‘No choice’: India’s Manipuris cannot go back a year after fleeing violence | Indigenous Rights News

Lingneifel Vaiphei collapsed to the ground in agony after she saw the lifeless body of her infant child laid out on a cold steel stretcher in a mortuary in Chennai, the capital of India’s southern Tamil Nadu state.

Steven’s body was tightly wrapped in a striped woollen shawl, traditionally worn by the Kuki-Zo tribe in the northeastern Manipur state. His face had turned blue. He was only six months old.

Crying profusely, the 20-year-old mother kept kissing her child’s face as she carried his body towards an ambulance, her husband Kennedy Vaiphei walking beside her. Amid sobs and muted rage, the family made their way to a burial ground, about 7km (4 miles) away, and laid their only child to rest. Nine months after Lingneifel and Kennedy had moved to Chennai in search of a fresh start away from violence, a nightmare they had never imagined had visited them.

Lingneifel burying her infant son at a burial ground in Chennai, Tamil Nadu [Greeshma Kuthar/Al Jazeera]

Less than 24 hours earlier, on the night of April 25, the couple had rushed Steven to Chennai’s Kilpauk Medical Hospital after his week-long fever refused to subside and kept getting worse.

But the infant died on the way in his mother’s arms – before the family could even reach the hospital.

A year of deadly violence

Steven was born last winter in Chennai, nearly 3,200km (1,988 miles) away from the place his parents call home in Manipur, which has been in the grip of deadly ethnic clashes between the predominantly Hindu Meitei and the mainly Christian Kuki-Zo tribes for a year now.

The Meiteis – about 60 percent of Manipur’s 2.9 million people – are concentrated in the more prosperous valley areas around the state capital, Imphal. The Kuki-Zo and the Nagas, another prominent tribal group, mostly live in scattered settlements in the hills around the valley. The tribes constitute about 40 percent of the Himalayan state’s population.

The Meiteis are politically dominant. The state government is led by Chief Minister N Biren Singh, a Meitei and member of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In the 60-member Manipur legislative assembly, 40 are Meitei.

The Kuki-Zo and the Nagas are protected through Scheduled Tribe (ST) status given by the Indian constitution, making them eligible for various state-run affirmative action programmes. The status provides them quotas in state-run educational institutions and government jobs – a provision which, for decades, has caused tensions between the tribes and the Meities.

Those tensions came to a boil in March last year when a local court recommended that the ST quotas should also be extended to the Meiteis. The court order angered Kuki-Zo and Naga groups, who, fearing a takeover of their entitlements by the majority Meiteis, held protest marches mainly in the hill districts, demanding the withdrawal of the court order. The protests led to threats of a Meitei backlash.

During a Kuki-Zo rally on May 3, 2023, in the hill district of Churachandpur, a centenary gate built to commemorate the tribe’s 1917-1919 rebellion against the colonial British was set on fire, allegedly by a Meitei mob. The incident immediately triggered deadly clashes between the two communities across the state.

Amid the killings, mutilations and lynchings, there were also multiple allegations of sexual assault on Kuki-Zo women and burning of dozens of their villages and churches. The internet remained suspended for months across the state and the army was called in to contain the bloodshed.

A year later, however, the violence has not abated – making it one of India’s longest-running civil wars that has already claimed more than 200 lives and displaced tens of thousands of mainly Kuki-Zo people.

Among the displaced were Lingneifel and Kennedy, who moved to Tamil Nadu in July last year after their villages were burned down in the first week of the clashes. As they rebuilt their lives in a new city despite barriers of language and culture, the struggle for a livelihood trumped their worries over the violence back home.

Lingneifel, who works in a Chennai restaurant that serves the local cuisine, had to return to work within days of Steven’s death, fearing she could be fired over absence. Kennedy is yet to find work.

“When we first came to Tamil Nadu, we didn’t know anybody here. We weren’t even sure what to do when our baby fell sick,” she told Al Jazeera, lamenting that she could barely make time for her son due to her long working hours at the restaurant.

However, a larger support network for the displaced Kuki-Zo is slowly emerging. Comprising professionals from the community, the network is now in place in Chennai, New Delhi and Bengaluru cities, helping them find accommodation and work.

Haoneithang Kipgen, 26, is a member of the network. He reached Chennai last June.

Days before the violence broke out, Haoneithang had borrowed 300,00 rupees ($3,600) from a local moneylender to set up a customer support business in his K Phaizawl village in Manipur’s Kangpokpi district. But his shop was burned down, along with the rest of the village.

The debt, however, had to be paid, forcing Haoneithang to migrate to Chennai, where his small, rented apartment also operates as a transit home for other Kuki-Zo displaced by the violence.

Haoneithang’s apartment in Chennai is a transit home for those displaced from Manipur seeking work in the city [Greeshma Kuthar/Al Jazeera]

Haoneithang said many from his tribe also send a part of their salaries towards a fund to support volunteers back home, who guard the Kuki-Zo villages after the government forces withdrew from many areas of a buffer zone between the hills and the valley. These areas have been the most vulnerable in the conflict.

But Haoneithang also stressed that he cannot look at all Meitei people as his enemies.

“During my first job at a restaurant, my roommate was a Meitei. We were away from our state, our communities at war, but we weren’t,” he told Al Jazeera. “So many of them are my friends, how can I? My problem is with [Chief Minister] Biren Singh and the government of Manipur.”

Singh’s government has been accused of enabling the violence for political gains – a charge the chief minister and the BJP have denied.

Most of the displaced Kuki-Zo across India share a similar sentiment. “We don’t want to go back now, the violence is only increasing and the government is doing nothing,” said Kennedy.

Thanggoulen Kipgen, professor of sociology at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras in Chennai, said the violence has set Manipur back by decades.

Referring to both the collapse of the economy and the distrust between the communities, Thanggoulen saw migration as the only option for those affected by the war and seeking survival.

“The Meitei are also fleeing the state to protect their families from being sucked into violence. The Kuki-Zo have no choice but to migrate and work to support their families back home,” Thanggoulen told Al Jazeera.

Ruling BJP’s ‘denial’

The scale of death and displacement faced by Manipuris on both sides of the ethnic divide has, critics of the BJP say, largely been missing from the prime minister’s narrative.

In an interview on April 8 with a newspaper based in the neighbouring Assam state, Modi said a “timely intervention” of the federal and state governments resulted in a “marked improvement in the situation”.

“We have dedicated our best resources and administrative machinery to resolve the conflict,” the prime minister said. “Remedial measures undertaken include a financial package for the relief and rehabilitation of people living in shelter camps in the state.”

However, less than a week after Modi’s statement, videos showing the mutilated bodies of two Kuki-Zo men went viral on social media. And on April 27, an army post in Bishnupur district was bombed by unidentified men, killing two paramilitary personnel and wounding two others.

A signboard at the airport in Imphal, the capital of Manipur [Greeshma Kuthar/Al Jazeera]

The violence forced the authorities to hold the ongoing general election in Manipur’s two seats over two phases – April 19 and April 26. Yet, despite massive security, several incidents of violence and alleged vote rigging were reported from there, forcing authorities to carry out re-polling in several of about a dozen election booths.

Many in Manipur accuse Arambai Tenggol, an armed militia allegedly backed by the ruling BJP, of the violence and election rigging. The opposition Indian National Congress, in a news conference on April 19, complained of “unprecedented mass violence and booth capturing in the valley region by armed groups”.

At least three witnesses Al Jazeera spoke to claimed they saw Arambai Tenggol members forcing voters to vote for the BJP in the valley districts. The group and the BJP have denied the allegations. The BJP’s state vice president Chidananda Singh told Al Jazeera the party “always stands for free and fair elections”.

But Congress politician in Manipur, Kh Debabrata, said the crisis has only worsened under the BJP.

“There is total breakdown of the economy and a complete militarisation of society, with armed groups in power everywhere. This is well out of the control of the BJP government,” he said, demanding the sacking of the state chief minister and the imposition of the president’s rule – an administrative provision that brings a state under New Delhi’s direct control during a political or security crisis.

“If we have to address this divide between the hill and the valley, the CM [chief minister] has to go. There is no other option,” said the Congress politician.

The BJP’s Chidananda Singh rejected the charge, blaming the Congress for being unaware of the ground reality of Manipur. “It is part of their politics to only blame us,” he told Al Jazeera.

However, many in Manipur, including among Meiteis, accuse the BJP of militarising their community through groups such as the Arambai Tenggol.

Disillusioned with the violence, Amar L* left his home in Imphal and settled in New Delhi to pursue a degree in history as “staying in Imphal would have come in the way of my education”.

“The way in which the Arambai Tenggol are taking so many young men into their fold is scary. Our aspirations for Manipur were and are different,” the 20-year-old told Al Jazeera.

Patricia Mukhim, editor of The Shillong Times newspaper, said continuing political incompetence had failed to check the violence in Manipur.

“The nature of politics is to thrive on division and fear-mongering,” she said, calling on the warring communities to discuss their issues “without placing too much reliance on either the government or armed groups”.

“There is no alternative to peace,” she said.

*Name changed to protect the individual’s identity because of fears of a backlash. 

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