Moltheitampa (Churachandpur): Telling one’s own story is never easy. Particularly when you are living the trauma. So much has happened over the last few days with me and my family that if you were to ask me today’s date, I wouldn’t be able to remember it. So let me begin with what you would remember.
You would remember celebrated boxer from Manipur, Mary Kom, pleading with the Prime Minister, the Union home minister and the Union defence minister on Twitter, on the morning of May 4, to save her state. She had tweeted, “My state is burning.”
— M C Mary Kom OLY (@MangteC) May 3, 2023
A night before, her brother Hupreng’s house was nearly burned down by a mob in the Games Village area of Imphal city. Her tears in the video, where she spoke of what was unfolding in her state were real. The danger for life and property to the tribals residing in the capital city had reached her brother’s door too.
Hupreng has been my neighbour.
The armed mob, hunting for property owned by Kuki-Zomi people in our colony situated in the heart of the city, had landed at our door on May 3 evening. By then, we had heard of the mob coming towards us, and ran for safety to our neighbours’ house. Our neighbour belonged to the majority Meitei community. They were kind and took us in. Some Naga neighbours also opened their doors for the Kuki-Zomi families of the colony coming under attack.
My house is surrounded on three sides by houses owned by Meiteis. When they came to set my house on fire, my old mother fell at the feet of those young boys, pleading them not to deprive her of the only shelter she has had over her head. The Meitei neighbours pleaded on her behalf too. They eventually agreed not to go ahead, perhaps also because it dawned on them that the splinters from my house might affect the Meitei residences.
They then turned their attention to Hupreng’s house. There too, pleas for mercy were made. Meitei neighbours reminded the mob that it was the house of Mary Kom’s brother – the only brother she has – and that it should not be touched. The mob soon moved on.
We were all assembled at our Meitei and the Naga neighbours’ premises. From the balcony of a Naga neighbour, I spotted some colony residents belonging to the majority community pointing out the houses of Kuki-Zomi people to the mob and was appalled at the sight. We began dialling the local police station for help but no one answered us. No one came to protect us.
Soon we heard that the mob was setting fire to my younger brother Siemcha Gangte’s house, which was located within the colony. He rushed out and didn’t listen to us. My brother is 48-year-old tall and strapping man. But in the moment he believed that he could handle three of the men who were bent on destroying his house. No one dared stop him because we knew that no one can see a house built with your own hands destroyed.
By the time Siemcha reached his house, it was already on fire. He tried stepping inside to save what he could. The mob noticed him and a large number of armed men surrounded him and began beating him. He somehow managed to run away. We have a Manipur Police commando booth adjacent to our colony. He rushed there for safety but they refused to take him in either. Soon afterwards, he was beaten some more – he was beaten to death. His body was hurled into the blazing fire as scared neighbours watched the sight from the safety of their homes.
Mary’s pleadings might have worked, because by next morning, we were rescued by a team of the Sikh Regiment and brought to their campus. A day later, with the help of the Sikh Regiment, I could return to my brother’s burnt down house. I looked for his remains. I picked a few bones that had been him. I buried them at the backyard of my own house, which still stands.
It was perhaps two days ago that I landed at the Moltheitampa village in Churachandpur district. I am so deep in trauma that I can’t recall my journey to this village. It is my wife’s native village. Decades ago, my parents had moved to Imphal. I was born and brought up in Imphal West district. The valley area has been my only home; we have nothing left in Churachandpur. My home has always been Imphal. I have grown up among the Meiteis and I have many close friends from the community.
Today though, I am not so sure whether I would ever like to return ‘home’.
It was in that colony that my innocent brother had to lose his life in the most inhumane manner. It was if a Lakshman Rekha had drawn that day by the mob ruling the city, telling us tribals to go back ‘home’. Telling us that this is not our ‘home’.
I solely place the blame on the state’s chief minister N. Biren Singh for our plight. He is the home minister too. Yet, police never came to our rescue. In fact, it looked to me like a coordinated, well-planned attack on tribals with help from the ruling regime.
I want to tell my countrymen that I have always been an Indian nationalist. I studied at the Sainik School in Manipur, which ingrained in me love and respect for the tricolour. It is the reason I took it upon myself to convince, over the years, several underground militants belonging to both Meitei and Kuki communities to leave that life and join the mainstream. I believe in the idea of India. Today though, I am surrounded by mindless violence and I don’t know where to look.
My brother and I used to run a school in Imphal. Post COVID-19 though, the school closed down and since then, we have been doing sundry jobs. You can bracket us as the educated, English speaking unemployed. Yet, I never complained. But now I do. I want to know who was responsible for my brother’s death on the evening of May 3.
In the last few days, several times, I have thought of filing an FIR to seek justice for my brother’s unnatural death. But I am not convinced yet that I will be able to get justice from a force that has been widely looked at by my community as hostile to them when all hell broke loose since May 3. Some commandos of state police closed their door on my brother’s face when he was in dire need.
Even as we speak (on May 11 evening), state police commandos are engaged in firing with our village guards. The villagers are yet to ascertain that the commandos are not accompanied by members of Meitei ultra-sub-nationalist groups, like the Meetei Leepun and Arambai Tenggol. These right-wing groups have been promoted not just by the chief minister but by the erstwhile king of Manipur, Leishemba Sanajaouba, who is now a BJP Rajya Sabha MP.
The police have said hundreds of arms and ammunition were looted from police stations. Who did it? On whom were they used? Why are people from my community pointing fingers at these groups for the violence, for attacking them in state police uniform? These are questions the government needs to answer and act upon.
Like the Meiteis, most Kuki-Zomi people voted for the BJP too in the last two assembly elections. In most tribal villages, it is the village head and our elders who decide who our people will vote for. The diktat from them has been to press on the lotus. And yet, we see a section of the party trying to colour these unfortunate times as a fight between Hindus and Christians, rather than as an ethnic clash. This is shocking.
The prime minister has not said anything about the Manipur crisis yet. He has not reached out to my community, which has suffered the most, either.
But I still want to give a message to him:
Like you, I am also an Indian; like you, I too believe in the idea of India. This is not a religious war as it is being projected by some. Investigate who was behind this carnage and the targeted attack on us in the capital city of my state. Help us get justice; help us live in peace with our neighbours without malice.
As told to Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty.