MANIPUR B'NEI MENASHE FACES UNCERTAIN FUTURE
(May 18) Although the situation in Manipur remains tense, with curfews still in force and a continuing shutdown of Internet and mobile phone communication, the violence of the previous weeks has for the moment largely abated. The state’s Kuki ethnic group of half a million, to which Manipur’s B’nei Menashe belong, is licking its wounds while demanding administrative separation from a Meitei majority that went on a two-week rampage that resulted in an official figure of 60 deaths, 200 injuries, and 1,700 homes and 40 churches burned to the ground. Nearly all of the casualties and destroyed property have been on the Kuki side, and the actual numbers may be considerably higher.
B’nei Menashe casualties have been low. There has been one reported death, that of Yoel Zamkhogin Baite, a 38-year-old member of Churachandpur’s Beit Shalom Synagogue, killed by a Meitei mob trying to storm the largely Kuki-populated city, and one reported injury, that of Binyamin Hangshing, also of Churachandpur, who was fired on by the army while out-of-doors during a curfew. Yet property losses, though limited to three localities, have been high. One of these three was the state capital of Imphal, where dozens of B’nei Menashe homes were burned and looted and their inhabitants forced to flee for their lives.
The other two locales were villages: Sajal, which lies in the Kuki-populated foothills bordering the southwestern edge of Manipur’s Meitei-dominated Central Valley, and Kangchup, right above the valley to the northwest. In the former, an estimated 60 B’nei Menashe homes housing 250 inhabitants were destroyed by Meitei attackers, while in the latter 20 B’nei Menashe homes were razed and 100 left homeless.
Manipur’s estimated 600 B’nei Menashe refugees are now scattered in different locations. Some, especially from Imphal, have fled the state entirely for places as far as New Delhi. Roughly 150 have taken refuge in the northern town of Kangpokpi, half staying with relatives and half in the town’s Beit Shalom Synagogue. Several hundred more have made their way to Churachandpur, where about 70-80 are now housed at the Vengnuom Beit Shalom Synagogue, 15 at the Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail School, and an unidentified number with relatives or in one of several Christian charity refugee camps. Another 10 families have managed to reach Aizawl, the capital of the neighboring state of Mizoram, which also has a large B’nei Menashe community. “It’s difficult to arrive at exact figures,” says Degel Menashe’s managing director Yitzhak Thangjom. “The refugees have scattered in all directions and it’s hard to keep track of them with the communication restrictions now in force.”
The only Jewish or organizations on the ground currently helping the displaced B’nei Menashe, Thangjom told us, are Degel Menashe working together with the B’nei Menashe Councils of Manipur and Mizoram. “It would be nice to be joined by others,” he says, “but right now we’re alone in this. Since the refugees have all found shelter of one sort or another, their most immediate need at the moment is an assured supply of food – which in northeast India means above all rice, the mainstay of every meal. The average person needs about a quarter of a kilo of rice per day, and so far we’ve distributed four metric tons or 4,000 kilos and are gearing up for more. To this we’re adding supplementary foods like lentils and potatoes, plus cooking oil and firewood, since cooking gas in currently unavailable in some places. ”
The aid, Thangjom emphasized, is not for the refugees alone. “It’s also for the families that have taken them in,” he said, “as well as for the many others in the B’nei Menashe community who are now out of work, because they have lost their jobs or cannot get to them due to the curfews and all the disruption. It’s important to realize that the entire community is in a state of crisis.”
Like all the Kukis of Manipur only more so, being a tiny minority within a minority, Manipur’s B’nei Menashe are fearful for the future. “There is a general sense among the Kuki population,” says our source, who prefers to be anonymous, “that co-existence with the Meiteis is no longer possible, and Kuki politicians are already calling for the secession of the southern, Kuki-dominated part of the state; in effect this would mean joining neighboring Mizoram, whose Mizo inhabitants are close ethnic relations of the Kukis.” This sentiment, Thangjom explained, stems not just from the violence itself, which was almost entirely Meitei-instigated and which the Meitei-controlled Manipuri government made little attempt to stop. “What most shocked people,” he said, “was how Meitei neighbors they had been friendly with collaborated with the pogromists by pointing out next-door Kuki houses for them to pillage and burn. There were many mixed neighborhoods in which no Meitei home was touched and no Kuki home was left standing.”
“It becomes clearer with every passing day,” continues our source, “that what happened was far from spontaneous. The specific events that triggered it were simply a pretext for a violent campaign of ethnic cleansing that had been planned long in advance.
Manipur’s remaining 3,500 B’nei Menashe, all of whom have dreamed for years, and in some cases for decades, of joining their families in Israel, did not need the recent events to convince them of the need for Aliyah. Yet with the growing feeling that there is no longer even a short-term future for them in Manipur, this need now seems more urgent than ever. “For over thirty years,” Thangjom says, “Israeli governments have dilly-dallied on B’nei Menashe Aliyah, opening the gates a crack and then shutting them, opening them again and shutting them once more. It’s time to put an end to this policy once and for all. Let’s bring every single B’nei Menashe still in India home to Israel – and let’s do it now!”