South East Asian Headlines & Breaking News

In Manipur, Tension Between Meiteis And Kukis Shows No Signs Of Abating

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Half a dozen army personnel were manning the “checkpoint” at the border between Churachandpur and Bishnupur in Manipur. The area was surrounded by the remnants of houses that had been burnt down. This was the place where the clashes between Meiteis and Kukis first began.

lot of media people have come toda,” said the army personnel checking the identification of this reporter on the morning of July 23. The stream of journalists had been persistent since July 19 after a video from Manipur went viral in which two women, a 44-year-old and a 21-year-old, of the Kuki-Zo community—an umbrella term used for several tribes—were seen being paraded naked.

Fifty metres from the army checkpoint, a group of Kuki women volunteers stood with sticks checking cars. They let this reporter in after checking her credentials. Inside the main town of the Kuki-dominated Churachandpur, the signboards had been spray painted and “Lamka” was etched everywhere—the name used by the Kuki-Zo community to refer to the district. Women sat with bottles of petrol by the side of the road. A few of the shops were open which, according to a representative from the Kuki Students’ Organisation, was staggered through the week because of the curtailed access to food supply.

After a few hours of waiting, the reporters were led to a high school in the centre of the town to meet the families of the victims who had moved to Churachandpur. Here, the 44-year-old’s husband, an ex-army man, and the 21-year-old’s mother sat in a classroom facing a row of journalists. “My son and husband lost their lives, they have raped my daughter. Our belief is that there is no government anymore,” said the 21-year-old’s mother as she broke down into tears.

What Happened in May?

The Meitei community constitute over half of Manipur’s population of 27.21 lakh, as per the 2011 Census, and is largely based in and around the state capital, Imphal. Meanwhile, the Kuki-Zo community along with the Nagas, comprise 40 per cent of Manipur’s population and inhabit the hills. Violence erupted between the Meitei and the Kuki-Zo community on May 3 after several tribal groups staged a rally in the state’s Churachandpur district against a host of issues, including the demand by several Meitei groups to be included in the list of Scheduled Tribes.

The violence was allegedly provoked after a few unidentified people attempted to burn the Anglo-Kuki Centenary Gate, which was built to commemorate the 1917-1919 Kuki uprising against the British.

“After this rally, some youth of Churachandpur came out brandishing weapons near the gate. This was seriously taken by members of the Meitei community and allegations were made that the militants were instigating the Meitei people,” said a state police official who didn’t wish to be named. He added, “At Churachandpur, there was a Meitei house that was vandalised, but news started spreading that Kuki mobs were vandalising Meitei villages.”

Following this, the official said, Meitei mobs started arriving in and around the district. The villages at the border of Churachandpur and the Meitei-dominated Bishnupur soon witnessed riots that resulted in hundreds of Meiteis fleeing from the Kuki-dominated district.

Meanwhile, in Imphal, Meitei mobs descended upon Kuki households by the evening of May 3, according to the police official. They targeted neighbourhoods such as New Lambulane, which has a sizeable Kuki population.

On the morning of May 4, as news spread of the riots, village leaders of B Phainom village in Kangpokpi district convened a meeting with the village and gram panchayat leaders from neighbouring Meitei and Naga areas. “We decided that we should not be afraid and that we will keep the peace. But within a couple of hours of the meeting, we were attacked by the mobs,” he added.

According to the First Information Report (FIR) filed by the village chief on May 18, an armed and “violent mob” entered the village and started vandalising and burning houses. A few of the villagers had already fled the area and only five villagers, including the village chief’s 44-year-old wife (according to the FIR, she is 42 years old, but her family confirmed that she’s 44 years old), a 21-year-old woman, her 19-year-old brother, their 56-year-old father and a 53-year-old woman were left behind. The FIR states the five ran towards the forest and attempted to hide there.

But they were found by the mob.

