MANIPUR: Schoolboys turned militia fighters stare towards their enemies from their hilltop outpost, as the vigilante gunmen dig in for a long fight in India’s troubled Manipur state.
Three months ago, 16-year-old Paominthang was a student from the farming Kuki people who dreamed of being a football star — now he is armed with a .303 rifle and says he is ready to kill rival Meitei community fighters if needed.
At least 120 people have been killed since May in armed clashes between the predominantly Hindu Meitei majority and the mainly Christian Kuki in the northeastern state. Many in Manipur believe the number could be higher.
Paominthang, who gave only one name for fear of reprisal, said he abandoned his books after a Meitei mob attacked his family.
“They burnt down my house — I had no other choice,” he told AFP, cradling his gun proudly and insisting he had no qualms about using it in defence. “I will shoot,” he said.
Conflict erupted from a mix of causes including competition for land and public jobs, with rights activists accusing local leaders of exacerbating ethnic divisions for political gain.
They deny that, but months into the crisis, divisions are hardening into bitter cycles of revenge attacks that have included killings and the burning of homes, Christian churches and Hindu temples.
The rivals have formed militia forces who insist they will not be laying down their guns any time soon.
The far-flung states of northeast India — sandwiched between Bangladesh, China and Myanmar — have long been a tinderbox of tensions between different ethnic groups.
Kukis make up around 16 percent of Manipur’s roughly 2.8 million people, according to India’s last census in 2011, but their demands for a separate state administration for them are rejected outright by the Meitei, who form more than half of the population.
Paominthang’s base, dubbed “Tiger Camp”, is reachable via a thin path up steep and lush hills. Similar camps run by rival forces are dotted across the area.
When clashes began in May, mobs looted police stations, with the Press Trust of India news agency reporting 3,000 weapons and 600,000 rounds of ammunition went missing.
In militia camps in both Kuki and Meitei areas, AFP reporters saw men armed with an array of sophisticated weapons, including Kalashnikov assault rifles and homemade guns crafted out of metal pipes.
“We can’t show you, but we have ammunition that can last for more than two months,” claimed Phaokosat Hokip, 32, a Kuki fighter, who in May worked for an aid agency.
Hokip’s group conduct dusk-till-dawn sentry duty from their sandbagged post, staring into the dark using high-powered binoculars, with other militia members resting in shelters made of plastic sheeting attached to bamboo poles.
“If we are not here with guns, they will turn up in thousands and they will come and burn down our house,” Hokip said.
Between the fertile farmland, charred homes line the road between the Meitei-majority Bishnupur district and Kuki stronghold of Churachandpur, an unofficial border between the groups.
The army patrols the road, but even as they do so, the crackle of militia gunfire can be heard nearby.
Across the divide, in the Meitei camp, gunmen say they are fearful of the Kuki.
“Even the state forces are not able to control it,” said KB, a 55-year-old Meitei who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It is a civil war.”
Meitei people have long accused the Kuki of supporting undocumented immigrants from Myanmar and poppy cultivation, claims the Kuki deny.
“We used to live together,” added KB. “Suddenly, they attacked us, and now want a separate administration — that will not happen”.
India’s Interior Minister Amit Shah has promised an “impartial investigation” into the violence and has said the government “stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the people of Manipur”.
But the NGO Human Rights Watch accuse state authorities, led by Shah’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, of having rolled out “divisive policies that promote Hindu majoritarianism”.
DS Hooda, a retired Indian general who served in Manipur, said the government had to tackle the crisis in “a non-partisan manner”.
“If civilian vigilante groups are going to take up weapons to protect themselves, it is a sad commentary on the authority of the state,” he said.
Hokip, the Kuki fighter, does not trust the government, believing that the state’s chief minister N. Biren Singh — a Meitei — is complicit, charges he denies.
“It is state-sponsored ethnic cleansing against the Kukis,” said Hokip. “Even if you approach the government, the government is supporting the Meiteis.”
KB, his Meitei rival, said fighters would not lay down their guns. “For as long as we have blood in our body, we will not leave our land and run,” he said. AFP
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