Self-proclaimed ‘village volunteers’ are armed with weapons sourced from the black market and looted from police armouries.
Eight Meitei ‘village volunteers’ at Terakhongsangbi in Manipur’s Bishnupur district quietly formed an arc and bowed their heads before the shrine of village goddess Keithel Leirenbi on Thursday afternoon – moments before they headed to the site of a gunfight. Donning the Manipur commando fatigues, these ‘volunteers’ were cheered on by the villagers.
But prayers weren’t the front-runners in their artillery – these ‘volunteers’ were equipped with sophisticated weapons, including AK-47s, SLRs and Insas, besides a few 303 rifles.
This self-proclaimed ‘village volunteer force’, comprising members of the Meitei community, is armed with weapons sourced from the black market and looted from police armouries. It now works with the Manipur police commandos to fight the Kukis.
On Thursday, the foothills of Bishnupur-Churachandpur witnessed one of the heaviest gunfights since May 3, pointing to the arms and ammunition borne by the two sides. Drones were used to take images and mortars were launched from both the sides. At least 10 from the Kuki community, “suspected militants”, were killed in the gunfight and five others were injured, reported Imphal Free Press.
Since May 3, more than 50,000 people have been displaced in Manipur. Temporary barricades have overtaken roads, dividing Meitei and Kuki dominated areas. Every person crossing these barricades must provide proof of ethnic identity. Most of the Kukis who once lived in the valley have moved to the hill districts of Churachandpur and Kangpokpi, while the Meiteis who once lived in the hills have moved to the valley.
According to data reviewed by Reuters, the death toll is 181, including 113 Kukis and 62 Meiteis.
Newslaundry visited three villages – Terakhongsangbi, Koktaas and Phougakchao – in Bishnupur district with roads intermittently barricaded by Meira Paibis, a loosely organised group of Meitei women activists.
With each passing hour, the gunfight escalated. Vehicles carrying ‘volunteers’ from Imphal and nearby villages, accompanied by the police commandos, grew in number. Most ‘volunteers’ wore masks and Manipur commando fatigues. A few were in civilian clothes. On the road to the frontline, discussions continued on strategies of combat and retaliation.
Coordination at frontline
In the Meitei village of Phougakchao, which has been witnessing continued assault from Kuki-dominated hills, residents of all 40 houses have escaped to a nearby relief camp. On Wednesday, an 18-year-old Lonjam Naocha Singh was critically injured by a mortar fired from the hills that cracked the roof of a village house.
At Phougakchao, Newslaundry spotted one bunker each of the Meitei ‘volunteers’, police commandos and the BSF at a clearing. The first bunker lodged three ‘volunteers’ and a commando who fired gunshots, and flew drones to mark the Kuki locations.
The bunkers manned by commandos and ‘volunteers’ recorded frequent exchange of gunshots, but the one with the BSF stood a mute spectator. “We engage when we are attacked,” said a BSF officer.
Noting the inactivity, a ‘volunteer’ from a nearby bunker hurried to the BSF camp to use their facility, but was bluntly denied. “For that [use the BSF bunker], you have to take permission from the headquarters,” said a BSF officer.
Around 500 metres from the bunkers, a resting place – originally a house abandoned by a family – became a common ground for ‘volunteers’ and commandos to thrash out their strategy. From here, they would break into smaller groups of five to 10 to take on the “enemy” perched on the hills. “They have an advantage because they are firing from the hills, but we won’t give in,” said a ‘volunteer’ with an Insas rifle amid occasional bombing and regular staccato gunfire.
These ‘volunteers’ and commandos worked in tandem: firing mortars towards the hills or reinforcing each other at the frontline.
Meanwhile, a few of them returned to the resting place with its floor strewn with food packets, water bottles and juice packs. They ate in a jiffy, with flies hovering over thalis of leftover rice-rajma.
Those at rest were suddenly alerted by the buzz of a drone. A few dashed inside the house, another adjusted his binoculars to spot the flying object, and some took cover under trees.
At another resting camp, ‘volunteers’ and commandos using the kerb foliage ahead of a clearing set up a launcher and fired three mortars towards the hills.
‘Shifts for self defence’
‘Volunteers’ worked in shifts. Bicky Maisnam, armed with an SLR for “self defence”, returned after clocking nine hours and firing two bullets at the frontline. Asked how he learnt to fire gunshots, the fish farmer said: “In our village, youths were trained by a retired army man. I was trained for two days in handling arms.”
He did not express much hope in the state or central governments and remained silent when asked why. “If the firing continues, I will return,” he said, before leaving for his house in Moirang.
With no break in the gunfight, two trucks carrying 15 soldiers from the army arrived at the village. An army officer said they were not sure how to engage with both sides.
There is “worry” among ‘volunteers’ about higher costs of bullets and arms. “When the conflict started, every bullet would cost Rs 120-130. Now it’s gone up to Rs 200. If this continues, we may have to loot another police armoury,” said one of them.
‘Manipur is Kashmir, Modi silent’
As the day wore on, the roads were lined up with vehicles, armed civilians and commandos. At Terakhongsangbi village, Nawang Angom was agitated and blamed Home Minister Amit Shah. “I want to send this message to Amit Shah that he had told Parliament that not even an inch of India’s land would be occupied by another country. The situation in Manipur has stark resemblance to Kashmir’s, and the same [occupation of India’s territory] will happen here.”
Ranawati Devi, a Meira Paibi, was also in despair and criticised Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “What can we do? Neither the state nor the centre is looking at us. We are running here and there. Manipur is burning. They [state and centre] can do everything, but nothing has been done for us. Modiji is not saying anything.”
After the sunset, the fallout of the day-long war slowly unravelled. One Kuki was killed and another nine injured, claimed the Indigenous Tribal Leaders’ Forum. This number was confirmed by the Churachandpur district hospital. Local media subsequently reported that 10 Kuki persons were killed and five persons were injured, including a Kumaon regiment soldier, a Manipur police commando and three ‘village volunteers’.
Around 8 pm, seven vehicles of BSF were spotted scrambling towards the gunfight location. It’s not clear if their progress was hindered by civilian blockades.