“They were later rescued by a police team from the nearby Nongpok Sekmai police station. However, they were blocked on the way by a violent mob, who snatched them away from the custody of the police team,” the FIR mentions.

It adds that the mob lynched the 21-year-old’s father, and then “all the three women were physically forced to remove their clothes and were stripped naked in front of the mob”.

According to a victim’s account—as shared in a joint press statement by the various Kuki-Zo student organisations on July 23—the assaulters told the women that “tribals rape the Meiteis and even burn our children”.

The 21-year-old was “brutally gang-raped in front of the witnesses”. “The younger brother tried to def­end his sister’s life, but he was murdered by members of the mob on the spot,” the FIR further states.

“Someone in the mob put a cloth on them, but others took it off saying it was not the tribal clothes,” the 44-year-old’s husband told Outlook. The women scrambled to find their clothes and were told by the mob to run away “or else they would be killed”, the husband added.

For days, they were on the run, travelling from village to village through the jungles. “The nearest police station from our village is on the Meitei side, so we couldn’t go there. With a lot of difficulty, we reached Saikul in Kangpokpi district and lodged the FIR there after a few days,” the husband said.

So far, the police have arrested six people in the case. The Union Home Minister Amit Shah has said that the Central Bureau of Investigation will investigate the case.

Lianboi Vaiphei, the Vaiphei Students’ Associa­tion spokesperson, told Outlook that since the video went viral, 20-30 representatives of the national media came down to Churachandpur. “Before the video went viral, we weren’t app­roached like this before by the media. We really just want the media personnel to tell the truth,” said Vaiphei.

Other Cases of Assault

Forty-year-old Grace (name changed), a resident of Kangpokpi’s H Khopibung village, is still waiting for justice for her 21-year-old daughter, who was allegedly raped and murdered in Imphal East.

“[On the morning of May 4], we received threats that the Meiteis were coming to our village, there were microphone announcements saying that we should defend ourselves,” Grace told this reporter at the temporary office of Kuki Inpi, a non-profit organisation in Kangpokpi district.

The villagers ran for their lives and hid in the nearby fields. “I hid along with my two sons. There was no network in the area so I couldn’t call my daughter. I was worried about her,” she said and added, “After reaching to safety, I tried calling her again, but her phone was unreachable. Finally around 5.30 pm someone picked up the phone and told me, ‘do you want your daughter dead or alive’”. That was the last time Grace heard about her daughter.

The 21-year-old and the 24-year-old co-worker, a Kuki woman from the same village, had been hiding in a room near the car wash in Imphal East district where they were working. According to the FIR filed by Grace on May 16 at the Saikul Police Station, “Unknown persons… numbering about 100-200 persons” turned up at the car wash. The two women, the FIR states, “were brutally murdered after being raped and gruesome tortured [sic]”.

A relative of the 21-year-old confirmed that the FIR was filed on the basis of information from eyewitnesses. “The eyewitness told me that the two women were hiding under the bed. The mob dragged the women out and took them to a room where the brutality happened. We have submitted a recording of this phone conversation with the eyewitness to the superintendent of Kangpokpi,” the relative said.

“She was a very obedient girl and was the breadwinner in the family. After this attack, my husband’s health worsened and he is now admitted in a hospital,” Grace said.

On the same day, two Kuki-Zo nursing students—a 22-year-old and a 19-year-old—were allegedly attacked by mobs, who came to their hostel in Imphal’s Porompat area.

From a crowded rented room she was sharing with her family in Churachandpur, the 22-year-old nursing student told this reporter, “The Meiteis came inside the hostel. We were trying to hide under a bed, but some Meitei women found us. Then I pretended to be Naga, but they found my ID card.”

When Outlook met her last month, the women’s eyes and lips were swollen and she had lost three teeth due to the injuries. The two students were locked inside a room. “We saw our vice-principal. She told us to not be afraid. But after five minutes, the mob forced us out and started beating us with iron knives and sticks. Some started pulling my hair.” The two students have lodged police complaints—one in the Uttam Nagar police station in Delhi, and the other in the Churachandpur police station in Manipur. Outlook accessed the police complaint that was filed by the 19-year-old. The mob, she wrote, had left her to die on the street till “some good people” brought her to a hospital.

