The horror of being a tribal woman in Manipur

Accounts continue to emerge of Zomi-Kuki women targeted in the ongoing ethnic violence in the state, whose physical and psychological wounds can't even scar over yet

A protester holds a placard during a demonstration against the Manipur violence in Mumbai. It reads 'Stop Violence against Women in Manipur' (photo: Getty Images)
A protester holds a placard during a demonstration against the Manipur violence in Mumbai. It reads 'Stop Violence against Women in Manipur' (photo: Getty Images)
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Mercy V. Guite

Note from the author: Amidst all these sad turns of events, where the basic human rights of minorities are at stake, on this 77th Independence Day, one looks forward to an India where every religion, every citizen of any caste, creed or religion is equal. An India where the democratic values of the Constitution are upheld and all citizens of the Indian republic, with their rights and duties safeguarded, can live peacefully and contribute to the success of the largest democracy of the world.

Trigger warning: Graphic images of violence ahead!

On the afternoon of May 4, in Manipur’s Lamphel, less than a kilometre from the Regional Institute of Medical Sciences (RIMS) in state capital Imphal, a family of seven crammed themselves into a car, trying to escape the escalating violence in the area arising from tension between the Meitei and Kuki communities.

Leading the family was Rosa,* under-secretary, agriculture & Manipur veterinary department, who lived in government accommodation in Lamphel. Increasingly anxious at the rising violence which had erupted a day earlier, she had decided it was time to relocate her family, like many other Kuki-Zomi families seeking refuge in nearby paramilitary camps.

With their destination mere kilometres away, a Meitei mob intercepted their vehicle and demanded to see their identity cards. As the mob recognised their ethnicity, a cry went up, “They are Kukis, get them out of the car!”

By the time the mob was done, Rosa and her 26-year-old son had been viciously bludgeoned to death as her teenage daughter watched in horror.

Rosa's daughter, Rosa's daughter-in-law and another female relative carrying a baby managed to escape the scene, and the daughter-in-law remained briefly untraceable before being discovered unconscious with critical head injuries and broken bones, apparently the victim of a mob of Meitei women.

Rosa and her son joined the already overflowing pile of lifeless bodies in the RIMS morgue, her status as a senior state government official clearly no safeguard against her ethnic identity.

Rosa's daughter-in-law is currently undergoing treatment in AIIMS, New Delhi. She has undergone multiple surgeries in the past week (photo courtesy Sudeshna Banerjee)
Rosa's daughter-in-law is currently undergoing treatment in AIIMS, New Delhi. She has undergone multiple surgeries in the past week (photo courtesy Sudeshna Banerjee)
Sudeshna Banerjee

Women bear the brunt

Clashes in this north-eastern state began when the tribal Kuki community butted heads with the non-tribal, ethnic-majority Meiteis, over economic benefits and quotas meant for the Scheduled tribes. The violence escalated sharply on May 3, when members of the Kuki and Naga tribes—who inhabit the state’s hills and are Scheduled tribes—began a protest against the possible extension of tribal benefits and quotas to the Meiteis.

However, the rest of the country had little idea of exactly how bad things were in Manipur for over two months, thanks to an internet blackout, until a horrifying video emerged on social media on July 19—two women being paraded naked on a street, surrounded by a group of jeering men who appeared to be sexually assaulting them.

As the nation reacted with shock and outrage, the Indigenous Tribal Leaders' Forum issued a statement claiming the incident had occurred on May 4 in Kangpokpi district, roughly 35 km from Imphal.

On the heels of this incident, many more reports of atrocities against women have emerged from Manipur, such as the one involving Taliah* (22) a nursing student in Imphal, whose campus was invaded on May 4 by a Meitei mob which entered the dormitories and dragged Taliah and a fellow student out of the campus.

They were then subjected to severe physical abuse, with the attackers using their fists, legs and sticks for weapons. Taliah later recounted being punched in the face, resulting in a broken tooth, and being struck repeatedly until she lost consciousness, with her attackers leaving her for dead.

Three months later, her body still bears marks of the brutal assault as she also struggles with the intense psychological trauma caused by recurring memories of the attack.

