In Manipur Killing Fields, Farmers Cannot Tend To Crops Within Gun Range In Naranseina, Bishnupur District

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In Manipur's 'Killing Fields', Farmers Can't Tend To Crops Within Gun Range

Farmers in Manipur’s Naranseina look towards the hills, less than 2 km away

Imphal:

There are two canals in Manipur’s Naranseina village. One is called the “high canal” because it’s on an elevation from where water flows down to the vast paddy fields downslope. The other is called the “low canal”, nearer to the village and where the surface is not sloped.

The distance from a shed on the bank of the low canal to the high canal is 800 metres, and from the high canal to the hills is another 800 metres. So the hills are just 1.6 km from the low canal.

Anyone who goes to the high canal is within the range of a precision rifle, says Oinam Brajarala, a farmer in this village 45 km from the state capital Imphal. He looks at his three cows walk towards the high canal, but he won’t go there to bring them back.

“They will shoot if I go to the high canal,” says Mr Brajarala, who will wait for the cows to return on their own.

And if they don’t?

“I can’t do anything, can’t walk there and bring them, though we have lost many cows since May,” he says, referring to the month in 2023 when ethnic clashes broke out between the hill-majority Kuki-Zo tribes and the valley-majority Meiteis.

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Mr Brajarala, 60, lives alone in a hut in the village 22 km from the Kuki-Zo-dominated Churachandpur district, which comes under the “hill area” category of Manipur’s complex land laws. The hill ranges that touch Churachandpur go all the way to the opposite direction of the valley, and Mr Brajarala’s home is in one of the villages in the foothills.

The farmer, in a red t-shirt and a camouflage hat, a mud-soaked spade in his hand, points towards his village behind the “low canal”. “The bullets have reached there. They came down from the hills and fired, we all saw,” he says.

Heavy gunfights broke out between Meitei and Kuki-Zo armed groups in August and September 2023. Both sides call themselves “village defence volunteers”, a definition of the belligerents in Manipur that has become the most controversial since nothing stops these “volunteers” from killing people under the insurance provided by “in self-defence”.

“The central forces are at the high canal area, which they call a buffer zone. But we can’t harvest anything beyond the high canal because every time we go there, they start shooting,” Mr Brajarala says. “We spoke with the central forces. They asked us to wait for things to calm down a bit since tension is very high. But it has been nine months. How long do we have to wait?” he says.

He says one night in November he walked up to the high canal and met a central force officer to demand where’s the gunfire coming from.

“I asked him, ‘show me till where I can go’. The officer told me, pointing at my feet, ‘only till here’,” says Mr Brajarala.

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Another farmer in Naranseina, Salam Phulen, says they could not harvest 60 hectares of paddy on the other side of the high canal near the hills. This village in Bishnupur district is only 6 km from Moirang town, known for the freshwater lake Loktak, the largest in the northeast. Mr Phulen, 72, who has been a farmer his whole life, says he has been cycling to Moirang every other day to look for work amid the disruption in farming caused by the ethnic violence.

“After May 3, they told us not to come to the high canal area. I haven’t been there since then. We have lost a year’s worth of harvest. The government should at least help us for the next harvest,” Mr Phulen says. “We can’t go to the fields. They just shoot.”

Other farmers in the village say the same thing – timely and adequate compensation for the loss of harvest. They also allege they did not get enough time to harvest properly under the protection of the security forces.

“Sometimes we got only a day under protection to work on several acres. Do you think we can harvest all these fields in one day?” says Mr Phulen.

Till March 2023, Manipur had 2.28 lakh hectares of paddy cultivation, of which the hills had 1.07 lakh hectares and the valley had 1.20 lakh hectares, according to Chief Minister N Biren Singh. Farmers couldn’t use 5,127 hectares – or 4 per cent of the total paddy cultivation area – due to the violence. The Centre gave a relief package of Rs 38.60 crore, the Agriculture Ministry told parliament on December 8, 2023.

It is the farmers who depend on this 4 per cent cultivable area, all of them in the foothills, who face the highest risk of being shot at.

Naranseina, Manipur: Red arrow (IRB camp), white (shed at low canal), yellow (low canal), blue (high canal), and green (foothills)

Naranseina, Manipur: Red arrow (IRB camp), white (shed at low canal), yellow (low canal), blue (high canal), and green (foothills)

The state cabinet is processing the package and will release approximately Rs 18 crore soon, says Kh Gopen Luwang, general secretary of the Imphal-based civil society group Irabot Foundation which mostly works for farmers.

“We think we will face shortage of rice and other local vegetables this year. The government can’t delay releasing aid to farmers. They have to feed their families and also save for buying seeds to sow this year,” says Mr Luwang.

The two farmers in Naranseina say they don’t have the ability to withstand another year of trouble.

“We need the money. If the government can’t help us, we will go to the other side of the high canal for harvest. We can’t live like this,” says Mr Brajarala.

The elder farmer, Mr Phulen, nods in agreement. Both look at the general direction of the high canal against the late evening sun before they walk back to their village, behind the low canal.

The 2nd India Reserve Battalion (IRB) has a camp in Naranseina. Two IRB personnel in dark green uniform guard the gate, from where the road heads out towards the main road in Bishnupur. The rest of the personnel are at the back of the camp, which looks towards the hills.

One of the personnel at the gate says a bullet punched through his ankle in September last year. He walks with a limp. He says the bullet bounced on the dusty ground before it got him, indicating it left the muzzle quite a distance away, outside its effective range.

“There are snipers around here. Don’t walk in open ground,” says the IRB jawan, requesting anonymity.

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Tall shrubs surround the gate and somewhat shield the approach road. But another small road takes a right from the gate towards the open field. No one goes that side for obvious reasons, even if the hills are roughly the length of 16 football fields away.

Biren Singh, the Chief Minister, has said the state government doesn’t recognise what some in the media and a paramilitary force call the “buffer zone”. Even the two farmers call the area around the high canal a “buffer zone”, but which really is a “sensitive area” where more violence is expected.

The Kuki-Zo tribes say their “village defence volunteers” have been repelling attacks by armed groups from the valley, who come to the hills across the “buffer zone” with obvious intentions.

The Meiteis, however, maintain all fertile agricultural lands in the foothills are under the gun range of the “so-called Kuki-Zo volunteers”, who allegedly have been shooting at farmers to prevent them from harvesting.

Four civilians – including a father and a son – from the valley who had gone to collect firewood on a hill near Bishnupur district were tortured and killed by Kuki-Zo insurgents on January 10. Their mutilated bodies were found the next day. Over 10 farmers were injured in shootings in Phubala and Naranseina, 5 km apart, in the past nine months. One was shot dead while tending to his crop at Thinungei, again, in Bishnupur district.

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A similarity between the “village defence volunteers” of both sides is that they appear to be well-armed and well-equipped with modern battle gear. The security forces have frequently recovered Russian-origin AK and US-origin M series assault rifles, and gun models commonly used by both the junta’s army and pro-democracy insurgents in neighbouring Myanmar.

Over 180 have died in the violence, and thousands have been internally displaced.

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