Kwakta, Churachandpur: A muddy road, strewn with stones, leads to the village of Kanaan. There are thatched cottages on either side of the road, opening into a large hall covered with tin plates.
In one corner, a group of youths are diligently assembling what appears to be a body armor by sticking a sheet of sponge to an iron plank, which has been fashioned into a shield-like shape. On the other side, two men face a map, deeply engrossed in strategy.
Another man in his twenties tunes his walkie-talkie, seemingly trying to get in touch with someone. Others meanwhile relax with a game of carrom. On the adjacent wall is a list of committee members and a poster describing the strategy for conducting a protest.
These individuals are not military personnel in a war room. They are residents of Kanaan in Kuki-dominated Churachandpur, who serve as volunteers for the Village Defense Committee (VDC) with the stated aim of protecting local residents amid the state’s ongoing ethnic violence.
These village defense committees exist throughout Manipur – even in villages in the Meitei-dominated valley of Imphal – and are set up at the community level.
They are armed, but with licensed weapons, the Manipur police told ThePrint.
The fascination for weapons, uniforms and defence-related equipment is felt by all involved. So much so that they have come up with innovative methods to create their own.
To fashion their bulletproof jackets, the men carefully mold sections of non-functional iron electrical poles into cylindrical shapes. They cut them in half and flatten them with hammers to make shields, which are then attached to sponge sheets of the same size. Once completed, these shields are put into jackets similar to bulletproof jackets, which are readily available in the market.
“We can’t afford to buy bulletproof jackets, but our men need them, so we made our own,” explained George Thang, the commission commander.
“We looked for non-functional power poles and transformed them into shields, which we now put in these jackets. Each jacket weighs about four to five kilograms because the shield is placed on both the front and back,” he added, while instructing his team on proper techniques.
The walkie-talkies used by committee members to communicate with each other are the same ones commonly found in the marketplace and commonly used by construction workers on construction sites, George said.
To buy all the necessary materials, the villagers made “generous donations”. Kanaan village consists of 700 houses and a population of over 3,500 people.
“Each jacket costs about Rs 3,500. In addition, there are the costs for walkie-talkies, batteries and uniforms. The villagers have donated generously because they know we will protect them in this time of conflict,” said George.
Read also: Meitei village surrounded by 6 Kuki settlements defies violence with unity – ‘we grew up together’
Crash course in weapons training
The Kanaan VDC has deployed its volunteers to various ‘hotspots’ indicated on the map.
Some firearms-trained individuals are being held in reserve for emergencies, while others are taking crash courses taught by former security forces servicemen, residents said.
“This is a time of war. What if the enemy attacks? We have to be prepared to send our men to the front lines, and that’s exactly what we’re doing,” Geroge said.
“We have ex-servicemen teaching the boys how to fire. We have single and double barrel guns that are all licensed,” he added. “We have not illegally acquired weapons, unlike the Meiteis, who looted police arsenals. Moreover, this training is only given to be able to effectively defend ourselves.”
According to a senior police officer, it is a “defense mechanism” for the people to ensure their own safety.
“They all have licensed guns and residents over the age of 20 are the volunteers who are part of these VDCs. Most of the villages in Manipur have set up similar committees,” the officer said. “They perform day and night jobs and collect their own money to buy all the equipment they need.”
Since committee members are community residents, the officer said, “they are usually the first responders in times of crisis.”
“As soon as the police or the armed forces take over, they step aside. In addition to guarding their own villages, many of them are also voluntarily deployed in other villages affected by conflict.”
‘If we are not on duty, residents feel scared’
In the Churachandpur hill district, each village has its own defense committee, which is mainly made up of young people between the ages of 20 and 30. The Kanaan VDC has 50 members.
While the duty hours of these young members include patrolling the village and borders from 6pm to 6am, the older members take charge in the morning hours. During clashes, however, all the volunteers come together and are deployed in different locations, George said.
With violent incidents on the fringes increasing, these village defense committees are now expanding their ranks.
“We have started training even more youngsters because we need maximum hands now,” said George. “They undergo 10 days of training on how to operate guns and how to fire. These are people who have never lifted a gun, so it’s a crash course for them to become familiar with,” he added.
Asked about the need for these village defense committees when so many trained troops have already been deployed to the area, George chuckled.
“We are the ones who will defend our country with all our might because we value it more than anyone else,” he said. “If we sit at home and rely on others to defend us, it will be a disaster.”
He added that if the village defense committee does not patrol the roads outside, the residents of Kanaan cannot sleep at night.
“When we patrol the roads, they know that one of them is there to protect them from any attack. If we are not on the road, the villagers cannot sleep,” he said. “When we are not on duty, people are scared for their safety. They trust us, they have faith in us.”
(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)
Read also: Power politics sparked communal violence in Manipur. Time to go to court
Adblock test (Why?)