The army cordon moved in slowly as darkness set in over the village of New Keithelmanbi some 40 km from the capital Imphal, surrounded on all sides by a dense forest.
The army and Assam Rifles personnel who had swooped down on the village in Kangpokpi district on the edge of the Imphal valley on Friday, were searching for arms.
”In the last few days, we have observed that communities are attacking each other with firearms. In some cases, people are being killed … This sudden emergence of arms is delaying the entire peace process,” a senior Army official told PTI.
In the surprise raid to New Keithelmanbi village, where this PTI correspondent accompanied troopers, a country made pipe gun and huge cache of explosives were recovered along with one air gun and blank packet of cartridge.
Armed vigilante groups have been taking the law into their own hands in parts of Manipur, in the wake of ethnic rioting earlier, thus complicating the peace process. At times, militant groups have joined in the fray, creating an even more volatile cocktail of ethnic tension.
On condition of anonymity, the army officer said that they are now concentrating on stopping such elements which are threatening the return of normalcy to the state.
”Indian Army and Assam Rifles have decided to carry out surprise search operations on villages of different communities. We are not targeting any one particular community.
”Our aim is to stop that one individual in the entire village who is threatening the other community by carrying arms. We are seizing such weapons and also apprehending them,” said the official, who was sent to Manipur after violence erupted earlier this month.
Talking about Friday’s operations, the official said that New Keithelmanbi village is adjacent to National Highway-37, which is the only lifeline to Manipur at this moment.
”We had reports that people in the village have firearms and explosives. Our prime objective is to protect the highway so that no untoward incident can take place there. Around 250 trucks are using this road every day, carrying essential supplies.
”So, we carried out a suprise search and recovered explosives and one air gun. The air gun was, however, returned to village elders as it can be kept without a licence,” he added.
Visiting the village, nestled on a hillock, the PTI correspondent saw bunkers and trenches that were constructed in order to prevent any attack from the opposite community.
Empty packets of cartridges were strewn near one of the bunkers. The road from the hill above the village was completely blocked by placing logs and bushes, though the entry from the highway was still open. The force also videographed the entire exercise of search operations.
One woman, whose house was searched, alleged that security personnel came every other day and harassed them in the name of search operations. This however, was denied by army officials who said the raids were conducted on the basis of intelligence inputs and the platoons which were sent out had women soldiers from the Assam Rifles to ensure that women whose houses are searched remain safe. Clashes broke out in Manipur after a ‘Tribal Solidarity March’ was organised in the hill districts on May 3 to protest against the Meitei community’s demand for Scheduled Tribe (ST) status.
The violence was preceded by tension over the eviction of Kuki villagers from reserve forest land, which had led to a series of smaller agitations.
Meiteis account for about 53 per cent of Manipur’s population and live mostly in the Imphal Valley. Tribals — Nagas and Kukis — constitute another 40 per cent of the population and reside in the hill districts.
The ethnic clashes claimed over 70 lives and some 10,000 army and para-military personnel had to be deployed to bring back normalcy in the northeastern state.