Can the Supreme Court restore Manipur to sanity and order?

Both tribal citizens and the Meiteis in Manipur hope the Supreme Court will intervene on Wednesday to help restore order and initiate a dialogue, a tall order given the trust deficit

Displaced people from Manipur in a refugee camp (Photo Courtesy: @Bibles4TheWorld/Twitter)
Displaced people from Manipur in a refugee camp (Photo Courtesy: @Bibles4TheWorld/Twitter)

Anita Srinivasan Kumar

Hecha Thadou (not his real name) says his family members back in Manipur were lucky to survive the ‘communal rioting’ that raged in Manipur since May 3.

Like several other Kuki tribespeople from Manipur residing and working outside the state, he too believes the riots were planned in advance. He heard stories that tribal citizens in the police force were disarmed before the rioting started; and he is not surprised to read about the letter that 10 Kuki MLAs of the Manipur Assembly have addressed to Union home minister Amit Shah, demanding a separate tribal state.

With most of his family members having taken shelter in Guwahati, he does not know if he will ever return to Imphal. The trust deficit is such, he says over the phone, that he too doubts if tribals will ever be able to live in peace in the state with the Meiteis.

The Union Home Minister has not yet visited Manipur, two weeks after the riots started. Perhaps he was advised not to venture into the troubled state. Instead, the Chief Minister of Manipur, the BJP President and three other MLAs rushed to New Delhi to hold talks with the Home Ministry. The CM claimed that the Home Minister had personally assured him that Manipur’s unity would not be disturbed. While restoring normalcy is clearly the need of the hour, the road map for the future remains unclear to Hecha.

Caught by surprise by the violence, he recalls the conversations he has managed to have with family members. His elder brother lived in the New Checkon area of Imphal, with his wife, their two children ( a son and a daughter) and their father. The sister-in-law’s parental home was in the same area, at a stone’s throw from her household with her husband. There were four women there when a mob set the house on fire at around 7.00 p.m. on May 3. The women hid under a bed and heaved a sigh of relief when the mob retreated. But around 9.00 p.m., the mob returned and—disappointed at

finding much of the house still intact—set about torching it once again. The women managed to scamper over a wall at the back and took shelter in a neighbour’s house. While there had been no sign of the police in all this, luckily the fire brigade arrived soon after. The family’s car and scooter had been gutted by then. Trembling with fear and in shock, the women walked over to the house of Hecha’s elder brother.

A sleepless night was spent discussing their next course of action. It was clearly no longer safe to stay on in the area. They sneaked out before dawn and wanted to make their way to the First Manipur Rifles Relief Camp via Hatta and Golapatti, over Minuthong Bridge, to the camp five kilometres away. But the elder brother’s car could squeeze in only five of them. A Muslim family in the neighbourhood came to their rescue and arranged a van to shift the other six members of the family.

The relief camp had been set up in an open field. The local church had arranged for food. When the party of 11 arrived, the camp was already brimming with people. There were six thousand refugees there, Hecha was told. There never was enough food for everyone, and many of the affected citizens skipped meals so that others could eat.

Drinking water was also in short supply and vendors jacked up the price of a bottle of water to Rs 50 each. There were too few toilets or even secluded and clean places for the people to relieve themselves. Those first four days were hellish, Hecha recalls. Four days later, the party was finally moved to the CRPF camp 7 kilometres away.

The family came across two deaths in the camp, Hecha recalls. An elderly person passed away after a cardiac arrest. A pregnant woman went into labour, but died along with the baby before emergency care could be arranged.

On May 10, the family were joined by the sister-in-law’s mother and brother, who had been hiding till then in Churachandpur. The 11 members and their two attendants decided to fly to Guwahati, and take shelter with relatives and friends there.

Hecha, based in Delhi, had to book air tickets for them. The private carrier charged him Rs 12,000 per ticket, while the normal fare was one-fourth. The 50-minute flight to cover the 269 kilometres between Imphal and Guwahati cost Hecha a hefty sum, but there was no time to think of options.

The family has scattered in the wake of the violence. Hecha’s mother, his two younger sisters-in-law and three children of one of the younger brothers, were shifted to interior villages in the Sadar Hills after their native village Selsi ( not the real name) and neighbouring villages Gamgiphai, Hengzang & Saikot were attacked. Both younger brothers of Hecha stayed back in Selsi to guard their home & the village along with other menfolk.

Kukis like Hecha are hoping the Supreme Court, which is due to hear petitions on the Manipur situation on Wednesday, May 17, will be able to provide a healing touch.

What is needed is an immediate dialogue between the Meiteis and the tribals, moderated and mediated by independent agencies, and a framework to address the issue of land-ownership in the hills and the fencing of the Indo–Myanmar border, he says. The contentious issue of poppy cultivation too needs to be addressed. But nothing will work unless the two groups develop mutual trust and respect.

(The writer is a management and systems professional with several friends and colleagues from Manipur) 

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