The sound of laughter and animated discussion can be heard inside the office of Rural Women Upliftment Society in Manipur’s Churachandpur. “This is the only way we cope with things. By being funny and laughing,” Mary Grace, a young vibrant woman working with Rural Women Upliftment Society tells The Citizen.

Churachandpur is a district in Manipur, which witnessed grotesque violence on May 3 2023, after fighting broke out across the state when news spread that a rally held by the All Tribal Students Union of Manipur — which opposed the Manipur High Court’s recommendation to grant Scheduled Tribe (ST) status to Meiteis — had become violent.

Since then, thousands have been displaced – more than 41,000 among the Kuki-Zo community and 24,000 among the Meitei community – and as the violence continues, people find ways to resist and help each other.

Women, men and young children, everyone is coming together to contribute in the “times of war” and help the community – in this case the tribals.

Grace walks with a stack of papers in her hand. She has been handing the data of all the displaced people in Lamka. “I have met almost everyone who has been displaced. But there are still so many people who we have not been able to reach,” she said.

Sitting besides Grace is her boss Mary Beth, a professor turned social worker is the coordinator at Rural Women Upliftment Society.

An enthusiastic 60-year-old social worker, Beth said she left her work as a professor post violence and joined the organisation to contribute to the society. “We have been trying to collect all the data whether it is of displaced people, of gender-based violence since May,” she said.

As her phone rings continuously, Beth takes out time to discuss the current situation. “It is bad as you can see. There is no going back now. There is no point blaming anyone except the authorities here. But all of this has pushed back Manipur at least 20 years back,” she said.

Beth who has worked on gender concerns, vigorously said that while a lot of violence has happened between communities in Manipur, this is the first time that so many cases of gender-based violence were reported. “We have ourselves recorded at least 33 cases, but there are more,” she added.

Despite the tragedies Grace and Beth witnessed, the women have not given up and continue to put in all efforts to help the displaced, and other victims of violence.

Beth said that she still has Meitei friends, although due to violence no one has been able to connect with each other. “It will be awkward but we have coexisted for so many years. We still have no hard feelings,” she said.

While doing the work and meeting so many people, Grace said that she got attached to many. As she visits one relief camp after another, people come to politely greet her. They surround her, and tell her about the situation in their language.

“Mary Grace has worked hard in gathering the data of the displaced people. She worked day in and out to visit relief camps and speak to people, she also worked on providing aid and medicines to those in need,” Beth said.

Kuki-Zo women volunteers at checkpoints of Churachandpur border. Photo: Nikita Jain

Grace meanwhile laughs when asked how she was able to work so much. “When I saw the people and their situation I could not sit back. I remember not being able to sleep for days and crying non-stop when I started visiting the camps,” she said.

And that is where she met 6-month-old Kim (name changed). The Citizen had earlier reported how Kim’s mother had died due to medical negligence caused by violence in Manipur.

Grace rushes towards Kim and swoops the calm baby in her arms, who looks at her with knowing eyes. He puts his head on her shoulders as she laughs and soothes him. “Look, he is so cute,” Grace exclaims.

Looking at Kim and other children who play in the courtyard of a church, Grace said that it was hard for her to part with Kim. “I saw him when he was three days old,” she said.

It is the stories of despair and tragedy that one gets to hear when a violence takes place, but amidst those stories there are people who go beyond to bring some solace to those who have lost everything. Women like Beth and Grace are few examples of that.

There are hundreds of women who are working their job and also coming forward as volunteers as well to help the community.

Amidst the chaos of so many people in Manipur losing families, homes and livelihoods also comes stories of friendships.

For Samuel (name changed on request), being in touch with his Meitei friends is important. “I still call them and they do the same,” he told The Citizen.

Samuel used to live in Imphal but was displaced and came to Lamka with his family. “‘There are bad people and good people’ is what I like to think. Even my Meitei friends are not blaming anyone. On the other hand, when violence broke out in Imphal they helped me,” he said.

