A B’nei Menashe Reports From the Front Lines
Updated: Jun 21
(June 15) While peace talks went nowhere, the Meitei-Kuki conflict continued unabated in Manipur this week, with fighting flaring up in several places along the border between the state’s Meitei-dominated central valley and its Kuki-dominated hills. In one of these locations on the valley’s north side, a village of several thousand inhabitants whose name we were asked not to disclose, lives a small B’nei Menashe community. Our Newsletter spoke this week with one of its members. Here is our conversation.
Your village has been on the front line for many weeks now. How many of its residents have fled and how many have remained?
It’s actually been about two or three weeks, because the fighting came to the north of the valley later than elsewhere. Not a single resident of the village has left. We have all decided to stay put and fight for as long and as much as necessary. This includes the B’nei Menashe community.
Do the B’nei Menashe think of this as their fight, too?
Yes. We’re Jewish but we’re also Kukis. It’s important for us to show solidarity with our brothers. In terms of men and material, we’ve participated and contributed all we can. Our B’nei Menashe youngsters take part in guarding and defending the village along with the other volunteers. It’s our duty to stand with our fellow villagers. If the village is overrun, we’re not going to be treated any differently by the Hindu Meiteis because we’re Jews rather than Christians like our neighbors.
There have been so far many attacks on our village but we’ve been able to turn them all back. The Meiteis come in force, in the hundreds and sometimes more. I’m confident that we’ll continue to hold out.
Who are the attackers?
They’ve been led by two Meitei nationalist organizations, Arambai Tenggol and Meetei Leepun, aided by the state police and the IRB or Indian Reserve Battalion, which is a para-military group consisting mainly of Meiteis.
You mean the Manipuri state government has actually been fighting along with the Meiteis?
It’s given them logistical support. They come in armored vehicles, with sophisticated weapons and even mortars. They’ve been using drones for surveillance. We see them overhead all the time. We even managed to shoot one of them down. Since then the Meiteis have been careful to fly them from a safe distance, out of range of our guns. They’re very well equipped, far better than we are. To tell the truth, our most powerful weapon is our prayers. It’s a miracle from God that we’re still here.
How close have the attackers actually come? What damage and casualties have you suffered?
So far, they haven’t penetrated our village. The fighting has been right below us, in the valley, where there are quite a few Kuki villages. Most have been burned and destroyed. We’re on the slopes above. Our big advantage is that we’re familiar with the terrain. The Meiteis only know how to fight in large formations, which does not work well in the hills. We know just where to position ourselves in order to pick them off.
Fortunately, casualties in our village have so far been low. In the fighting last week, we estimate that at least 20 Meiteis were killed, whereas we had no dead and five wounded, one grazed by a bullet and four with minor injuries from a grenade launcher. Things could be worse. The Meiteis are not good soldiers. They’re usually drugged when they come to fight.
I’m telling you what I’ve heard. Look, this isn’t pleasant for anyone. The difference is that they’re far from their homes. They’re coming from somewhere else to risk getting killed, while we’re defending our lives and property. I’ve heard that they’re given drugs to boost their courage.
What about food and supplies? Have the villagers been able to work?
No, we haven’t been able to go to our rice fields. Nobody ventures beyond the perimeter of the village. It’s too risky. But we haven’t, thank God, had to worry too much about food. We’re getting it from Kangpokpi [a Kuki town to the north], from which the supply lines are open all the way up to Nagaland. There are humanitarian organizations that have seen it that we have enough rice, and I’ve been told that the Nagaland and Mizoram governments are also sending aid to the Kukis. The situation is better here than in Imphal or the valley. I’ve heard that Meitei blackmarketeers there are having a field day overcharging for basic commodities. Talk about preying on your own people! But that's what the Meiteis are like.
What kind of arms do you have?
At first we had only single-shot hunting rifles, which we put to good use. Later on, as the fighting intensified and Meitei casualties increased, we took automatic rifles from their dead. There were even Meiteis who threw them away when they fled. I can’t tell you for security reasons how many of them we have, but there are enough for whoever needs them. The same holds true for the Kuki villages near us. And we have the pumpi. It’s very effective.
What’s a pumpi?
It’s a homemade cannon, made of whatever materials we can get hold of. The barrel can be made from a simple metal water pipe or hollow metal electric post. I myself have been busy making them, which is why I haven’t been out manning the village perimeter. Since the fighting began, I’ve manufactured 11 of them. I’m now working on the 12th. It’s my latest design and will be the best one yet.
Can you tell me about it? How will it work?
I can’t reveal much about it, but I can say that it will have a longer range, carry a bigger explosive charge, and be more accurate.
What range are we talking about?
That, too, is confidential, but the pumpi has worked well until now and this will be an improved model. One good thing about it is that you don’t need specific-caliber ammunition. It can be loaded with anything – nails, metal pellets, whatever an ordinary metal worker can provide you with.
What about the explosive charge– the gunpowder?
Take my word for it, the jungle around us has everything we need to make gunpowder. Our forefathers made it for generations and passed the knowledge on to us. The forests are our guardians: we can find in them all we need to survive, and maybe a bit more.
What about Jewish life? Have the B’nei Menashe in your village been able to conduct it normally?
It’s too dangerous for us to congregate in our synagogue. There’s a nearby village called Khoken in which Meitei infiltrators dressed in army uniforms killed three people last week and wounded more by firing on a church in which there was a prayer service. The village authorities have warned us against group gatherings that might serve as targets. There’s no coercion involved, just safety concerns. We pray and observe our Jewish rituals at home, always on high alert. Much of our free time is spent reading Psalms.
What about the future? What happens next?
This conflict will not be resolved soon. The divide is too deep and will only grow deeper because of the Meiteis’ greed for our lands. This time we were caught napping. The government is on the Meiteis’ side. I don’t know if they can actually drive us out of Manipur, but they’re going to try. Even after the Home Minister of India called for a 15-day cease-fire, they went on attacking Kuki villages. We Kukis lifted a road block from Kangpokpi to Imphal in response to the minister’s appeal, but had to re-impose it after what happened at Khoken. The Meiteis are holding peace rallies and pressing their attacks at the same time. There can’t be any trust with that kind of hypocrisy. The Meitei chief minister of Manipur, N. Biren Singh, is posing as part of the peace effort while fomenting the violence. If it’s his idea of a joke, it’s a cruel one.
Note: Shortly after this interview earlier this week, newspapers reported that 9 Meitei raiders were gunned down by Kuki village guards at a church in a Kuki village, Khamenlok in the Kuki majority Kangpokpi district. There were 10 others injured. The incident occurred between 10 p.m and 10:30 p.m on the night of 13th June. They were part of 3000 strong Meitei mobs who had come to torch Kuki villages near Saikul. The raiding party had decided to rest for the night at the abandoned church. No arms were recovered, most likely having been picked up by the village guards. According to sources, most of the dead were identified as residents of Imphal, several kilometers from Khamenlok, refuting the claims by Meiteis that they were defending their villages. As of this article going to press, there are reports of arson, unrest in the capital, Imphal.