Lun Tombing was hiding in the bushes with her husband and three- and six-year-old daughters several weeks ago when they saw a mob burn down their home, car, and church.
Tombing and her family had heard reports of mob violence in and around Imphal, the capital city of Manipur, the eastern Indian state where they live, and fled to their church. More than 50 Christians hid in the building, even as a Hindu mob vandalized its outside. When the attackers briefly drove away, the Christians made a run for it.
“With every burning of a vehicle, the mob would clap their hands and shout victory-shouts, as we witnessed all this while trembling behind the bushes constantly afraid of being discovered,” Tombing said.
The group stayed outside for nearly 12 hours, only narrowly avoiding a direct confrontation with the rioters. Despite her mother’s order to maintain absolute silence, Tombing’s eldest daughter repeatedly asked why the mob was destroying their neighborhood.
When the military finally arrived half a day later, they sent the survivors to a local refugee camp. Several days later, the traumatized family, along with hundreds of other Manipur Christians, arrived at the nation’s capital with little more than medicine for the children and some extra clothes.
Since sheltering with a relative in Delhi, both of Tombing’s daughters have struggled to sleep deeply and disruptions as minor as a TV channel changing have startled them awake.
“Even after we reached Delhi, whenever my daughters heard a bang or a sudden noise, they would start to scream, ‘Mummy, they are coming,’” Tombing said.
Between May 3 and May 5, mob violence claimed 75 lives and displaced 35,000 people, according to Manipur’s government. But L. Kamzamang, a Kuki pastor who ministers to northeastern Indian Christians in Delhi, believes that 65,000 people have fled—some internally and others across the border to Myanmar, which borders Manipur—and that more than 100 have been killed.
“There are no fixed numbers,” said Lhingkhonei Kipgen, who fled with her husband and two young daughters and is sheltering in an Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) relief camp in Delhi. “There are corpses still lying here and there, some that were burned along with their vehicles and are not even identifiable.”
The surge in violence came as tensions between Manipur’s Kuki tribe and the Meitei, the state’s largest minority group, began to climb in earnest in April after the state’s high court greenlit the Meiteis’ request for Scheduled Tribe status. The designation gives communities special constitutionally backed protections including reserved seats in the parliament and state legislatures, affirmative action in education and employment, and property protections.
In fear that this recognition would cost them their own affirmative benefits, the Kuki, the majority of whom are Christians, opposed the proposed change. When they organized local protests on May 3, the violence broke out in several locations.
“[The Meiteis’] main aim was to rid the hills from Kuki presence, and they have been successful at it,” said Thangkholal Haokip, a Manipur social worker who is now living at the refugee camp. “They have instilled fear, uncertainty, and we are now homeless.”
A divided Manipur
While the Kuki protest became the mob’s catalyst for its recent rampage, territorial disputes, competition over resources, deep-seated historical grievances, and religious tensions have kept the tribal community and the Meitei at odds with each other for years.
“India’s northeastern region boasts of a rich tapestry of ethnic groups. But some of these communities have clashed over matters such as land, resources, and political power,” said Vijayesh Lal, EFI’s general secretary. “This is perhaps the first time that the religious angle has been seen in the ongoing violence in Manipur.”
Within Manipur, nearly equal numbers of residents (41% each) practice Hinduism and Christianity. But while the Hindus are largely Meitei, the Kuki and other tribals make up the majority of the Christians.
In recent years, tensions over land have been exacerbated by the political influence of the Hindu nationalist organizations Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which have sought to promote their ideology in northeast India and have used the Meitei community to advance their political agenda in the state, Christian leaders from Manipur say.
The conflict is “two sides of the same coin—religious motivation on one side and political motivation on the other, both intersecting at this point [where it has resulted in large scale violence],” Kamzamang said.
To him and other Kuki leaders, the Hindu Meitei mobs’ religious motivation became evident when their violence also included burning down Meitei churches and attacking Meitei Christians.
Walter Fernandez, who leads the North Eastern Social Research Centre in neighboring state of Assam, believes that the attacks were preplanned.
“The conflict [about land and tribal status] has been there for many years,” Fernandez said. “There was a major blockade in 2010, then major conflict in 2015, again in 2018. For the first time, religious places have been attacked, and this time it is systematic by organized paid gangs who were carrying lists of religious places.”
The point of no return
The majority of those fleeing Manipur have sought refuge in the neighboring state of Mizoram. Only a handful have made the 1,500-mile trip to Delhi. Currently about 70 of the displaced are staying in EFI’s relief center, a group that includes breastfeeding babies, their parents, college students, and the elderly.
Few say they see a future for themselves in Manipur.
Paojamang Haokip was two months away from graduating with an engineering degree.
“The violence has shattered us. We find ourselves somewhere unknown. … We don’t know where we can head to,” he said. “The situation is far from getting normalized. We will not go back.”
Back in Manipur, tensions have not dissipated and violent incidents have continued, even in the lead-up to a visit this week from India’s home minister, Amit Shah.
Last week, the army used tear gas on a mob after it set multiple abandoned homes on fire in a Kuki neighborhood in the capital city of Imphal. The government responded to the incident by instituting a curfew and suspending internet service in the area.
But the latest violence also included Kukis, who were furious at their situation and have taken matters into their own hands.
In the first 24 hours after violence broke out in Churachandpur, Kuki village volunteers did not retaliate, reportedThe Wire. Later, however, when they saw that the police force was not responding to the fires and physical violence, and they took up arms, inflicting causalities on the mobs and the police.
In the 24 hours leading up to the Shah’s arrival on Tuesday, the Indian army came under heavy fire from armed groups, an attack that killed 10 people.
Following his visit, Shah tweeted that peace and prosperity of Manipur is the government’s “top priority” and that he had instructed the Indian army and the central government and state’s police to “strictly deal with any activities disturbing the peace.”
During his visit, the Times of Indiareported that the army had killed 33 “militants” and arrested 25 others. A state government statement from last week also claimed it had killed at least 40 people whom government officials have referred to as “terrorists.”
However, a Kuki spokesperson refuted this language.
“It’s confusing what the [the government official] means when he says ‘40 terrorists.’ The people killed were all village guard volunteers who were armed with licensed guns. There are no militants here,” he said.
As the number of causalities continues to rise, Fernandez places the death toll around 150. Meanwhile, the weekend’s violence displaced close to 2,500 people, with some victims alleging that security forces themselves had attacked them.
Given the situation, few of those who have fled feel confident returning.
“We have no security or even the assurance of it that we would not be targeted again. We cannot live our lives in fear every single day,” said one Manipuri father who asked not to be identified for security reasons. “Even if the Manipur government assures us at a later stage of things getting normalized, the government agencies will still stay mute spectators if we are attacked again. We are on our own.”