The four men kneeling in the makeshift bunker face out over a lush green paddy field, their guns resting on a wall of cement sacks Bamboo poles prop up the corrugated tin roofWearing homemade bullet-proof vests, they train their weapons – mostly old single and double-barrelled shotguns – on a rival bunker less than a mile away. A belt of cartridges hangs from one of the polesThe men are all civilian members of a “village defence force” – among them a driver, a labourer, a farmer, and Tomba (whose name we have changed to protect his identity). Tomba ran a mobile phone repair shop before deadly ethnic conflict erupted in May in India’s north-east Manipur The segregation of communities in this corner of the world’s fastest-growing major economy feels like a heavily-militarised border separating countries at war.
We have to protect ourselves because we don’t think anyone else will. I feel scared but I have to hide it,” Tomba saidHe and the other three in the bunker belong to the majority Meitei community, who largely follow HinduismA sense of fear is all pervasive in Manipur since shocking violence between their community and minority Kuki groups broke out, marked by brutal killings and sexual crimes against women. More than 200 people have been killed, roughly two-thirds of them Kukiscollective name for the Kuki, Zomi, Chin, Hmar and Mizo tribes who are mostly ChristiansOn 4 May, two Kuki-Zomi women were paraded naked by a mob of Meitei men. The younger woman was allegedly gangraped, her father and 19-year-old brother beaten to deathWe met her mother. The family can’t be identified according to Indian laws on rape
My daughter has not recovered To see how my daughter was treated, after my husband and son were killed, it made me want to die. My husband was a church elder. He was soft spoken and kind. His arms were slashed with knives. My son was in the 12th grade, a gentle boy who never fought with anyone. He was brutally beaten with rods,” she sobbed as she spokeHe was killed because he ran after them [the mob] to try to save his sister. . They were killed in front of herShe has trouble eating and sleeping. I can never be at peace after what was done to my familyDespite a police complaint being registered in May, no investigation into the incident took place until a video of it surfaced on social media in July. That’s when the conflict in Manipur caught the attention of many in India and around the world
It’s also when Prime Minister Narendra Modi broke his silence on ManipurAccounts of how the violence started differ. The Meitei community lives mostly in the state’s more prosperous Imphal valley, which makes up roughly 10% of Manipur’s areaThe rest of the state – relatively underdeveloped hill areas – are home to minority groups, among them the Kukis who have been given tribal status. It’s a constitutional safeguard aimed at protecting the land, culture, language and identity of India’s historically disadvantaged communitiesIt’s also why Meiteis are not allowed to buy land in the hills. Kukis can buy land anywhere in the stateOn 3 May, Kuki tribes held rallies protesting against a move to grant tribal status to the Meiteis
Kukis accuse hardline Meitei groups of carrying out orchestrated attacks against minority families living in Imphal and surrounding areas. Meiteis say it was people who participated in the Kuki march who turned violent firstThe BBC cannot independently verify what happened, but in the first few days of the violence, those killed were overwhelmingly from the Kuki minorityHundreds of homes belonging to people from both communities were set on fire or destroyed, churches and temples burnt. Some 60,000 people across both communities are estimated to be displaced, most still living in schools, sports complexes and other shelters, unable to return home Four months on, the Meiteis and Kukis are completely physically segregated, forbidden to enter areas the other dominates.
When we met Tomba at the Meitei bunker, we were struck by how openly he and others were carrying weapons, seemingly unafraid of being caught by the police or security forces. In both Meitei and Kuki areas near the de facto borders we frequently saw civilians walking freely with weapons, sometimes even in the presence of police and security forces. The BBC also saw minors holding gunsWhen travelling the 60km (37 miles) from Meitei-dominated Imphal to Kuki-dominated Churachandpur in the south, we had to cross seven police and army checkpointsOn both sides, we also had to show our press badges and answer multiple questions at checkpoints run by dozens of civilian women. We couldn’t have entered without their approval – an indicator of the lack of government control.