Taliah,* a nursing student in Imphal (photo courtesy Sudeshna Banerjee)
Taliah,* a nursing student in Imphal (photo courtesy Sudeshna Banerjee)
Sudeshna Banerjee

In many cases, the attackers wore familiar faces, as was the lot of retired senior government health supervisor Sheila* (62), who comes from the Hmar tribe, yet another minority group living in the Manipur hills. Her daughter Mimi* recalls a marauding mob banging on electricity posts with metallic objects, a chilling call for more of the Meitei community to join the assault—and a signal for their targets to desperately seek shelter or hide.

Mimi's brother Jason* witnessed the brutality unfold before his eyes as their possessions were looted, their house set on fire and they themselves were subjected to savage beatings. Jason sustained injuries while attempting to protect Sheila, who bore the brunt of the mob’s ferocity. The family’s dogs, trapped inside their burning three-storeyed house, perished.

Following the violence, Sheila and her family managed to find seats on a flight to Kolkata, more than 1,500 km away, where she received treatment for her injuries. While they consider themselves fortunate to have survived, they say that countless others remain trapped in the ongoing horror or suffer in relief camps.

Despite the trauma of losing most of her possessions and watching her house go up in flames, Sheila’s greatest anguish comes from the fact that the savage acts were committed by individuals she once knew as neighbours and members of 'her' community.

62 year-old Sheila's* injuries (photo courtesy Sudeshna Banerjee)
62 year-old Sheila's* injuries (photo courtesy Sudeshna Banerjee)
Sudeshna Banerjee
Charred remains of the official residence of Manipur minister Nemcha Kipgen in Imphal (photo: Getty Images)
Charred remains of the official residence of Manipur minister Nemcha Kipgen in Imphal (photo: Getty Images)
Getty Images

Unlike Sheila, however, Anna* of Pheitaiching village in Kangpokpi district did not live to tell her tale. On May 6, the 45-year-old Vaiphei woman, a widowed mother of two, was physically assaulted and burned to death outside her home. When her body was recovered on May 7, only parts of her legs and torso had survived and were found scattered across a distance.

Surviving on nothing

On May 3 and 4, a family in B. Phainom village in Kangpokpi district suffered a horrifying ordeal at the hands of a Meitei mob armed with guns, swords and iron rods. The family are from the Vaiphei community, a Zomi ethnic group living in Manipur and in neighbouring Myanmar, a country with which Manipur shares a 400 km border.

Vivian,* a survivor of the attack, is still grappling with memories of the brutality and the barbaric assault on women of their community. Her house was the first to be burnt down in the village. Though her family initially managed to repel the attackers, the ensuing threats forced them to seek refuge in the adjoining hills, taking with them only a few of their belongings.

Vivian, survivor of the atrocities committed by the Meitei mob on her family (photo courtesy Sudeshna Banerjee)
Vivian, survivor of the atrocities committed by the Meitei mob on her family (photo courtesy Sudeshna Banerjee)
Sudeshna Banerjee

The attackers chased after Vivian’s elder siblings, and she witnessed her elder brother and his youngest son being bludgeoned to death in the nearby paddy fields. But there was more to come.

Her brother’s daughter and the wife of the village chief were stripped, raped and later released by the perpetrators.

Vivian’s husband and children narrowly escaped with their lives as the attackers targeted her husband with an axe. He was rescued by the intervention of a few individuals, seemingly from neighbouring Meitei villages.

Driven by fear and desperation, Vivian and her surviving family members fled the area, enduring hunger, thirst and exhaustion before reaching Tengnoupal, more than 50 km away, where they received treatment in a hospital. According to Vivian, the attackers—both men and women—wore black T-shirts bearing the inscription 'Meitei Leepun', the name of a radical cultural organisation headed by M. Pramot Singh, who operates out of a plush office atop the Meitei Langhol hill in Imphal.

With the violence having crossed the 100-day mark and with outlawed extremist outfits issuing a call for a boycott of Independence Day celebrations in Manipur, it is estimated that over 160 people have so far lost their lives since the clashes broke out. Hundreds of others have been injured and thousands forced to flee their homes.

For the survivors, notably the women, the psychological pain of compulsively reliving traumatic memories seems the only certainty in an uncertain future.

*Names changed to protect privacy. With inputs from the media cell of the Indigenous Tribal Leaders Forum and field notes of the Zomi Students' Federation

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