Many killed in Manipur riots; State government issues shoot-at-sight order

Clashes began in Manipur after a march was taken out by tribes against move to grant ST status to the majority Meitei community; hundreds of houses, churches, temples, vehicles vandalised or set ablaze

May 04, 2023 05:48 pm | Updated May 05, 2023 12:41 pm IST - GUWAHATI/IMPHAL

Violence broke out between tribals and non-tribals during ‘Tribal Solidarity March’ called by All Tribal Student Union Manipur (ATSUM).

Violence broke out between tribals and non-tribals during ‘Tribal Solidarity March’ called by All Tribal Student Union Manipur (ATSUM). | Photo Credit: PTI

The Manipur government on May 4 issued a shoot-at-sight order in “extreme cases”, as escalating ethnic violence following a tribal solidarity march displaced more than 9,000 people in the State. There was no official confirmation of the number of people killed or injured in the violence, but Chief Minister Nongthombam Biren Singh admitted that “some precious lives were lost”.

Clashes initially broke out during the course of Wednesday’s solidarity march, called by the All Tribal Students’ Union, Manipur. Scheduled Tribe communities, mostly from the Kuki-Zomi tribal group, are protesting a move to grant a long-standing demand for Scheduled Tribe (ST) status to the Meitei community, which makes up the majority of the State’s population. On April 19, the Manipur High Court directed the State government to submit its recommendation to include the Meitei community in the ST list to the Union Tribal Affairs Ministry by May 29.

Lives lost, properties vandalised

Admitting “some precious lives were lost”, CM N. Biren Singh appealed to the people to maintain peace and harmony, soon after updating Home Minister Amit Shah on the ground situation.

People gather near an incident site in Imphal after violence broke out between tribals and non-tribals during ‘Tribal Solidarity March’ called by All Tribal Student Union Manipur (ATSUM) on May 4, 2023.

People gather near an incident site in Imphal after violence broke out between tribals and non-tribals during ‘Tribal Solidarity March’ called by All Tribal Student Union Manipur (ATSUM) on May 4, 2023. | Photo Credit: ANI

Hundreds of houses, churches, temples, and vehicles were either vandalised or set ablaze across five districts: Imphal, Churachandpur, Bishnupur, Kangpokpi, and Tengnoupal. Among the seriously injured was Manipur MLA and former Tribal Affairs Minister, Vungzagin Valte, who was admitted to a hospital after a mob attacked his official residence in the State capital Imphal.

Curfew remained imposed in some districts, while internet services were suspended for the second successive day.

Army, paramilitary deployed

About 500 personnel of the Rapid Action Force, a specialised unit to handle riots, were flown in on Thursday morning. They joined 55 columns of the Indian Army and the paramilitary Assam Rifles, apart from the police, in attempting to control the violence. Officials said that the Imphal-Churachandpur Road, the axis along which much of the violence took place, had been secured by the combined forces.

Indian Army and Assam Rifles personnel rescue civilians from violence-hit areas, in Manipur. The violence broke out on May 3, 2023, during ‘Tribal Solidarity March in Churachandpur district to protest the demand of non-tribal Meiteis, who dominate the Imphal Valley, for Scheduled Tribe (ST) status.

Indian Army and Assam Rifles personnel rescue civilians from violence-hit areas, in Manipur. The violence broke out on May 3, 2023, during ‘Tribal Solidarity March in Churachandpur district to protest the demand of non-tribal Meiteis, who dominate the Imphal Valley, for Scheduled Tribe (ST) status. | Photo Credit: PTI

“The Army and Assam Rifles personnel are conducting flag marches and aerial reconnaissance in the affected areas. We have rescued 5,000 people in Churachandpur and 2,000 each in Imphal and Moreh and lodged them in safe places,” a defence spokesperson said. An additional 14 columns of the army and paramilitary force have been kept on standby for deployment on short notice, he added.

The heightened security did not deter mobs from attacking vulnerable spots. Assessing the situation, Governor Anusuiya Uikey authorised all district magistrates and executive magistrates to issue shoot-at-sight orders “in extreme cases whereby all forms of persuasion, warning, reasonable force etc has been exhausted”.

Manipur CM’s appeal

The order came hours after Mr. Shah called up Mr. Singh and took stock of the situation. The Ministry of Home Affairs subsequently appointed Kuldiep Singh, the former director general of the Central Reserve Police Force as the Chief Minister’s security advisor. Mr. Shah chaired two videoconference meetings with Mr. Singh, the State police chief and other senior officials and also conferred with the CMs of the neighbouring States of Nagaland, Mizoram and Assam.

