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In India’s riot-torn Manipur, Muslims are caught between warring factions

Manipur, India – Samim Sahni was sitting outside his brick house last week, huddled over a radio with a dozen of his neighbours, listening to the news broadcast at 7.30pm when they heard a bullet.

The 25-year-old mother of two – a seven-year-old boy and a little girl – rushed inside her home in Kwakta town of Bishnupur district in northeastern India’s Manipur state.

Chaos ensues and others who have gathered to hear the news start running to helper-skelter as the shots continue.

“We hid behind the bed for a while. Then between 10:30 and 11:00 PM we went out to the mosque and hid. We only came back in the morning,” he told Al Jazeera.

Upon returning to her home, Sahni and her husband found half a dozen bullet holes near the entrance of their home.

“We didn’t want to come back but we really had no choice,” said Sawhney.

Meitei Pangal of Manipur
Samim Sahni with his family outside his house in Islamabad area of ​​Kwaktar [Angana Chakrabarti/Al Jazeera]

According to authorities, around 100 people have been killed, 310 injured and more than 40,000 displaced in Manipur since May 3 as the remote Indian state has witnessed ethnic clashes between the predominantly-Hindu Meiti community and the mostly Christian Kukis.

According to India’s latest census conducted in 2011, about half of Manipur’s population of 3.5 million are Meitis – mostly based in and around the state capital Imphal.

The Kukis, along with the Nagas, another major tribe, constitute about 40 percent of the state’s population and mostly live in the hills. They enjoy Scheduled Tribe status, a constitutional provision that protects the rights and livelihoods of some indigenous communities in India.

The violence was sparked by Kuki-led protests against the Meitis demanding designation as a Scheduled Tribe.

Caught between two sides

Sahni’s village was caught in the crossfire between the Meiti-dominated area of ​​Kwakta and the nearby village of Kuki.

According to the 2011 census, Sahni and her husband are among about 8,000 Muslims living in Kwakta. Local estimates suggest that there may be as many as 20,000 members of the community known as Meiti Pangal in the region.

At about 8 percent, the Meiti Pangals are the fourth largest community in Manipur after the Meitis, Nagas and Kukis. They live in and around Imphal.

The area under Kwakta Municipal Council consists of nine administrative wards, located close to the Kuki-dominated Churachandpur district, one of the 10 hill districts of Manipur.

“We [Meitei Pangals] Living in the valley area. We have relations with both the Kukis and the Meitis… We have been facing pressure from both sides ever since the incident started,” said SM Jalal, president of All Manipur Muslim Organizations Coordinating Committee (AMMOCOC), its apex civil society body. The Pangal community, told Al Jazeera.

Meitei Pangal of Manipur
A villager from Kwakta shows bullet casings found in the field of the area [Angana Chakrabarti/Al Jazeera]

Violence broke out in Manipur on 3 May following a peace rally in Churachandpur against a number of issues, including the Meitei group’s demand for inclusion in the Scheduled Tribes list, which would give the community access to educational institutions and grants and reservations in the government. job

“After riots broke out from Torbung, Kangbhai and other nearby villages [located at the border of Churachandpur and Meitei-dominated Bishnupur district], Hundreds of Meites came down from Churachandpur. Several of them took shelter in Muslim houses in Qawqar,” Nasir Khan, president of the Bishnupur-based Meiti Pangal Intellectual Forum, told Al Jazeera.

The Kwakta Municipal Council has helped set up relief camps for Meiteis fleeing violence in neighboring districts.

Among the nearly 100 people who gave shelter was 65-year-old Pitruvi Bibi.

“My daughter’s son-in-law is Meiti, so many of those who came are his relatives. There were 20 children in this group, gradually many of them moved to other areas,” Bibi said.

On June 1, Bibi’s 30-year-old son Mohammad Yashir, who works as a field officer in the sericulture department of Manipur, was beaten up by a Meitei mob in Imphal when he came to town to retrieve a family car. A kooky senior in his department.

