Imphal— " Would you take us to Churachandpur?" In the city of Imphal, if you inquire about traveling to Churachandpur, you're likely to receive consistent advice from regular auto, rickshaw, and wingervan drivers: "Who would risk their life going there amidst the ongoing firing ?"
This sentiment is echoed unanimously by regular auto drivers, rickshaw operators, and winger van drivers. Moreover, a consistent piece of advice emerges from these conversations: if you're intent on heading to Churachandpur, it's best to have a Pangal Muslim driver at the helm.
The prevailing apprehension among these drivers reflects the volatile situation that has gripped Churachandpur. Their unanimous warning speaks volumes about the atmosphere of uncertainty and potential peril surrounding the area. And the suggestion to opt for a Pangal Muslim driver carries a sense of trust and security—a tacit acknowledgment that such drivers possess an unmatched familiarity with the terrain and the dynamics at play. Moreover, they are neutral which means, they have no hostility towards both of the warring communities and hence commutation with them is believed to be safe.
Arif, an Imphal resident who owns a Swift Dzire car, has undertaken numerous journeys to Churachandpur, the most volatile region in the state. He has even transported media personnel to the area.
To uncover the situation in Churachandpur, locals from Imphal and the hotel owner where The Mooknayak team was staying recommended employing a Muslim driver for the journey. Arif, when approached by The Mooknayak team, agreed to the task. He quoted a fare of Rs 8,000 for the perilous journey of approximately 63 km to the tense and violence-stricken hill area from the capital. Despite the offered assistance, the team opted to venture on their own with the aid of local vehicles and security forces.
Starting from the capital city Imphal and heading to the Moyrong Khoyol Cathal Market, and subsequently to the PHOUGAKCHAO Police Station, any regular driver could only take you up to this point. Beyond this juncture, neither the driver's courage nor the security forces would permit further progress for a non-Kuki driver. Essentially, it's understood that only a Muslim or Kuki driver is allowed to proceed, as an unspoken agreement with the security forces.
The security forces have established numerous checkpoints preventing movement towards Churachandpur. These checkpoints, including some manned by Kuki individuals, halt vehicles and conduct inspections. They scrutinize the occupants, inquire about their identity, destination, and inspect their government ID cards and vehicle details. Only after satisfactory answers are provided, and the driver's entry is noted with a signature in the checkpoint's register, are vehicles allowed to continue. This protocol is frequently followed along the route.
Why are only Muslim drivers entrusted with travel to Churachandpur? Bashir, a 25-year-old resident of Imphal, explains, "We aren't involved in the conflict between Maitei and Christian (Kuki community), so we're granted safe passage in both directions." He further adds, "Our population is relatively small, and staying among cookies would lead to our demise. If we reside with Maitei, cookies might target us. Hence, we remain impartial."
A representative from Kangla Tours & Travels, a cab service in Imphal, reveals, "While we possess a fleet of vehicles, we exclusively deploy Muslim drivers for journeys to Churachandpur."
In contrast to the mainstream media's portrayal of negative sentiment against Muslims, and the reported instances of mistreatment in BJP-governed states, Manipur paints a different picture. Muslims serve as a vital link in transporting people between the two conflicted areas of Maitei and Kuki, who harbor mutual antipathy. Amidst this animosity, only Muslim drivers have facilitated movement and communication.
The tension between the Kuki and Maitei communities is so severe that even government employees avoid entering non-community-dominated territories. In the fraught atmosphere, the government employees avoid venturing into areas not aligned with their own community. This deep-seated division has created an environment of apprehension and avoidance among those tasked with maintaining civic functions. The Mooknayak team faced challenges while trying to return from Churachandpur. They sought assistance from Churachandpur's Deputy Commissioner and security forces to traverse the region. However, even on their way out, Kuki individuals halted the official vehicle, questioning the team's identity. The government vehicle's Kuki driver informed them that he could only accompany them to Kangwai due to the risk of violence erupting on sight.
This animosity between the Kuki and Maitei communities has resulted in a complete avoidance of each other's areas. The sole exception is the Muslim drivers, who transcends this divide, facilitating safe passage for individuals with no affiliations to either community.
As of 2022 and 2023, specific data on the Muslim population in Manipur is not publicly available. However, Hinduism is the predominant religion in Manipur, accounting for 41.39% of the population. Within the districts, Hinduism also maintains majority status in nine out of fourteen. The total Muslim population in Manipur is 2.40 million, representing 8.40% of the population. Additionally, the Christian population stands at 11.79 million, constituting 41.29% of the population.