It was almost a daily affair for 59-year-old farmer Soibam Sarat Kumar Singh to ride his motorcycle from his village in Manipur’s Jiribam district to his farm 4 km away.

Along his way were villages belonging to different communities – from Meiteis to Bengali Hindus and Muslims, from Khasis to Pangals, Hmar and Kukis.

The diversity is typical of Jiribam, a tiny Manipur district that had, unlike the rest of the state, not been overtaken by ethnic clashes between the Kuki-Zos and Meiteis that broke out in May last year.

Even during the worst months of the ethnic conflict, Singh had little reason to fear on Mullargao road.

“There were a few minor incidents and tension between the two communities, but there were no major incidents of violence in Jiribam,” said Soibam Ronald Singh, the farmer’s 28-year-old son.

That changed on the evening of June 6, when his father, who was supposed to return home on his motorbike from the farm, did not turn up.

A few hours later, Soibam Sarat Kumar Singh’s mutilated body was found near a Kuki village. According to the first information report filed by Singh’s wife Romola Devi, her husband was “forcibly abducted by some unknown persons suspected to be from the Kuki community”.

The discovery of Singh’s body shattered the fragile peace in Jiribam.

On the same night, the homes of Kuki-Zos, who are a minority in Jiribam town, came under attack.

Several Jiribam residents told Scroll that angry Meitei residents gathered at the Jiribam police station and asked that the arms they had surrendered during the Lok Sabha election be returned to them.

“Following that, the Meiteis in the town started to burn down the houses belonging to Hmar-Kuki-Zomi,” a Jiribam resident, who does not belong to either the Kuki-Zo or the Meitei community. The Evangelical Baptist Convention Church was also burnt down, the resident said.

The Meiteis living in nearby villages – some 25-30 km from the district headquarters, like Lamtai Khunou, Harinagar, Madhupur and Bhutangkha – were attacked the same night, forcing the central forces to move them to relief camps.

A group of displaced Meiteis in a relief camp in Jiribam. Credit: Special Arrangement.

A highway at stake

Four days later, a police convoy on the way to Jiribam was ambushed by suspected Kuki militants on National Highway 37, leaving one police personnel injured. The convoy was sent ahead of Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh’s planned visit to the district to oversee the law-and-order situation.

An Assam Rifles official, who did not want to be identified, said the events suggested an attempt to extend the Manipur conflict. “Some vested interest groups from outside Jiribam were looking for opportunities to make it the next battleground like Moreh, Imphal and Churachandpur,” the official told Scroll. “They got one after the Meitei man’s body was found.”

Observers pointed out that the strategic position of Jiribam may be key to the recent violence.

The National Highway 37, which allows essential supplies from Assam to Manipur, passes through the district. “The whole supply line to Imphal Valley can be controlled by Kukis anytime they want if they take control of Jiribam,” Bhagat Oinam, a teacher at Jawaharlal Nehru University, said.

On Monday, groups of Kuki women sat on the highway, blocking the route of several trucks headed to Imphal.

The second highway critical to the Imphal Valley, National Highway 2, passes through the Kuki-majority Kangpokpi district.

Residents of a Hmar village take stock of the damage. Credit: Special Arrangement.

A precarious peace

Jiribam is home to Muslim and Hindu Bengalis, Meiteis, Pangals, and Kuki-Zo and Naga communities. While Bengalis are the largest group, the Hmar-Kuki-Zomi tribal population of Jiribam is quite low, according to Kuki-Zo groups. According to the 2011 Census, the Scheduled Tribe population in Jiribam is 12.5%.

In May last year, when ethnic clashes erupted in Churachandpur and then Imphal, a house belonging to a Kuki family was burnt down in Jiribam, a journalist based in the town said.

But a peace committee comprising people from different communities, security forces and district authorities had kept violence at bay all these months, the Assam Rifles official told Scroll. “There were a few minor incidents from time to time but those were put to rest with the help of the peace committee.”

In the wake of the ethnic conflict, most of the Kuki-Zo people in Jiribam town had shifted to nearby Cachar district in Assam. “They would come to the town in the day to attend office or visit markets or check on their houses in Jiribam town – and leave before sunset,” the Jiribam resident said.

“But this time it was beyond the capacity of the peace committee,” the Jiribam-based journalist said, referring to the sudden spiral of violence.

The Assam Rifles official blamed false propaganda and fake narratives from both communities for stirring up unrest and fear.

Burnt Meitei houses in Lamtai Khunou village. Credit: Special Arrangement.

A missing Kuki man

The cycle of rumours began three weeks ago.

On May 17, the decomposed corpse of a 21-year-old Kuki man was discovered in the Jiri River near Muolzawl village.

“We knew that was the handiwork of the Meitei militants but we did not blame Meiteis because we want peace,” alleged Bruce Haokip of Kuki Inpi, the apex body of the Kukis.

Nevertheless, the distrust had deepened. The discovery of the Meitei man’s murder three weeks later lit the spark.

“The Meiteis directly blamed us for the killing of the Meitei person and started burning Kuki-Zo houses in the town,” said Haokip.

A statement by Indigenous Tribes Advocacy Committee, a new group which claims to represent the interests of the Hmar, Kuki and Zomi tribes of Jiribam and the adjoining Pherzawl district, said the burning of Meitei-dominated Lamtai Khunou village was in response to arson in Jiribam town.

They described it as “retribution against Arambai Tenggol [a radical Meitei militia accused of violence against Kukis] who initiated these violent acts”.

Another Jiribam resident told Scroll that there was the town’s residents had feared this could happen. “We were afraid that the simmering anger would explode,” he said. “The rumours and fear-mongering escalated the violence.”

A Kuki-Zo activist from Jiribam agreed: “The distrust [between the two communities] is so overwhelming that pockets of trust or islands of peace just did not last.”

“Unfortunately, there was no rebuttal given or provided [to the rumours] at the appropriate level,” the Assam Rifles official said.

As of June 12, the violence has displaced 943 Meitei people, who are staying in seven relief camps set up within Jiribam district, according to Jiribam district administration. The number of Kuki-Zos displaced is 700, many of whom have been taking shelter in neighbouring Cachar.

‘No weaponisation of civilians’

After the attack on the convoy, Manipur chief minister N Biren Singh alleged that his office had alerted the director-general of police and the Manipur security adviser about the movement of “200 armed Kuki-Zo militants” from Churachandpur to areas bordering Jiribam.

The Assam Rifles official said that he “will not rule out the presence of militants.”

“But those inputs were not corroborated as we have not confronted [any militants],” the official said. “There are no reports of gunfights or encounters.”

Unlike in May last year, where civilians had looted state armouries, “no weaponisation happened in Jiribam like that of Imphal or Churachandpur,” he said.

However, Kuki-Zo groups have expressed their reservations about Manipur police commandos being deployed in the area. The Indigenous Tribes Advocacy Committee said the Manipur police commandos should stay away from Jiribam and Pherzawl districts. “Failure to comply with this warning will be [sic] retaliated,” the June 8 statement said.

A security official told The Hindu that the Manipur government’s decision to deploy state police commandos, despite the objections of Assam Rifles and the Army, has led to apprehension among the people.