Speaking about those dreadful nights, Sameul said that as the situation started going bad on May 4, he and his family decided to leave Imphal. “I was the only Kuki-Zo in my area. Rest all were Meitei,” he said.

However, on the night of May 4, Samuel called his Meitei neighbour and friend asking them to let them leave the house, and not burn it down. “I said we are packed and will leave in the morning and asked them not to do anything that night,” he added.

“I closed my eyes, prayed, and had the most peaceful sleep,” he recalled smiling. When he woke up the next day, Samuel said that his house was untouched.

“We got ready and left. On the way, no one said anything to us and we safely made our way to an Assam Rifles camp,” he recalled.

He later said that it was not until September that his house was torched. “It makes me a little happy that they waited so long to do so,” he joked, adding that he knew his friends and neighbours were not a part of the mob.

Leaving behind his life in Imphal, Samuel has to start from scratch. However, he said that he has faith and feels no hatred towards anyone, and this makes him believe that things will get better.

The same way, Merci (name changed in request), who is pursuing her PhD said that she tends to keep in touch with her Meitei friends. “We discuss things and none of us have hatred amongst ourselves,” she added.

While many people did stop responding, there were many others who did not. “I am just sad to see how so much destruction has happened and the ones who should be held accountable are not,” Merci said.

Rajni, a Meitei and a resident of Imphal spoke to The Citizen and echoed the same sentiments as Merci. “Things are tense but not everyone wants to fight,” she said.

Taking care of the displaced people in Imphal she said there were many tragic stories and people are still trying to make sense of their lives. “The situation may not get any better soon in Manipur. We just want the people to know about it,” Rajni said.

When one enters Churachandpur, each moment will make one realise that it is now a conflict zone. There are forces deployed at every corner.

Opposite to the District Administration office building is a reminder of loss and tragedy. It is the “wall of remembrance,” a reminder of the lives lost in Manipur violence. Some locals come by to click photos of the place.

Wall of remembrance. Photo: Nikita Jain

Every Wednesday hundreds of Kuki-Zo women come together to protest outside the wall of remembrance as a reminder to the authorities that they still are waiting for justice.

Hamid drives on the roads of Imphal as Bollywood music hits the background. A hardworking young man, Hamid is the only source of ‘connection’ between the valley and the hills.

As the Tribals and Meitei now stay in hills, and the valley respectively. The Pangal or the Muslim community in Manipur has come as a saving grace for many.

The Meitei Pangals, also known as the Pangals or the Meitei Muslims or the Manipuri Muslims, speak Meitei as their native language.

At about 8 percent, the Meitei Pangals are the fourth largest community in Manipur after the Meiteis, Nagas and Kukis. They live in and around Imphal.

As all modes of transportation have stopped, it is the people from the Pangal community who are now driving cars for transportation. “It is not just taking journalists or activists around, we have also been transporting goods,” Hamid said.

According to officials in Lamka, a lot of relief material and other required material was transported by the Pangals in the region.

There is a small village that comes just before Churachandpur, which is mostly inhabited by the Muslims, it is there that a lot of Kuki-Zo people were kept for a night by the Muslims as the violence had started in Churachandpur on May 3.

“I live in Imphal but in my colony as well we kept many Kuki-Zo people as violence had escalated,” Hamid said.

But despite that it is not easy for Hamid and many others to travel easily. “We also face harassment,” he added, averring that there are times they are stopped by miscreants from doing their job, “But we have to keep working”.

When asked if they supported any one particular community, Hamid said that Pangals are just stuck in the crossfire. “We have no grudge against anyone. We came as a trading community from Assam 400 years ago, and since then we have been living together. We Pangals do not have issues with anyone,” Hamid said.

In Churachandpur, the tribals have taken it upon themselves to safeguard the region. As distrust between the administration and the community increases, people have started taking matters into their own hands.

