Mass Violence in Manipur: B'nei Menashe Among Victims
(May 4) Violence has exploded in Manipur as Meiteis, the Hindus who comprise slightly more than half the state’s inhabitants, have systematically attacked Kuki-Zo-Mizo affiliated tribes, the ethnic group to which Manipur’s 5,000 B’nei Menashe belong. Meitei gangs and mobs, some armed with automatic weapons, have killed an undetermined number, torched villages, houses, and churches, and driven many thousands of them from their homes. The village of Sajal west of the state’s capital of Imphal, a majority of whose estimated 350 inhabitants were B’nei Menashe, was burned to the ground and at least one B’nei Menashe man was said to have been killed.
The anti-Kuki-Zo-Mizo violence broke out this week after a demonstration attended by a reported crowd of 100,000 was held in Kuki-Zo-Mizo -dominated Churachandpur, Manipur’s second largest city, to protest the state government’s recently announced intention of reviving the Indian Forestry Act of 1927. This act, which dates to British colonial times and was never enforced in Manipur, provides for large tracts of jungle to be declared state preserves from which all residency, agriculture, and grazing would be barred. A long-delayed
enforcement of it would have little effect on the Meiteis, a largely urban group living mostly in Manipur’s densely populated and farmed Central Valley, and would impinge almost entirely on the Kuki-Zo-Mizo and the Nagas, who inhabit the surrounding hills – the Kukis-Zo-Mizo mostly in their lower ranges, the Nagas in their higher ones. In actual fact, however, the forested areas the government has announced that it first would sequester are all in Kuki-Zo-Mizo localities, particularly in the Churachandpur and Kangpokpi districts, and putting them off-limits severely curtail the economic life of the 38 villages said to be in them.
Group tensions between Meiteis, Kukis-Zo-Mizo, and Nagas, who speak different languages and have different histories, have simmered for decades and occasionally boiled over, as they did in the Naga-Kuki fighting of the 1990s that led to the destruction of hundreds of Kuki villages. Sandwiched between the Nagas and the Meiteis, the Kukis have been most affected by ethnic hostility, which has been directed against them from both sides. Although none of it has so far been aimed specifically at the B’nei Menashe, who comprise a tiny minority of Manipur’s Kuki population, they suffer whenever other Kukis do. Meiteis and Nagas do not distinguish between the two.
It is difficult to gauge the extent of the havoc that has taken place. The Manipur government has ordered the shutdown of all Internet and mobile phone services to prevent agitators from using them, and this has caused a blackout on communication. Extremely worried about their families, many B’nei Menashe in Israel and northeast India have had to depend on rumors and snatches of conversation. “I was able to hear from my
my family,” our Newsletter was told by Mr. Haokip, a government superintendent who hails from Sajal, “that groups of armed Meiteis overran the village and razed it to the ground. They wore uniforms of black shirts and seemed very well-organized. The villagers sought to take refuge in a nearby village belonging to the non-Kuki Chiru tribe, but the Chirus were warned that if they shielded them they would meet with the same fate, and they turned them away. Now, to the best of my knowledge, they’re hiding in the jungle, and there’s been no contact with them.”
A B’nei Menashe woman in Israel who prefers to remain unnamed told us that her family in Imphal has lost everything. “I managed to briefly get through to my parents on the phone today,“ she said. “They barely got away in time before a Meitei mob arrived. Their house was burned, as was their car, and then looted. The same thing happened to my uncle. In Manipur, no one has insurance. Right now they’re sleeping on the floor in an army camp. I can’t imagine how, at their age, they’re going to be able to start life over.”
At the time of the posting of this article, it is unclear whether the violence has peaked. Reinforcements of Indian army troops have been sent to Manipur and are reportedly patrolling its roads and streets, and the state government has issued a “shoot on sight” order authorizing police to open fire on rioters without warning. Yet there are allegations that the government is not responding adequately to the crisis at hand. The coming days will tell whether the worst is over with.
Despite the limited communication, information has trickled in that the B'nei Menashe of the capital, Imphal, are taking shelter at various para-military camps in their vicinity. The living conditions are squalid, to say the least. Food is provided by the camp but at just subsistence level. Thankfully, the Beit El synagogue at Imphal still remains untouched, by some miracle, as of now. But what will happen in the future remains uncertain.