“We Ran As All The Buildings Around Us Were On Fire”
Manipuris’ who fled violence are traumatised, many do not want to return
“We ran as all the buildings around us were on fire. There was no military to help us. It was just some of us boys trying to save our lives,” 20-year-old Len Boimang said, as he breathed in to calm himself down.
Boimang belongs to the Kuki community and fled from Imphal, where violence has been taking place since May 3. Boimag, who is sitting with two other boys, are all preparing for National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) and are studying in Imphal, where they are staying as well.
The violence engulfed many parts of Manipur’s Imphal on May 3 as the All-Tribal Students' Union, Manipur (ATSUM) carried out a rally to protest against the state’s High Court order granting Scheduled Tribe (ST) status to the Meitei community.
The tribals are opposing reservation to the Meiteis following the March 27 Manipur High Court order of Justice Muralidaran that asked the state government to send a recommendation to the Centre within four weeks on the demand for ST status to the community.
Kuki and Naga are recognised as tribal communities in the hills, while Meitei is recognised as Scheduled Caste and Other Backward Class (OBC) communities.
The move has been reproached by the Supreme Court on Wednesday; the damage inflicted on the lives of people in Manipur is severe.
The Citizen met many students from Manipur who had fled the violence somehow, and are taking shelter in Delhi. Many were scared to speak to the media as there have been reports of violence on campus as well. Many students have alleged that the university administration has asked them not to speak to the media as well.
While Manipur is still hostile and reeling with an intense damage the students who have fled are scared to go back home. “I was preparing for NEET when violence broke out. Everything changed for us,” Boimang who had to leave behind his family including mother, father and two siblings told The Citizen.
He said that the area they were living in was attacked by an extreme right-wing mob, who burnt down a nearby church and many houses in the area. “The houses they did not burn, they dragged all the things in front of the house in order to loot them. Because the area was so hostile, the police and paramilitary convoy could not enter the area to save us,” he said, adding that they decided to run to a safe camp themselves.
The boys packed their bags, carrying a pair of T-shirts, shorts and a water bottle. “The buildings were on fire, but we managed not to get burnt and we were running amidst them praying that the mob does not find us,” he said.
After running for three kilometres, they stayed at a camp and somehow contacted their relatives in Delhi. “The flight tickets cost us Rs. 27,000, and I landed here after waiting at the airport for hours as we were not even certain when we would be able to board the plane,” he said.
Sitting beside Boimang is 18-year-old Tsang Mimlen, who had also managed to flee and save himself. “This is my first time in Delhi and I never thought this is how I will come here,” he laughs nervously.
Clueless without their family, Mimlen said that while his family is safe, he is concerned about them. “I was saved by a Muslim family when the violence erupted and it was because of them that I was able to reach the relief camp, which was another tragedy because the situation there was so bad,” he said, adding that the camps had scarcity of food and water, while not everybody was able to eat.
He said that the young boys sacrificed their meals so that children, mothers and elderly could have food. “This was our responsibility as young men to help out as much as we can,” Mimlen added. Both young men said that the noise of bombs and guns being shot could be heard from May 3.
Both Boimang and Mimlen reached Delhi on May 9 and have been living with their relatives, not sure when they will be able to go back home. For many, the journey to reach Delhi has been so traumatic that they never want to go back home.
Chimboy, a 25-year-old medical student, was stuck at her college for a whole day. “On May 3, there were tensions outside and we could hear gun firing and bomb shots but as we are one of the major hospitals and medical colleges, we felt we will be safe. But that was far from the truth,” she told The Citizen.
Nervous as she might have to go back as they are understaffed, Chimboy said she was stuck with other medical staff for hours. “We had to pee in a bucket as going out meant death as we could hear a gathering of mob outside,” she said.
As the situation got intense and the internet shut off there was no way from Chimboy and others to take shelter anywhere else.
“Amidst this an elderly staff member verbally abused us saying you Kuki people do this, which is why all this is happening. We had no way to argue back as she was repeating the information she received through rumours and whatsapp forwards. After a while we tried to talk it out with her and she went quiet realising what was happening,” she said.
On May 4, Chimboy was rescued by the army and taken to a nearby relief camp. “The camp had many injured people and we were taking care of them, but mainly elderly as they were the ones who had been injured the most,” she said.
Those few days, Chimboy said that getting a meal even once a day was a big thing. “This is my first time in Delhi and I am away from my family with no financial aid,” she said, adding that she fled her home in just her medical scrubs. She borrowed clothes from her relatives, and is waiting for news from her family.
Meanwhile, Manipuri students who are studying at Delhi University have come together to help those in distress and had to flee their homes.
Cindy, who graduated from DU said that they are stressed about what is happening back home and are trying to handle the situation here as much as she can. Most of the students are also suffering from financial crunch as with the internet snapped there is no way of getting money.
“I am preparing for government examinations and staying on rent here. It is hard to manage and everyday we are stressed thinking the landlord will knock on our rooms and ask us to vacate them,” Cindy told The Citizen.
As most of these students are from the Kuki community, help aid has been set up for them. However, the students have claimed they have not received any help from the government or the university administration.
On asking whether Aam Aadmi Party’s claim that the party’s Chhatra Yuva Sangharsh Samiti has issued a helpline number for Manipur’s students in distress, Cindy said they are not even aware about such helpline.