So far, no accounts of sexual assault have emerged where the victim was a Meitei woman. Outlook attempted to get a confirmation from Manipur’s Director General of Police, Rajiv Kumar. But there was no response.

As the riots spread to other parts of Manipur, a physical boundary was etched between the Kuki-Zo and Meitei communities. The Kuki-Zo residents of Imphal fled to the hills and to other states, including Mizoram. The Kuki-Chin-Mizo Zo fall under the larger umbrella of Zo or Zohnatlâk who are spread across India, Myanmar and Bangladesh. Meanwhile, the most affected Meiteis came down to the valley.

Role of Meitei Women

At Kangpokpi, representatives of the Kuki Inpi showed Outlook a video allegedly of the incident that took place at the car wash in Imphal East. In the video, Meitei women just stood by as one of the women was being dragged inside.

Incidentally, in July 2004, Manipur hit the headlines after 12 Meitei women stood naked in front of the iconic Kangla Fort with banners that said “Indian Army Rape Us” and “Indian Army Take Our Flesh”. They were protesting the brutal murder of 32-year-old Manorama Thangjam at the hands of an Assam Rifles personnel.

As jarring as the protest was, Meitei women have historically been at the forefront of protests. A cornerstone of Meitei society are the Meira Paibis—Meitei women considered to be the guardians of Meitei society. But this time, concerns loom over whether they are just peddling out vigilante justice amidst the conflict.

Outlook met the women of Lukmai Sellup Foundation, an association of women sellers, at the famous Ima Keithel, considered to be the world’s largest women-run market. Most women of this foundation are Meira Paibis and have been actively supporting the Meitei “youth on the frontlines”.

“We feel sorry for those Kuki women. We are also women. But on May 3, thousands of [Meitei] houses were burnt; the 80-year-old wife of a freedom fighter (referring to Sorokhaibam Ibetombi) was set ablaze. It is the government’s fault, they should’ve taken action,” said Asem Nirmala and added, “The Kuki militants are terrible. They brutally attack the Meiteis. We have seen these videos… our youths must’ve been furious with this and thought that all is fair in love and war.”

Fake news also appears to have fueled the incidents of assault. Nirmala said, “We heard that 200 Meitei women had been raped in Churachandpur.” She, however, denied when asked if she could identify the women.

The Aftermath

In the aftermath of the incident, Peace Accord MNF Returnees’ Association (PAMRA), a former insurgent group in Mizoram, issued a notification saying, “The situation in Mizoram has become tense and it is no longer safe for Meitei people from Manipur to live in Mizoram in the wake of the barbaric and heinous acts committed by miscreants in Manipur.” It added, “In light of their safety, they (Meitei people in Mizoram) will be responsible if something unpleasant occurs to them.”

“We are anxious and have been feeling insecure. The Mizoram government has been helping us, but this notification has made us feel insecure,” said Wahengbam Gopeshore, the president of the All Mizoram Meitei Association.

Following a meeting with Mizoram’s Home Department, PAMRA later clarified that the press release issued by them was an “advisory requesting Meiteis living in Mizoram to exercise caution in the light of public sentiments regarding the ongoing ethnic conflict in Manipur and was not a diktat or a quit notice to Meiteis”. But more than 90 per cent of Meiteis living in Mizoram have ended up leaving, Gopeshore said.

Now, the All Assam Manipuri Students’ Union’s (AAMSU) central committee has issued a statement saying, “Mizos living in the Meitei areas of Barak Valley” should vacate the area. Hours after issuing the statement, they issued a clarification saying that AAMSU was merely advising the Mizo Missionaries in Meitei villages to take precautions for their own safety.

-Outlook

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