By: Rajkumar Bobichand
The violent conflict that erupted on May 3 in Manipur’s Churachandpur district where thousands of people belonging to the Meitei community fled to survive and their houses were burnt down still continues. The violent conflict between the Kuki-Zomi and Meitei claimed the lives of 148 persons and about 60,000 people were displaced. More than 3000 houses and at least 17 temples and 250 churches were burnt down and destroyed.
Many perceive and understand that the violent conflict between the Kukis and Meiteis was sparked off due to Manipur High Court’s single bench judgement on March 27, 2023. The judgement was made in public only on April 19, 2023 directing the Government of Manipur to submit recommendations for inclusion of Meitei/Meetei in the Scheduled Tribes list, and to consider the case within a period of four weeks. The directive came following a writ petition filed by eight petitioners from the Meetei (Meitei) Tribe Union, a registered society.
The Hill Areas Committee (HAC) of the Manipur State Legislative Assembly was upset over the order of the High Court and on April 20 decided to urge the Government of Manipur and Government of India to go for appeals against the High Court order. The All Manipur Tribal Students’ Union (ATSUM) on April 21 decried the High Court judgment raising apprehension that the interests and rights of the hill people will become uncertain if the demand of Meiteis for ST status if fulfilled.
However, there was no any indication of immediate compliance with the order of the High Court by the State Government.
In the meanwhile, the ATSUM organised a Tribal Solidarity March on May 3 in protest against the Manipur High Court’s single bench directive in the districts dominated by tribal people. The protest rallies in other districts were peaceful except in Churachandpur district and Kangpokpi district. More than 60,000 people are estimated to have attended the rally in Churachandpur town. Videos of the rally in Churachandpur where many gun toting people also took part went viral in social media.
The first violent incident which went on social media on May 3 was vandalisation and burning down of Government Forest Beat Office at Bungmual Village at 10:30 am, Mata Mualtam Village at 12:30 pm and Saikot Village at 1:30 pm and other Government Office buildings in Churachandpur while the Tribal Solidarity Rally in Churachandpur started at around 11:00 am.
Another video clip went viral on social media that Kuki mobs, at about 11:49 am, assaulted a Meitei driver on a road in Churachandpur for driving over the water bottles lined up on both sides of the road for the participants of the rally.
At about 1:30 pm at Kangpokpi, the Gate erected for the HUN Festival (Thadou Cultural Festival) inaugurated by the Chief Minister of Manipur Nongthombam Biren along with posters of the Chief Minister was burnt down. At around 1:30 pm two dead bodies belonging to the Meitei community were found at Kangvai on May 3, 2023. At about 2:15 pm a few tyres were burned at one of the base of the Anglo-Kuki War Centenary Gate at Leisang by unidentified miscreants whom the Kukis claimed to be the Meiteis.
Video clips of Kuki mobs and Kuki militants wielding sophisticated guns at S Bualjang and Torbung were circulated through social media at about 3:32 pm. At about 3:43 pm another video clip of Kuki mobs reaching Torbung area and started vandalising shops and houses, which the state police tried to intervene using tear gas shells went on viral on social media.
Another video clip gone viral showing more Kukis arriving in trucks and cars and they started to burn Meitei houses, and clashed with the Meiteis in Kangvai and Torbung at about 4:11 pm. At about 5:10 pm videos of clashes between Kukis and Meiteis at paddy fields in Torbung area surfaced in social media. Videos of 60 Meitei houses being burned down in Torbung by Kuki miscreants were on social media at about 5:36 pm on May 3, 2023.
On hearing the news of Kuki attacks on Meiteis in Churachandpur and its adjoining area in Bishnupur district, Meiteis completely taken by surprise started gathering spontaneously at about 6:50 pm at New Checkon area where many Kuki communities settle in Imphal.
Meanwhile simultaneously violence by Kuki miscreants began in Tengnoupal district also at about 6:54 pm at Moreh bordering Myanmar by setting the statue of Meidingu Nara Singh, a revered king of Manipur on fire. At the same time 6:54 pm videos of vehicles of state security forces were destroyed and burned down by Kuki mobs in the middle of the road in Churachandpur. At 7:30 pm all Meitei houses, shops and establishments were burned down within hours by the Kukis. Assam Rifles and Police failed to control the Kuki mobs as reported.
Then, at about 8:11 pm on May 3, 2023 on hearing news and watching the videos of Kuki attacks on Meiteis in other districts where Meiteis are minorities, angry Meitei mobs retaliated by starting fires on Kuki buildings. Within the first 48 hours of the violent conflict that erupted on May 3, Meitei residential complexes in Churachandpur town were either burned down or destroyed.
However, the violence erupted on May 3 in Manipur’s Churachandpur district was not spontaneous and without early warnings.
A number of incidents that happened in the recent past show the pattern for the May 3 violence and its subsequent violent outbursts.
The faultline became distinct in early 2021 when some Kuki groups backed by the Nehlun faction of Kuki National Front (KNF-N) claimed over Mount Koubru as exclusive ‘ancestral land’ and ‘tribal land’ of the Kukis. The KNF-N in a statement on April 7, 2021 had warned the Government of Manipur not to conduct any field verification and necessary measurements for the sacred site of Lord Koubru and Lai Pukhri; and to abstain from ‘forceful occupation of tribal lands’ at Koubru Hill range. The KNF-N is a Kuki militant outfit which is not a party to the Kuki militant groups who are under Suspension of Operations (SoO) agreement with the Government of India and Government of Manipur. Even this writer had earlier said in local TV discussion panels and written many times here that there were many incidents and issues which might be the flashpoints of violent ethnic clashes in Manipur.
