Fire and Blood

How the BJP is enabling ethnic cleansing in Manipur

Burnt down houses in Churachandpur district, on 31 May. Saumya Khandelwal
Burnt down houses in Churachandpur district, on 31 May. Saumya Khandelwal
31 July, 2023


“I DIDN’T shut up. I asked them how they can behave like this with another woman,” an 18-year-old Kuki woman told me, recalling her abduction and assault, in which Meira Paibis had played a major part. The Meira Paibis—the name translates to “torch-bearing women”—are a Meitei civil-society movement that rose to prominence through their protests against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which grants the military sweeping powers. In the ethnic violence that has engulfed Manipur over the past three months, pitting the majority Meitei community against members of Kuki tribes, who constitute a quarter of the population, the Meira Paibis have helped Meitei mobs target Kukis throughout the Imphal Valley and its surrounding foothills.

The 18-year-old woman’s family belonged to Churachandpur, a Kuki-majority district to the south of the valley, but had been living in the state capital for years. “Imphal has been my home all my life,” she said. When the violence broke out, on 3 May, her family, like most Kukis in Imphal, fled to the hills. The woman, who was enrolled in a cosmetology course, decided to wait out the carnage, expecting that the state government would soon restore order. She began living with a Kuki friend who was married to a member of the Pangal community—Meitei Muslims, who make up about eight percent of the state’s population.

Things did not get better. Mobs led by Arambai Tenggol—a Meitei militia that enjoyed the patronage of senior Bharatiya Janata Party leaders, including the chief minister, Biren Singh, and Manipur’s titular king and Rajya Sabha MP, Leishemba Sanajaoba—were scouring the city, looking for Kukis in passing cars, in houses and in hostels. The woman decided that, although the Pangals were hiding her, she would be safer among her own people. Her parents transferred some money to her account, which she was to use to pay a Pangal driver to take her to Kangpokpi, a Kuki-majority district to the north where they had found shelter.