Cover

The burning hills won’t talk to each other

Vivek Singh | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on March 11, 2016
Different chants: Pastor Benson Khuptong addresses, and prays with a large group of protesters at Sielmat.

Different chants: Pastor Benson Khuptong addresses, and prays with a large group of protesters at Sielmat.   -  Vivek Singh

Time to heal: Local leaders address a large crowd at the district hospital

Time to heal: Local leaders address a large crowd at the district hospital   -  Vivek Singh

Stop sign: A blockaded street, to prevent security forces from entering the town

Stop sign: A blockaded street, to prevent security forces from entering the town   -  Vivek Singh

After bloodshed: An all-night vigil outside the district hospital morgue, in memory of those who died in the violent protests on August 31 and September 1, 2015.

After bloodshed: An all-night vigil outside the district hospital morgue, in memory of those who died in the violent protests on August 31 and September 1, 2015.   -  Vivek Singh

Vigilate beat: Groups of young men patrol the streets at night

Vigilate beat: Groups of young men patrol the streets at night   -  Vivek Singh

Firewall: At Sielmat bridge, protestors block entry into Lamka town.

Firewall: At Sielmat bridge, protestors block entry into Lamka town.   -  Vivek Singh

It’s an uneasy peace in Manipur’s Churachandpur as the deeply divided Kuki-Chin-Zomi clans join forces against the State to protect tribal land ownership rights

On what seemed like a quiet Saturday afternoon, a 36-year-old pastor named Benson Khuptong spoke a few quiet words over tea with his pregnant wife, gave her an affectionate kiss and left home on foot. No vehicles were on the street outside — it was a complete shutdown. He walked slowly for half a kilometre, his mind focused on the matter at hand. Ten minutes later he emerged from a side street onto the main Tedim road, which cuts through Lamka town in Churachandpur district, Manipur. Crowds were gathering on opposite sides, old rubber tyres had burned here continuously for over 24 hours. A large number of armed state commandos and police stood in no man’s land, trying to keep the angry mobs from getting to each other.

After a close inspection, the pastor turned around and went to a chemist shop nearby, the only one allowed to remain open, in case of an emergency. Here, he quickly wore his traditional cassock over his clothes and walked right back into the middle of the commotion. He first turned right, and crossed the 300 yards separating him from the first set of protesters. He delivered a short prayer and wordlessly handed over to them an artificial rose that he fished out of his bag, as a mark of peace. He didn’t speak their language — the town is divided along ethnicities and they don’t speak each other’s dialects but understand them. He then turned around and walked through a barrage of security personnel to the other side. Here the message was longer, the crowd bigger, these were his people, they understood what he was saying. Slowly, tempers seemed to cool.

Pastor Benson had saved the day. Given the long history of mistrust among the tribal groups in Churachandpur, the movement against the three land bills introduced by the State government in August 2015 had almost turned communal, and then it didn’t.

God had intervened.

Speaking after the incident, Benson explained his reasons for venturing out that menacing day. He said he didn’t want people lying injured or left for dead from police firing, like it had happened on August 31 and September 1, 2015. He had hoped that the sight of a pastor approaching the warring sides would dissuade any heavy-handed action from the police. The same pastor had, during a huge gathering addressed by various heads of churches in September 2015, vowed to pray for the death of any tribal leader who sold out the tribals of Manipur.

“This is Christian country, but people walk with the Cross on one shoulder and an AK47 on the other. The Church here is a failed institution,” remarked Robul Pudaite, a senior member of the Kuki Student Organisation (KSO) and a local. “What started as a great movement has been diluted by the actions of some.” Pastor Khen Tombing refers to the current impasse as the Language Wars, between the Kuki-Chin-Zomi clans, which — despite coming from the same stock — have strong and unique identities springing from the dialects they speak. A Presbyterian pastor who runs a major group of educational institutions in Churachandpur, Tombing wishes the Church would play a more proactive role in solving the crisis. However, like they have done historically, its leaders have rallied to keep the various ethnicities together over the last six months, ever since the face off over the three bills began.

