Lhingkhonei Mate, a doctor-in-training at Delhi’s Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, lives in a buzzy students’ enclave on Delhi University’s North Campus. Most of her immediate neighbours are university students from her home state of Manipur. Many of them are from the Meitei community. Mate, 27, is Kuki.
After the two communities violently clashed in Manipur last week, leaving at least 65 people dead, Mate has had to contend with an anxiety that she thought would never bother her in the capital. For a person from the North East, life in Delhi can be tough, but the campus was supposed to be a safe space, filled with people from home.
Feeling the tremors
Indeed, as Manipur was convulsed by violence, the shockwaves seemed to have travelled as far as the capital. Mate referred to an incident from last week when a group of Kuki students at the university were allegedly attacked by some Meiteis. “Students used to go to the central library at night and sometimes return at 3 am,” she said. “But they can’t think of doing that in the current environment.”
It has been an equally distressing time for her Meitei neighbours.
Deepa Maibam, who is preparing for the civil services, said that she now only stepped out when accompanied by her brother. “A majority of the Manipuri DU students stay in our surroundings,” said Maibam. “This is the reason we used to feel safe here, but that is not the case anymore.”
To add to the disquiet, there was the constant worry about loved ones back home. Mate’s sister, who was in Imphal when the violence broke out, managed to reach Delhi. Their parents, however, remained home in Sugnu.
The violence started last Wednesday when the Kukis marched in protest against the Meiteis’ demand for Scheduled Tribe status. The Kukis, who are tribal, fear that the Meiteis, who are 60% of the state’s population, would take over their hill lands if they received Scheduled Tribe status.
Many of the Manipuri students are struggling to contact their families and are having to contend with depleting finances.
Yet, both Kuki and Meitei students said they were trying to keep the peace to ensure the atmosphere of fear abated.
“People from both the communities will hold some anger about what is happening back home as some of their houses have turned into ashes,” said Mate. “But here, thousands of kilometres away, all we can do is try and contain this anger so that it doesn’t lead to dangerous actions.”
Mate said she had been checking in on her neighbours more frequently than before, making sure that they were eating on time. “Their response has also been good,” she said. “They refer to me as ‘big sister’.”
One of them, Ningthoajam Shyamananda, 25, said everyone was trying to ensure relationships remained cordial.
“Our idea is to establish a friendly environment,” he said. “Even if issues crop up, we want the two communities to sit together and have a conversation. This is why we are trying to speak to them as much as possible.”
Struggle to move on
But the process of reconciliation has not been easy. It was tricky to be affable with people from a community being projected as the “enemy group”, said Mate’s sister Lamkhonei.
One of her closest friends, a Meitei, was engaged to get married soon. She had posted the wedding invite as her Whatsapp status – much to the consternation of many fellow Kukis. “They questioned me about showing such affection towards her,” said Lamkhonei. “But we have been friends for nearly six years now.”
Besides, people who had arrived in Delhi after fleeing the violence in Manipur were bringing along horror stories, reopening wounds. “We prepared food for a person who arrived yesterday but when we served him he got emotional. He said that he did not think he would be able to get food like this ever,” said Hatneihoi Haokip, a student of psychology at the university. “Who will not get agitated listening to something like this.”
Lopsided coverage of the violence and its aftermath back home by certain “YouTube channels” was only adding fuel to the fire, complained Shyamananda, stressing that it was important to acknowledge that both communities had suffered.
“We are both victims,” he said. “All the Manipuri students in Delhi are facing emotional and financial difficulties. So our only appeal to all the stakeholders is to lift the internet ban and stop peddling stories that are unfair to any group.”