Ethnic violence in India: more than 120 dead in clashes between Christian and Hindu minorities

Zuan Vaiphei, 32, left, an armed tribal Kuki, guards the bunkers of the rival Meitei community, along a de facto front line dividing the area into two ethnic zones in Churachandpur, in the northeastern state Manipur Indian. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri) (Altaf Qadri/)

Zuan Vaiphei is armed and prepared to kill. He too is ready to die.

Vaiphei spends most of his days behind the sandbag walls of a makeshift bunker, his fingers resting on the trigger of a 12-gauge shotgun. About 1,000 meters ahead of him, between a field of tall green grass and wildflowers, there is the enemy, armed and ready, looming from the breastworks of similar sandbag fortifications.

“The only thing that crosses our minds is if they will approach us; Will they come and kill us? So if they come with weapons, we have to forget everything and protect ourselves.”says the 32-year-old, his voice barely audible amid a deafening hum of cicadas in the village of Kangvai, which lies along the foothills of India’s remote northeast. Manipur state.

Dozens of such sandbag fortifications mark one of many front lines that do not exist on any map and yet dissect Manipur into two ethnic zones: between the people of the hill tribes and those of the plains below.

A burnt fruit tree stands in front of a vandalized house following ethnic clashes and riots in Sugnu, India’s northeastern state of Manipur, Wednesday, June 21, 2023. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri) (Altaf Qadri /)

Two months ago, Vaiphei was teaching economics to students when simmering tensions between the two communities erupted into bloodshed so horrific that thousands of Indian soldiers sent in to quell the riots were nearly paralyzed by it.

The ethnic clashes between different groups have broken out occasionally in the past, mostly pitting the minority Christian Kukis against the Hindu majority Meiteis, who form a narrow majority in the state. But no one was prepared for the killings, arson and hate riots that followed in May, after Meiteis demanded special status that would allow them to buy land in the hills populated by Kukis and other tribal groups, as well as a share of government posts.

Witnesses interviewed by The Associated Press described how angry mobs and armed gangs invaded towns and cities, burning down homes, massacring civilians and driving tens of thousands of people from their homes. More than 50,000 people have fled to overcrowded relief camps. Those who fought back were killed, sometimes beaten to death or beheaded, and the wounded were thrown into the fires, according to witnesses and others with first-hand knowledge of the events.

The deadly clashes, which have left at least 120 dead according to conservative estimates by the authorities, they persist despite the presence of the Army. Wide swaths have become ghost towns, scorched by fire so fierce it left the tin roofs melted and twisted.

Kim Neineng, 43, a tribal Kuki, cries as she recounts the murder of her husband, at an aid camp in Churachandpur, in India’s northeastern state of Manipur, Tuesday, June 20, 2023. Neineng escaped with her four children. to a nearby camp. relief camp when a Meitei mob descended on her village. Her husband was killed by the mob: they beat him with iron bars, cut off his legs, and then tore him up and threw him into the raging fire that had already consumed his house. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri) (Altaf Qadri/)

“It is as close to a civil war as any state in independent India”said Sushant Singh, a senior fellow at the India Policy Research Center and a veteran of the Indian Army.

The riots have been met with nearly two months of silence from Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose Bharatiya Janata party rules Manipur. Modi’s powerful Home Minister Amit Shah visited the state in May and tried to make peace between the two parties. Since then, state lawmakers — many of whom fled after mobs burned down their homes — have been meeting in New Delhi to try to find a solution.

The state government, however, has ensured that Manipur is returning to normal. On June 25, Chief Minister N. Biren Singh said that the government and the armed forces had been “able to control the violence to a large extent over the past week”. However, Singh’s visit to the front line on Sunday coincided with fresh fighting that left three people dead, authorities said.

The Meiteis have long blamed the Kuki minority for the state’s rampant drug problems and accused them of harboring migrants from Myanmar. The administration, made up mostly of Meiteis, also appears to be harshly criticizing Kukis after Singh alleged that some of those involved in the latest clashes were “terrorists”.

A shopkeeper stands next to a banner criticizing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s silence following ethnic clashes and riots, in Imphal, capital of India’s northeastern state of Manipur, Thursday, June 22, 2023. (AP Photo /Altaf Qadri) (Altaf Qadri/)

Trouble reached the home of A. Ramesh Singh on May 4 in Phayeng, a predominantly Meitei village about 17 kilometers (10 miles) from the state capital, Imphal.

The day before, Singh had held a vigil on the outskirts of his village whose residents, more than 200 of them, waited for crowds of Kukis to descend from an adjacent hill. A former soldier, Singh carried a licensed weapon with him, said his son, Robert Singh.

On the night of the raid, Singh fired, some into the air and some into the crowd, but was shot in the leg. Injured and unable to walk, he watched his town being looted before he was kidnapped along with four others and dragged up the hills, his son said.

The next day, Robert was told that his father’s body had been found in a grove of trees. They shot him in the head.

Armed members of the Meitei community stand guard behind a bunker as they guard the bunkers of the rival Kuki tribal community on a de facto front line dividing the area into two ethnic zones in Sugnu, India’s northeastern state of Manipur, Wednesday, 21 June 2023. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri) (Altaf Qadri/)

The anguish of the victims also echoes quietly through hundreds of relief camps where displaced Kukis take refuge, who have suffered most of the deaths and the destruction of homes and churches.

Kim Neineng, 43, and her husband had enjoyed years of peace in the village of Lailampat. She cultivated the fields. She sold the products in the market.

On the afternoon of May 5, Neineng left his home to check the noise. Breathless, she ran inside and told her husband what she had seen: a Meitei mob, many of them armed, had descended on her village, shouting and hurling insults.

Neineng’s husband knew what it meant. He asked her to run away with her four children and not look back at her, promising that she would take care of her cattle and her home. She quickly packed up her belongings and ran to a nearby aid camp.

An armed tribal Kuki walks towards a bunker on a de facto front line dissecting two ethnic areas in Churachandpur, in India’s northeastern state of Manipur, Tuesday, June 20, 2023. Two months since a conflict began ethnic, hundreds of barricades and sandbag bunkers dot highways through the torn lands of Manipur. Most of these imaginary borders are controlled by the warring communities. Those left unattended have been taken over by Indian forces looking through binoculars on either side where camouflaged armed gangs ride motorbikes. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri) (Altaf Qadri/)

A day later, more of her neighbors came to the shelter and told Neineng what had happened to her husband.

When the mob arrived at his house, the husband tried to reason with them, but they would not listen. Soon, they began to beat him with iron bars. More armed men arrived and cut off his legs. Then they picked him up and threw him into the raging fire that had already consumed his house.

Neighbors found his charred body on the scorched floor.

“They tortured him and treated him like an animal, without humanity. When I think of his last moments, I can’t comprehend what he must have felt.”Neineng said, barely choking on the words.

(with information from AP)

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