North East

Manipur On The Edge Again As Meiteis And Kukis Head Towards Fresh Stand-Off

Jaideep Mazumdar

Aug 05, 2023, 03:11 PM | Updated 03:19 PM IST

Aerial view of Torbung Bangla with the proposed mass burial site circled in red.
Aerial view of Torbung Bangla with the proposed mass burial site circled in red.
  • With fresh tensions heightening, the Kukis have laid down five conditions for deferring the mass burial till early next week.
  • Here's why most demands can’t be met.
  • The tentative calm that had settled over Manipur in the past couple of weeks was shattered with the sounds of gunfire and protests on Thursday (3 August) and Friday (4 August). 

    What’s worse is that it has heralded the heightening of fresh tensions between the Kukis and Meites that can trigger a fresh cycle of violence. 

    The latest flashpoint, and a very dangerous one at that, is the insistence of Kukis on mass burial of 35 of their people killed in the months-long violence at a disputed site in the border between the Meitei-dominated Bishnupur district and Kuki-dominated Churachandpur district. 

    Though the Kukis have deferred the mass burial, which was scheduled for 11am Friday (4 August) after appeals by the Union Home Minister and Mizoram Chief Minister and an early morning injunction from the Manipur High court (read this), they have not abandoned the plan.

    In fact, the Kukis had laid down five conditions, three of them impossible to meet, for deferring the mass burial till early next week. 

    Though the Union Government has not turned down the five conditions, there is no way that it can meet those without antagonising the Meiteis and triggering more violence in the state. 

    Kukis, led by the Indigenous Tribal Leaders’ Forum (ITLF)--an umbrella body of various Kuki bodies--have been reiterating since Friday that they have only deferred their mass burial plans.

    The ITLF has kept on insisting since Friday that it will go ahead with the mass burial at the very site chosen by the community early next week. 

    That has incensed the Meiteis who say that the chosen site of the mass burial is an affront to Meiteis and another declaration of hostilities by Kukis.

    The Meiteis say that the land on which the mass burial is planned belongs to Meitei families who had been driven out of the area in early May by Kukis.

    The five demands of the Kukis:

    • Transfer the chosen site for the mass burial at Torbung Bangla (located in Bishnupur district) in the name of the Kuki community and facilitate the mass burial of the Kuki victims of violence there. Also allow the Kukis to build a martyrs’ memorial at the site later;

    • Withdrawal of Manipur Police from the hills districts and deployment of only Assam Rifles and Army in the hills;

    • Fast-track discussions on creating a separate state for Kukis to be carved out of Manipur;

    • Shift bodies of Kukis lying in morgues in Imphal to Churachandpur for burial; and

    • Shift Kuki inmates lodged in prisons in Imphal Valley to prisons in the hill districts for their safety. 

    Why most demands can’t be met:

    While the last two demands (shifting Kuki jail inmates and transporting bodies of Kukis lying in morgues in Imphal) can be easily met, it is the first three demands which will set the Meiteis on the warpath again. 

    For Meiteis, the territorial integrity of the state is a highly emotive issue and even the hint of a transgression on this count inflames passions. 

    That was witnessed in June 2001 when Meiteis construed an extension of a ceasefire agreement with the Isak-Muivah led faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) to the Naga-inhabited districts of Manipur as a violation of Manipur’s territorial integrity. 

    Angry Meitei mobs went on the rampage in Imphal, burning the state Assembly, the chief minister’s residence and other government buildings. Many were killed in the violence and police firing on riotous mobs. 

    There is no way the Union Government or its interlocutors can even casually speak about discussing the Kukis’ demand for a separate state without sparking largescale protests and riots in Imphal Valley. 

    Conceding the Kukis’ demand to withdraw Manipur police from the Kuki-inhabited hill districts is also impossible because that would amount to the state government ceding its control over a major chunk of territory of the state. 

