Manipur violence: An Australian’s eyewitness account

By Manglalleima Bymra
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Pic source Twitter @MangteC

I live in Sydney and travelled to India’s northeast state of Manipur on April 26 along with my 11-year-old daughter to visit my family in Churachandpur.  It is one of the 16 hill districts in the state, and in the news right now as the epicentre of the violence that has engulfed the state.

My visit was primarily to show my daughter the festival of Lai Haraoba [a traditional popular festival of Manipur at this time of the year which is associated with the worship of traditional deities and ancestors]. When we arrived, the situation was very normal. There were no riots and no tension at all.

Just to give you a bit of information about Churachandpur, there are 12 villages inhabited by Meiteis, the rest of the district is occupied by other tribes including Kukis [who are now up in arms against the Meiteis].

On May 3, we heard the news about the ‘Tribal Solidarity March’ by the All-Tribal Student Union Manipur (ATSUM) in Torbung. [The rally was held in opposition to the proposal of including Meiteis in the Scheduled Tribes list]. The previous day, an announcement was made that there would be a bandh [shutdown of all business and commercial activity] on May 3 from 10 am in support of the peace march.

Since the Meitei population in Churachandpur consists of a minority, and most of them are engaged in running their own businesses, there is no possibility of them disrupting or impeding the rally. We initially believed the peace rally had ended well. As early as 3-4 pm, we observed small vehicles moving along the roads in our area. But by around 5 pm, my brother told me that it would be a good idea for me and my daughter to relocate to my sister’s residence, which is located in the same village. He sensed trouble was brewing.

At this point, I still didn’t think there was any danger lurking, but we did it as a precautionary measure. My sister lives in a three-storey building with very strong gates, it has always been a refuge during past disturbances for other locals too.

True enough, no sooner had I arrived than many other Meitei families started coming in for security.

My sister lives in Khumujamba Meitei Leikai, which has the highest concentration of Meiteis. Hence, in the past, there have been few attacks in this area due to the majority. But this time, Khumujamba looked vulnerable. People started flooding my sister’s three-storey building alongside the sound of warning bells.

Pic supplied

When the bells started ringing incessantly, my brother-in-law, who has a licensed gun, asked my sister for the bullets to keep in handy in case of any attack as word was out that a Meitei man, who sells licensed gun in the area, was robbed of all the arms by attackers on gunpoint. My sister pleaded with my brother-in-law not to use the gun, but he argued that being unarmed would put us all in danger.

Through the security cameras of my sister’s house, we saw that we had fortified most of the areas with vehicles and cement bags at the village entry point. The women, elderly and children were inside the building and the men including young teenagers were outside.

I was on the first floor next to a large window when we suddenly saw a burst of flame and thick smoke, accompanied by loud booms in the distance. It was so big that I had never seen anything like it before. It seemed like the neighbouring village was set on fire with the intention of destroying it.

Immediately, we received calls from people in the vicinity who were in hiding, informing us that the attacks had subsided and everything in the nearby area had been razed to the ground. They warned us that the attackers might be heading our way.

And then, looking out from the windows at the back, we saw a similar scene of fire, smoke, and sound. It became apparent that the attackers were burning the village situated behind our house, and the alarm bells in our village rang incessantly once more. Later on, we learned that four houses had been set ablaze. It was at this point that the young men from our village began firing blanks, causing the attackers to stop burning more houses and flee.

The neighbouring village, which belongs to the Hmar tribe, learnt that Khumujamba was under attack and came out to protect the entry points from their side. All the other small houses and villages were set ablaze, and Khumujamba (where I was), being the biggest village, appeared to be the last target.

It was around 7 pm when the attackers finally arrived at Khumujamba. The men later revealed that they had fired their AK47s, and the cement barriers had shielded us to some extent. Our men were armed with their small, licensed rifles. In the ensuing encounter that lasted until 1 am, we learned that one of the attackers had died and a few others were injured. Eventually, they retreated. The boys and men from our village were also injured but remained outside to protect the rest.

I repeatedly asked my brother, who was outside, if the police or army had arrived yet. We also kept calling the office of the sub-divisional officer (SDO) of the area. Despite their reassurances that the army and police were on their way, there was no sign of them. No help came immediately.

But at around 1:30 am, a call came from the police saying they will evacuate the elderly, women and children to an army camp at Tuibong. However, they asked us to walk to the camp which was a few kms away.  I refused to walk. I was not willing to risk my life or my daughter’s.

