Fleeing violence, thousands in Manipur face uncertain future | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Fleeing violence, thousands in Manipur face uncertain future

By, Imphal
May 08, 2023 05:43 AM IST

The Imphal airport resembled a refugee camp in a war zone, with roughly a thousand members of Kuki tribe waiting for planes to take them to neighbouring states.

Mangboi Hauzel, 60, is overcome with exhaustion as he sits with hundreds of others outside the airport in Imphal on Sunday morning. “I have become a refugee in my own country,” he said, sitting with no luggage, a sign – like the hundreds of others like him waiting at the compound – that spoke of a hasty exit from Manipur’s capital.

People from violence-hit areas of Manipur being shifted to a relief camp set up by the Assam government, in Cachar district, on Sunday. (PTI)
People from violence-hit areas of Manipur being shifted to a relief camp set up by the Assam government, in Cachar district, on Sunday. (PTI)

Also read: Manipur violence: States step up evacuation efforts, arrange special flights and buses

The Imphal airport on Sunday resembled a refugee camp in a war zone, with roughly a thousand members of Manipur’s Kuki tribe waiting for planes to take them to neighbouring states after ethnic violence swept through large parts of the state on May 3, prompting the government to issue shoot-at-sight orders, enforce a curfew and ban internet services.

“Most of us don’t have enough money. We are waiting for friends and relatives in other states to buy us tickets. The heavy rush of passengers, coupled with suspension of internet services across Manipur by the state government, have made communications impossible,” said a woman, who identified herself as Hauzel’s next door neighbour but did not want to be named.

On May 3, violence broke out after a solidarity march by the All Tribal Students Union of Manipur (ATSUM) to protest the Meitei community demand to be included into the scheduled tribe category following an April 19 Manipur high court directive to the state.

At least 28 people are confirmed to have died in the violence, which involved arson, rioting and targeted killings, but the toll could be significantly higher.

Churachandpur, the epicentre of the violence, located around 70 km from Imphal, saw the first signs of normalcy on Sunday when people stepped out for two hours when the curfew was relaxed, while thousands of troops kept guard.

Comprising around 53% of Manipur’s population, the majority Meiteis community is also affluent while the Kukis, who constitute about 44% of the population, mainly live off of agriculture on the hills and are more economically deprived.

With geography and demography playing equally important roles, the current scenario is being widely seen as the conflict between the valleys and the hills.

“Although ethnic violence is not new in Manipur, efforts are being made to add communal colour to the recent clashes because of the large section of Kukis embrace Christianity over the decades while most of the Meiteis are Hindus. The root of this conflict is political, not ethnic or religious,” said Kimboi Guite, a Kuki community member, who spent three days in a relief camp set up by the CRPF in Imphal.

“Armed groups of Meiteis and Kukis fought each other, not common people. A section of the media carried misguided and even biased reports that worsened the situation,” Guite added.

But some others differed. “We witnessed clashes between armed militant groups of the Nagas and the Kukis in 1997. But, what is happening now is unprecedented,” a Kuki community member said, accusing the Meiteis of carrying out a series of attacks on homes, establishments, churches and vehicles.

A sizeable number of Kuki community students from Manipur university are among those leaving the state. “This is almost like ethnic cleansing. Our churches were attacked, our homes were ransacked. The Meitei leaders entered our hostel and selectively drove out Kuki inmates. People who were friends till yesterday, turned into enemies,” a student said at the airport on condition of anonymity.

Meiteis equally angry

“The Kukis were never original residents of Manipur. They infiltrated from Myanmar. Now, they are claiming equal rights. They started the violence and killed our people,” said a trader near the state-run RIMS Hospital in heart of Imphal, where bodies recovered from the sites of violence were still in the morgue.

“Many families have not come to claim the bodies,” said the police officer on duty at the morgue.

After two-hour relaxation of the curfew ended on Sunday morning, the Manipur capital appeared to be a city under siege.

Barring a few civilians who were out for emergency reasons, roads were in the control of the para-military forces. There were check-points at every intersection and security personnel did not allow anyone outside their homes, until they had a valid reason.

Also read: Manipur violence: 23,000 civilians rescued, Army increases aerial surveillance. Top updates

Residents also complained about price gouging. “Some traders are taking full advantage of the curfew. They are selling petrol at 250 a litre,” said Herojit, an autorickshaw driver. Some locals said prices of essential food items too had sky-rocketed as interstate movement of vehicles was halted.

Almost all hotels locked their gates and refused to take in customers. “We have no vacant rooms since our staff members are staying in view of the current situation. People are afraid to go home,” a manager of the hotel Mahatma Gandhi Avenue said, requesting anonymity.

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