Blog | A Year On, It Is Schrodinger's Manipur

A school that also serves as a relief camp for internally displaced people in Samurou, Imphal West

A school that also serves as a relief camp for internally displaced people in Samurou, Imphal West
Photo Credit: Debanish Achom

The Manipur ethnic violence began a year ago. To say "a year ago" is the strangest thing about the situation in a state that borders the troubled, junta-ruled Myanmar. The Centre had sent nearly 60,000 paramilitary forces to Manipur after clashes broke out between the Meitei community and the Kuki tribes on this day last year. The common people had hoped that the central forces would bring peace. But a year later, the situation on the ground is such that the armed people from both communities, who call themselves 'village defence volunteers', have set up fortified positions, while the central forces, who call themselves 'neutral', guard the middle areas, also known as 'sensitive zones'. Some call these areas 'buffer zones', like two nations at war divided by No Man's Land.

Modern India has never seen such a situation. It's hard to even define it adequately. Three things illustrate this. 

'Volunteers' Abound

First, everyone in Manipur who is from either of the two warring communities and carries an unlicensed gun is an 'armed person'. If such a person belongs to a group of armed people, well, then that's an 'armed group'. To call them 'village defence volunteers' is to allow common citizens to become murderers. Only the state, that is, the police, military, paramilitary, and so on, should carry guns, not the civilians. Yet, we see the media, activists, security forces and politicians casually calling such people 'village defence volunteers'.

These 'volunteers' can shoot anyone at will, anywhere, and get away with it in the name of 'volunteering' or 'defence'. So, say a civilian is shot dead in a quiet forest by a Meitei or a Kuki 'volunteer', with no one around to hear it. Would that be construed as a crime or not?

Read | Families Of Missing People From Meitei Community Seek Closure, A Year After Manipur Violence Began

Second, these armed 'volunteers' in Manipur, who are irked if you call them 'armed groups', walk around with weapons that even armies in many poorer nations likely don't have or can afford. From where and how did these 'volunteers' - many of them minors, and thus child soldiers - get advanced automatic assault rifles, mortars, sniper rifles, thermal scopes, long-range drones, belt-fed machine guns, bulletproof vests, combat boots, and tactical battledress, complete with vests that can carry 300 rounds of spare magazines, 30 bullets in each magazine? A few armed groups - nay, 'volunteers' - use a makeshift metal tube launcher that they call a 'pumpi gun', the poor man's artillery.

Flush With Weapons

Over 4,000 guns were looted from the Manipur police's armouries in the months following May last year, when the conflict erupted. The police say many of the guns have been returned. As we speak, however, the events on the ground appear to indicate that looted guns are very much in circulation. What's perplexing is that the loot had comprised mostly the AK series or INSAS assault rifles. But the guns that thousands of 'volunteers' are seen carrying today include the American-origin M series assault rifles, like the M4 and guns that are commonly used by the Myanmar military as well as insurgents. The sniper rifles are of a wide variety, ranging from scopes mounted on vintage bolt-action rifles to semi-automatic ones, like the Russian-origin Dragunov.

Also, how did the heavy-duty, long-range drones reach Manipur's 'volunteers'? The war in Ukraine has shown how drones are the future of warfare. In November 2023, the Indian Air Force (IAF) had to scramble Rafale fighter jets after it got information that an unidentified flying object had been seen near the airport in Imphal, Manipur's capital. The authorities had to stop commercial flights for over three hours and issue a NOTAM (Notice to Airmen) of airspace closure.

'Neutral' Forces Stay Put

Third, the 'neutral' central forces that guard the 'sensitive zones' in Manipur can possibly do a lot more, but that has not happened yet. Armed 'volunteers' from both sides continue to shoot at each other while central forces guard the middle ground. The Manipur security adviser, Kuldiep Singh, seemed puzzled last month after two Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) soldiers were killed in action as suspected insurgents attacked their temporary camp in the Bishnupur district. "I have seen that groups are now targeting national infrastructure such as roads and bridges. They are also attacking central forces. This cannot be tolerated. We will probe everything and take action against the culprits," he told reporters, adding "We have always strived to maintain neutrality between both communities. In the past, both communities have welcomed the presence of central forces, so why attack neutral forces now?" 

Well, here's a refresher: it has been a year since the Manipur violence began, but the central forces are still parked in 'neutral' mode. One Border Security Force (BSF) soldier was killed in action in Manipur last year, and several other central force personnel were injured. The police - which the Kuki tribes accuse of being biased towards the Meiteis - have suffered more casualties. It appears the 'volunteers' from both sides are emboldened as the central forces stay put in the 'sensitive zones'.

