Sitting on a hillock in Manipur University, an Assam Rifles camp overlooks the Imphal valley, its view foregrounded with at least six student hostels. The university roads and hostels below are mostly empty – a sharp contrast from the chaos which engulfed the campus nearly three months ago.
On the intervening night of May 3 and 4, smoke billowed from buildings, and a 1,000-strong mob from nearby areas ran amok in the university as befuddled students dashed outside. Paramilitary personnel from the Assam Rifles scrambled vehicles to rescue them, and gunshots rang out. And by the end of it all, the AR camp, which mostly sees students paying a visit to a Meitei temple on the hillock, became home to nearly 500 students and faculty members.
Of these, over 200 were women, including those from the Kuki-Zo tribe. “We rescued Nagas and Kukis, and those from other states without looking at their ethnicities,” said an officer from the Assam Rifles.
Hours before the mayhem, normalcy had prevailed on campus, with Vice President Jagdeep Dhankhar addressing students at an event where Chief Minister Biren Singh, Governor Anusuiya Uikey and Chief Secretary Vineet Joshi were also present.
But amid reports of clashes between Meiteis and Kukis nearly 70 kilometres away in Churachandpur, rumours began circulating about a possible attack by a Meitei mob on the campus.
Around 6 pm, a pregnant university staffer was the first to trek 300 metres to the barricade of the Assam Rifles, a paramilitary force despised by sections of the Meiteis for its alleged support to the Kukis. “She asked if she could stay at the camp overnight. She said there was a fight between Meiteis and Kukis in Churachandpur. She felt that the same could happen to her too. She was alerted by her relatives,” said a source privy to the rescue operation.
In the next 15 minutes, students ran uphill in droves, and many cars snaked their way to the AR barricade. And amid the melee, around 7 pm, Assam Rifles scrambled its vehicles to help students who wanted to leave hostels – the university has 10 hostels each for boys and girls.
Within the next hour, a mob from nearby localities broke through three entry gates, bringing down one, with the security guards at the main entrance standing no chance to resist the break-in.
Seeing the mob, AR requisitioned for another unit. A total of 70 AR personnel led by two commanding officers spearheaded the operation, which continued until 4 am. Four gypsies carrying 20-odd Manipur Police commandos had also arrived.
MU hostels, seen from the Assam Rifles hillock
‘They singled out Kukis’
Women cowered under beds, in a bathroom and on a balcony, as the mob went on knocking and kicking door after door, burning documents, smashing windows, and chanting “kill Kukis” and “Kukis, step out”, students said. They heard the mob talking among themselves: “We are finished with Kukis outside. Now let’s go to hostels.”
“The mob checked most hostels and identity cards of students to single out Kukis. But there were Meitei students and faculty members who helped them,” said another source privy to the AR operation.
Newslaundry spoke with six female Kuki students who confirmed that Meitei students, caretakers or wardens ensured their safety.
“They were shouting: Kuki halo (kill the Kukis), bring out the Kukis. A Naga friend was with us. She told them: ‘I am not a Kuki but Naga. Why are you doing this to us?’ They thought all of us were Meiteis and Nagas. They thought that we were hiding under the bed because we were just afraid. They said, ‘We are not looking for Nagas or Meiteis, so don’t be afraid. We will kill only Kukis,’” said Chinneilam Khongsai, a postgraduate student, who cooped herself with three other Kuki students in a room of a Naga friend.
She alleged that the hostel security personnel did not resist the mob, but said that Manipur University Students’ Union was helping the AR with the locations where students sought refuge.
Well past midnight, she and her friends were escorted to the camp by Assam Rifles. A few hours later, she and a few others were transferred to the bigger Manipur Rifles camp.
PhD student Kim Jolly’s ordeal lasted for a few hours in her hostel with three Naga friends. “We were shielding the bathroom door. The mob kicked it open around 9 pm. Some of them smelled of alcohol. We did not have ID cards. The mob asked us to fetch them. In the meantime, my Meitei friends who were standing in the corridor questioned the mob: ‘How can you create such a commotion in a girl’s hostel?’” she said, claiming that her Meitei friends clandestinely helped her so as not to attract the mob’s attention. AR rescued her and others from the hostel around 3.30 am.
Another PhD student, along with a Kuki student, found safety in the balcony of a room occupied by a Meitei friend. “When the mob came to the room, we could see them from the balcony. My friend looked them in the eye,” she said. This made the mob retreat. “I could trust my Meitei friend because our friendship was on a different level. If there had been someone from the Manipur University Students’ Union offering help, I would have been skeptical,” said the PhD student.
A fourth student, who is pursuing MA in sociology, recalled that she saw a Meitei professor and office-bearers of MUSU along with AR helping stranded students. “Luckily the mob did not enter our hostel… But we were told the next day that all of our documents were burned,” she said.
A professor said the burning of documents continued on May 4.
Gate No.2 at Manipur University
The university’s response
In a meeting with V-C Lokeshwar Singh and registrar Chand Babu on May 6, a few faculty members alleged the involvement of professors and students in the violence. “They flatly denied and asked us to furnish evidence. We thought it was not right to push it further as it was dangerous,” they said.
Babu said the university ensured that not a single student was injured. V-C Singh could not meet Newslaundry “due to a meeting” and asked to “come back after four-five days”. Days after the violence, the university prepared a report and submitted it to the central government. It refused to share the report with Newslaundry.
MUSU vice-president Oinam Premdas Khuman said since the mob was huge, it was difficult for “four to five” MUSU office-bearers to resist them. “Despite that, we went to hostels and made the mob understand that they should not destroy property. We also helped the AR,” he said.
MUSU president Sonamani Singh said the media should listen to both sides. “Whatever Kuki students are claiming is not right. They are playing a victim card. We should be given an audience by the national media.” He admitted that a few documents were burnt and ID cards checked by the mob.
‘Anger' against Assam Rifles
The operation on the campus ran into troubles well past midnight. “There were three Kuki students in a pick-up. While it was heading to the hillock, the vehicle was surrounded by a mob near the SBI bank. They damaged the front of the vehicle and wanted to set it afire… But the CO fired warning shots in the air to disperse the crowd. The mob moved away from the vehicle,” said the first source quoted above.
By 4 am, the hillock was teeming with scared students, faculty members, warden, caretakers and other administrative staff – 500 in total – and around 50 cars. The university did not report serious injury or death. As many 17 cars, one bike and six scooties covered in dust still wait to be reclaimed by their owners who may not visit the camp anytime soon.
The camp ran until May 12 when the last batch of students was transferred to bigger sites in Imphal. As the situation improved, AR started transferring students to other bigger camps with more facilities, after days of using its ration to take care of students, said sources.
Meanwhile, with “the confidence in the local security guard shaken”, the army sent a unit of 16 Jat regiment to man the three gates at the campus for three weeks, two days after the operation.
A section of Meiteis, however, believe the Assam Rifles is sympathetic to Kukis in Churachandpur and Kangpokpi.
AR officers and a member of the unified command, headed by former Director General of CRPF Kuldiep Singh, denied the charge. The unified command has been formed for better coordination with paramilitary forces and police in the state. “These are just allegations. Nothing tangible in them,” said the member.
“Have we not ferried Meiteis to the valley and Kukis to the hills? We have rescued and ferried people from all ethnicities… We are providing relief material in camps… The state government is trying to deflect its responsibility by turning people against us,” said an AR officer.
Update at 10.19 am, Aug 11: The Manipur University Tribal Students Union has denied that the MUSU and the university authority took any steps to help Kuki Zo or tribal communities during the incident.