Hundreds of Meira Paibis, members of a collective of Meitei women, protested near several police stations across the Imphal valley on Thursday afternoon demanding the unconditional release of five armed youths arrested on September 16.
The valley districts had witnessed shutdowns on Tuesday and Wednesday and protests on Monday over the same demand, underlining the growing distrust between sections of Meiteis and the state police, often accused in recent weeks of a pro-Meitei bias.
The protesters claim the arrested youths were Meitei village defence volunteers protecting their villages amid the 20-week-old unrest between Meiteis and Kukis that has killed at least 176 people and displaced 67,000.
But the police say the five were arrested on Saturday with “sophisticated weapons in camouflage uniform” and are “being proceeded (against) legally”.
The police say the five were arrested as part of efforts to “curb extortion threats, misuse of police uniform and impersonation by armed miscreants”.
The protest was called by, among others, the Langthabal Kendra Club Coordinating Committee and the Langthabal Kendra Meira Paibi Coordinating Committee from Imphal West district but most of the protesters were Meira Paibis, an Imphal resident said.
Sources said hundreds of Meira Paibis protested in front of at least 25 police stations in five districts from around 1.30pm.
Security forces put up barricades about 400-500 metres from the police stations and fired tear gas at several places, including Singjamei police station in Imphal West and Porampat police station in Imphal East. More than 10 protesters were hurt and the residence of the Singjamei OC was vandalised, sources said.
The police later said the security forces had used “minimum force” to “thwart a law-and-order situation”, and a “few protesters received minor injury”.
The Meira Paibis have been at the forefront of campaigns relating to social ills and political issues. Meiteis are the majority in the valley’s six districts while the 10 hill districts are home mostly to the tribal Kuki-Zo and Naga communities.
A Meira Paibi from Imphal said: “We want the police to put us in lockups, too, till the five are released unconditionally. The police are arresting village volunteers in the valley but are unable to check attacks by armed Kuki militants in peripheral areas adjoining the hills.”
A source said the state government had met people close to those arrested and said the authorities had to proceed legally as cases had been registered. “They were told they could apply for bail but they did not agree,” the source said.