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Arson strikes 2 India-level footballers on either side of the Kuki-Meitei divide

Hindustan Times logo Hindustan Times 11-05-2023 Dhiman Sarkar, Kolkata

They once wore the same deep shade of blue. Today, for the moment, their differences define their identities. Once, at different times, they stood hand on heart in the middle of a field of green, sang the national anthem, and fought for every ball. Today, they are 15km apart, but have had to flee their homes, their futures uncertain. The ethnic violence that swept through Manipur last week spared no one, deepening cleavages, reducing people to parts of a whole. Once, at different times, Chinglesana Singh and Thongkosiem ‘Semboi’ Haokip played football for India. Today, they are Meitei and Kuki. United only in being victims of violence.

On the evening of May 3, 26-year-old defender Chinglesana was a disappointed man. His Hyderabad FC team had just lost to ATK Mohun Bagan on the last day of the season, ending their hopes of qualification for the AFC Cup. But when he looked at his mobile phone and the spate of missed calls from home on it, he grew even more worried. “I called my mother in Churachandpur and she said things were beginning to get out of control. Homes were being burnt. That night, I did not sleep,” said Singh, over the phone from Moirang, 45km from Imphal.

For three days from May 3, Manipur was on fire, armed mobs swarming the streets, burning homes and destroying property. The immediate spark was a proposal to give Meiteis, who form 53% of the state population, scheduled tribe status, angering tribal communities such as the Kukis. At least 60 people were killed, 231 injured, 1,700 homes burnt, and over 35,000 displaced, official figures issued on Tuesday said. In Kuki-dominated areas such Churachandpur, Meitei families were targeted. In the Meitei-dominated Imphal valley, Kukis had to flee to army shelters to save themselves.

So, as the state burnt, Singh struggled to find ways to get home. Emergency measures employed by the government to quell the violence meant a complete snap in communication, and shoot-at-sight orders.

“Getting out of the airport was risky as was travelling to Moirang with the shoot-at-sight order,” he said. He waited for five days in Hyderabad. Only on Tuesday did he return to Manipur. But not to Khumujamba Meitei Leikei in Churachandpur, a house he helped build; a house his family had called home for 50 years. But to Moirang; to his uncle’s home, where the family has taken refuge.

His home, Singh said, has been torched, vandalised and looted, like other Meitei homes in Churachandpur. Next to the house, Singh said, he had prepared a football pitch. That, too, was destroyed. On May 3, when he spoke to his family, they told him about neighbours taking shelter in their home. Some of them had guns to protect themselves. “But my family heard that at any moment the house could be burnt and asked if I could help. I knew a major in the Army and called him. He helped me get my family and others out and into an Army relief camp. At the moment, we are homeless. We have lost everything as a family,” he said.

During the time Singh was trying to get home, 30-year-old striker Thongkosiem ‘Semboi’ Haokip, a former India under-23 striker, who has played for a string of Indian top flight clubs such as Salgaocar, Kerala Blasters, Bengaluru FC and most recently East Bengal, was looking for a way out. A Kuki in Meitei-dominated Imphal West, Haokip remembers hearing reports on the night of May 3, that specific homes were being targeted. “Some 20 of us fled in the night. We first requested a neighbour to let us stay the night. All the time, we kept hearing what sounded like bomb blasts,” he said.

But soon, the neighbour — a government official — was told that news of his sheltering people had leaked, and afraid, he asked them to leave. Haokip and his family were taken to an Army relief camp in Mantripukhri under police protection and have since moved to his ancestral village of Gangpijan, with hills on one side and the valley on the other. With tension between the Kukis that dominate the hills and the Meiteis of the plains still festering, Haokip said, “We cannot say we are safe. Most of the elders and the children are still in the camp in Mantripukhri. Only some men and women are here to protect the place.”

The decision to flee was a good one. As they now know, their home, built at a cost of 60 lakh, and the neighbouring home of an uncle, have been burnt down. “ISL has ended and in the off-season, I had planned to put finishing touches on the house. I wanted to fly the family to Hyderabad but at the moment they have decided to stay even if there is a risk. It looks like we will be in Gangpijam for a long time,” Haokip said. “I wanted to fly the family to Hyderabad but at the moment they have decided to stay even if there is a risk,” said Singh.

Even as Manipur crawls back to normalcy, curfew gradually being lifted in the mornings and relief camps emptying, Singh and Haokip both said they were waiting to hear from the government. On Monday, chief minister N Biren Singh announced compensation of 2 lakh for those whose houses were burnt, and government assistance in rebuilding them. But there are choices for both to make; choices that could be the difference between life and death if violence erupts again. Singh’s was a Meitei home in a Kuki locality, while Haokip’s was one of few Kuki homes in a Meitei area. Haokip said, “Until May 3, who would have thought this could happen?”

For Singh, the priority is his family, and the immediate concern of looking for a rented accommodation, “either in Imphal or in Moirang.” He was picked for an Indian national football team camp on May 15. But for now, the blue jersey must wait. “I need to be a pillar of strength for my family right now. I have spoken to (head coach) Igor (Stimac) and he has been very understanding. He told me to join when I can,” he said.

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