Wetlands on the outskirts of Kakching in Manipur

Wetlands on the outskirts of Kakching in Manipur
Photo Credit: Debanish Achom

A Version For Everyone

The above points largely indicate why violence in Manipur has not abated. As for why the violence even started in the first place, one would need a couple of books and maybe a three-hour-long documentary to understand that. By now, almost everyone in the country, and some in the world, probably know there is a place called Manipur in India's Northeast, somewhere near Myanmar, which is also the hub of the world's illegal opium poppy trade. They must have heard various things about the Manipur crisis, that it's an ethnic clash between two indigenous peoples over land and power, that it's a Hindus-vs-Christians, or an illegal-Myanmar-immigrants-vs-Indian-citizens, or a police-vs-drug- traffickers conflict.

What you hear will depend on whom you ask. Consider this: most mainstream media calls one group "militants" and the other "volunteers". These descriptors are changed every day depending on who's reporting. Sometimes Meiteis are militants, other times they are volunteers. The same goes for Kukis. Sometimes both are simultaneously militants and volunteers, like Schrodinger's Manipur. Yet, a group of people - who are not law enforcement - armed with rocket-propelled grenades and American assault rifles should really be defined as 'armed groups', whether Meitei, Kuki or Rambo's squad of mercenaries.

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A village in Bishnupur district's Naranseina, which is about 3 km from the foothills and 2 km from the line guarded by central forces

Photo Credit: Debanish Achom

Some people living abroad who have roots in Manipur or Myanmar have rushed to global platforms, including events linked to the United Nations, and have stamped the Manipur crisis as a Hindus-vs-Christians conflict. Churches have been razed, temples destroyed. The Kukis are Christians and a majority of the Meiteis are Hindus, though a few are Christians and Muslims too.

Others, especially those of the 'military enthusiast' variety, have linked the Manipur crisis to geopolitics, with China, the US, and India closely monitoring the Myanmar civil war between the junta and armed pro-democracy fighters. The Kukis in India share close ethnic ties with Myanmar's Chin people.

And then, there are others, including from the Manipur government, who say the violence began as a result of the state government's consistent efforts to destroy opium poppy cultivation in the hill areas, which frustrated the drug lords and pushed them to engineer a conflict.

Severe Erosion Of Trust

Both sides need to be disarmed simultaneously under the central forces' watch as the two communities don't trust each other, like in a Mexican standoff. Recent attempts by security forces to disarm 'volunteers' faced pushback. The Kuki group Indigenous Tribal Leaders Forum (ITLF) also told the tribes in Kuki-dominated Churachandpur district not to give their weapons for safe storage in police stations after the model code for the Lok Sabha elections kicked in, as required by the law. "We need every available weapon to defend our right to life and our land..." the ITLF said in a statement signed by its chairman Pagin Haokip, and secretary Muan Tombing, on March 27.

A subject that comes up often in the narrative war between the two communities is that the Kukis wanted a homeland carved out of Manipur since as far back as the 1960s; they have been publicly campaigning for this goal. The demand got stronger following the Kukis clashes with the Nagas between 1992 and the late '90s. So, the Meiteis say, the Kuki demand for total separation just days after May 3 last year, citing the violence as the reason, does not hold water. This, however, is a Meitei-centric view that leaves no room for negotiation. The Kuki-centric view is that the hill areas where they are settled belong only to them. This, too, gives the other no space for discussion. But it's well-known by now that there's nothing in the world that can't be solved with talks.

Multiple Players, Multiple Interests

Which is why, for peace to return to Manipur, both sides need to have a dialogue. Both sides need to stop using people's suffering as a propaganda driver to attack each other. One community should not use a tragedy to strike at the other - which has suffered too and is in pain. Those in responsible positions should provide a salve to all. Painting one side as the hero and another as villain will keep fuelling the Manipur violence for a long, long time.

There are Meitei militant groups hiding in Myanmar that have not entered talks with the Centre. There are over 25 Kuki-Zo militant groups that allegedly continue to fight alongside and train Kuki 'volunteers' despite having signed a ceasefire pact with the Centre. There are people in politics who are related to insurgent leaders. There are people working cloak-and-dagger with anyone and everyone in the Manipur and Mizoram sections of the India-Myanmar border. So many players. So many intentions.

Amidst this theatre, the common people, the children, the poor, who grabbed whatever little they could as they left behind their burning homes, will mark a year of living in relief camps.

Selective outrage is the devil.

(Debanish Achom is Editor, News, at NDTV)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.