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Manipur protests flare up into fresh violence over deaths of ‘eloped’ couple

Hundreds clash with police as they demand swift justice and arrest of perpetrators

Namita Singh
Thursday 28 September 2023 03:34 BST
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Students protest in Manipur over deaths of ‘eloped’ couple

India’s conflict-ridden Manipur state is facing another flare-up after it emerged that two young students missing since July were killed.

Hijam Linthoingami, 17 and Phijam Hemjit, 20, had reportedly eloped on 6 July. On Tuesday, the worst nightmares of the students’ families came true after photographs of the two students emerged that confirmed their deaths, prompting locals to clash with the police.

A fresh spate of violence gripped the northeastern state, where nearly 180 people have been killed since the conflict between minority Kuki and majority Meitei communities broke out 148 days ago, on 3 May.

The state is now unofficially segregated in areas controlled by the two communities, with each maintaining their own military-style bunkers and territorial borders, while local police and authorities are still stretched thin in their attempts to maintain peace, despite their numbers getting bolstered by around 10,000 members of the federal armed forces.

Mobile internet services which were restored in the state days ago after nearly five months of suspension, were snapped yet again on Tuesday evening. A team of officers from the federal investigative agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation, were also rushed to state capital Imphal to investigate the “kidnapping and killing” of the two students.

A photo that emerged on Monday showed the couple sitting next to each other, with two armed men behind them. A second one purportedly showed their bodies slumped on the ground next to each other, reported The Indian Express.

Protesters shout slogans as they burn effigies of prime minister Narendra Modi, federal home minister Amit Shah and Manipur chief minister N Biren Singh during a demonstration in Imphal on 8 September 2023 (AFP via Getty Images)

“Her gaze in that photo, I’ve never seen that before. It pains me a lot. Such a deep look filled with love and emotion… Why did they kill two children?” Kulajit Hijam, Linthoingambi’s father, was quoted as saying by the outlet.

Hemjit’s mother Birodini Devi said she long gave up hope of them returning alive, even though there was “no proof that they had been murdered”.

The police at the time said the whereabouts of the two were not known, and their phones were switched off. Their last location was traced to Lamdan, near the Kuki-dominated Churachandpur district.

In a status report submitted to the Supreme Court last month, Manipur’s police said the area where the murder allegedly took place was not accessible to them due to heavy presence of armed Kuki militants. “State investigating agency is handicapped in carrying the investigation of the case,” it said, reported Scroll.in.

On Monday, the government of the state ruled by prime minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) urged citizens to exercise restraint, while chief minister N Biren Singh issued a statement that the authorities are working to “nab the perpetrators”.

“The government assures the public that swift and decisive action will be taken against all those involved in the kidnapping and killing of Phijam Hemjit and Hijam Linthoingambi,” read the statement. “The government is committed to ensuring justice and will impose severe punishment on any perpetrator found responsible for the heinous crime,” it said.

However, despite the appeal, the standoff between the locals and authorities continued on Wednesday. Police resorted to baton charges and firing teargas to disperse hundreds of protesters who gathered in the capital and demanded immediate action, reported NDTV.

Earlier on Tuesday, at least 45 students were injured after they clashed with police while walking towards the chief minister’s residence.

Protesters gather during rally along a street in Phougakchao Ikhai bazaar of the Bishnupur district, some 52km from Imphal on 6 September 2023 (AFP via Getty Images)

Meanwhile, several opposition leaders have lashed out at the central and the state government, both ruled by the BJP, demanding the chief minister be sacked.

“For 147 days, people of Manipur are suffering, but PM Modi does not have time to visit the state,” said Mallikarjun Kharge, president of the main opposition Congress party.

“The horrific images of students being targeted in this violence has once again shocked the entire nation. It is now apparent that violence against women and children was weaponised in this strife.

“The beautiful state of Manipur has been turned into a battlefield, all because of the BJP ! High time, PM Modi sacks BJP’s incompetent Manipur Chief Minister. This would be the first step to control any further turmoil.”

“The Prime Minister is roaming around different states leaving behind his trademark trail of lies, abuses and insults,” wrote Jairam Ramesh, another Congress lawmaker.

“Why he cannot find a day to visit Manipur is simply beyond any understanding. Today again internet services have been suspended for five days in Manipur.

“A horrific video has emerged making a complete mockery of claims of normalcy. But nothing moves or fazes the PM as far as Manipur is concerned. He has simply abandoned the people there. The PM is only concerned about latching onto power come what may and nothing else matters to him.”

Mr Modi has so far publicly addressed the Manipur conflict only twice.

In July, he addressed the issue for the first time after a video of two tribal women being paraded naked and subjected to blatant acts of sexual assault by a mob of men triggered outrage in the country.

He also briefly broke his silence in parliament later in August after the country’s opposition moved a no-confidence motion against him in a bid to seek a discussion on the ongoing conflict.

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