On the front in hill districts, Kuki militant groups armed with SLRs and AK-47s fight alongside village ‘volunteers’.
A panorama of Bishnupur’s Meitei-dominated Terakhong village spanned in front of 15 self-proclaimed Kuki ‘volunteers’ as they lugged their single- or double-barrel guns to a bunker in P Geljang village of Churachandpur district on Thursday.
It was around 4 pm when a sniper shot whizzed above the bunker. The ‘volunteers’ ran for cover. The ‘volunteers’ sat on their haunches behind the bunker, while the commuters on the road near the bunker jumped into a natural drain along the hill. The gunfire from the valley intensified within the next few minutes. Shots flew past the bunker, hitting trees or disappearing in the air. But the group stayed in place. Those positioned behind sandbags lit cigarettes or bidis, peering out to locate the origin of the gunfire.
The foothills of Bishnupur-Churachandpur have been witnessing intense gunfights. Most of the Meiteis who once lived in the hills have moved to the valley, while the Kukis who lived in the valley have moved to the hill districts of Churachandpur and Kangpokpi. Newslaundry had previously reported on the cross-firing from the Meitei-dominated areas in Bishnupur district. Since the violence began on May 3, over 180 people have died in Manipur and more than 50,000 people have been displaced.
With the gunfight in the backdrop, the ‘volunteers’ chuckled as one of them cracked a joke, while some posed with the shotgun for pictures for their social media accounts. Some of them were college students like Denis, an engineering student, who broke into laughter.
“Do you celebrate Diwali like this in Delhi?” he asked this reporter. “This is a special Manipuri Diwali...It’s just a normal day for us. Now on Facebook, Meiteis will blame Kuki militants for the gunfire.”
A new normal, militant reinforcements
The road leading up to the bunker – a part of which was in the range of fire – saw an intermittent stream of bikes and four-wheelers. The ‘volunteers’ referred to noisy mopeds as “helicopters”. A pillion rider on a Scooty covered her head while coming uphill. “Does she think a backpack can protect her from the bullet,” remarked a ‘volunteer’.
A villager in his 50s, who had dispassionately climbed to the bunker out of curiosity, received a call from his wife. He put his phone on speaker and told her he was caught in the crossfire. “Don’t lie to me that you are at the frontline. You are such a coward. You must be drinking with your friends. Before you pass out, come home!” the wife told him. The call brought gales of laughter to the bunker.
The ‘volunteers’ waited another hour for reinforcements due to the low firing range of their single- and double-barrel guns. Soon, two snipers and a few more armed with automatic weapons arrived at the scene. The snipers adjusted their scope from the bunker and spotted the target. But it was beyond the shooting range. They scampered downhill, 200 metres from an outcrop, closer to the enemy line.
Another SUV brought in seven men, reportedly from Kuki militant groups, armed with SLRs and AK-47s. More reinforcements arrived later at night. Meanwhile, ducking bullets, the ‘volunteers’ rolled downhill to the bunker nearest to the Meitei frontline. At around 5.30 pm, Kukis responded and the air reverberated with gunshots.
Land laced with landmines, ‘arms theft’
In areas that see frequent gunfights, the no man’s land between the Meiteis and Kukis have been laid with landmines. “Only battle-hardened fighters are allowed to enter these areas,” said a man, part of the group.
A ‘volunteer’ told Newslaundry it had been quiet for the last four or five days. “Now, it seems they [Meiteis] have been gifted with guns by the state police,” he alleged.
The second Indian Reserve Battalion armoury at Narainsena in Bishnupur district was robbed off its arms and ammunition on Thursday morning. The IRB comes under the Manipur police. Bishnupur superintendent of police Ronni Mayengbam confirmed the incident to Newslaundry but refused to share more details as he was “on his way to the IRB armoury for investigation”. With the help of binoculars, one of the IRB buildings can be spotted from P Geljang village.
According to Hindustan Times, the cache of weapons includes “an AK series assault rifle, 25 INSAS rifles, 4 Ghatak rifles, 5 INSAS LMGs, 5 MP-5 rifles, 124 hand grenades, 21 SMC carbines, 195 SLRs, 16 9mm pistols, 134 detonators, 23 GF rifles, 81 51mm HE bombs.”
In May, mobs had looted over 4,000 arms from state force armouries. Of these, around 1,000 were recovered, the state government had said.
Defence committees in villages
Before the gunfight, Newslaundry travelled through the German Road – built by militant group Kuki National Front commander-in-chief German Th Hemlal – which snaked along the foothills of Churachandpur, to the last Kuki bunker on the frontline at Khousabung village. The village in the foothills is just two km away from Meitei-dominated Ngangkhalawai in Bishnupur. Barring the initial days of the conflict, the Kuki-Meitei face-off remains concentrated at the periphery of the valley, bordering the hill districts.
In May, the Kukis in the hills formed “village defence committees” comprising village representatives. The defence committee in Khousabung includes 10 nearby villages with 14 bunkers. At least 140 ‘volunteers’ are positioned at these bunkers — five manning each bunker at any given point, with each ‘volunteer’ working for at least 12 hours.
These ‘volunteers’ have received training for “two-three days” in handling arms. But NCC cadets are the blue-eyed boys, well-versed with guns and battle tactics.
When asked about the effectiveness of single- and double-barrel guns, chairman of Khousabung village committee Henlalsiem Gangte said, “It’s not about the guns but the man whose mind is without fear.” When the gunfire intensifies, they call for reinforcement from militant groups.
On the raging conflict, he said, “The situation is not normal. But it’s close to normal.”
On the village road, Newslaundry saw youths playing volleyball and ‘volunteers’, with guns slung from their shoulders, chatting with friends.
Meanwhile, a village chieftain showed this reporter a single-barrel gun made of pipe. “It’s slightly heavier than the genuine one,” he confessed.
‘Picked gun to save land’
One of the ‘volunteers’ Newslaundry met was a college student at Khousabung. He was armed with a single-barrel gun, a knife and 12-mm bandolier, and has been stationed at the frontline since May 3. Before the violence, he spent most of his time playing as a defender on the football pitch. But here, the student is one of the front strikers.
“Christiano Ronaldo is my favourite footballer because of his hard work, unlike Messi who was born with footballing qualities,” said the youth, who was given arms training for three days. He said he picked up “a few hacks from the mobile game PUBG”, adding that he learnt about the bullet range from the game. “For example, 9mm bullets have a low range around 70 metres; 5.56mm, the middle range between 200-500 metres; and 7.26mm, the long range between 500 metres to one km.”
Another tactic he learnt from the game was that ‘volunteers’ should not remain in a group. “We should disperse. This will reduce casualty and distract the enemy,” he said, adding that he missed playing football.
When asked what drew him to the frontline, he paused for a moment and said: “To save our land from Meiteis.”
As we headed back to Churachandpur, we saw a steady stream of vehicles going to the action site. At a blockade before entering the city, we spotted an instructor giving his final directions to a group of 10 youths armed with single- and double-barrel guns.
Photographs by Priyali Dhingra and Shivnarayan Rajpurohit.