Unrest in Jiribam deepens divides between Meitei and Kuki-Zo in Manipur

As violence engulfs all communities, the region plunges deeper into crisis with no resolution on the horizon, shattering hopes for peace, stability.

Published : Jun 22, 2024 18:28 IST - 8 MINS READ

A screenshot from a PTI video of people displaced by the recent violence who have taken shelter at a relief camp in Jiribam district, on June 15.

A screenshot from a PTI video of people displaced by the recent violence who have taken shelter at a relief camp in Jiribam district, on June 15. | Photo Credit: PTI

Manipur’s Jiribam district, a region with a mixed demography, had been relatively peaceful and largely unaffected by the violent clashes between Meitei and Kuki-Zo groups over the past year. That changed on June 6 when Soibam Saratkumar Singh, a 59-year-old Meitei farmer, went missing and his mutilated body was found later that day. Following the killing, several houses were set ablaze by armed miscreants, resulting in the forced displacement of about 2,000 people belonging to both communities. “Further, two police pickets and the Borobekra Forest Beat Office were also burnt down by suspected Kuki armed miscreants,” the Manipur Police said.

BJP legislator Rajkumar Imo Singh accused top police and security personnel of failing to prevent the outbreak of violence in Jiribam despite advance intelligence reports from the State government. Five days after the violence started in the district, Imo Singh wrote on his X handle:

“We have top police officials heading the Intelligence Wing in our State. State Government has to initiate an enquiry regarding the lackadaisical attitude of the officers who were given advance intelligence report by the State Government regarding the situation in Jiribam earlier this year. These officers should be held accountable for the loss of lives and property of all those affected and, pending such enquiry they should be suspended and strict action should be taken up against them as per procedures prescribed by law. Along with their associate officers, they should also be held accountable for the ambush on the State Police team heading as advance cavalcade for the Chief Minister, which is also related to the Jiribam incident.”

Singh demanded that the Manipur government immediately “fix responsibilities against all the officers and people involved, and further ensure that the people of Jiribam be given adequate security and allowed to continue living at the original place of residence sooner than later”.

Also Read | Eyes wide shut: How the state turns away from Manipur’s realities

Altogether, 943 displaced individuals, including women and children, have taken shelter in seven relief camps across Jiribam district while over 600 people belonging to Meitei, Kuki-Zo, and other communities have fled to Assam’s Cachar district to take shelter in relief camps set up by the district administration. The Barak and Jiri rivers demarcate the boundary between Manipur and Assam. Jiribam is about 45 km from Silchar town in Cachar, and 222 km from Manipur’s capital city, Imphal. Jiribam district was carved out of Imphal East district in 2016. The Meitei are in a majority in the district and also in the headquarter town of Jiribam. Other communities in the district include Hmar, Rongmei Naga, Kuki, Paite Thadou, Meitei Pangal (Manipuri Muslim), Bengali Hindu, Bengali Muslim, Khasi, and Bishnupria.

Police officials from both States held a joint meeting in Jiribam town on June 15 to discuss the prevailing situation. They have intensified patrolling and area domination of the inter-State boundary along the riverine stretches.

Larger crisis

Professor Angomcha Bimol Akoijam, who was elected to the 18th Lok Sabha from Inner Manipur constituency on the Congress ticket, told Frontline: “The Jiribam incident can’t be viewed in isolation. It’s a symptom of a larger crisis that has plagued Manipur for over a year, since May 2023. When communal conflicts fester for so long, they expose systemic failures. In essence, the system itself becomes complicit in the ongoing crisis. This continued violence is likely being exploited by those who seek to destabilise Manipur.”

Akoijam added that the State authority must be made accountable for the crisis. “Public awareness is crucial; a well-informed citizenry can demand decisive action from the government. This includes prioritising law enforcement to restore order. Once a sense of security is established, facilitated dialogue among citizens can pave the way towards peace.”

The Rongmei Naga Council Manipur, Goinanglong (Oinamlong) Luangrian (segment), strongly condemned the brutal murder of the Meitei farmer and the abduction of a 40-year-old Kuki resident of Jiribam, L. Thianmuang, by unknown miscreants. Appealing for peace, it urged both the Meitei and Kuki communities to refrain from escalating the crisis and to work out a solution for the welfare of the residents of Jiribam.

A “village volunteer” stands guard at a bunker set up in conflict-hit Manipur, in May 2024.

A “village volunteer” stands guard at a bunker set up in conflict-hit Manipur, in May 2024. | Photo Credit: Gunjan Sharma/ PTI

Manipur Chief Minister N. Biren Singh dropped his scheduled visit to Jiribam to take stock of the situation after suspected militants ambushed his advanced security team at K. Sinam village near Kotlen in Kangpokpi district along National Highway (NH) 37 on June 10. The Manipur Police claimed that the attack was carried out by “suspected Kuki militants”.

