Field Notes: A Homeland Lost-A Journalist Chronicles How Her Manipur Became A Far Country


It took me 11 months and three attempts by road and air before I finally reached my hometown in Churachandpur (which we have always called Lamka) since Manipur’s civil war first broke out on 3 May 2023.  

Once, I suffered food poisoning, but the other time I did not attempt to make the journey home because the police had filed a case against me over my posts on X, criticising how the Bharatiya Janata Party government of chief minister N Biren Singh had handled the violence.

With more than 200 dead and 60,000 displaced in riots, ethnic cleansing and murders by armed vigilante groups in my home state, where the war has raged for a year now, I cannot help but remember what a different time it was, what a different land it was only 12 months ago.

Around the time the first tensions were stirring, I was distracted and exhilarated at the fellowship I had landed at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University in the US. 

Meanwhile, the relationship between my people—the Kuki-Zo tribal communities—and chief minister Singh, had gone from bad to worse over the early months of 2023. At least three tribal churches had been razed in the state capital, Imphal, a Kuki Zo village deemed ‘illegal’ by the state government had been emptied, and a gym in the hills to be inaugurated by Singh was burnt

When the ethnic violence first erupted in the early days of May 2023, I was—like many others at the time—ignorant of the scale and magnitude of the killings and the mayhem. I did not think it could happen here, in my homeland.

I spoke to my parents on 3 May 2023 before the Internet was cut the next day when the slaughter of 77 Kuki Zo tribals began in their homes in Manipur's main Valley and in the foothills, where the majority Metei dominate. I did not speak to my parents again for more than two weeks.

I remember the social-media videos and photos of bodies on the main streets of Imphal, 63 km north of Lamka, on streets that I frequented so often as a child and later as a reporter. I saw videos of men with machetes hacking women in what looked like their backyards and Meitei women known as Meira Paibis yelling for tribal women to be raped. 

At the Wall of Remembrance in Churachandpur, the Kuki-Zo tribes keep track of the dead and injured / MAKEPEACE SITLHOU

I did not know where this anger, which appeared specially reserved for the Kuki-Zo, erupted suddenly, even if I was always aware of the deep-seated prejudice towards tribals in the state.

After I landed in India from the US, I faced the unique challenge of being able to report from ground zero. After most of the Kuki-Zo had been removed (in exchange for the Meitei displaced from the hills), the Valley had become a no-go zone for us. 

This meant I could no longer access the only airport in the state, in Imphal. It meant I could no longer travel across the Valley to reach the tribal hill districts, to reach home. These were now privileges, no longer available to me.

This was the most important story in independent India’s history. It was soon to be the history of my own people, but I could not report it freely. 

For months, I felt isolated, crushed by the guilt of not being able to go to ground zero. I was back on anxiety medication. 

Still, I raised my voice on X and remotely reported what I could. I tweeted against rumour, against violence, against the lack of action and political will to end the bloodletting.

Before I knew it, the police had filed a first information report (FIR) against me, accusing me of “false statements and propaganda” with the purpose “to incite one particular community, to topple such democratically (sic) elected government”. My tweets, the police alleged, were a “threat to the security of the state”.

In December 2023, a Supreme Court bench led by the Chief Justice stayed the investigation until further notice. Like me, academics and even a retired colonel separately faced police cases for newspaper opinion or, in the soldier’s case, a book. The Supreme Court stayed action against all of them.

My worst experience as a reporter came in the first week of April 2024 when I met two women from the Vaiphei tribe who had been gang-raped and paraded in their own village by a Metei mob on 4 May 2023.

As if the trauma of their experience wasn’t enough, they had to relive it in July 2023, when the world, through a viral video, got a glimpse of what they had suffered. It compelled Prime Minister Narendra Modi to finally speak on the Manipur conflict, although he politicised it by drawing a false equivalence with violence against women in Congress-ruled states and didn’t address the sectarian nature of the sexual violence. 

For the first time since the conflict began, many now believed the tribal contention that Manipur’s war was a David-versus-Goliath situation, not with “miscreants” from the other side but the State machinery allied with them. 

The survivors said that the police stood by when they pleaded for help and even handed them over to the mob. This was confirmed in the chargesheet filed by the Central Bureau of Investigation, which I exclusively wrote about on 29 April 2024. 

Whether in Gujarat in 2002 or Uttar Pradesh in 2013, whenever the State has been involved in one way or the other in an ethnic pogram, women from minority communities have always been the first targets. That the mob thought it fit to make a video of their conquest proved where power lay. 

Acknowledging this role of the State and the majoritarian groups that it protects is the first step in addressing the fraught situation in Manipur, where Meitei and Kuki-Zo areas are now essentially cleansed of the other. That has not yet happened. Peace in Manipur is a mirage. 

You can read Makepeace Sitlhou’s full story here.

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