CHURACHANDPUR (INDIA) - Schoolboys turned militia fighters stare towards their enemies from their hilltop outpost, as the vigilante gunmen dig in for a long fight in India’s troubled Manipur state. Three months ago, 16-year-old Paominthang was a student from the farming Kuki people who dreamed of being a football star -- now he is armed with a .303 rifle and says he is ready to kill rival Meitei community fighters if needed.
At least 120 people have been killed since May in armed clashes between the predominantly Hindu Meitei majority and the mainly Christian Kuki in the northeastern state. Many in Manipur believe the number could be higher. Paominthang, who gave only one name for fear of reprisal, said he abandoned his books after a Meitei mob attacked his family. “They burnt down my house -- I had no other choice,” he told AFP, cradling his gun proudly and insisting he had no qualms about using it in defence. “I will shoot,” he said. Conflict erupted from a mix of causes including competition for land and public jobs, with rights activists accusing local leaders of exacerbating ethnic divisions for political gain. They deny that, but months into the crisis, divisions are hardening into bitter cycles of revenge attacks that have included killings and the burning of homes, Christian churches and Hindu temples.