“To be honest we feel helpless. This is the feeling all of us here have. But we feel we can do something here and are trying to amplify information and relief camps with the help of other organisations,” she said.
Relief camps in few parts of Delhi have also been set up to help those taking refuge in the national capital. The stories of those who have fled are a glimpse of what might have happened in Manipur.
Jojo Haokip, who is preparing for UPSC in Delhi was left shattered when he heard that his house was burnt by a mob in Imphal. “We have our exams in May and then I get to hear this. We can not even study anymore, it is so stressful. My parents are in a camp right now and are even old. I feel helpless,” he said while speaking to The Citizen.
One of the most brutal violence many from the community say that this is an ethnic issue rather than a religious one. “Even though they burnt down so many churches, it is still an ethnic issue,” said an elderly member of the Kuki community but did not want to be named.
The violence in Manipur has left more than 70 killed, while thousands have been displaced. “The only way to achieve peace is by giving us a separate administration. This is what our MLAs are also demanding and this is what we want as well,” the elderly added.
No regular reports are coming from the state due to internet shut down and while normal calls are working, students fear a long term black out.
The tensions have also escalated in Delhi with students informing us that a mob had attacked a group of Kuki students as they were coming from a prayer meeting recently. In an FIR, which was registered after students were forced to protest, it was claimed that a mob with their face covered attacked a group of boys and girls in North Campus.
Speaking to The Citizen, one of the students who was also attacked and did not want to disclose his identity said, “They threatened the girls with rape and started pulling their clothes. I intervened and they started beating me. From their dialect we could understand they belonged to a particular community. Some girls have also recognised the culprits,” the 18-year-old student said.
The situation has left many tensed. “I do not feel safe here and think twice about stepping out. It is hard to believe that the violence back home will reach Delhi as well,” he said.
Meanwhile, on Thursday, a talk organised by student community in Jawaharlal Nehru University between Meitei and Kuki community did not get permission from the administration. A notice was also taken out by the administration, after which the venue was changed.
The administration issued a statement informing that it was cancelling a discussion on the situation in Manipur which was scheduled to be held in the campus on Thursday, May 18, as no "prior permission" had been taken for the event.
The panel discussion, titled "Understanding What Is Happening in Manipur" was supposed to be held at the Ganga Dhaba in JNU at 9:30 pm. The panel was to include Thongkholal Haokip, assistant professor at JNU, Praem Hidam, assistant professor at Delhi University, and human rights lawyer Nandita Haksar.
The statement said, “It also said that such a discussion may "disturb peace and harmony" in the university campus. "The concerned individuals are firmly advised to cancel the proposed programme immediately," it added.
The Supreme Court, meanwhile, has intervened and on Wednesday came down heavily on Manipur High Court judge Justice MV Muralidaran, saying despite being granted an opportunity he did not correct his judgement on grant of quota to majority Meiteis in the strife-torn state.
Terming the March 27 order “obnoxious”, a bench headed by Chief Justice D Y Chandrachud said, “I will tell you (lawyers) one thing that the high court order was incorrect... I think we have to stay the order of the high court. The high court order is absolutely wrong. We gave Justice Muralidaran time to correct himself and he has not done so...”.
At the start of the hearing of the matters pertaining to Manipur violence, the bench was of the view that it will set aside the single judge bench order of the Manipur High Court passed by Justice Muralidaran.
However, it later said the tribals including Kukis can join the proceedings before the division bench of the high court hearing the intra-court appeals challenging the quota order of the single judge bench.
“The Supreme Court order is not going to change the situation much. We are even scared that this will have further repercussions. I just hope that situation gets better, but we don’t even know what normalcy means anymore when we have lost our homes overnight,” Cindy said.
Meanwhile, fresh violence erupted in Imphal on Monday with reports coming of many houses being torched.
Business establishments remained closed on Tuesday morning and people were asked by security personnel to remain indoors through the public address system in New Chekon area of Imphal East district, where a mob torched two houses after four armed people, including a former MLA, forced people to shut their shops on Monday.
Locals, armed with licensed guns, were found guarding their localities against possible attacks by constructing makeshift "bunkers" in a few places including Pukhao and Leitanpokpi in Imphal East district and five such "bunkers" were destroyed by security forces in Sinam Khaithong village in Imphal West on Monday, police said.
Sit-in demonstrations, mostly by the womenfolk, were reported in the valley districts. They also demanded that "illegal Myanmarese immigrants" be deported, poppy cultivation be stopped in the hill areas and also protested the hill MLAs' demand for bifurcation of the state.
Many people from the Kuki community have alleged fake propaganda being spread by the media and on social media.
Curfew relaxation period has been cut by two hours and the restriction is now from 5 am to 2 pm.
Chief Minister N Biren Singh on Monday evening appealed to the people to stop torching houses of innocent people.
He said three people, including an ex-MLA, were arrested in the New Chekon incident. The mob had beaten up one of the armed men, while the other three had managed to flee from the spot.
No casualty was reported in the torching incident as the empty houses were used for providing rented accommodation to people.
"We will initiate legal action against those involved in illegal activities... We have also decided to acquire 20 more companies of security personnel from the central forces," the CM said.
Cover Photo by Ashish Kumar Kataria.