Most recently, tensions heightened between the two old warring factions of the Kukis and Zomis after one side announced the burial date for the nine dead who have remained in the district hospital morgue for close to six months, and the other side vehemently opposed it. Then, in a surprising turn of events, a local WhatsApp group called for a total shutdown on February 12 and 13, and this proved hugely popular. People in large numbers converged on the hospital to prevent the bodies from being taken away, speeches were delivered by tribal leaders belonging to various civil society organisations, women prayed at a memorial for the dead near the morgue. At Sielmat, a small village in Lamka, hundreds of young men and women gathered on a bridge to prevent the entry of uniformed men into the town.

Memories of the August 31, September 1 killings of protesters were fresh in their mind. No vehicle was in sight, and groups of young men patrolled the streets and kept vigil at the morgue. Women’s groups tried hard to keep the peace. Things looked grim. The two main armed groups active in the area — the Zomi Revolutionary Army, the armed wing of the Zomi Re-unification Organisation (ZRO), and the Kuki National Organisation — gave out statements for and against the burial.

To understand the ongoing imbroglio one must look at the origins of the ethnic conflict in the hills of Manipur.

The wounds of the 1997-98 civil war between the two sides, as it is commonly referred to here, are still fresh. According to some figures, more than 900 died that year after Zomi armed groups fought pitched battles against their Kuki counterparts. Many years and a peace accord later, it still doesn’t take much to disrupt the fragile peace.

Khenthang, the external affairs secretary of ZRO, who has been with the group since it was formed in the ’90s, references British politician Churchill in his conversations: “there’s a wartime strategy and there’s a peacetime strategy.” The armed groups here want an amicable settlement of their demands and are willing to hold talks with the Central government. Years after they signed a cessation of hostilities agreement, in 2008, with the governments at the State and Centre, the situation remains disruptive; now they are working with civil society organisations to find solutions.

Dada, the 26-year-old owner of a small store outside the district hospital, described how he was asked by one of the doctors to press down on the exit wound on the chest of a young boy — the first casualty brought in on August 31 — as there weren’t enough medical staff around.

As the blood oozed out between his pressing fingers, the boy died before his eyes. After all these months, Dada’s hands tremble at the memory. All those who were shot, mostly from behind, leaving exit wounds in the front of their bodies, came from poor backgrounds, just like Dada. There’s a palpable tension in the town.

The firing and the nine deaths came about after six tribal MLAs’ houses were gutted in the fiery eruption of outrage at the passage of the three land bills, which locals fear would impinge on their right to live and own land in the hills. But the incident brought together tribes that are alike and yet so far apart. It had seemed impossible before.

On December 29, 2015, Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh met representatives of a Joint Action Committee (JAC) from Churachandpur that had been formed in the immediate aftermath of the passage of the bills.

The chief minister told them that the bills were passed under pressure from CorCom, a conglomeration of proscribed militant groups operating out of Myanmar. This makes Manipur a special case, says Romeo Hmar, the convenor of the Manipur Tribal Forum Delhi, which continues to lobby with the Central government and has held a protest rally at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar since November 4, 2015.

Singh told the tribal representatives that the State legislature passed the bills knowing very well that the Centre would never accept them. Now, a district remains paralysed by protests, bodies remain unburied, and the precarious situation in a war-torn State has been compounded.

Since Singh came to power in 2002, more than 3,000 have perished in periodic insurgency-related killings, according to figures on satp.org. The victims include civilians, security force personnel and militants. Nine more lives seemingly do not matter in Manipur.

Khaizasong Guite, the founding president of ZRO, who had led the organisation during some of the worst years of fighting and violence in the area and is now its advisor, is categorical in his reading of the current situation: “The dead speak more than the living in Churachandpur.”

Churachandpur and its surrounding areas are on edge; even a minor incident — a stone hurled, a bullet fired, a child hurt — is in danger of spiralling into an outright war-like situation. After a short visit to her hometown, Kimte Guite, a 27-year-old postgraduate who teaches college students in Delhi, described the situation as surreal. “Everybody seems to go about their daily jobs, but there’s a deep sense of anguish amongst the populace, everybody tries to hide it but it’s evidently undeniable.”

Vivek Singh is a documentary photographer and journalist based in Delhi

Published on March 11, 2016
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor