Three men were shot dead by armed miscreants in Manipur’s Kangpokpi district on Tuesday as fresh violence rocked the strife-torn state, officials familiar with the matter said, taking the death toll to at least 168in clashes that have now been going on intermittently for over four months.
The latest incident took place around 8.30am between the villages of Ireng and Karam Vaiphei in Kanggui area of the district. The three victims, all village volunteers from the Kuki community — Satneo Tuboi (41) and Ngamminlun Lhouvum (30) from K Ponlen, and Ngamminlun Kipgen (31) from Lhangkichoi — were on their way to meet to meet their families at relief camps in Motbung, Saparmeina and Kangpokpi when they were waylaid, police said.
“The three Kuki persons, who were going in a vehicle, were waylaid by armed miscreants and shot dead. Contrary to some reports, there was no gunfight. We have started investigations to nab those responsible. The bodies have been sent for postmortem,” Tholu Rocky, additional superintendent of police, Kangpokpi, said.
The attack was carried out in an area bordering Imphal West and Kangpokpi districts and the suspects are believed to have fled in a vehicle.
Imphal West is a Meitei-dominated district, and Kangpokpi is largely inhabited by Kukis.
Since May 3, Manipur has been in the throes of ethnic clashes, triggered by an order by the Manipur high court that recommended to the government that the Meiteis, the dominant community in Manipur with 53% of the population, be included in the scheduled tribe list. This caused protests among the tribal population, particularly the Kukis, and tensions lead to clashes that soon spread across the state. The violence has since claimed 168 lives and displaced 50,000.
Protesting Kuki MLAs, including those from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and tribal organisations have demanded creation of a separate administration comprising the areas where people from their tribes predominantly reside. Kuki groups have also demanded the removal of chief minister N Biren Singh, who is a Meitei.
“For the last one week, the three victims were working as village volunteers and their shift had got over on Tuesday morning. They had reached a place called Thumkhong Lairembi when multiple shots were fired from the hillside. It looks like the attackers also came down from the hills on the road and fired on the window panes of the vehicles. The impact of the bullets was such that it even penetrated the vehicle. The victims were not carrying arms at the time of the attack. There were more than 40 bullet marks on the car, ” said an official aware of the case on condition of anonymity.
He added that some locals claimed to have seen nearly two dozen men in military fatigues moving in the jungle in the hills adjoining the road on Monday night. “They initially thought that security forces were moving in the area. But now it appears that the armed miscreants may have been hiding in the jungle area.When the firing began, one of the men tried to escape. He was shot dead outside the Maruti Gypsy car. The bodies of the two other men were found inside the car,” the official said, indicating that the victims could not speed away because the unpaved road was wet and slippery.
Papao Sitlhog, chief of the Ponlen village from where the two deceased belonged, however, said: “Some of villagers who saw the firing said that there were around nine attackers who fired at the Maruti Gypsy car. At the time of the incident, one of the men, Lhouvum was also being taken to the district hospital. After taking Lhouvum to the hospital, the other two were set to meet their families at the relief camp. Ours is a Kuki village with a population of around 50 adults. Lhouvum fell ill after spending the nights out in the open to guard the village. He was sleeping on the back seat of the car when the armed miscreants fired shots.”
Security forces deployed in the area said they have launched combing operations to nab the suspects.
One of the victims, Kipgen, was a local musician and was also the general secretary of Thadou Artiste Association. The other two, Tuboi and Lhouvum, were farmers.
Tuboi’s uncle Simon Tuboi said the families of the three men are at different relief camps. “My nephew, wife and five children are at a relief camp in Damdai Christian College in Kangpokpi,” he added.
The Indigenous Tribal Leaders Forum (ITLF), an influential umbrella body of different tribal bodies accused Meitei groups for the attack, demanded the imposition of Armed Forces (Special Power) Act in the valley, and accused sections of Manipur police of siding with Meitei groups.
But Meitei Lanmee, a body of Meitei groups, denied the allegations and said that the allegations lacked any “substantial evidence.”
Manipur Police did comment on the incident.
The Committee on Tribal Unity (COTU) said in a statement that armed miscreants were dressed in military fatigue to pass off as security forces and police commandos.
Though the violence has appeared to subside for about two weeks, the fragile peace was broken on August 18 when three village guards, all members of the tribal Kuki community, were killed in Thawai Kuki village by armed miscreants. Since then, 167 people have been killed as the situation continues to be grim.
The Manipur government did not respond to requests seeking comment.