Imphal East/Kangpopki/Kakching/Bishnupur/Churachandpur (Manipur): It has been more than a month now that violent clashes broke out between two communities of Manipur – Meiteis and Kukis.
A lot has been written and discussed about the two communities, including the assertion that they had lived in perfect harmony for several decades, and are now engaged in a war-like situation. The N. Biren Singh-led state Bharatiya Janata Party government has been criticised for its handling of the violence. Despite the stay of Union home minister Amit Shah in the state for four days recently, incidents of violence continue to take place. Already, thousands from both the communities have been already displaced.
Manipur information and public relations minister R.K. Ranjan said on June 11 that over 50,000 people have been displaced and are living in 349 camps.
The Wire visited nine relief camps of both the communities scattered across various villages of Bishnupur, Churachandpur, Imphal East, Kangpopki and Kakching districts of the state. Having suffered one of the worst, and perhaps irreversible, setbacks of their lives, common people of the two communities still disagree of various aspects of the violence, how it broke out and a possible solution to the problem.
Most Kukis, now, are not ready to settle with anything less than a separate administration (a Union Territory or a state) while most Meiteis say a division of Manipur state could lead to a much bigger civil war.
While Meiteis and Kukis now seem to be completely divided over many issues and there appears to be little by way of a point of reconciliation, something, unknowingly, has united them – their loss, grief and anger. Both have lost homes, livelihoods, and kin, and have very little idea as to how to go about rebuilding their lives.
During his visit to the state, Shah announced that a relief package would be put in place. On June 8, the Union government spoke of a package of Rs 101.75 crore though the details of it are not clear yet.
All the relief camps The Wire visited are being run by local clubs or organisations and cater to just one community. The government’s presence in supporting these camps was nil in most of cases or next to nil as rare exceptions, as per accounts given by the people managing and/or living in those camps.
Memcha, 62, a native of Napat village set out on a journey on May 27, to reach a relief camp about 40 km away from her home at Kakching’s Keirak village. She had no option after her house was burnt right in front of her eyes by people she claims were the Kuki militants.
She is one of the 522 Meiteis living in a school that has been turned into a camp by the Keirak United Development Association. Memcha’s family consists of her and teenaged daughter. Both of them used to weave to earn a living. They lost not just their home but the single weaving machine in it too. “Throw out the Assam Rifles (AR) from the state,” she said multiple times in the 15-minute chat in which she narrated her ordeal. She alleged that the AR personnel were unresponsive when 200 houses of her village were set on fire. AR is a Union government-controlled paramilitary force.
Memcha is a hypertensive and a diabetic and needs to spend Rs 1,500 every 10 days on medicines. Showing her medicine box, she asked, “How am I going to refill it if I don’t have money to buy food also?”
Like Memcha, Mangtinnek Vaiphei, an 80-year-old Kuki man, resides at a school-turned-camp at Kangpopki’s S. Molnom village and has cardiac and stomach ailments. The frail-bodied octogenarian said he still had medicine in his stock but was unsure about the future. In his “idyllic life,” he said, his address was Kangpopki’s Kamuching village. It is about 30 km from Imphal. Now, his house has been burnt down, he added.
“It is hard to think even now that the home that I had built over decades is no more,” he added, “I still keep imagining it.”
A 72-year-old tailor Kshetrimayum Joy Meitei, who is currently living in a college-turned-camp at Imphal East’s Khundrakpam village begged this reporter to go his native Ekou Bazar village, some 20 km away from the camp, and click a picture of his home – even if it has become a piece of barren land now after being burnt.
“Like you, another reporter came here and I made the same request. I just want to see it [the land where his home was], once,” he said. Law enforcement agencies have barred any movement to areas where houses had been burnt en masse.
Senior camp dwellers Kshetrimayum Joy Meitei and Mangtinnek Vaiphei – the latter belongs to the Kuki community – individually said they had never witnessed violence of this scale in their home state, ever, even though clashes are not a new phenomenon here.
The loss of livelihood in this violence has been the one of the most crippling of losses, according to many, and ranged from loss of poultry to burning down of shops and other means of businesses.
Bishoka, 45, who is now residing at Keirak school camp, said her family had 20 ducks, 10 pigs and two cows. These were her source of income. A Meitei, Bishoka has no idea as to where they are now after her house was burnt down on May 27. “Everything is gone now…All that all of us in the camps are left with are the clothes we are wearing and absolutely nothing else,” she said with tears in her eyes. She wondered aloud about the future of her three children.
The classroom, where many like her were crammed into, did not have a fan.
Similarly, Hengah Kipgen, 40, a Kuki woman, who is currently living at a school-turned-camp at Keithelmanbi village, owned cows and buffaloes, which she says were stolen, allegedly by people who burnt her home. She is the sole earner for herself and her school-going son. She also worked as a farm labourer. “This is the time when we would sow cauliflower and ginger. No sowing is happening now – what are we going to do?” she asked.
Kipgen had travelled 70 km from her native village, Bongbal Khullen, in neighbouring Senapati district to reach the camp. Along with other villagers, she climbed mountains, spent a night in the jungle and another day at a Naga village to finally make it to the safe place.
“We could hide in the jungle…but women kept crying as they saw their belongings being stolen and houses being burnt right in front of them. Their cries would worry all of us because we feared that this could reveal our whereabouts to those from whom we were trying to hide. I don’t know who you would have survived those cries either,” she said.
Longjom Basanta Meitei, 58, was a school teacher in a private school before becoming a refugee at Khundrakpam village college. He also ran a small shop. Both of them are now part of history, as is his home. Recalling his ordeal, he bursts into tears, and he says he would fail as a father now. “One of my three sons is pursuing higher education at an institution in Bengaluru. I was supposed to send him the money for rent a few days ago. I could not…How will I support his study, and that of another one, now?” he said, between sobs.