A police official and a civilian driver of the advanced security team were injured in the ambush. Empty bullet cases were recovered, and some illegal temporary hideout/bunkers, suspected to have been used by the militants, were destroyed during search operations in and around K. Sinam village, the police said. The Chief Minister condemned the attack and ordered a high-level probe.

  • The killing of a Meitei farmer in Jiribam set off retaliatory attacks, leading to the burning of homes and displacement of about 2,000 people from both Meitei and Kuki-Zo communities.
  • Local officials, including BJP legislator Rajkumar Imo Singh, accused top police and security personnel of failing to prevent the violence despite advance intelligence reports, calling for an inquiry and accountability.
  • The Jiribam incident has exacerbated existing tensions in Manipur, leading to highway blockades, further displacements, and heightened concerns about the state government’s ability to maintain order and protect citizens.

No help from the Centre

The opposition led by the Congress urged the Central and State governments to control the situation and protect lives and property in Jiribam. The Congress victory in both the Lok Sabha seats from the State—Inner and Outer Manipur—has been seen as a protest vote against the silence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the Manipur violence that has claimed 221 lives and displaced more than 60,000 people since May 3, 2023. Four days after the Jiribam incident, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat pointed out, while addressing an event in Nagpur, that Manipur had been waiting for peace for over a year and stressed the need to resolve the situation on a priority basis.

The Coordinating Committee on Manipur Integrity (COCOMI), a conglomerate of five major civil society organisations in the State, condemned the attack on the advanced security team of the Chief Minister. The organisation alleged that “the incident underscores the escalating conflict between the State government and Kuki terrorist organisations, exacerbated by the perceived complicity of Indian central security forces”. COCOMI further said that “the Central government’s neutral stance” amidst these attacks had not only compromised the safety of Manipuris but also undermined the authority of the State government. According to COCOMI, the refusal of Central forces to assist the State forces suggests an implicit support of the Kuki groups by the Indian state, going against the interests of the State government and fuelling further violence and instability.

Also Read | Targeting of Kukis the main reason behind Manipur violence

It also dubbed the evacuation of Meitei villages, purportedly for safety reasons, as a “tactical manoeuvre” meant to facilitate the occupation of these areas by Kuki groups. The umbrella organisation alleged that under the current leadership of Prime Minister Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, the hope for a peaceful and prosperous Manipur had dwindled. “COCOMI has lost faith in the Indian government’s commitment to protecting the indigenous people and safeguarding the State’s integrity,” it said while calling upon the people of Manipur to “take charge of their future”.

Highway blocked

Tension continued to simmer in the district after the Kuki Women Union of Jiribam and Tamenglong (KWUJT) endorsed the blockade of NH 37 called for by Kuki-Zo Village Volunteers to “counter the blockade imposed by Arambai Tenggol and the Meira Paibis of Jiribam”. The women’s body alleged in a statement that Saratkumar Singh was killed by unknown miscreants, but Meitei organisations blamed Kuki-Zo groups “with the intention of escalating tension in Jiribam”. It accused the Meitei radical outfit Arambai Tenggol and Meitei militant groups of torching all Kuki-Zo houses in Jiribam and dragging L. Thianmuang out of his house. He has been missing since.

The stretch of NH 37 (old NH 53) connecting Jiribam to Imphal has been seen as the highway of hope in the past one year. When blockades and clashes have frequently crippled movement on the main lifeline of Manipur, NH 2 (old NH 39), NH 37 kept the supply line open.

Chief of Army Staff (Designate) Lt General Upendra Dwivedi comes out after attending a meeting with Home Minister Amit Shah to review the security situation in Manipur, in New Delhi on June 17.

Chief of Army Staff (Designate) Lt General Upendra Dwivedi comes out after attending a meeting with Home Minister Amit Shah to review the security situation in Manipur, in New Delhi on June 17. | Photo Credit: Sanjay Sharma/ ANI

But now it wears a deserted look, with torched houses along the way and the threat of gun violence hanging like a dark cloud over it. Blockades and counter-blockades have choked supplies of essential commodities to both the hill and valley areas. Hundreds of trucks from Jiribam carrying essential goods were stranded on the highway after volunteers of KWUJT prevented trucks from proceeding towards Imphal and beyond. A convoy of about 140 trucks escorted by personnel of the Central Reserve Police Force returned to Jiribam after CRPF and police officials failed to persuade the women to lift the blockade.

Earlier, on the night of June 15, miscreants torched two trucks carrying construction materials in Bishnupur district. The trucks were headed to Churachandpur district, where Kuki-Zo people are in a majority. This incident was believed to be another trigger for the blockade imposed by Kuki groups.

With the violence showing no sign of abating, the future of Manipur remains fraught.

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