June 11, 2023 will be remembered as the most extraordinary day for Mud village, which lies in the foothills between Manipur's Kangpokpi, Ukhrul and Imphal East districts. It will remain a remarkable day in the memory of a small team comprising a filmmaker, a producer, farmers, an army Captain and some soldiers, who successfully transplanted a 5.5-feet-tall, fruit-bearing hog plum tree, locally known as "heining", amid the intermittent ethnic clashes in Manipur since May 3.
Mud is a 1.25 hectare-large concept village near Manipur's "living museum" at Sekta, 23 km from state capital Imphal. Tree and bamboo plantations are prioritised activities here since 2020. The place serves as a landscaping exercise to run an environmentally friendly village and also serves as a community interactive centre, a family outdoor activity spot, a space for specialised residential training programmes and a meditation centre. All these are essentially for self-exploration and understanding nature.
The team that transplanted the heining tree
Besides digging a water-harvesting pond the size of half a football field in April this year, the focus has so far been on planting fruit-bearing and indigenous trees and local bamboo species. Apart from a long list of prized possession - olive, guava, gooseberry, mango, jackfruit, wild apple, papaya, pear, star fruit and Arjun tree (Arjuna Myrobalan) - Mud village is now home to the 5.5-feet-tall hog plum tree.
Much like picturesque Manipur, the charm of Mud village is the surrounding hill ranges offering outdoor adventure activities like trekking and camping. Another attraction is the remnant of the Second World War atop Chanung hill, just above the village. Trenches and bunkers built by the Japanese Army on the ridges of Chanung during their siege of Imphal still exist, more or less in the shape and size they were built in 1944. The allied forces used to call these fortifications "pimples". It is recorded in the war history that the Japanese siege of Imphal failed as the allied forces kept supply lines intact with air drops. This strategy helped the Allies win the Imphal and Kohima battles and made the Japanese surrender.
But why all this history now, and what is so extraordinary about a hog plum tree?
The turbulent times that Manipur has been living in since May 3 is extraordinary. The consequences and the after-effects of the 'peace rally' called by the All Tribal Students' Union of Manipur (ATSUM) are unprecedented. The provocation for the ethnic violence that drew the fault line between the Kukis and the Meiteis is astounding. The nature of the communal violence seen in the hills and the valley is horrendous. The way social media is manipulated to push narratives is distasteful. The way most in the national media and celebrity talk-show hosts buying the narratives without any fact-checking is even more indigestible. Hence, the extraordinariness of the ethnic violence.
The unfathomable violence of burning down houses, looting properties and targeting people and villages have become the very basis for a sweeping narrative that separation is the only solution. This call came from Churachandpur and Kangpokpi, the two hill districts dominated by the Chin-Kuki-Zo tribe. They have held on to the narrative that their community is under attack and they have been chased away from the valley, just as the Meiteis who were living in the hill districts of Churachandpur, Kangpokpi and Tengnoupal have been evacuated and have taken shelter in the valley.
The Chin-Kuki-Zo tribes want a separate political administration from the valley, or specifically, the Meiteis. There is little scope for a reconciliation.
Significantly, this narrative emerged just a few days after violence broke out. For a state that has seen much ethnic violence - the Kuki-Naga bloodbath in the early 1990s, the Kuki-Paite clash in the late 1990s, and the Meitei-Muslim clash - Manipur has never had a narrative about separate administration or autonomy. In the past, reconciliation worked.
Quite naturally, for a multi-ethnic civilization living in harmony for a long time, with written records dating back to 2000 years since 33 AD, meddling with its territorial and political integrity seemed non-negotiable.
If chronologically seen, trouble started in Churachandpur with the burning of a forest department office before the 'tribal solidarity peace rally' began, in which insurgents in camouflage battle dress armed with AK-56 rifles were clearly seen participating. Subsequently, reports of attacks on homes and shops of unarmed Meiteis in Bishnupur district bordering Churachandpur and in the international border town of Moreh started coming. SOS calls by the trapped Meiteis went viral on social media, after which even the suspension of internet services from May 3 evening could not prevent the retaliatory attacks by the Meiteis in the valley. The Chin-Kuki-Zo people who made Imphal their home had to flee for safety to Churachandpur and Kangpokpi as they had become the targets of the Meitei rage.
