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In strife-torn Manipur, youngsters take up arms to 'protect' villages

These youngsters, mostly in their late 20s and early 30s, identify themselves as volunteers.
Last Updated : 05 May 2024, 09:51 IST
Last Updated : 05 May 2024, 09:51 IST

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Imphal/Churachandpur: Every day in shifts, morning and night, a group of armed youngsters patrol roads around Manipur's Koutruk village. Their objective: Keep residents safe from the warring factions of Meitei and Kuki, two communities that have been in conflict since last year.

These youngsters, mostly in their late 20s and early 30s, identify themselves as volunteers and say they have taken up the responsibility to keep their own safe as security forces "could not do enough to protect us".

Kotruk in the Imphal Valley is one of the many villages in the state that is 'protected' by groups which go by the names 'Village Volunteers', 'Village Volunteer Force', 'Village Defence Force' and 'Village Protection Force'. These groups, officials say, are not associated with any security agency or the armed forces.

Trained in basic combat tactics, the village forces have vowed to keep their areas safe from the ethnic violence that has left many dead, injured and displaced.

Their presence in villages in the valley and Churachandpur in the hills cannot be missed. They are in uniform and can be spotted manning bunkers made of sandbags or patrolling with weapons, including sticks, batons and rifles -- some country-made, and some stolen or smuggled.

Patrolling duties are assigned through a roster system. Each shift is between six and seven hours with small groups of five to six sent out to keep a watch on highways, village roads and narrow pathways that pass through hills and dense forests.

"Clearly our (security) forces could not do enough to protect us. Now, we know that they cannot be trusted with the task of ensuring our safety. So, we had to do it ourself and we decided to take up the task according to our calibre and capacity...we were forced to take matters into our own hands," a village volunteer told PTI on the condition of anonymity.

Though patrolling is effective, drones allowed teams to keep a vigil on a wider area, he said.

"Earlier, we were operating drones to keep a vigil but now jammers have been installed by the central forces and, so, we cannot assess the situation that way," the volunteer said.

This PTI reporter visited a camp of these volunteers, most of whom earned their living from farming. There are also those who have left their jobs or studies for the security of their villages. They showed this reporter the bullet holes on walls of houses and the measures in place to thwart threats.

As some volunteers prepared for the morning patrol, others, including women from displaced families that now reside in relief camps, attend to daily tasks, including cooking meals.

Recalling an incident of violence, another volunteer said, "We were having dinner when bullets started raining from above (hills)... we could hear it but we thought we are safe inside. But a bullet pierced through our wall...luckily my father escaped it."

"The next morning, we decided to send women, the elderly and children to the relief camps in the valley and decided to set up our bunkers," he said.

On their training, another village volunteer said, "It varied from 20 days to up to two months, including training in basic NCC skills. Some training in country-made weapons too." He refused to comment on who trained them.

Local officials maintain caution, allowing their activities as long as they "remain peaceful".

"We do recognise their presence...we do not object unless they come with weapons in front of security forces or government officials because then we are bound to ask for a (firearm) licence and take action under the Arms Act. As long as they are guarding peacefully, we do not interfere," an official said requesting anonymity.

Areas in the hills and the valley have been marked following the ethnic violence -- some local describe it as "new borders". And, keeping a vigil on these borders are these volunteers, who screen passing vehicles and occasionally frisk people to prevent "unwanted intrusions".

Be it at the border between Bishnupur and Churachandpur, or Imphal West and Kangpokpi, the situation remains precarious, with checkpoints resembling those at boundaries between hostile nations.

These volunteers, numbering more than 50,000 in Meitei-dominated regions and more in Kuki areas, operate under commanders.

Kukis and Meities cannot travel between the hills and the valley.

Others such as Nagas and Muslims can move between the regions provided they pass certain checks. They are given an escort from the border checkpoints.

This PTI reporter, who travelled to Churachandpur earlier this month, was stopped at four of these checkpoints. She was asked many questions, including where she was going, whom she was meeting and whether the person she was meeting was a government official or a civil society group leader.

"We stop every vehicle and ask for their ID. We maintain a register of who is visiting and for what purpose. We keep a vigil to ensure that no Meiti gets to enter the hills. Meitie volunteers do the same," a volunteer at the Bishnupur checkpoint said.

The region remains on the edge with even a small incident such as sporadic clashes between volunteer groups capable of tipping it over. More so as security agencies are yet to recover all the firearms looted during the violence last year that left 200 dead and displaced 60,000 people.

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Published 05 May 2024, 09:51 IST

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