Manipuri minorities hold protest in Oakland, California against rioting back in India

Ritu Jha–

Members of the North American Manipuri Tribal Association (NAMTA), along with other Indian American community members protested July 23 in Oakland City, California, asking the US House of Representatives to take up the issue of the crisis in Manipur, India and pass a resolution condemning what they call state-sponsored atrocities that has afflicted the minority ethnoreligious Kuki-Zomis.

Since May 3, 2023 the minority Kuki-Zomi tribals in Manipur in northeast India have been facing the brunt of coordinated and premeditated violence led by the Hindu-majority Meitei tribe of the same state.

Kuki-Zomis and Nagas, who are predominantly Christians, form about 43% of the population of Manipur and the Meiteis, who are predominantly Hindus, make up about 53%.

While the Kuki-Zomi and Meitei conflict has caused profound losses within both communities, Kuki-Zomis have borne the brunt of the violence despite being in the minority.

Last week, a video of two Kuki women being stripped and paraded naked in Manipur went viral, highlighting the distress in the state. One of the women was brutally gangraped, allegedly by Hindu Meitei men.

A few months ago, at 1:30 pm CST, Florence Lowe (pictured above) received a cryptic WhatsApp text from India: “Have you talked to mom?” Lowe was stumped at the timing of the message. It was 11.30 pm in India. She found out that both her mother and sister-in-law are in hiding.

“I was not sure what to do,” Lowe, a member of the minority Kuki-Zomi tribe from Manipur, told indica. “I did not want to put them in more trouble.” So the Dallas-based entrepreneur began calling her erstwhile neighbors who now live in California and Atlanta on what is happening in Manipur, and why rioters are burning their homes in India.

The Oakland protest by Kuki-Zomi tribals

Lowe has always remained apolitical and was not aware of the intensity of the trouble back home, but now she is working to help the victims and preserve and protect the heritage, lives, and lands of the tribal people of Manipur. On May 5, she formed the non-profit North American Manipur Tribal Association (NAMTA).

“We have lost more than 100 lives out of a reported 140 deaths and seen 317 churches destroyed, 6,137 homes set ablaze, and 41,425 people internally displaced, out of a total 60,000,” she said.

She told indica, “My father was an honest police officer, and with all the money he had in the provident fund, he bought the house in Imphal,” Lowe told indica.

On May 3 night, around 11 pm IST, the church behind their house was burned down and so was their neighbor’s house was burned. “They couldn’t stay and were bombarded with stones,” Lowe said. “This was completely out of blue, but when things happen you couldn’t look away,” Lowe said.

Niang Hangzo, who had her parent’s home in Paite Veng, Imphal, and a neighbor of Florence Lowe spoke at the protest in Oakland, California.

Hangzo calls the ongoing incident against Kuki Tribes a War said, her mother is a Meitei, and her father is a Kuki-Zomi and her mother and all her children and their families in Paite Veng had to flee the night.

“Mother is 86, and we lost everything and they burnt my brothers’ houses and took away everything from the house,” Hangzo said. “It’s very terrible. We have lived there for 60 years. My father along with two gentlemen built the colony. “This is ethnic cleansing.”

Hangzo said that Meiteis burnt the church and the homes and Paite Veng and renamed the locality.

“We have been cleaned from Imphal, and the target is Christian Kuki-Zomi ,” Hangzo said.She said the majority Meitei Hindu community has allegedly torched 357 churches out of which 170 churches are Meitei churches.

Lowe says, “We diaspora are all in distress and there are so many of us whose families were directly impacted.” Since May 6, Lowe and others have been advocating and writing letters to the US Senate and US Congress, along with President Biden and the UN Human Rights Commission.

“This is a horrific attack on Kuki people,” Lowe said. “My sister-in-law and mother were lucky and many were killed and burnt alive. It could have been my mother or sister-in-law. My sister has four children. These mobs could have done anything.”

“There is evil intent there to wipe out the whole and grab land,” Lowe said.”This is not the India we grew up in.”

Shan Sankaran, who helped organize the California protest, told indica, “We know genocide is happening in Manipur. There was no conversation until the video circulated,” he said.

The European Parliament on July 12 passed a resolution criticizing the Indian government’s failures. The next day, the UK Prime Minister’s envoy for religious freedom, Fiona Bruce, also raised the Manipur issue in the British Parliament.

There will be a scheduled global protest on August 13 and before that this coming weekend in Irving, Dallas, Texas. There are protests scheduled for August 5 as well.

What led to the current crisis?

According to a NAMTA press release, “Underlaid with a long history of grievances, the current crisis was triggered after the Manipur High court directed the state government to give “scheduled tribe” (ST) status for the majority Meiteis. An Affirmative-Action-like program, ST status entitles historically marginalized communities to educational and employment benefits, as well as constitutional protection of their ancestral lands.”

It added, “Tribal students from both the Kuki-Zomi and Naga communities protested the court’s decision, arguing that it would permit dispossession of their ancestral lands. They also argued that Meiteis should not be entitled to the same kinds of benefits that we have been afforded by the Indian Constitution due to our relative disadvantages.

“Though the Indian Supreme Court later stayed the lower court’s decision, calling it “factually wrong”, the flame had already been lit. Violence following the protests escalated, until we arrived where we are now: a whole state in flames, friends and neighbors pitted against one another in an ethnic conflict with no end in sight.

“The violence we are witnessing today is a product of disparities in power and wealth that have afflicted Manipur throughout its history. For decades, Meiteis have held a permanent majority of political positions in Manipur, received far greater budgetary allocations than Kuki-Zomis, and have controlled the most fertile and productive land in the state.”

The NAMTA press release added that, “Regardless of which side initiated the violent turn of events, the failure of the state machinery to contain the conflict in its early stages is ultimately responsible for the ongoing crisis. When the troubles began there were zero efforts by local authorities to douse the flames of violence, instead, state security forces actively abetted violent Meitei groups. Throughout the state, police stood idly by while mobs walked into police armories taking with them caches of munitions.”

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