After the initial violence and the deployment of over 40,000 central forces, the dark smoke gradually subsided in Imphal valley, Churachandpur, Kangpokpi and Tengnoupal districts. However, sporadic gunfights continued in the foothills where the valley ends and the hills start, especially in areas bordering Kuki-Chin-Zo dominated areas.
Visuals of gunfights between people of the two communities armed with weapons looted from the Manipur Police armoury, licenced rifles, country-made weapons and those imported from Myanmar came out from Sugnu and Serou between Kakching in the valley and Chandel in the hills, Phayeng-Senjam Chirang between Kangpokpi and Imphal West, and Khamenlok, which borders Kangpokpi and Imphal East.
Now, returning to the story of the hog plum tree, Mud village is 5 km away from the two troubled areas of Chanung and Khamenlok. Other than taking the inter-village roads, both areas can be reached by hiking up the Tombakhong hill range to reach Chanung and then trek further up south to reach Khamenlok.
These two areas are vulnerable to attacks and counterattacks between the warring factions. Villagers here are compelled to keep watch with their licenced guns, and in some cases are supported by well-armed volunteers on both sides. There is a palpating sense of perpetual threat and the first to launch the offensive naturally gets the better of the other.
Days before the ethnic violence began, a residential school built to international standards was inaugurated at Chanung. This school was the target of arson by well-armed Kukis, who climbed down the hill ranges from Khamenlok. Fortunately, the prompt response of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) foiled the attack in May-end.
That incident exposed the vulnerability of Chanung, Loushangkhong and Sekta areas to Kuki attacks. Villagers in Chanung and Loushangkhong took turns to keep watch and built makeshift bunkers. Weary of keeping a constant eye on possible attacks, the villagers are said to have discussed securing the whole area in Chanung and Khamenlok to stop them from being used as launchpads by armed Kukis to strike at Meitei villages in Imphal East.
Sensing the volatile situation, the Indian Army also set up makeshift outposts on top of Langthabi hill, directly looking down at Mud village. The army's presence in the bunkers uphill made the situation more tense as the villagers alleged the central forces failed to stop the attacks.
In this atmosphere, the developers of Mud village had to transplant the healthy hog plum tree, gifted to them by a local elder. The tree had grown bigger for the spot it was planted on. Normally, the developers would have taken the tree on the dirt road and transplanted it. But the situation did not allow it this time.
The developers then contacted the Commanding Officer (CO) of the area and told him of their plan to transplant the hog plum tree. The CO courteously gave a patient hearing and told the team to wait. Fifteen minutes later, an army Captain called and asked about the plan again. Then he drove down in an SUV and met the team at a bridge that connected the two villages. After a brief conversation, the army Captain came with the team.
This was how the hog plum tree was transplanted at Mud village on June 11, with two Indian Army personnel participating. This was an extraordinary moment - people transplanting a tree in the middle of an ethnic clash. In the next three days, unfortunately, the areas between Mud village and Khamenlok saw the biggest single-day fatalities and maximum burning down of homes since violence started on May 3.
On June 12, the Kuki villages of Khopibung, Khamenlok, Chullouphai and Aigejang were destroyed by armed Meitei village volunteers. Some of them decided to spend the night at Aigejang church. In the counterattack, well-armed Kuki forces reportedly fired rocket-propelled grenades at the church, killing the nine Meiteis, leaving four missing and nine others injured. The next day, Meitei volunteers went on to burn down nine more Kuki villages in Khamenlok. On June 28, reports of landmines around Khamenlok came, after which the army and state forces went on a mission to defuse the mines. The combine forces, however, detected numerous well-armed Kuki insurgents dressed in black. Such was the scale of violence seen at Khamenlok.
The countermeasures of the combined forces have stepped up. These measures have succeeded in recovering looted guns, ammunition and bombs. Altogether, 1,100 guns, 13,700 bullets and 250 bombs have been recovered so far. The combined forces also destroyed a number of bunkers used by both communities to launch attacks.
Extraordinarily, the hog plum tree has grown well, sprouting stems and even leaves from its new, serene abode, surrounded by the enchanting hill ranges that have seen the worst ever bloodbath in Manipur, the jewelled land.
Sunzu Bachaspatimayum is an independent journalist and an award-winning filmmaker based in Manipur.
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author