On March 10, 2023, the protest rally organised by Kuki Students’ Organisation (KSO)-GHQ and the Indigenous Tribal Leaders’ Forum (ITLF) in Kuki dominated districts against the State Government’s eviction drive against encroachers in Reserved Forests and Protected Forests Areas and Government plans to protect the State from illegal poppy plantation, illegal influx of immigrants from Myanmar, Reserve Forests land protection and safeguard of wildlife sanctuaries, War on Drugs etc. turned out violent in Kangpokpi district. The Manipur Cabinet on March 10 decided to withdraw the State Government from Suspension of Operations (SoO) agreements with two Kuki militant groups, namely the Kuki National Army (KNA) and the Zomi Revolutionary Army (ZRA) whose leaders are said to be hailed from outside Manipur. On April 5, 2023 Manipur Government declared Thangkhongam Haokip aka David as the “Most Wanted” criminal in the state for being the Commander-in-Chief of the Kuki Independent Army (KIA)/Kuki Independent Organisation (KIO).
On April 8, 2023, the KIA raided the SoO camp at Henglep Sub-Division in Churachandpur district and looted a large cache of arms and ammunition from the camp at around 7:30 pm. The SoO camp was housing cadres from USRA, KNF (Z) and UTLA.
April 24, 2023 the ATSUM called a 12-hour Shut Down in tribal areas over the job reservation in the Regional Institute of Medical Sciences (RIMS) demanding to follow the Office Memorandum of the Government of India’s Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) for a reservation quantum of State’s 34 per cent for ST since 2005 instead of central reservation norms in the central institutes. The Kuki Students Organisation (KSO) and the Zomi Student Federation (ZSF) also supported the shutdown.
On April 27, 2023 the Indigenous Tribal Leaders’ Forum (ITLF) in a press release announced non-cooperation of all Government related programmes and called for a total shutdown in Churachandpur District on April 28 from 8 am to 4 pm in protest against the land and forests survey carried out by the State Government.
Then, in the evening at about 8:30 PM on April 27, suspected volunteers of ITLF and its supporters in large numbers came and vandalised the Open Gym which was set up by Churachandpur Assembly Constituency MLA L M Khaute, former DGP of the state at PT Sports Complex Churachandpur which was to be inaugurated by the Chief Minister of Manipur Nongthombam Biren on April 28.
Consequently, Manipur Chief Minister Nongthombam Biren cancelled his plans to visit Churachandpur on April 28 following the violent incident in the night on April 27 that burnt the Open Gym to be inaugurated by him and the mob also vandalised the venue of the programme.
In the violent outbreak in Churachandpur from April 27 night, in order to prevent any disturbances of peace and public order in the jurisdiction of Churachandpur and Pherzawl Districts in Manipur mobile internet services have been suspended for the next 5 (five) days with immediate effect from April 28.
On April 28 night violence erupted as the supporters of ITLF set ablaze a Forest Range Office in Tuibong destroying public properties worth hundreds of thousands of rupees and records and official documents.
On April 29, 2023 Kuki miscreants invaded a house belonging to a Meitei at Thingkangphai in Churachandpur and destroyed a temple of Lord Pakhangba and also burnt seven coloured flags representing seven clans of Meitei.
On April 30, 2023, Bhupender Yadav, the Union Minister of Labour & Employment, Environment, Forest & Climate Change visiting Manipur declared that “Protection of Reserve Forest and Protected Forest is a state subject and that the Manipur Government is carrying out its constitutional duty.”
The Union Minister’s statement came as a soothing balm for the Manipur Government while the Kuki militants under SoO, Paolienlal Haokip and his cohort had to find a new strategy.
In order to curtail the waves of violence Manipur Government deployed extra police personnel to Churachandpur to maintain law and order. The arsonists were arrested by the police.
However, on behalf of the arrested arsonists, Churachandpur district’s Saikot Assembly Constituency MLA Paolienlal Haokip took up the role of negotiating with the Government of India. He succeeded in his mission and eventually, the arsonists were released and he started undermining the Manipur Government’s authority. During a victory celebration of the release in Saikot he proclaimed, “The Government of India understood the problem of the Kukis even if the Manipur Government does not understand it”.
Moreover, on April 30, 2023 the Mizo Zirlai Pawl (MZP), an organisation of Mizo students issued a press release saying that “Origin of these problems is the Manipur Government’s attempt to evict ethnic Zo (Chin-Kuki-Mizo) people from their settlements so that their lands can be taken from them, and these tribal lands can be declared reserved forest, protected forest, wildlife sanctuaries and wetlands.”
These are some of the early warnings and incidents that led to the violent conflict between the Kuki-Zomi and Meitei that erupted on May 3, 2023 in Churachandpur and still continues unabated beyond 80 days.
(The author is a Senior Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics)
The violent conflict between Kuki-Zomi and Meitei erupted on May 3 in Manipur’s Churachandpur District was not spontaneous or without early warnings
By: Rajkumar Bobichand