It has been over a month since 24-year-old Lelen Haokip and his mother arrived in Shillong, fleeing the violence in Manipur. On May 3, the day ethnic clashes broke out in the state, their home in Imphal was burnt down by a mob.

They were among 1,000-odd Kukis who fled Manipur to reach Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, which is also home to a small Kuki community.

But, once here, several displaced people from Manipur trying to pick up the pieces of their lives have run into opposition from an unlikely quarter.

The Dorbar Shnong, traditional councils that run Khasi villages or neighbourhoods according to customary tribal laws, have discouraged or explicitly forbidden home-owners from renting homes to the displaced. Each dorbar is headed by a headman, or the Rangbah Shnong.

Haokip said one home-owner in Nongrim Hills in the city had agreed to rent out a few rooms to the mother-son duo, but had to back out. “She told me that she cannot rent out her place because the village headman and committee has refused to accommodate Kuki people,” Haokip said. “In other neighbourhoods, too, even though houses were available, we were not allowed to rent. The local headmen have asked the landlords not to give the houses to Kukis,” Haokip said.

In many localities in Shillong, such as Pynthorumkrah, Madanrting, Laban, which are otherwise welcoming of people from several states, there are restrictions on people from Manipur.

Last month, the Rangbah Shnong or headman of Madanrting issued a notice urging its residents not to give their houses on rent to those coming from outside the state. “If anyone is found violating this order, action will be taken as per the law,” the notice issued by Secretary Shnong of Madanrting said.

Manipur has witnessed ethnic clashes between the Meitei and Kuki communities since May 3. The rioting and clashes have killed at least 114 persons. Around 60,000 people have been displaced. While many have taken shelter in 350 relief camps, several have also moved to neighbouring states of Mizoram and Meghalaya in search of shelter.

Displaced Kuki residents waiting at the Imphal airport on May 9. Credit: Rokibuz Zaman.

‘We don’t want violence in Meghalaya’

“We were rejected everywhere,” a professor from Manipur University told Scroll. He had fled Imphal when his official quarter in Manipur University was ransacked on May 3 evening. All his records, books and his car were burnt down. For three weeks, the family of seven, including four children, was put up at the North-Eastern Hill University guesthouse.

The professor said that most of the landlords were welcoming and empathised with displaced people from a conflict zone. “But they have to take permission from the village authority. That’s the system,” he said.

His family ultimately found a place to stay last week as a woman agreed to rent out her place without any paperwork.

According to JK Hangsing, president of the Shillong chapter of the Kuki Students’ Organisation, in some areas officials from the Dorbar Shnong broadcast a message over a public address system, asking residents not to open their homes to “outsiders”. “We have approached the Meghalaya chief minister and deputy chief ministers and civil administration. They have given us verbal assurances. But till now we have not received any help from the government,” Hangsing said.

Representatives of the Dorbar Shnong said they were wary about the influx as they did not want the violence in Manipur to spill over into Meghalaya.

“There is no discrimination,” said Rapionglang Blah, general secretary of the Shillong-based Ka Synjuk Ki Nongsynshar shong Ka Bri U, a conglomeration of traditional headmen. “All people are not bad but we have to safeguard our localities. Just after this ethnic violence erupted in Manipur, there were clashes between Kukis and Meiteis in Shillong as well. This is the main reason the Dorbar Shnong issued the notice [against renting to outsiders],” he said.

On May 5, 16 people were arrested in connection with a clash between two groups of students in Shillong.

There is also the fear that an “influx” into Meghalaya will lead to a spike in drugs in the state. “Meghalaya has become a corridor of the drug trade, and much of the trafficking is from Manipur,” Blah said. “Most of the people involved in the drug trade belong to that community in Manipur,” he said, alluding to the allegation that the drug trade in the state is run by the Kukis.

However, a Shillong-based journalist said that despite the opposition, some Kukis have found homes in areas like Laitumkrah, Rynjah and Happy Valley.

The anti-outsider sentiment

Like most other states in the North East, politics in Meghalaya, too, is influenced by a strong anti-outsider sentiment.

Shillong has a history of conflict between the native tribals and the non-tribals. Civil society groups in Meghalaya have been demanding an inner line permit or ILP to check the entry of undocumented migrants. The ILP is a travel document Indian citizens need for short stays in the four states of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram and Manipur.

“Not only non-tribals, local residents in Shillong are apprehensive about tribals [from other states in the North East] settling here too,” said TT Haokip, a professor who teaches political science at the North-Eastern Hill University and who has lived in Shillong for four decades. “For example, other tribals are not allowed to buy land in Meghalaya.”

A directive against renting homes is against the principles of tribal solidarity, argued Shillong-based researcher Bhogtoram Mawroh. “In certain areas, Madanrting, for example, Kuki-Chin people have been residing for a very long time,” he said. “It is not surprising that their families have decided to come here,” he said.

However, TT Haokip also pointed out that several churches in East Khasi Hills and Garo Hills generously donated to the cause of the displaced.

A big chunk of the displaced from Manipur have come to Shillong for their children’s education. “Over 700 new students have been seeking admission in different schools and colleges in Shillong. I have not seen such numbers in the last 40 years,” he said. “Many educational institutions, too, went the extra mile in accommodating them.”