Following his meeting with Mr Shah, the Chief Minister appealed to the people in a video message to maintain peace and harmony. “During the last 24 hours, some incidents of clashes, vandalism and arson were reported from Imphal, Churachandpur, Bishnupur, Kangpokpi and Moreh. Precious lives were lost, besides damage to property of residents,” he said.

He attributed the violence to a misunderstanding between two sections of society and said that the government was taking steps to control it. “The long-term grievances of communities will be addressed in consultations with people and organisations. We have all co-existed in Manipur peacefully for centuries. We should not allow the culture of communal harmony to be disturbed by vested interests,” he said.

Mizoram CM’s advice

His Mizoram counterpart, Zoramthanga wrote him a letter on Thursday, saying that he was deeply pained by the violence and the underlying tension between the “Meitei community and tribals there”.

Mizoram, adjoining Manipur, is dominated by the Mizos who are ethnically related to the Kuki-Zomi group of tribes that has been in conflict with the Meitei people over the past few days.

“At a time when our two States are already facing issues as a result of the political situation in Myanmar and Bangladesh and the lingering effects of Covid-19, including the prospect of a new wave with more and more cases being detected, such violence only makes things worse,” Mr. Zoramthanga said. “I urge you to exercise the kind of leadership that the people of your own State know you are capable of and reach out to all parties involved to try and bring an end to this senseless violence. Towards this, I assure you of the highest cooperation of my government and the people of Mizoram as we pray for reconciliation and healing in Manipur,” he added.

Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio said that he was deeply disturbed about the unrest in Manipur and appealed for peace. Taking to Twitter, he said that the Nagaland government has activated helpline numbers for the people from Nagaland presently in Manipur, particularly in Imphal.

Mobs roam Imphal

“It is a complete failure of the State machinery. Mobs are roaming around freely. I fled my home in Eastern Imphal with four of my elderly family members on Thursday afternoon. We have lost our home, my car, documents and all our belongings. We are currently taking shelter at the compound of Manipur Rifles in the city,” 36-year-old Golan Naulak, a Scheduled Tribe resident of Imphal told The Hindu over the phone on Thursday.

Many Adivasi residents in Imphal and nearby areas are reeling under confusion and shock. Several who spoke to The Hindu over the phone said that they were fleeing their homes, which were allegedly under attack from mobs comprising Meitei people. While some of them are trying to find refuge in their neighbours’ homes or compunds like that of Manipur University, others are trying to find their way to relief camps being set up in the city.

While mobile internet has been shut in a lot of the state’s districts, most are using whatever broadband or Wi-Fi network they are able to find. “But, around 2 pm on Thursday, we lost our home Wi-Fi. In about an hour, a mob of around 300 people stormed our neighbourhood and started vandalising homes,” Mr. Naulak said. He added that he and his family members somehow climbed their wall and went into their neighbour’s house to hide. “Thankfully, the neighbour was a police officer and he provided us with an escort to bring us here,” he said.

Churches vandalised

Meanwhile, 25-year-old private school teacher Sarah (name changed to protect identity), also Adivasi, is on the run from her Central Imphal home, fearing attacks from mobs. “We have been told that more than a dozen churches had been vandalised in and around Imphal. We also saw a hospital run by the Kuki Christian Church being burnt down,” she said.

Sarah is currently trying to make it to a relief camp with 11 other family members, including two infants, a disabled aunt and elderly grandparents. Unaware of their exact location, she said, “I can hear gunshots and tear gas being shot as I type this message.”

Burmese migrants blamed

But even as Adivasi residents in and around Imphal and Churachandpur say their homes and villages were being raided by mobs of Meitei people, members of the Meitei Tribe Union and others blame “illegal migrants from Burma” for fuelling the violence.

Manihar Moirangthem Kongpal, Adviser to the Meitei Tribe Union, which secured the High Court order, also claimed that the entire Meitei community in areas like Churachandpur and Moreh was facing violence at the hands of “such miscreants”. He insisted that the violence was purportedly started by those associated with Kuki associations.

The Meitei community people said that their homes had also been attacked and that they too were fleeing to find shelter.

High Court notice

The Manipur High Court on Wednesday issued notices to the chairman of the Hill Areas Committee, an Assembly body, and the president of the All Tribal Students’ Union, Manipur, directing them to appear before it for criticising and instigating people against its April 19 judgement. The court also asked media organisations, civil society groups, and the general public not to carry out activities that may lower its dignity.

The Hill Areas Committee chairman Dinganglung Gangmei had reportedly circulated a statement against the court’s order, and resented the fact that the committee, a constitutional body, was neither made a party to the case nor consulted about it.

(Inputs from Iboyaima Laithangbam in Imphal; Abhinay Lakshman and Vijaita Singh in New Delhi)

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