On May 3, a ‘Tribal Solidarity March’ opposing the Meitei community’s demand for Scheduled Tribe status was organised in several districts of Manipur. The rally, organised by the All Tribal Students Union Manipur, turned violent in Churachandpur, Moirang, Motbung and Moreh with reports of arson and vandalism.
Five days later, 60 people were dead, 231 injured, 1,700 burned down and 35,000 displaced, chief minister N Biren Singh said at a press conference in Imphal.
As hundreds of houses were burned down and looted, most members of the Kuki community in Hebron Veng and neighbouring colonies fled to their relatives’ places in different districts or states.
This house is allegedly of an ex-minister who is a part of the Kuki community
Liza, who was part of the Churachandpur rally, narrated the events to Newsclick. “Everybody dispersed to their villages after the rally was over. In the evening, a social media post showing three burnt tyres in front of an Anglo Centenary Kuki gate was circulated. Soon, several rally participants reached the spot,” she said.
Liza, whose house was hardly a kilometre from the spot, was sure the situation would be under control. “But when the police ordered the crowd to disperse, Meiteis started beating up the tribals protesting the ‘vandalism’ of the Kuki gate. As the news spread like wildfire, Kukis and Meiteis burned down each other’s shops and houses. Eventually, the police stopped the violence,” she added.
However, according to Liza, the violence escalated after the police left. Initially, Kangvai, a neighboring village between Kuki-dominated Churchandpur and Meitei-majority Bishnupur, was targeted, say eyewitnesses.
Topai, employed at the local post office, was returning home around 6 pm that day. After dinner, he heard the “special Meitei noise used for mobilisation”. “The Meiteis beat electric poles with heavy objects to mobilise their community.”
Topai knew he had to protect his family of five, including his 70-year-old mother, an arthritis patient. The family locked the gates, shut the windows, switched off the lights, and huddled silently. They could hear people shouting slogans and gunshots.
Around 10.30 pm, the family realised that the mob was close as the frightening sounds became louder. “I heard them shout slogans, like “Kukis are not Manipuris” and “Kill them all”,” he said.
The family decided to flee when the building opposite their house was torched. As the family ran towards the back door, they saw other houses being vandalised. “We knew our house would be vandalised or burned down as well. Topai and his family, like other Kukis from the Hebron Veng colony, spent the night on their paddy fields.
The families took shelter in the nearest CRPF camp of Battalion 86 in the morning. “The mob looted houses and burned them down for the whole night. Our calls to the fire department and the police went unanswered despite the nearest police station being only five minutes away,” Topai said.
Bret, a wedding photographer, and his family, including his five-month-pregnant sister, were also inside their houses when the violence started.
“They were pelting my house with stones while we ran from the back gate and through the paddy fields to reach the Spring Valley colony, where a former Kuki commander sheltered us for the night. I could see houses being torched and the armed mob from a distance,” Bret told Newsclick.
The next day, May 4, was more frightening and painful for the resident of Hebron Veng and neighbouring residential areas like Vaiphei Enclave and Spring Valley. Churches were vandalised and houses looted and torched as the police allegedly remained mute, eyewitnesses said. Shockingly, the mob also consisted of people whom the Kukis met daily.
Bret and his family arranged an escort and left for the CRPF camp. On their way, Bret saw blockades put up to stop families from escaping. “Hundreds of people were already there in the camp. I got a bed inside a tent for my pregnant sister.”
He realised that one of his distant sisters-in-law who was seven-month pregnant was in the camp. “She was rescued from RIMS Hospital during the mob attack,” said a choked-up Bret. “She died the next day when we learned our house had been torched. I received a video of the incident.”
Mentioning the “pathetic situation in the camp, Topai said, “There was no food in the morning. Later, only a fistful of half-cooked rice and dal was served in used polythene bags.
The food that Topai and his family just like others in the camp were consuming on used polythene bags
We slept in the open since with mosquitoes biting us.” Several families requesting anonymity alleged unhygienic conditions and fear of life despite the presence of CRPF personnel.
Topai and his family are in Mizoram while Bret and his sister are with their parents in Bangalore. Describing how they had to shell out money on exorbitant flight tickets from Imphal to Guwahati, Topai said, “The usual price of five tickets was Rs 15,000. But we had to pay Rs 54,000 with the help of some of our generous relatives and friends. The underprivileged can’t afford such flights?”
The Meiteis and Kukis have co-existed for years. Almost all the violence-affected people told Newsclick that politics caused the differences. According to the Kukis, their “Meitei friends helped them” and “most community members are not bad”. The Kukis blamed the state for ignoring their community.
For example, a Meitei friend who is a doctor at the RIMS Hospital offered biscuits and water to Topai’s at the camp. Similarly, when Bret struggled to help his pregnant sister and was trying to get information about his locality, his Meitei and Naga friends helped him.
The Nagas, whose churches were also burnt, fear they will be the next target. Robin, a resident of the most affected area of Hebron Veng, said, “They have destroyed almost all the Kuki houses. There is a pattern—they get their pick-up trucks, loot the houses and then torch them. After destroying all the Kuki houses, they might target us soon. There are around 100 Naga families in the area, and we will escape soon.”
Newsclick also spoke with the Meiteis of Churchandpur. Bobby, a native of Torbung village, said, “Both the communities co-exist peacefully. We participate in each other’s festivals. The violence was caused by poor governance and the government giving a free hand to troublemakers.”
A senior citizen who is also a cancer patient somehow rescued from the locality
Bobby and his friends are trying to persuade young Meiteis who were part of the mob not to get involved in such activities, which “would affect peace”.
Singh promised compensation of Rs 5 lakh to the families of the deceased, Rs 2 lakh to the seriously injured and Rs 25,000 to those who sustained minor injuries. The government has also promised houses and Rs 2 lakh compensation for people who lost homes in the violence.
But a traumatised Topai feels helpless. “I do not think we will go back. If we do, it will be to sell our land and house.”