    The Kukis distrust the Manipur Police and view the force as biased in favour of Meiteis. They accuse the Manipur Police of complicity in the arson, loot and killings of Kukis by Meiteis. And that is why they want the Manipur Police to be withdrawn from the areas they inhabit. 

    But there is no way the Manipur state government can meet this demand.  

    The Meiteis are also impeccably opposed to the mass burial at the site chosen by the ITLF. Coordinating Committee on Manipur’s Integrity (COCOMI), the apex body of various Metiei groups, has warned that if the Kukis do not abandon their plans to bury their dead at the chosen site, Meiteis would resist the Kukis by force, if need be. 

    If these three demands are not met, an ITLF leader told Swarajya from Churachandpur, the Forum would go ahead with the mass burial even if that means defying the Manipur High Court order which has ordered a status quo for a week. 

    The High Court, in its Friday early morning order, had told the Kukis that they could apply to the state government for an alternative burial site. 

    But the Kukis are unwilling to consider an alternative site. The reason for that, say Meitei community leaders, is the Kukis’ intention to “insult” the Meiteis.

    “There is no dispute that the land chosen for the so-called mass burial in Torbung Bangla gram panchayat of Bishnupur district does not belong to the Kukis. One portion of the land is part of a government sericulture farm while the rest belongs to Meitei families who fled the area after coming under attack from Kuki narco-terrorists. Not only will we not allow all that land to be taken over by Kukis, we will ensure that the families who fled from the area can return and live there,” COCOMI leader S Bishen Singh told Swarajya over phone from Imphal. 

    “Illegal Kuki infiltrators from Myanmar want to take over our lands and we will never allow that. We will defend our land with our lives,” he added. 

    Ominous signals:

    Fresh ethnic tension had been building up ever since the ITLF announced its mass burial plans. Meiteis in large numbers started moving towards the disputed mass burial site to thwart the Kukis’ plans. 

    The state government asked security forces to prevent the movement of mobs towards Torbung Bangla. Meitei mobs clashed with security forces who had put up barricades on roads to prevent their movement towards Torbung Bangla. 

    The security forces even had to fire tear gas shells to disperse the belligerent mobs, injuiring some. 

    The Kukis’ mass burial plans also triggered fresh raids on police armouries by Meitei mobs. 

    According to senior police officers, a large group of Meiteis armed with firearms and traditional weapons reached the 2nd battalion of the India Reserve Battalion--a reserve battalion of the Manipur Police--at Bishnupur and, after overpowering the guards, looted a large number of arms and ammunition. 

    An internal police memo lists the arms looted as: one AK series assault rifle, 25 INSAS rifles, 4 Ghatak rifles, 5 INSAS light machine guns, 5 MP-5 rifles, 124 hand grenades, 21 SMC carbines, 195 SLR rifles, and 16 9-mm pistols and 9,000 rounds of ammunition. 

    Meitei mobs had made unsuccessful attempts to raid the armouries of the Manipur Rifles battalions (Manpur Rifles is a specially trained counter-insurgency force of the Manipur police) at Kabo Leikai and Khabeisoi, as well as the Singjamei police state in Imphal Valley Thursday (4 August) night. 

    What security forces apprehend:

    The fresh tension between Meiteis and Kukis bodes ill, say Army and Assam Rifles officers. According to them, the Kukis are firm on their demand to bury the 35 victims of violence at Torbung Bangla while the Meiteis are equally determined to foil their plans. 

    “No side is showing any restraint and with the Kukis constantly harping on their demand for a separate state, things are getting worse. What has made the highly volatile situation more dangerous is the availability of a large number of sophisticated weapons by both sides.

    It is going to be very difficult to keep the two communities apart and from clashing with each other,” said a senior army officer posted in Imphal Valley. 

    The Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) is leaning heavily on the Kukis to step back from their demand for the mass burial at Torbung Bangla and desist from voicing their demand for a separate state that inflames passions among Meiteis. 

    But, senior state officials told Swarajya, the Kukis are intransigent. This intransigence can lead to more bloodshed soon. 

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