The yu, a popular rice wine, has not been brewing at Sekmai, dry Manipur’s favourite watering hole north of the State’s capital Imphal on National Highway 2.
What’s been brewing for more than a month is the fear of getting killed at the Sekmai relief camp and the realisation that members of 175 Meitei households, spread across several such camps, may never return to their ancestral homes in Kangpokpi, a Kuki-dominated district. The Sekmai camp is on the northern edge of the Imphal Valley, just a few metres from the boundary between Kangpokpi and the Meitei-heavy Imphal East district.
Their fear grew stronger on May 27 after scores of gunmen swooped down on a village just 600 metres east of the Sekmai relief camp, where Herojit Chilen and Nongthombam Sandhyarani have found refuge.
“We can neither go back home nor sleep in peace here because of the gunshots we keep hearing every now and then. Most of the able-bodied inmates and local volunteers are guarding the relief camp and adjoining areas at night, but that does not guarantee sleep during the day,” Mr. Chilen said.
Hailing from the Lower Toribari village near Kangpokpi town (district headquarters), Mr. Chilen is one of the 811 Meitei people settled in Kangpokpi district, whose total population is 193,744 according to the 2011 census. The tiny Meitei population comprises 125 households settled in five areas: Kangpokpi, Motbung, Saparmeina, Charhajare, and Kalapahar. All the Meiteis are now either in relief camps or staying with relatives in the Imphal Valley.
“We were only three Meitei households in the mixed village once dominated by the Nepalese people. Two Kuki hamlets came up over the years after some Nepalese people relocated to Sanatombi (Imphal West district) and Siliguri (West Bengal),” Mr. Chilen said.
Fleeing for their lives
The people of Lower Toribari co-existed peacefully until the night of May 3, when all hell broke loose. “Before we could realise what happened, there were about 500 people baying for our blood and all of us [Meitei] took refuge in an adjoining Naga village,” Mr. Chilen recalled.
They returned home the next morning, thinking that the animosity would be short-lived. But a mob started mobilising just a couple of hours later and began belting out expletives.
“We smelled trouble and ran as fast as we could. Here we are now, not sure how we can pick up our lives again,” he said. “On the brighter side, we won’t have to pay ₹2,000-4,000 to the dominant Kuki extremist groups as ‘taxes’,” he added.
‘No security at camp’
Ms. Sandhyarani, too, did not know what had hit them or why. Along with 50 others from the Meitei Leikai locality of Motbung, she escaped a marauding mob by taking a jungle route and crossing the Imphal River.
“The river water ran deep. But it was safer than the fire behind us, as our houses burned. We somehow managed to cross with some of our young men carrying the elderly, pregnant women, and some physically challenged on their backs,” she said.
“We are being provided for at the relief camp but there is absolutely no security. We are guarding ourselves with sticks, which are useless against guns unless the government does something soon to disarm the miscreants and ensure peace for common people like us,” Ms. Sandhyarani said.
‘Madness must end’
The feeling is similar in a relief camp in Churachandpur, just beyond the southern edge of the Imphal Valley, where Kukis who fled arson and violence in the Valley are housed. “This madness has to end for us to lead normal lives again but with some dignity our community deserves,” said an inmate of the Kuki relief camp, requesting to be quoted only as Haokip.
The ethnic conflict in Manipur started months ago with the Kuki community being labelled “illegal immigrants” and “narco-terrorists”.
Khwairakpam Rakesh, a Sekmai-based youth leader helping the relief camp inmates, said that with every passing day, people of both communities are realising that they have been made pawns in a political battle. “Most Kuki people may be against the government for various reasons but they are not against the Meiteis, and vice versa,” he told The Hindu.