“How do we begin from scratch?” he asked.
The worst sufferers appear to be the youngest children, and expecting and lactating mothers.
Kimneilhing Rebecca, a 22-year-old Kuki woman gave birth to his first child while fleeing her home and in a jungle. On May 5, she left her home after violence erupted, along with her husband and fellow villagers. While they were still in the forested mountains, she started experiencing labour pain on the intervening night of May 6-7. Her mother-in-law, who was carrying a blade, used it to cut the umbilical cord. Other women formed a temporary shelter around her and shielded her with clothes.
The baby was delivered and there was hardly any water to clean her up. She was wrapped up without cleaning and Rebecca’s husband and other villagers took turns to carry her on their shoulders till they reached a Naga village. The villagers offered water for cleaning and drinking, and then, food.
“Giving birth itself is a painful experience. When I started experiencing labour pain in the forest, I gave up. It is a miracle that my child and I are alive,” she said. The boy, who was two weeks old when The Wire visited the Keithelmanbi village camp at Kangpopki, was named Thangal Kai. It means, ‘the one who has survived war’, the mother said.
Next to him is another infant in the same room. He was born just three days before the violence started and his mother, Tinneithemi, fled her home. The boy has now developed blisters in his mouth and his parents have already made five visits to the doctor after landing in the camp.
There was no fan in the room and it was very hot. The mother believes it is because of heat but the doctors are not sure. “My child is not accepting breast milk either because of illness and is not responding to the treatment also,” Tinneithemi, the worried mother said.
Aarti Malik, 32, used to live in Serou village of Kakching district. Currently she is at a private school, which has been turned into a camp at Wangoo village of the same district in which her house was torched in May. Her 10-month-old son used to feed on formula milk. “Ever since we have come to the camp, we haven’t been able to arrange for the milk. As a result, he is having stomach problems and stool issues,” she said.
Malik is Bengali by origin. Her husband was a driver earning on a daily basis till the clashes began. The earnings have stopped now. “I don’t have money to buy clothes for my child once they get soiled, and we don’t have extra pairs since we left home in a tizzy as bombs were being hurled at it,” she said.
The camp, where she is lodged, is run by local volunteers and the community without any support of any government agency.
She has no money. “It feels like a bad dream sometimes. Maybe it will go if I open my eyes,” she said.
A deficit of trust
People have not just suffered losses in terms of their property and lives – they have lost trust in all types of security agencies – be it state police or the central government security agencies. Kukis don’t have faith in the state police and the Meiteis, in the Union government agencies.
Man Mangthang Hokip, a 34-year-old Kuki farmer, who is now living at a camp run by the Evangelical Church at Churachandpur, said there was a police check post close to where their houses were being burnt. Even the paramilitary forces were there. “Koi nahi aaya. Araam se hamare ghar raat se subah tak jalte rahe,” he says in Hindi. ‘No one came. Our houses just kept burning from night till morning.’ This camp has Kuki refugees.
While he was talking, a young woman began weeping close by. Lhingboi said she was beaten and tortured in Imphal and that she was having a flashback while listening to the conversation. Her husband was serving in Kashmir as an Indian Army personnel when her house was burnt.
Hokip pointed towards Thangkhokhen, a 22-year-old man with stitches on his skull, who was unable to speak. He was working at a petrol pump in Imphal. Hokip claimed he was beaten by a private militia of Meiteis, called Arambai Tenggol. He sustained injuries so serious that the army thought he was dead and put him in a morgue. A doctor later found he was alive.
Like Hokip (a Kuki), the Meiteis also feel that the governments were completely incapable of protecting them. The Wire met a team of Meitei men dressed in black pants and shirts standing guard at a Bishnupur village. Asked why they needed to stand guard since there was already a manned police checkpost right next to them, one of the men, on the condition of anonymity, said, “We are here to assist police!”
Civilians had to take up arms to assist police, as per the claims of some. But many women interviewees in the camps told The Wire that had their husbands and sons stood guard to protect them because there was no security personnel who would do that. They also desperately feared for their relatives.
The Wire has reported earlier about how Meitei women had been creating blockades to prevent the entry of central security forces.
CM Biren Singh is also, undoubtedly, at the receiving end of the anger of both the communities. Though Singh is a Meitei, his community members say his efforts to control the violence were far less than adequate. The Kukis say their current state is thanks to Singh himself.
Kahakam Kuki, a pastor, who is currently at Model Government School camp at Kangchik town, said he had voted for Singh in the last elections. “But what a pity! My house in Imphal was 500 metres away from his bungalow. Before the mob came to attack us at a temporary shelter where we had taken refuge after our homes were torched, I had texted the state DGP and ADG begging for security, on May 4. To no avail, till now,” he said.
An 84-year-old retired executive engineer of state government services who had fled from the capital Imphal to Kangpopki with his wife and a mentally-challenged son, said Biren was the “commander in chief” of the people who attacked the family.
Many fear that the camps, which have been set up outside of the government’s involvement, may need to be vacated soon.
The camp managers of the communities have been wondering till how long they can sustain on the basis of donations since the government has chosen to ignore them.
Khaiden Sunder, a volunteer at a camp at Imphal East, said the district collector had once supplied three bags of rice. That was all. “We have 111 people at the camp. Three bags are not good for even one day,” he added and said even community donations had started shrinking by the end of May.
Note: In the second part of this series, The Wire will talk about the long-term impacts which displaced people now stare at, and how the divide among the two communities has spilled over from villages to people working at government offices, schools and even hospitals.
The Wire is thankful to the interpreters, who were people from the community, and helped us pro bono. All of them have chosen to withhold their identities.