“I am a refugee,” says a social worker from Manipur when asked about his profession.
The man in his 40s is among 28 people – mostly women and children – from the Kuki-Chin-Mizo tribe who have sought shelter at a relief camp in Delhi run by the Evangelical Fellowship of India and a few individuals.
Ethnic violence in Manipur has left more than 70 dead, 230 injured, 1,700 houses destroyed and around 35,000 people displaced, with many survivors looking for an escape route. It all began earlier this month after the All Tribal Students’ Union Manipur took out a rally in Churachandpur district against the high court’s nod for the scheduled tribe status to the Meitei community. The Supreme Court on Wednesday hinted at the possibility of a stay on the high court order and said it will “ensure that the political executive does not turn a blind eye” to the law and order situation in the state.
Meanwhile, at the camp in Delhi, children drew on sheets, youngsters scanned social media for updates on Manipur, and elders animatedly discussed the path ahead – in a hall with around 30 beds and new ACs to tackle the Delhi heat. On a table, packets of biscuits, soap and water bottles shared space with copies of the Bible. A few boxes overflowed with hand-me-downs even as visitors from the community entered the camp to check on the survivors.
Recalling how they fled their home and college hostels to reach the national capital, survivors told Newslaundry that they did not wish to be named citing the threat of being targeted when they return home.
“We expect four more people tonight to come to the camp,” said Mang Ngaihte, a coordinator at the camp.
A Manipur University student, who has come to the camp with his parents and two siblings, said he and some other tribal students were held hostage in a store room in a college hostel by a group. “They said that we (the tribal community) killed someone in Churachandpur and should take responsibility…Then they would go to other hostels to identify tribal students,” the student said, alleging that the group was carrying sticks.
The student said a few Meitei students helped him and the others escape the hostel. “We hid in a street until the army arrived and rescued us,” he said.
The tribal community dominates the hills in Manipur while Meiteis are in majority in the valley area of Imphal.
The student, whose father is a policeman, stayed in an army camp close to the high court for a few days before arriving in Delhi with his family on May 11. “There were 7,000 people at the camp. We barely had one meal a day.”
A government employee at the camp said she had to flee her accommodation with her children in an area with a mixed population of tribal and non-tribal communities. “We were forced to leave the house...and were able to carry a few documents. Our house was ransacked,” she said.
She claimed that a few months before the violence, there were “frequent visits by government officials” to check identity cards and houses occupied by the tribal community were allegedly marked with “red circles or dots”. She is now worried about the education of her children. “Every mother would understand.”
Newslaundry could not independently verify the authenticity of these claims.
The social worker quoted above said his village was burned to ashes by a group of civilians and those “who looked like militants”. His wife and children are living at a relative’s house in Churachandpur while he came to Delhi to “support his family” back home. “It was not possible for us to carry any belongings with us as people started killing each other here and there,” he said, alleging that security forces “were not neutral”.
‘Faith in god, not government’
While the state is still limping back to normalcy, survivors at the camp are afraid to return home at the moment and are sceptical of the state government.
Chief minister Biren Singh had met union home minister Amit Shah last week and briefed him about the situation. Before this, 10 MLAs from the tribal community wrote to the state and central government for a “separate administration” from the state because of “hatred” towards the Kuki-Mizo-Chin tribe.
“The government says the situation is normal but I don’t think of returning home as of now,” said the student.
The government employee, meanwhile, said she does not “have faith in the government but in god”.
Asked about how the state government had handled the situation, the social worker stressed that “it was not up to the expectation”.
‘Delhi was not first choice’
With Manipur burning in the first week of the month, survivors looked for an escape route through the Imphal airport as they did not feel safe in the state.
Mang Ngaihte, the coordinator at the camp, said the priority destinations were the northeast states. “Since flights to Kohima, Guwahati and other neighbouring states were booked, people had to book tickets for Delhi even though it’s far from Manipur,” he said.
At the time, flight fares had shot through the roof and tickets were priced twice or thrice the usual rates. Concerned over their safety, fliers checked in the airport two or three days before their departure as it was watched over by security forces.
On reconciliation, Mang did not have any ready answer but supported a separate administration on the line of the demand by the 10 tribal MLAs.
Earlier, the Supreme Court had expressed concern over the loss of life and property in Manipur and asked the state and central governments to scale up relief efforts and security measures.
A weekly guide to the best of our stories from our editors and reporters. Note: Skip if you're a subscriber. All subscribers get a weekly, subscriber-only newsletter by default.