Guwahati: June 3 marks one month of the ethnic violence that has ripped apart the social fabric of Manipur, a state that, even during peacetime, is a tough place to survive and prosper. Whether the state is limping towards normalcy or descending further into the bottomless pit of violence and hatred is still up for debate, but the one thing that is becoming increasingly clear is that from Day 1, civilians have not only stood up against hate, they have also protected each other when all hope seemed lost. When the violence began on May 3, we reported the heroic tale of how Kuki women formed a human chain in Churachandpur to protect Meitei women. The next day, Meitei women did the same for Kuki women at Manipur University.
We can now add former world champion boxer, Laishram Sarita Devi, to that list. As a boxer, Sarita Devi never had it easy; in her career, she endured thousands of jabs and punches, several injuries and hundreds of opponents, but probably nothing prepared her for what she has witnessed in the past month. Yet, she has not only endured the pain, but she has also emerged a true champion of all her people and most importantly, her students.
In a long, detailed conversation with EastMojo, Sarita tells us how she is still shell-shocked as she recalls the horrific evening in early May when a violent mob stormed into The Sarita Regional Boxing Academy, situated some 20 km outside Imphal City. Reason? They suspected the seasoned boxer and her husband Thoiba of ‘shielding’ Kuki trainees.
She tells EastMojo that since that day, she has spent several sleepless nights praying that the incident isn’t repeated ever again, not even to her worst enemy. Even while she is trying to recover and get past that dreadful episode, she is more concerned about the mental health of those two young Kuki trainees at her academy whom she shielded like a mother.
“If I could not have saved those kids that night, I couldn’t have forgiven myself ever. After all, I’m also a mother and a mother can go to any extent to save her young ones. For me, those kids are the future of the country, I want to groom them to become champion boxers, not to take up arms,” she says.
“I’m deeply concerned about their mental health as they are yet to overcome the terrible incident. It was really very scary,” Sarita adds, still catching her breath during our conversation as she had just returned home after travelling 40 km to distribute relief materials at a camp.
Among the four trainees belonging to the Kuki community, two were already on a break from the academy even before the violence erupted on May 3, as they had to appear for their examinations.
The other two kids were sheltered by Sarita and her better half at their academy. While she ensured a safe reunion of one of the Kuki trainees with his parents, the other trainee has not been so lucky. The only answer Sarita has for his numerous queries is: “Your parents are safe and they will pick you once the situation normalises.”
“I won’t be able to live if even one of my innocent trainees (from any community) is harmed. We ensured the safe return of one of the kids and on suspicion of sheltering many other Kuki kids, our house and academy were raided multiple times by violent mobs.”
Grit, determination and a strong resolve did not come naturally to Sarita Devi. One of the most fearsome boxers of her generation, Sarita Devi had a tough upbringing. She had more than once famously confessed that she was influenced by the insurgent groups of the 90s and used to transport weapons for them during her formative years before taking up boxing. She tasted instant success by winning a silver at the 2001 Asian championships in Bangkok, and never looked back since then.
The times have changed, and the insurgency of the 90s is a thing of the past. But Sarita fears that the ongoing ethnic clashes in Manipur could impact many youngsters, especially her trainees, to take up guns.
“People resorting to violence, openly carrying guns and torching houses, need to realise that the younger generation could be wrongly impacted by their acts. If this continues, the youngsters will find it normal to pick up guns and take the path of violence one day,” she fears.
“When these stories of violence are shown on the TV, my kids keep asking me the reason. What do I tell them? There were many kids, aged around 8 or 9 years, who fled their homes to save their lives…Those kids are still in shock, think about the impact on their psyche,” she continued with her voice starting to tremble.
Mental health a big issue
The five-time Asian championship medallist rightly points out the impact of violence on the mental health and the overall growth of youngsters. The Arjuna awardee boxer believes it will take a lot of time for them to get back and focus on constructive things.
“The violence has left a very bad impact on the mental health of the youngsters, not only athletes, even others. It is difficult to get them back on track. Our academy houses trainees from various communities and we play the National Anthem regularly. We have been living here peacefully as one family. But things have changed,” she says in a heavy voice.
“How do I keep those kids from different communities in peace and under one roof? There is a fear that the kids could develop a feeling of enmity among each other, which will be very unfortunate,” she adds.
Sharing another ordeal, the champion boxer shared how an assistant coach at her academy was left homeless and was forced to bring his family to the academy for safety. The coach along with his family has now found a haven at Sarita’s place.
But for how long?
Sarita said prices of essential commodities have skyrocketed since the clashes started. A 50kg bag of rice costs nearly Rs 2,000 and the quality isn’t the best. LPG cylinder for domestic use now costs around Rs 1,800, while a 50kg bag of potatoes that used to cost Rs 600, now costs around Rs 1,500.
“We have no option, adjusting to inflation, and trying to help as many stranded people as possible, most of them have lost their homes and loved ones. These are testing times, and if we don’t stand by our people at this hour, we can’t call ourselves human beings,” she adds.
When Manipur burns, India loses
Sarita, who was part of the group of 11 eminent sports persons from the state who signed the memorandum and met Union Home Minister Amit Shah during his visit to the violence-marred state, did not mince words while questioning the government’s inaction for more than 30 days.
“It started as a peace rally, but where on earth are guns used in peace rallies? Burning down houses of innocent people, leaving them homeless, making them flee their native places isn’t right. This should stop. After all, at the end of the day, it’s our country’s loss,” she says.
“Amit Shah has assured that the government is working on restoring peace in the state, but does it take a month to bring back normalcy? Why did it take a month? Thirty days of violence isn’t a small thing…the situation is still bad here. Even today, there are incidents of firing in some areas. It’s very tough here, even internet services remain suspended,” she points out.
As we near the end of our conversation, Sarita makes a simple request to the government: “We want to live peacefully, ensure peace and normalcy returns to Manipur at the earliest. Violence is not the solution….’’
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