Many Meitei and Kuki students differ over what triggered the violence in their home state. An alleged attack exacerbates tensions.
Sipping tea at Empire Café House at Patel Chest near the Delhi University campus, a DU student from the Meitei community pauses abruptly in the middle of a conversation on the Manipur unrest.
The reason for the pause? Suspicion about a passerby. “The girl in the pink top, who just passed by, is my junior,” said the second-year student of DU’s Shri Ram College of Commerce.
The ethnic tensions in Manipur have added to a list of dos and don’ts practised by students from northeastern states to avoid being targeted against in the national capital. What’s exacerbated the problem is an alleged attack on Kuki students and “rape threats” by a group of “30” Meitei students near Patel Chest area on May 5 – an FIR has been filed at Mukherjee Nagar police station.
Many Meitei and Kuki students are at variance as to what triggered the violence in their home state. They are divided over issues such as the government’s alleged support for the scheduled tribe status to the Meitei community, budget allocation to the hills and the valley, and migrants from Myanmar. More than 60 deaths, and burnt properties have added fuel to the ethnic faultlines.
Several students eschew speaking in their dialect in public lest it gives away their identity, and try not to venture far from their campus or rented houses. Many are also pretending to be oblivious of the presence of students from the other ethnicity when they cross paths.
Bideshwori Huidrom, an advisor to the Manipur Students’ Union Delhi (MSAD), is unable to console somebody who has lost a family member or home. “Earlier, we would light up seeing our friends from Manipur. We would ask them: ‘let’s meet over drinks’ or ‘let’s catch up sometime’. This has stopped now. In the metro or other public places, I used to be chatty. I now speak very cautiously and that too in Hindi or English lest I am identified as a person from a particular community,” she said.
Rabisana Thiyam, MSAD general secretary and a third-year DU student, rued that while a “war” is going on back home, “its impact is felt here in Delhi”.
The SRCC student, who has family in both Manipur and Assam, is among several Manipuri students in north Delhi who are circumspect. “Earlier, we were not cautious about our surroundings. This has changed now…I don’t venture too far from my hostel.”
An oasis of friendship
Amid stories of mistrust, a house in Vijay Nagar, inhabited by a postgraduate from the Meitei community and a Kuki who works as a make-up artist, offered a silver lining.
“The day my house was destroyed in Kangpokpi, a lot of my Meitei friends from south Delhi came here at 3 am to console me. This gave me strength,” said the make-up artist, whose family is in an army camp.
The postgraduate, in a gesture of reassurance, held his friend’s hand. “Both communities have suffered…we have to be careful of what we post online,” he said, blaming the media for misreading the “nuances of the conflict”.
During the violence, the northeast cells of DU colleges, in their press statements, have called for peace. But some of them have run into trouble over the use of adjectives. For example, a few Instagram users have questioned a second statement by St. Stephen’s College. One comment asked the northeast cell to “check facts” before calling “peaceful” the May 3 protest led by the All Tribal Students’ Union Manipur in Churachandpur in Manipur. Others lauded the “unbiased” statement.
The aftermath and rumours are not the only concern among students. “We don’t know how to sustain ourselves until normalcy returns to the state. My rent is due for tomorrow. I have not spoken to my landlord. But I hope that our rent is waived for this month,” said the postgraduate.
Attack and aftermath
The FIR filed at Mukherjee Nagar pertains to an incident that took place in the early hours of May 5. It was registered after a group of Kuki students protested in front of the police station.
The Kuki students had held a candlelight vigil at Christian Colony near the DU campus on the evening of May 4. As the programme ended, six male students, who were escorting three women to their home at Vijay Nagar, were allegedly attacked by a group of 30 Meitei students.
One of them suffered cuts to his scalp and face and was treated at Hindu Rao Hospital. “I have not stepped out of my house since that night… my father came from Kashmir. He said he was proud that I braved blows for the community and protected my female friends,” said David, a student of Hansraj College.
Another student claimed he was dizzy with blows raining on his head.
Two of the three women who faced alleged rape threats have missed their practical examination due to safety concerns.
Kishore Kumar, station house officer at Mukherjee Nagar police station, said that “three-four” accused men have been arrested and “the police are trying to identify others”.
Huddled in a paying guest building at Christian Colony, Kuki students claim that the attack has bred more suspicion towards Meiteis. “It’s not the same anymore. It has become awkward when we cross each other,” claimed David.
Joshua, a student from Hindu College, praised a Meitei student from his college for “apologising” to him for the attack in the early hours of May 5 and the Manipur violence.
The FIR has been registered under charges of voluntarily causing hurt (section 323 of IPC), wrongful restraint (341) and acts by several persons in furtherance of a common intention (34).
What can bring reconciliation among students and people in Manipur? “Accountability. The government should take action against perpetrators. It’ll restore confidence… all stakeholders should come together for reconciliation,” said a third-year DU student.