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Onkhomang Haokip died this week. A sub-inspector in the Manipur police, he was 40, according to news reports.

I had run into him less than a month ago, during my last trip to Manipur, but I hadn’t had a chance to ask him his age. Our meeting was hurried – it took place not very far from where he fell to a sniper bullet on September 13, in a foothill village along the border of Churachandpur and Bishnupur.

He had come back from the “frontlines” for a tea break at the home of the local village chief. I was headed there too, racing against the east Indian sun, after having finished my own cup of unsweetened black tea while interviewing the chief.

Haokip was in his uniform. He was on duty, he said. But he was frank about what that really meant in the current situation. The loyalty of policemen, he said, was no longer to their uniform, but to their community – for a reason. “I barely escaped Moirang on May 3,” he said. “If I had not, I would have been dead, my uniform would not have saved me.”

Haokip, a Kuki, was posted at the Moirang police station in the Meitei-dominated valley district of Bishnupur when the ethnic violence in Manipur first broke out on May 3.

There, the Kukis, in minority, came under attack from the Meiteis, forcing them to flee to Churachandpur. Ever since, Haokip had been attached to the Churachandpur police.

Pointing towards his team, he added with a garrulous laugh: “We are all refugee police.”

On that trip towards the end of August, I was chasing down the shadowy armed men who were driving the conflict, which had spiraled into a civil war.

I was travelling extensively across the state’s hinterlands, visiting dozens of villages along the hill-valley border every day for around a week. These villages were fortified with bunkers that housed armed men, cocking their guns toward the enemy lines.

Both the Meities and the Kukis would insist these men were civilian “volunteers” – forced to pick up arms because of the circumstances.

It was partly true. But also in those bunkers, as I would discover over the week, were professional fighters: cadres of insurgent groups.

Both communities have a plethora of such militant groups that claim to represent them. In the current phase of the conflict, they are spearheading attacks on the other community, as I wrote in my dispatch from the trip.

Strikingly, fighting alongside them – “shoulder to shoulder”, as a former chief of the state police described to me – were policemen.

Haokip admitted that.

There was no choice, he said. Such were the times, after all.

His Meitei colleagues, he said, were fighting alongside the Meitei insurgent groups. “We had done operations against the KCP and UNLF together once, but now they are together,” he said, referring to the proscribed Meitei insurgent groups Kangleipak Communist Party and United Liberation Front of Manipur.

A Meitei police commando I met last month concurred with Haokip’s claims. “The authorities are giving us a free hand,” he told me as we drank lemon tea in a restaurant in Imphal, struggling to hear each other over the din of the traffic outside. “We are fighting with the people we used to fight against. Mindsets have changed due to this conflict. It’s become communal.”

The division of the Manipur police along ethnic lines is by now well-known. Yet, what is often missed is the fact that this isn’t a fight between equals.

By the sheer size of their population, the Meitei constabulary is much larger. Possibly more importantly, Meitei officers form what a security official described to me as the “cutting edge” of the force – district-level heads who marshall troops on the ground. The first phase of the conflict – where Kukis in Imphal were subjected to brutal retaliatory violence following the arson of Meitei homes and businesses in Churachandpur – bore testimony to this imbalance.

In the subsequent weeks, when the conflict receded to the hinterlands, Meitei policemen fought alongside civilians from the community. In Sugnu, they banded together to set alight a designated camp of a Kuki insurgent group. The Meities claim it was retaliatory violence, but no one contests the fact that the police were involved in it.

The latest round of violence in the state where Meitei militants have launched targeted guerilla-style attacks on the Kukis has blurred the lines even further. There have been reports of militants donning Manipur police’s colours while carrying out attacks.

When I dialled a Meitei civil society activist in the Moirang area to enquire about this purported new trend, he told me the frontlines are now manned “entirely by men in uniform”.

“Even we are not allowed,” he told me. “The Meira Paibis guard the way and only those in uniform are given entry.”

Men in uniform meaning the police?

“That’s the uniform they are wearing,” he said. “Maybe police, maybe militants, maybe both.”

On Wednesday, the sniper bullet that killed Haokip came from somewhere around Phubala, part of the same extended frontline, minutes away from his old workplace: the Moirang police station.

Haokip, according to a Kuki village volunteer, was inside a bunker when the bullet hit him. “It pierced two sandbags before hitting him,” said the volunteer. “You can see the two holes in the sandbags.”

That August afternoon, before I left, I had asked Haokip about what he thought the future held for him as a police officer. Would he go back to his old posting at Moirang? “I am not going back there,” he had said, flatly.

Death took the matter out of his hands.