No home is safe: Anxiety, fear grips tribal Manipuri youths in Delhi
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On May 3 2023, violence erupted following a Tribal Solidarity march across ten hill districts of Manipur. The widespread chaos and destruction meant hundreds of houses, places of worship and vehicles were vandalised.

For many Manipuri individuals who reside in mainland states of India for work or studies, the violence unfolding in their hometowns has been horrifying. The Kuki-Zomi people, living far away from the epicentre of violence, believed regions away from home would be a haven: free from the anxiety and fear gripping their hometowns. Regrettably, this thought has been shattered as the consequences of violence and hate against the Zo people of Manipur began to resonate in mainland regions.

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On the night of May 5, Rinzam Haokip (name changed), a student in Delhi, and his sister, along with their friend from the Kuki community who had never anticipated becoming a victim of this ethnic violence in Delhi, were subjected to a mob attack. Rinzam lives in a PG run by the Kuki Community’s Church people of Delhi, predominantly housing tribal Manipuri students. Around 12:30, a few people were descending from the first floor to attend a prayer meeting organised by the PG owner. Outside the PG, a gathering of outsiders had formed, causing initial concern among the people living in the PG. However, the pathway was eventually cleared, and the people believed the situation had deescalated, giving them a false sense of security.

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As the group of four people were returning from the prayer, they were surrounded by a mob of at least 45-50 masked individuals near Patel Chest, an area in North Delhi. The attackers demanded to see their Aadhar cards and tried to snatch Rinzam’s sister’s bag and phone, all while resorting to rape threats.

“I went to them and told them that we are not here for any trouble, but they weren’t listening,” Rinzam recalled. The mob resorted to choking, thrashing, and hitting Rinzam’s head, leaving him in and out of consciousness. “During that time, I thought I would stand by my ground, I had to protect my sister,” he added. 

The bystanders chose not to help, leaving the group to fend for themselves. The attackers’ faces remained concealed behind masks, but Rinzam expressed that he would still be able to identify a couple of them, “It was a very traumatising event for us, I can’t forget it, I am sure I’ll be able to identify them if given a chance to,” he said. 

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After the Kuki community staged a protest outside the police station, an FIR was filed. “When my PG owners were trying to file an FIR, the elders from the Meitei community had asked them to keep the matter between them, a lot of fake narratives also went around that it was the Kukis who had attacked a group of Meitei people,” Rinzam mentioned in the conversation.

A young woman from the Zomi community who prefers to be anonymous alleged that while walking home in one of the South Delhi areas where several northeasterners live in concentrated numbers, a group of men questioned her identity. Fearful of being identified as a tribal Manipuri, she replied affirmatively to their query if she was Meitei with a ‘yes’ and walked away.

Another Kuki student from Delhi University shared similar incidents where the dominant community questioned them without reason. “Manipuri tribals are often subjected to random questioning by various groups, presumably to ascertain their community. Sometimes even non-tribal Meiteis are questioned due to the diverse blend of northeastern backgrounds in these localities,” the student explained.

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The situation is particularly concerning, especially for those who live alone. Many youths belonging to the community do not have direct connections with student organisations or church groups that provide support. As a result, a feeling of vulnerability has settled in.

Such situations are more prone in areas where northeastern people live in close-knit clusters. These places can become precarious as individuals from the dominant communities become radicalised and attempt to identify individuals solely based on their appearance or dialect.

Distinct identities, once a source of pride and comfort, have become potential markers for danger. Adorning the symbols of their culture, speaking in their native dialects, or displaying other cultural identifiers in public now invokes not a sense of belonging, but rather a feeling of vulnerability.

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“I am proud of my identity, but I do feel conscious of speaking my language in public,” mentions a Kuku-Zomi woman born and brought up in Imphal and who stays outside Manipur for college. She goes to the Church often in the traditional Kuki attire: “Khamtamg” and is met with hostile looks whenever she comes across a group of people from the Meitei community on her way, hence, she always goes to the Church in groups to feel safer.

“I am conscious about when to speak and when not to speak in my language. I prefer to use Hindi or English in public,” shared Kinzam, who was attacked by the mob. 

On July 16, 2023, the Delhi Police issued an alert regarding potential ‘clashes’ between the Meitei and Kuki communities. A special branch of the Delhi Police further extended its vigilance, instructing various divisions to monitor the activities of both communities. The directive outlined the localities in Delhi where members of these communities were residing, including areas such as Munirka, Safdarjung Enclave, Kishangarh, Patel Chest, JNU campus, DU Main Campus and more.

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The anxiety among Manipuri students residing in Delhi was apparent. A tribal student studying in Delhi recalled, “Here in Kishangarh, a Northeast store owned by Kuki individuals faced near-vandalism. Fortunately, the Police intervened before it escalated.” 

Another Kuki student, who resided in RK Puram during the onset of violence, expressed the emotional turmoil that gripped him. The fear of unpredictable consequences kept him away from areas like Humayunpur and Munirka. “It took me over a month to step foot in these two areas again. I was afraid, I believe,” he said.

The uncertainty surrounding the situation weighed heavily on his mind, forcing him to remain vigilant at all times.

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The end of conversations

Conversations with various individuals show that violence has led to a decline in social interactions between the two communities. Most tribal individuals mentioned that they used to have Meitei friends, but after the violence, neither of the groups talked to each other. An individual from the Meitei community, who is an active member of the North East Society of their college, mentioned they feel the two communities should maintain distance from each other to avoid any violence. “Neither community is in good light with each other. All we can do is hold back the anger and not resort to violence here. There was once an argument in our North East Society WhatsApp group, nothing good came out of it.”

Also Read | Kuki-Zo students demand offline classes, transfer from Manipur Uni

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