sabir

Over three months into the ethnic clashes in Manipur, people in many parts of the State still go to bed with the dreaded sounds of guns blazing. In the heart of Imphal, few are spared the horror of hearing guns going off and tear gas firing.

Around the 30-km radius from North AoC in Imphal city towards the hilly regions of Manipur, the sound of weapons going off is even more persistent.

In the hills, especially around the buffer zone created by the State after ethnic violence broke out on May 3, gunshots begin late at night and continue till the wee hours. 

The reason is the arms and ammunition, including prohibited bores, that people have gained access to in the State. 

“We have not seen such weaponry anywhere in India,” says a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel speaking anonymously. “We used to think Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir was hard—the extreme weather conditions, tear gas, stone-pelting and occasional firing. But go towards the outskirts of Imphal and watch the light and sound show every evening,” he quips.

On August 3, a mob attacked two armouries and robbed the Second Indian Reserve Battalion (IRB) at Naranseina village, in Bishnupur. It attempted to loot another but was thwarted by the Manipur Police and the Rapid Action Force (RAF). “A total of 327 rounds of ammunition and 20 tear gas shells were fired to control the mob,” says a Manipur police document.

Protesters thronged to the buffer zone—around 30 km from Governor Road in the heart of Imphal city, to protest a tribal group’s call for mass burial of 35 Kuki-Zo people killed in the violence.

The gunfire began early on August 3, escalated gradually and carried on well into the night. Meanwhile, despite armed forces deployed in the buffer zone, a mob successfully robbed the IRB. 

Although the burial was called off after the Union Home Ministry intervened, protesters had mobilised through the night in Bishnupur with the target of crossing the buffer zone.

“I want to go across and see my house. If the Kukis can come towards the Valley, why can’t we move towards the hills,” said a volunteer of Meira Paibis, or torchbearers, a women-led social movement.

The said burial ground is on government-notified land. While Kuki leaders claim the land lies in the Churachandpur district, Meitei leaders say it belongs to the Valley. The area has turned into a no man’s land—buffer zone.

In a sense, putting off the burial has de-escalated the Kuki-Meitei confrontation in the buffer zone. But this development occurred in the presence of young men brandishing rifles, including AK47s, and light machine guns (LMGs) if not country-made single-barrel and double-barrel guns. None of this is encouraging for Manipur.

An official document accessed by this reporter confirms that on August 3, the mob managed to decamp with all 57 weapons and ammunition, including an AK-47, 16 9mm pistols, 25 5.56 mm INSAS rifles, 195 7.62 mm SLRs, 124 (no. 36) hand grenades, and 82 51 mm HE mortar bombs and additional ammunition.

“Too many weapons are on the ground with people who have little understanding of the volatile situation. They will misuse the robbed weapons,” said a senior defence personnel. It means that these weapons will be deployed in the ongoing conflict in ways we are yet to discover.

Once you leave Imphal Valley and head for the hills, the firing involves militants, Kuki ‘Village Defence Forces’, or VDFs, and Assam Rifles against State forces, armed insurgent groups and Meitei VDFs. Additional Central forces are deployed on both sides. The deeper one goes into the hills, the more widespread prohibited weapons appear.

The buffer zone has been marked along the main road, but on either side are tiny houses within lanes and by-lanes that open out to paddy fields. In these narrow passages lie concealed the more lethal weapons—M4 carbines and M16s—many perhaps waiting to be unleashed.

On-ground observers, including this reporter, can see the kind of weapons the Kuki and Meitei factions have access to. For instance, militant and insurgent groups have prohibited M4s and M16s. There are allegations that weapons are being smuggled from Myanmar. The young fighters on the ground, from the hills or the Valley, have SLRs, INSAS rifles, LMGs, AK47s and more. They were either looted from the State forces or smuggled.

A senior official in the State police department says his orders are to wait and watch. “We cannot do much,” he says requesting anonymity. “Both sides open fire just to let the other community know they are armed and around. We are waiting for their ammunition to run out,” he says.

The immediate result of this wait-and-watch ‘policy’ is that the terrifying sounds of weapons have become a part of the new ‘normal’ in Manipur. The State is absent. Perhaps, hoping the militants and mobs would tire out—or perish. As the promised peace process fails to take off, the widespread availability of weapons and ammunition is being taken for granted by the fighting factions and the State.

“[The problem is also that] we don’t know who the enemy is. In other places we were deployed previously, we had one enemy against which we stood united. Here, things are different—two communities, both Indian, are fighting each other. We cannot fire or hit out at either; they are our people. Some insurgent group people are there too, but it is difficult to differentiate them from the crowd,” says the same CRPF official.

Manipur Police confirmed on August 5 that arms and ammunition were looted from different police stations in “both hill and Valley districts” on August 3. In the run-up to Independence Day, the State forces are on a drive to recover arms amid a boycott call, but as one Manipur Police tweet issued on August 13 indicates, the details and efficacy of this effort are still very unclear—12 arms, six ammunition and eight explosives from a drive conducted in Imphal East and West, Thoubal, Bishnupur and Churachandpur, when thousands of weapons are said to be in circulation. 

The situation is taking a significant toll on ordinary people. “The violence must stop. Our children have stopped going to school. We live in a shelter and cannot think of starting over. Will the atmosphere ever be normal again? What have we done to them [the Meitei]? Why do they hate us?” says Lamneiling, a Kuki woman who lived in the Imphal Valley but is now in a relief centre in Churachandpur.

According to official statistics, around 180 people have died in Manipur. The government’s approach, which seems to hinge on the hope of the violence dying out, is agitating people more. The situation is so fraught that even the BJP office in Imphal was recently attacked by a mob.

A section of the Meitei community is angry with the State government for failing to bring peace. Others claim the State and Central governments did not support them. Divided from the start over President’s Rule, many in the Valley are fed up, and some feel they must take control of the situation.

It is this context in which Meira Paibis, the fabled Manipuri ‘torchbearers’, recently forced four bus-loads of RAF soldiers to wait for four days on the side of a road instead of heading for deployment in the Kuki-inhabited areas. They alleged the Central forces would launch attacks on Meiteis from the hills.

With the distrust between Meiteis and Kukis this high, it will be no surprise if the curfew, relaxed two weeks ago, is reinstated—and continues unless there is a breakthrough.

The author is an independent journalist who has visited Manipur to report on the ongoing violence. The views are personal.

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