Imphal: On the night of July 31, around 9 pm, a fire destroyed 17 houses in Zomi Villa, a multicultural neighbourhood in Imphal West district of Manipur. While the police claim that the fire began due to a short circuit, not everyone is convinced.
Zomi Villa has been a multicultural neighbourhood for years, with residents from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds. Among the residents are Muslims, Hindus, Nepalis, Meiteis and Kukis.
Because of the ongoing ethnic clashes in the state, which began on May 3, locals say the feeling of harmony has eroded and tensions have risen.
The fire on July 31 began in homes belonging to Kukis and spread to nearby houses where people from Bihar live.
As this reporter arrived in Imphal from Saikul, he received a call from an individual who feared that his house might have also fallen victim to arson. “If you can visit Zomi Villa, I heard from someone that my house was burnt yesterday,” the person said.
Even 18 hours after the fire began, when The Wire met with the residents, smoke still billowed from the burnt houses in Zomi Villa.
The cause of the fire remains a sensitive topic. Witnesses are reluctant to speak up. But members of the Kuki community who lived in Zomi Villa believe that the fire was intentionally started by a Meitei mob. However, according to the police, the fire began due to a short circuit.
A man from the Kuki community, whose house also burned down, questioned the police’s story. Adjacent to the Kuki houses stands a school named “Standard English School”, which has a 360-degree camera system. It may provide vital details in the case. The man said the CCTV footage will show whether a mob started the fire or if it was the result of a short circuit. “The question is, if it was a short circuit then how did 17 houses burn?” asks the man.
Over the past three months, there have been several reports of Kuki and Meitei mobs burning homes and villages of the other community. Large parts of Imphal are strongholds of the Meitei community.
The aftermath of the fire has left families devastated, with many forced to relocate to relief camps.
Forty people from Bihari families are now living in a small garage without proper food, medicine, and clothes. Some of them need medication, which they do not have access to.
Pooja, a resident, told The Wire, “My children were sleeping when the fire began. We lost everything – documents, money and clothes. I wish we had left here earlier.”
Pawan Chawari, another resident, said, “This is a clash between two communities. What was our fault? Why did the fire reach our houses? I was collecting money for my sister’s wedding. I request the government to compensate me for my loss. I want to leave this state, I know this violence won’t stop.”
His mother has high blood pressure. “All we want is to leave this place as soon as possible. We request all governments and the chief minister of Bihar to help us out and please compensate us so that we can leave. All members of the Bihari community feel this way,” Chawari said.
Sanjeet Sahu, a carpenter from Bihar, recounted the horrifying sight of his own home ablaze. “I was sitting at my friend’s place when I saw from the window that my house was burning. The first thing I did was to take the gas cylinder out, as I don’t want the fire to spread to neighbouring houses. After doing so, I couldn’t enter the house and lost all my belongings.”
Sahu said that more than 80 cycles, belonging to his parents and the source of their livelihood, were also burnt down in the fire.