Boithang Haokip’s school in Imphal re-opened on July 5. But the Class 10 student has not been able to return to his classroom or his textbooks. Instead, the 16-year-old spends his day mostly doing nothing at a relief camp in the hill district of Churachandpur.

Since May, when fierce ethnic clashes broke out between the Meitei and Kuki communities in Manipur, Haokip has had to flee twice.

At first, as Kukis in Imphal came under attack on May 3, Haokip and his two sisters had to leave their rented home in Imphal and take shelter at a security establishment.

Eight days later, the siblings returned to their home in Sugnu, a town with a mixed population of Kukis and Meiteis in Chandel district, on May 11. “We thought we would be safe at home,” Boithang said. “But on May 27, a mob destroyed and burnt down our house.”

Boithang has been traumatised since then, his 27-year-old elder sister Kimneo Haokip told Scroll. “In the first few weeks, he was not even eating properly,” she said. “He suffers as he is not able to attend the school. We don’t know when we can send him back to school again.”

The school authorities in Churachandpur, Boithang’s family said, have said there are not enough seats to accommodate displaced students. “We are requesting repeatedly, they said they will look into it,” said Kimneo Haokip.

In any case, schools have been shut in the hill district for three months now. None of the children in the relief camps in Churachandpur have been able to resume their education. “He wants to sit for his Class 10 board exams next year. But if Boithang doesn’t get admission in time, he may not go back to school again,” said Kimneo Haokip.

As the ethnic conflict in Manipur continues for over three months, schools are either shut or struggling to run in difficult circumstances, leaving children staring at an uncertain future.

The numbers

The ongoing ethnic violence in Manipur has claimed over 150 lives and displaced at least 70,000 people, including thousands of students.

According to government data, accessed by Scroll, more than 14,545 displaced students in five districts worst affected in the ongoing ethnic clashes – Imphal West, Imphal East, Bishnupur, Churachandpur and Kangpokpi – have taken shelter in relief camps. More than 3,000 are below five years of age.

On July 5, the Manipur government reopened schools for students of Classes 1-8, but few children turned up. Nearly 100 schools across the state have been turned into shelter homes for the displaced.

Though the schools are open in Imphal valley, they have stayed shut in the Kuki-inhabited hills for the last three months. In the hill districts of Churachandpur and Kangpokpi, over 8,000 children are now in relief camps.

Senior advocate Colin Gonsalves, who represents the Manipur Tribal Forum in the Supreme Court, has said that “200 tribal schools – in the heart of conflict – all have been closed”. The court is hearing a batch of petitions concerning the ethnic violence in Manipur.

On August 1, the state government told the Supreme court that schools have not been able to function in the three hill districts of Churachandpur, Kangpokpi and Tengnoupal because of opposition from civil society groups.

Pagin Haokip, chairman of the Indigenous Tribal Leaders’ Forum, which represents the Kukis, said that reopening schools is on the agenda. “But there has to be total security and justice. We have not buried the bodies yet. We are being attacked every day,” he said.

A school in Imphal that was burnt down in early May. Credit: Special Arrangement.

Schools burnt down

Early in May, as mobs went on the rampage across the state, schools became targets. Across the Imphal Valley and the hills, mobs vandalised schools, burnt down furniture and books.

A teacher of Imphal’s St Peter School, which was set on fire and destroyed during the violence, said that children from relatively privileged families have gone to other states to continue their education.

Even as recently as July 22, the Children Treasure High School located at Torbung village was burnt by an armed mob.

“Everything, whatever was inside the school, except the brick wall, was burnt to ashes,” Liankhothang Vaiphei, the school’s founder, said. “They did not spare the school as it is owned by a tribal.”

The school, where about 500 students – Kukis, Meiteis and Muslims – studied, had been shut since the violence.

According to David Vaiphei, a resident of Torbung area, the school served an economically backward rural area. “This is a great loss for children of poor parents,” he said. “And anyway, the school cannot be opened now as Torbung is now on the frontline, between the Meiteis and tribals.”

Most recently, Meiteis and Kuki groups have clashed at Torbung in Bishnupur district over a proposed burial site for Kuki victims, which is in the ‘buffer zone’ separating the hills from the valley.

Back to school, but with trauma

While schools are open in Imphal, learning has not been easy in an environment of unrest.

Khurkhul Leirijao Upper Primary School in Imphal West district is now home to 300-odd people turned homeless by the violence.

“During the day, we take classes and the displaced people stay here at night,” said Chandrika Chanam, headmistress of the school.

Before the violence, the school had 80 students. “Now, we are only teaching 50-60 students and that includes the displaced students,” she said.

Chanam said that she has been running the school with “insufficient classrooms, benches and teachers”, while sharing the premises with displaced families.

According to Chanam, the younger children, some of whom have seen extensive violence with their own eyes, are filled with anger and helplessness. “When I asked them how they felt, they said that they wanted to kill those who hurt them. They are also afraid that they will be attacked again,” she said.

She added: “They say the mob will come to their relief camp dressed as police commandos and will throw bombs at them.”

From guitar to guns

Community leaders are alarmed at the interruption in education and what that portends for the future. “One generation is going to lose out,” said Churachandpur-based academic J Haokip, who helps out at the relief camps.

He rued the fact that while schools and offices have re-opened in other parts of the state, the hills continue to be under siege. “All the big school buildings are turned into relief camps. Unless the people stop attacking us, we can’t think of any sort of education,” Haokip said.

More alarmingly, he pointed out that teenage boys, who ought to be preparing for their board examinations, are now taking up “arms to protect their land.”

John Lalramvul is one such 18-year-old. A guitar-playing, music-loving teenager before the violence broke out, he has signed up to guard the hills.

In May, the Class 12 student was trained in the use of single-barrelled guns. “We are the second batch from our village. The training included mostly physical exercises and how to shoot,” Lalramvul said. Two of his classmates signed up along with him, he said.

Once a week, he goes to a checkpost at the “border” of Bishnupur and Churachandpur districts and spends a day there to “repulse attacks from Meitei mobs”. On other days, he attends “private tuition” classes taken by his schoolteacher at his village.

“The future is uncertain,” he said. “I am not sure whether we can continue going to school or sit for Class 12 exams. But we have to protect our own. We cannot just sit and watch our houses burn while [they] try to take our land.”

J Haokip worries about the consequences of such choices on children. “In the long run, this is going to have a lasting impact on the present generation. This will result in a drastic drop in employment, literacy and the economy.”