The recent arrest of four Kuki-Zo people in connection with the alleged murder of two Meitei students in Manipur has left the community feeling cornered. As much as the arrests themselves, the fact that it was the Central Bureau of Investigation that carried them out is behind the despondency.

The arrests are being seen as a sign of the Centre abandoning the community, which is made up of the Kuki and Zomi tribes, even as their conflict with the Meitei community enters its fifth month.

“So much hope was pinned on the Centre,” said Nengzalian Tonsing, president of the Zomi Students’ Federation. “But the way the CBI and NIA [National Investigative Agency] had conducted their investigation and arrests, it is seen by us as selective justice.”

Already at loggerheads with the Meitei-dominated state government, many in the tribal community feel their backs are now against the wall more than ever since the conflict first started in May.

“Earlier the Kuki-Zo people used to think their fight was with the state government and they had the implicit support of the Centre,” said a community activist.

Protests and arrests

The October 1 arrests by the CBI came on the heels of massive public protests in the Meitei-dominated Imphal valley, demanding action against the killers of a 17-year-old girl, Hijam Linthoingambi, and a 20-year-old young man, Phijam Hemjit, who had gone missing in July. In September, the state government said they had been killed by Kuki militants.

In Imphal, security forces had used pellet guns on the protesters, most of them students. This had led to further outrage, with many Meiteis even demanding the ouster of Chief Minister N Biren Singh.

The Meitei anger even prompted the Bharatiya Janata Party’s top office-bearers in the state to write to national president JP Nadda, saying “public’s anger and protest is now slowly turning the tide, putting the sole onus of this prolonged disturbance into the failure of the government in dealing with the situation.”

The hills rise

While the arrests that followed soon after seem to have cooled down temperatures in the valley, the Kuki-Zos in the hills have alleged selective action.

To protest against the arrests, Kuki-Zo civil society groups announced indefinite closures – which were later withdrawn – in areas under their control. Unlike in the past, the object of their ire was not just the state government and the Chief Minister. Posters and banners sprang up, mocking the central investigative agencies. If some acerbically called the National Investigation Agency “National Imphal Agency”, others referred to the CBI as “Central Bureau of Imphal”.

If the CBI could act with such alacrity to nab culprits from the Kuki community, why are Meitei miscreants not arrested just as swiftly, the protesters have asked. After all, they claim, there have been “heinous crimes” committed by the other side too.

“We feel selective justice is [being] done by the CBI,” said Ginza Vualzong, spokesperson of the Forum, adding that the agencies were yet to make arrests in “so many other acts of atrocities against tribals”.

Among others, Vueling invoked the case of a seven-year-old Kuki boy who was burnt alive by a Meitei mob, and the beheading of a youth from the community.

The CBI and the NIA, for their part, have rejected allegations of bias, insisting that the arrests were evidence-based.

Posters and banners sprang up in Churachandpur, mocking the central investigative agencies. (Special arrangement)

‘State and Centre are working’

The clarifications, however, have provided little succour to the Kuki-Zos who say they feel let down by the Centre. After all, the community has been long demanding the dismissal of Biren Singh and the installation of central rule in the state – believing that the latter was sympathetic to its cause of a separate administration.

“We are utterly dismayed by the selective and exclusive justice against our people,” said Janghaolun Haokip, secretary of the Kuki Inpi Manipur, the Kuki community’s apex body in the state.

Haokip said some people from his community were “convinced that the state and Centre are working together in the persecution of our people”. The Centre, he said, did not seem to be making a “sincere effort to end the conflict”.

In the early days of the conflict, the Chief of Defence Staff, General Anil Chauhan, had affirmed that Kuki insurgents did not have a role to play in the unrest in the state, negating an enduring Meitei allegation that the conflict was being stoked by Kuki-Zo militants from Myanmar.

However, in August, during a discussion on Manipur in the Lok Sabha, Union Home Minister Amit Shah invoked the civil war in Myanmar, suggesting foreign nationals had a hand in the Manipur conflict.

Not spoilt for choices

Ever since, Kuki-Zo civil society members say, “the narrative changed”.

“The Centre is hell-bent on just undertaking actions that prove or verify Amit Shah’s statement in Parliament,” alleged an activist from the community.

Benjamin Mate, a BJP leader from the community, accused the party’s central leadership of siding with the Meiteis. “They haven’t done anything to crack down on Meiteis even when more than 5,000 arms and ammunition were looted,” Mate said. “The banned Meitei groups are allowed to roam freely with full arms to attack the Kuki-Zo community.”

Yet, community leaders say they had no choice but to keep their relationship with the Centre non-antagonistic. The decision to curtail the “indefinite” protests bore out this lack of options.

As Haokip, the Kuki Inpi leader, said, “Our only hope for a solution is still the Centre.”