Visuals of the aftermath of a gunfight between two armed groups on a hill in Manipur have been shared widely on social media. Sources in the Regional Institute of Medical Sciences (RIMS) in the state capital Imphal said they have received two bodies, and the number of deaths could rise. The Manipur Police in a post on X later confirmed two deaths.
The gunfight broke out on a hill covered with dry, winter shrubs in Koutruk, a village that lies in the foothills about 20 km from Imphal.
In one of the videos that has gone viral, a group of people were seen running for cover on a road in the village. Though no sound of gunfire is heard, the people are heard asking each other to move away from the foothills.
“Ima (mother), don’t get shot, please hurry,” a man is heard telling some elderly women. “Bullets are raining in Koutruk,” the man said, before gesturing to them to move away.
In another video, a group of armed men were seen burning sleeping bags and blankets on a hill, which likely belonged to the people who were killed. Food packets, biscuits, etc were strewn around.
The armed men in olive green battledress fired several shots from assault rifles and yelled in the general direction of the village below. They shouted a stream of expletives on the Chief Minister.
M Barish Sharma, the former state chief of the BJP’s youth wing Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM), has been hospitalised with a bullet injury on the chest. He was brought to the hospital from Kangpokpi, 45 km from Imphal.
The ethnic violence in Manipur between the hill-majority Kuki-Zo tribes and the valley-majority Meiteis over disagreements on land, resources, political representation, and affirmative action policies has dragged on for nearly nine months now.
With the two communities sharply divided on ethnic lines, the Centre has enforced some semblance of a “buffer” zone between the hill areas where the Kuki-Zo tribes live, and Imphal valley.
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 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 allegedly tortured and killed by suspected insurgents on January 11.
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.
The Kuki-Zo tribes, who have 10 MLAs in the 60-member Manipur assembly, have been demanding a separate administration carved out of Manipur since violence broke out in May 2023. They have cited complete breakdown of trust between them and the Meiteis as one of the key reasons behind their push for a separate administration. Over 180 have died in the violence, and thousands have been internally displaced.
For a long time, however, Kuki insurgent groups have been working for separation from Manipur. At least 25 Kuki insurgent groups have signed the tripartite suspension of operations (SoO) agreement with the Centre and the state.
Under the SoO agreement, the insurgents are housed in designated camps. There have been allegations that full attendance at many of the SoO camps has not been observed.