"It's a life-and-death situation. I would rather stay in Imphal without a job, and eat half a meal a day, instead of going back to my posting in Churachandpur to have a sustainable life," said a Meitei assistant sub-inspector of police, who spoke to The Quint on the condition of anonymity. For the remainder of this story, they shall be referred to as 'Officer M', in order to protect their identity.
'Officer M' is one of the many Meitei police officers who used to be posted in the hill districts of conflict-torn Manipur, who have now, fearing for their life, returned to the valley. The state, after all, has witnessed what can only be called a de facto ethnic partition of the Meiteis and the Kukis.
In the days following the violence that broke out on the evening of 3 May, a complete transfer of the population has taken place. Meiteis who were based or posted in hill districts like Churachandpur have fled to Imphal and the areas surrounding it. Conversely, Kukis who had houses and jobs in Imphal have all returned to the hills.
While the above phenomenon is not rare in conflict zones, what is perhaps startling is that in Manipur, even the police force has been completely divided among ethnic lines.
For instance, Churachandpur Superintendent of Police Karthik Malladi told The Quint that many police officers of different ranks, that is, around 60 Meiteis, have left the district, and around 400 Kukis who have "come from other districts with a Meitei majority" are helping the local force.
The Quint spoke to one such Kuki police officer, a constable, referred to as 'Officer K', who has returned to Churachandpur from their posting in Moirang district; and to a Meitei police officer ('Officer M'), who fled Churachandpur, their place of posting, and has returned to Imphal. Both of them had similar tales of fear, grief, and helplessness.
Escaping Their Respective Postings
'Officer M', born in Imphal, had been posted at the SP office in Tuibong, Churachandpur, for 35 years. When violence erupted on 3 May, both their houses in Tuibong, "two plots, both on rent, were reduced to ashes".
Fifteen members of their household had been living in these two plots.
"On 4 May, the morning after the attack, the SP told me to take my whole family to the Mini Secretariat. It was extremely congested, fitting 15 of us in a tiny room. We could not leave on the 4th because everything around us was burning. So, for two days, while my family took shelter in the Mini Secretariat, I helped evacuate some Meiteis out of Churachandpur, especially women and old citizens," narrated 'Officer M'.
"It is not possible to go back there now. They will kill me and my family," he added, their voice shaking.
'Officer K' said that their experience was not too different. They had been posted in Moirang police station, and on 3 May, "A Meitei mob broke down the gates and barged inside the police station in Moirang. We had prior information that the mob is en route, and so we were informed to hide all our weapons. When they came, their focus was on us, the Kuki officers. They started shouting, 'Are there Kuki police officers here?'"
They went on to explain that their Meitei friends working at the police station had told them to leave, for their safety's sake. "But even then, they did not give us any security. We escaped Moirang PS by ourselves, without any of their help. There were three Kuki civilians with us too. They were beaten up brutally by the mob. We, not the Meitei officers, rescued them and gave them first aid," asserted 'Officer K'.
"Around 20 May," they continued, "after a long time since the violence first erupted, we sent a Muslim pangal friend to collect some of our belongings that we thought were left in the station. But when he drove down, there was an auto with all the belongings of the Kuki police personnel, and everything had been burnt. And from what I heard, some Meitei police officers had instructed the mob to burn our belongings."
On 'Unofficial' Duty
The Quint asked Churachandpur SP Malladi how Kuki police personnel who have fled Meitei areas are being incorporated into the system.
"As of now, the Meiteis who have left Churachandpur district are, well, 'unofficially' reporting to their nearby district SPs. Similarly, the Kuki police personnel who were posted in the valley have fled and come to Churachandpur or Kangpokpi, places like that."
Many Kuki police officers who have fled their places of posting have reported to Malladi, telling him truthfully that they are too scared to go back.
"They have reported to us, and if required, we will utilise them for our law and order duties. A police person is a police person, wherever they are, hill or valley. We are utilising them because our manpower is less anyway," Malladi further argued.
According to the Churachandpur SP, many of these fleeing police officers have not brought their uniforms with them. Whoever has got their uniform on them has been immediately deployed for duty, and whoever doesn't, have been asked to stitch up a uniform as soon as possible.
"See, because this situation is going to be pretty tense for at least a little longer, and we have to utilise these officers. And if we don’t utilise them, they might get, you know.. misguided. And anyway, all the district SPs and the DGP are being informed about every fleeing police officer, be it Meitei or Kuki."Churachandpur SP Malladi
'Nobody Will Be Turned Back'
'Officer K' told The Quint that around 10 Kuki police officers were posted at Moirang PS at the time of the mob attack, along with an estimated 60 Meiteis. They have no idea what their future will look like. "Will I get an official posting here, or will I spend the next few months as some sort of para-military, I don't know."
Even 'Officer M' is quite clueless about their next posting, although their SP is being supportive and asking them to stay in Imphal. "I don't even know whether I'll receive any government benefits. Because officially, I am still posted in Churachandpur, but here I am, sitting in Imphal."
They are not going back to Churachandpur because "there is nothing waiting for them [me] other than dust and ashes". And as for Officer K, they have lost all faith in communal harmony.
"Before the violence started on 3 May, Meiteis and Kukis were very cooperative with each other in our police station in Moirang. Everything was okay. We would even have tea together. And now, it is completely different. This will take a long time to get fixed. I may not even get to live to see that day," they lamented.
Both officers M and K now unofficially contribute to their native districts, like dozens of other police officers who have escaped to a safer district dominated by their ethnic community.
"Nobody has been turned back, and nobody will be turned back," concluded SP Malladi.