“About six-seven people surrounded my car and started beating me. They started saying that the Muslims were helping the Kukis… I tried to tell them that I had helped the Mitis to escape from Churachandpur at the start of the violence. It doesn’t matter,” Yashir told Al Jazeera.

Neighbors at war

The Meitei Pangals living in Ward No. 8 of the Kwakata Municipality are literally in the crossfire between the Kukis and the Meiteis.

50-60 Meitei Pangals live between the mainly Kuki village of Phuljung at the foothills of Thangjing Hills and Meitei-dominated Ward No. 9 of Churachandpur.

“There have been three-four incidents of firing since May 3. We leave our homes every evening and stay in the surrounding area,” ward resident Mohammad Rajauddin told Al Jazeera.

Meitei Pangal of Manipur
A village defense force in the Kuki-dominated village of Pholjong in Manipur [Angana Chakrabarti/Al Jazeera]

Azad Khan, elected councilor from the ward Azad Khan, said a low-intensity bomb was found near a Meiti Pangal house in Islamabad area of ​​Ward 8 on Monday. When Al Jazeera visited the scene on June 1, the alleged bomb had been removed, although a large dent was visible in the ground and the wall of the concrete yellow house was visibly damaged by small debris from the explosion.

“Three days ago, we received a call from someone known to the Manipur police commandos. We were told that we have to go out,” said Abdul Hussain, who lives in a yellow house.

“We have taken shelter elsewhere. When we came back in the morning we saw this bomb. All the Muslims in the area are scared.”

A police officer from the local Phougacchao Ikhai station, who spoke on condition of anonymity, could not confirm which warring party planted the bomb.

“There was a massive exchange of gunfire between the Kuki militants and the commandos,” he said.

‘I want peace’

Hussain’s neighbor Rafiuddin, who had fled the village that day, pointed to a house whose tin roof was barely visible through the trees. “That’s Meitei Bunker. From where commandos and other Meitei volunteers fired at Ward 9,” he alleged.

Maibam Prasenjit Singh, a maid, told Al Jazeera by telephone that the kukis had burnt down the houses of at least 12 maids.

“The cookie bunker is here too. I’m tired of this now. I want peace,” he said.

A few hundred meters from the Islamabad area of ​​Kwakta, 45-year-old John Howkip, along with half a dozen youths, stood with single-barreled guns as they manned the village.

“If we are not here they will burn the village. Muslims want peace here. They said they will be in the middle,” he said.

A resident of Kwakta, requesting anonymity, said, “Mostly for a long time [Pangal] People were running shops in Churachandpur. Sometimes people from there used to come to Kwakta market to buy vegetables and fruits during the sale of rice. We are now being accused by some quarters of lending a hand to the Kuki people.”

Meitei Pangal Council convener Haji Arafat Khullakpam also said that several Meitei Pangals are now applying for gun licenses due to their security concerns. “There are a few pangals from Lilong, Khetrigaon, Kwakta and others [Muslim-dominated] Areas that have applied for gun licenses. They want to be able to protect themselves.”

The demand for Scheduled Tribe status by a section of Muslims is fueling tension in Manipur In February this year, the Meiti-Pangal Scheduled Tribes Demand Committee protested in New Delhi demanding status.

“If the majority community [Meiteis] Demanding ST status, then why we do not get it? If Kuki and Naga tribes have ST status then why don’t we get it? asked Riazuddin Khan, adviser to the All Manipur Muslim Development Committee, a Meiti Pangal group campaigning for Scheduled Tribe status.

“We have the right to demand ST status. But it is up to the central government to decide to give it to us. What is happening now is undemocratic and unnecessary,” Khan added.

Last week, AMMOCOC submitted a memorandum during Federal Home Minister Amit Shah’s visit to riot-torn Manipur. The Muslim group demanded the central government’s “immediate attention and action to restore peace, harmony and normalcy in the region”.

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