Imphal/Churachandpur (Agency): In the bustling markets of Manipur, military-style clothing and gear have become all the rage. From capital Imphal to hill town Churachandpur, customers browse through fatigues, camouflage headgear, combat boots, and bulletproof vests in shops. But this is not just a new fashion trend. It’s a serious security concern.
The Meitei-dominated Imphal Valley and the Kuki-dominated Churachandpur are the epicentres of the state’s ongoing ethnic conflict. What’s making matters worse is that it’s getting harder to tell the difference between local civilian militias and the army or central armed police forces.
“This is a very big concern for us,” said a senior Assam Rifles official about the open sale of counterfeit gear. “Civilians now have easy access to the uniforms that distinguish the forces from the common man. It will be very difficult to identify and differentiate between the two.”
In the aftermath of the violence that started in May between the tribal Kukis against the dominant Meiteis, grassroots “village defence” forces have sprouted across Manipur. Locals looted thousands of weapons and ammo, intensifying the bloodshed. Disarmament has been a challenge for various reasons, including lack of trust in the police and armed forces.
The availability of military- and paramilitary-style uniforms further exacerbates the situation. According to the Manipur police, 162 army columns have been deployed across the state. In addition, the Border Security Force (BSF) and Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) have been entrusted with security at 133 checkpoints in sensitive areas. In this situation, there are concerns about potential impersonation of personnel.
When ThePrint visited Gothol village in Churachadpur last week, it was difficult to distinguish the armed volunteers from the Assam Rifles personnel stationed in the vicinity.
One Kuki village volunteer said he used to be an auto driver, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Now, he’s transformed, clad in a bulletproof vest, wielding a double-barreled rifle, with bullets and a walkie-talkie at the ready on his belt. His rifle stays trained toward a Meitei village nearby.
“There is no one to protect us,” he told ThePrint. “We have to defend ourselves and we will.”
In Imphal, the Meiteis hold sway, while Churachandpur is a stronghold for the Kukis. Yet, amidst this divide, there’s one common denominator—a soaring demand for military gear.
Imphal’s main market isn’t just retailing military and paramilitary uniforms, but also offering bulletproof vests, boots, and headgear reminiscent of the attire worn by central armed forces.
A shopkeeper in Imphal, speaking to ThePrint on condition of anonymity, said that the gear is procured from Silchar, Guwahati, and Delhi.
The uniform costs about Rs 800, the bulletproof vests Rs 2,000-2,500 depending on the size, and the boots and headgear about Rs 500 each.
“The situation is such that we have to be prepared, so we are selling these uniforms,” the shopkeeper said.
It’s much the same scenario in Churachandpur. Ambosh, a student who has just completed his long-distance master’s in English from IGNOU, runs a shop selling military gear on the highway.
“I opened this shop three months ago because there is high demand for these uniforms here. The volunteers buy these before they get their posting. Even I am a volunteer and now this remains our focus,” Ambosh told ThePrint.
Both sides of the road are lined with such shops. Some used to sell women’s wear and home furnishings, but have diversified to meet the demand for military outfits.
So far, they’ve gone about their business unimpeded, said the Assam Rifles officer quoted earlier.
“If the state government wants, it can immediately shut down these shops, cancel their licenses, and seize the uniforms, but it hasn’t,” the officer said.
However, security advisor to the Government of Manipur, IPS Kuldeep Singh (Retd), told ThePrint Monday that measures were being taken to stop this menace.
“Selling army uniforms doesn’t require any license. So to stop shopkeepers is tough. We are watching closely and apprehending those misusing the uniform. We seized five bulletproof jackets, five khaki shirts, and two khaki trousers from Imphal East on Sunday,” he added.
A sense of unease prevails in Churachandpur district, barely 60 km from Manipur. Central security forces have a formidable presence here, thoroughly checking everyone entering and exiting and inspecting their government ID proof.
Army trucks patrol the national highway, while mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles encircle the villages nestled along the hills. Along the road, charred homes stand as a grim reminder of the brutal violence that erupted over five months ago between the Meitei and Kuki communities.
In Gothol village, at least 18 men of the village have been trained to fire rifles and use improvised mortars called pumpis. All men received arms and combat training at an undisclosed location near the Mizoram border. Their uniforms lend them an air of credibility and authority.
Next to the bunker manned by armed civilians, three Assam Rifles personnel sit on a wooden bench, also on duty. But the villagers have no intention to disband their own armed unit.
“We take turns and stand guard all the time,” the Kuki village guard quoted earlier said. “The youngest volunteer is about 17 years old, the oldest around 40. Circumstances have left us with no choice. We will keep training.”
Next to the bunker, a one-storey house has been converted into a “volunteer office”, where the men rest, co-ordinate operations, and store their weapons. A handmade pumpi is kept under the staircase, with the scrap iron ammunition stored inside a locked cupboard that only the commander has a key to.
As reported earlier by ThePrint, such village defence groups are established at the community level and are found throughout Manipur, including in Meitei-dominated areas.
Clad in jet-black fatigues, over a hundred youth participate in a “passing-out parade” near Churachandpur market, marching in formation and chanting slogans.
Their faces are covered in black cloth and they have the letter MVV labelled on their arms. It stands for Mizo Village Volunteers, a self-styled force created to protect the Kukis. This civilian unit is also trained in first aid and assisting villagers in the event of attacks by the Meiteis.
The Kuki or Zo tribes in Manipur share close ethnic ties with the Mizos of Mizoram.
A trainer, identifying himself just as Tharra, said that this is the third batch of youth to have been trained to operate weapons to protect the Kukis. And for the first-time women have been trained to join the force. Twenty-four women will now be part of the MVV.
“In the first batch there were 66 people, the second had 87, and now this one has 123. We train them to operate weapons but since we don’t have much time, we complete their intensive training within two weeks before they are deployed across the villages,” he said.
The soldiers are 17-25 years old and many of them are students, according to Tharra. There are six commanders overseeing the various teams, he added.
The passing out parade included drills and oath-taking to protect the Kukis. The two-hour long programme ended with prayers and hymns for the well-being and protection of the volunteers.
“In the coming days, we hope to increase the number of volunteers,” the trainer said. “We cannot take any chance after the brutal violence we have witnessed.” (Courtesy: ThePrint)