From every village in the hill region, one house will send their male family member to be at the “frontline”.

Frontline is basically the division between the Meitei and the Kuki village. On both sides people have been setting up ‘checking points’ to safeguard their lives and villages.

Timothy (name changed on request), is 19-years-old and is a college student. He is sitting on the side of a road overlooking the mountains. Along with him are three other young men who have covered their faces.

Kuki-Zo volunteers sit at a checkpoint. Photo: Nikita Jain

“I come here as a volunteer every two weeks,” he told The Citizen who had visited one of the frontlines.

A shy young man, Timothy said that he feels responsible for taking care of his community. If one removed the checkpoints set up by the volunteers, one would not even realise there are tensions in the region.

Army officers stand with the volunteers observing the situation. “Beyond the tribal checkpoint is us. No civilians from both sides are allowed there,” a Major on duty told The Citizen.

He said that the situation is under control and the Indian Army is doing whatever it can to not let it escalate.

The volunteers, meanwhile, stay on duty for three days before they are discharged, and another group comes in. These volunteers include both men and women.

As one drives through the roads of Imphal and Churachandpur normalcy is not visible. One catches glimpses of persons dressed in uniforms holding guns in corners of Imphal.

“It is the Arambhai Tanggol,” Hamid said when asked whether it was the Manipur Police.

With automatic weapons in hand, they silently watch the roads as people walk by. With checkpoints at every corner and shut shops in another, people are waiting for a solution.

It has been nine months but they still wait as futures wither and families who have lost so much still try to figure out the future.

“I have to start from scratch. My business, my life, I have to build everything here in Lamka. I call Imphal my home but I have to sadly accept it is not so anymore,” he said.

Meanwhile, Manipur Chief Minister N. Biren Singh, who was on a visit to New Delhi, announced on Saturday that the Central government is prepared to take crucial decisions on Manipur which has been witnessing a long-drawn unrest for more than nine months.

The announcement was made after a meeting with Union Home minister Amit Shah in New Delhi. Matters concerning the strife-torn state were reportedly discussed to urgently bring a concrete resolution to the protracted conflict in Manipur.

Taking to X, Singh conveyed the results of the meeting and posted, “Today, I had the esteemed privilege of meeting with the Hon’ble Union Home Minister, Shri @AmitShah Ji in New Delhi. Engaging in a profound exchange, we discussed matters of paramount importance concerning our state.

Rest assured, the Government of India is set to take some important decisions in the interests of the people of Manipur.”

After the meeting with Amit Shah, CM Biren also met with senior officials of the Ministry of the Home Affairs to deliberate on the means to completely restore normalcy in the state.

In another post on X he posted, “Post-meeting with Hon’ble Union Home Minister Shri @AmitShah Ji, I convened with senior officials of the Ministry of Home Affairs at the North Block, New Delhi. Held a productive discussion on the strategic measures undertaken for fostering peace in Manipur.”

The Congress party, on the other hand, took a swipe at Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday for visiting Assam but ignoring the violence-hit Manipur.

In a social media post on ‘X’, senior Congress leader Pawan Khera shared a screenshot of flights from Guwahati to Imphal. He also offered to book a flight ticket to Manipur to facilitate the prime minister’s visit to the violence-hit state.

“Dear PMO India. If Himanta (Assam Chief Minister and BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma) can book a chopper for you then it is fine, otherwise here is the list of lights between Guwahati and Imphal tomorrow. Please let us know if we need to make the booking,” Pawan Khera wrote in his post.

Congress leader Jairam Ramesh also targeted the prime minister for not visiting Manipur and called it a “horrific ANYAY (injustice)” on the people of the state.

“Nine months to the day and yet no meeting with the PM who continues to maintain total silence on Manipur. The PM goes to Guwahati for a road show but cannot and will not go to Imphal. A horrific ANYAY by the PM on the people of Manipur,” Jairam Ramesh said.