We requested for a vehicle. They said it would take time. So, we decided to stay put. By 3 am, the shooting had calmed down and at around 3:30 am, the police called to say that three army vans would be coming to take us to safety.

We packed all our essential belongings and left the suitcases behind. Amidst the chaos of everyone wanting to flee, the army called for youth leaders to help with crowd control. The army provided a van that could accommodate 40 people, but we were too many in numbers, so we had to wait for two hours on the road for the van to come back for the next ferry, which added to our fear and anxiety.

It broke my heart to see my young brother, who had never held a knife before, doing his best to protect our community. I sat on the road and cried a lot. He reassured me that he would follow suit and told me not to cry. I knew if the men stayed behind, they would be vulnerable, we had no advanced weapons and we were a minority.

We asked for an escort so that everyone could escape in their own vehicles. However, on the way, the cars were stoned, and even the army convoy was attacked. Finally, we reached the Muslim village of Kwakta, where they had arranged for us to stay at a large community hall. There were many young people guarding the area with sticks and knives, but no guns. From there, through the help of a friend in the airline industry, I was able to safely fly out to Delhi with my daughter.

My daughter, who has never witnessed anything like this, asked me, “Mama, are we war refugees?” She is still experiencing nightmares.

Pic supplied

I have been naïve or ignorant about why Manipur is experiencing this civil war. I have since found out that Meiteis (the majority population) inhabit the valley which has only ten percent land area, while tribals inherit the hill areas. As a general category, Meiteis don’t have the right to buy land in the hill areas according to land reform acts that prevent them from doing so. But anyone can buy land in the valley.

Secondly, it is alleged there are many illegal Kuki immigrants now in Manipur from neighbouring Myanmar especially after the 2021 unrest in that country. So Meiteis are asking for inclusion under Scheduled Tribe category to inherit some of their own land and preserve their culture and tradition. But obviously, there is resentment in that.

Reports suggest these illegal Kuki immigrants have encroached illegally and are exploiting  forests for poppy cultivation. There is so much drug money, how else does one explain the well-armed supposedly peace march?

Coming back to May 3, how did such a big violence erupt out of a peace rally? It is said that Meiteis, opposed to the rally, burnt a Kuki war heroes memorial metal gate at Torbung, triggering the conflict. How is that possible especially when there was a shutdown on that day? Moreover, how can you have a peace rally with arms? How could the attackers be so diabolic?

At the jam-packed Imphal airport, I saw many Kukis, very less Meiteis, leaving. Since the internet has been shut down in the state, most of the news coming out of the region are from those who have left the state. So, you can imagine, which narrative is flowing out.

There is no means to hear the other side of the story. The violence has reached the capital Imphal. At night, I was witness to the sounds of the guns and bells. Right now, Article 355 has been imposed on Manipur with a shoot at sight order, that means the federal government is looking after the law and order of the state.

The question that still haunts me though: On the night of May 3, from 7 pm till 3 am, where were the police and the law enforcement authorities?

As I wait to return to my family in Sydney, I am praying for peace.

(The views expressed are those of the writer’s)


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2 COMMENTS

  1. Sorry to hear about your India (Lamka) vacation turn into nightmare. However, please note that a few weeks before the turmoil, all Gun licenses in the hills had to be submitted to the nearest police station for re-verification of arms license possessed by authorized license holders issued by the office of District Magistrate. As mentioned, indeed some still had gun with them in this locality and attacker was shot by bullet. A co-incidence?
    A days before the peace rally, people from Moirang issued a warning in local TV news channel to hills people during the torch rally organized against the peace rally the next day.
    The day peace rally was organized all over the outer Manipur, only at Teddim road (road from Imphal to CCPur/Lamka) counter blockade was in place.
    Evidence of all the above mentioned chain of event available online.

  2. Sorry to hear about your India (Lamka) vacation turn into nightmare. However, please note that a few weeks before the turmoil, all Gun licenses in the hills had to be submitted to the nearest police station for re-verification of arms license possessed by authorized license holders issued by the office of District Magistrate. As mentioned, indeed some still had gun with them in this locality and attacker was shot by bullet. A co-incidence?
    A days before the peace rally, people from Moirang issued a warning in local TV news channel to hills people during the torch rally organized against the peace rally the next day.
    The day peace rally was organized all over the outer Manipur, only at Teddim road (road from Imphal to CCPur/Lamka) counter blockade was in place.
    Evidence of all the above mentioned chain of event available online.

Comments