Jobs, Education Interrupted, Manipur’s Women Struggle To Rebuild Their Lives

A student just an exam away from finishing her Masters, a dental doctor on the verge of a career, and a school warden held hostage – the violence in Manipur has left them all rudderless. We speak to them in Delhi as they seek to rebuild their

Trigger Warning: This report contains mentions of violence. We advise caution for those who might find it triggering.  

For Mercy*, the 31-year-old warden of St Paul’s School in Imphal, the morning of May 3, 2023 started like any other. She woke early, and checked on the hostellers readying for class. But by noon, there was panic in the air. Rumours had spread of churches being burnt by angry mobs in nearby neighbourhoods. The school was declared closed but Mercy, the principal, a few teachers, and 11 hostellers stayed in school. 

The next day, a mob of Meitei men who were part of the radical Arambai Tenggol group, descended on the school, says Mercy. “They wore black masks and covered black gloves, something the group is known to do. They started attacking the school, and held us hostage. They asked for our Aadhar cards and found out that we were from the Kuki community. I heard them say ‘Let’s kill them all’,” she recalls. 

Manipur has been at the centre of violence for three months now. Trouble first began in Churachandpur, a town south of Imphal following a Kuki-led tribal solidarity march in ten of the state’s sixteen districts. The tribal community consisting of the Kukis and 33 other tribes were protesting the Manipur High Court’s request to the state to consider granting Scheduled Tribe status to the majority Meitei community. The violence has so far displaced more than 60,000 people and has resulted in over 100 fatalities. Radical Metei groups known as the Metei Leepun and Arambai Tenggol have been blamed by Kuki groups for perpetuating and instigating the ongoing violence.

The mob then pushed the group into vehicles and drove them to Eroisemba Club, a youth club that was captured and later destroyed by the mob. Mercy recalls that one of the mob leaders seemed stricken at the idea of hurting them and kept debating with himself what he should do with the hostages.

“We were just waiting for our deaths,” she recounts. Finally, the leader asked them all to run and make sure they were not caught. “We just ran for our lives. We were all hiding in different places, some in the paddy fields, some in the shadows,” says Mercy. “He caught us all again but this time he drove us to a relief camp. We saw our school on the way – it had been burnt to a crisp.”

Mercy is one of the thousands of women from the Kuki-Zo community who have been displaced from Manipur, and among the several taking refuge in neighbourhoods such as south Delhi’s Munirka and Kishangarh, which already have a huge population of migrants from the northeastern states . 

Mercy now lives with her sister in a flat in Munirka and has been looking for call centre jobs. “I never imagined that I’d have to leave Manipur, my job, and my life, and come here to start all over again,” she says. She cannot speak Hindi very well and most job recruiters are also looking for younger candidates, she says. Mercy and her sister are the only earning members of their family. Her mother, brother, sister-in-law, two nieces and one nephew, still in Manipur, look to them for support. 

We interviewed three women who fled Manipur and found refuge in these Delhi neighbourhoods. Their narratives showed us a state fractured along ethnic lines, the state’s complicity in and apathy to the violence against the minority community, and the cost of displacement borne by these women and their families who have to begin their lives afresh in a strange city.

‘There’s Nothing Left For Us There’

Catherine, 23, who wants to be identified only by her first name, is busy looking for a job in Delhi to support her family. A Master’s student of Political Science at Imphal’s Manipur University, Catherine was just a month away from taking her final semester exam. 

“I was so close to finishing my degree. But now I can’t. The government held examinations even though hundreds of students from the Kuki-Zo community weren’t there in the state. It feels like all of my education went to waste,” she says. 

Catherine now lives with her mother and brother in a single room flat in Munirka and is under pressure to find a job. “We can barely afford the rent as we have lost all our savings,” she says. 

On the night of May 3, 2023, when she saw a mob of rioters outside her home in Imphal’s Mantripukhri area, Catherine had grabbed her identity documents and her diabetic mother’s medicines to escape with her family. The men were setting her neighbours’ homes on fire.

The police, she says, did nothing to help. “When I first saw the mob, I also saw policemen from the nearby Heingang Police Station in the locality. I felt relieved. But then I heard them tell the mob: ‘Do what you want,’” Catherine recounts. “And I, my brother and mother ran for our lives.”

Recently, a video had surfaced of two women from the Kuki-Zo community being paraded naked and later gang-raped in Manipur’s Kangpokpi district by a mob of Metei men. Survivor testimonies reveal that the police were present when it happened, and that they were the ones who drove the women towards the mob. The Supreme Court is currently hearing a batch of petitions concerning the sexual violence in Manipur. 

Catherine and her family ran through paddy fields to get to the nearest Assam Rifles refugee camp for displaced people within Manipur. “There were at least 10,000 people gathered in the camp,” she says. For the next 11 days, Catherine stayed in a CRPF camp, after which she and her family took a flight to Guwahati, where they spent another week in a refugee camp. 

Later, the family travelled to Delhi and stayed in a refugee camp in Palam for one more week. Her house in Imphal along with her ancestral house in the Khuangmun village of Churachandpur have been razed by mobs.

The ongoing conflict in the state stems from decades long contestation over land and resources. The Hindu-majority Meiteis who make up 53% of the state’s 2.85 million population occupy only 10% of its land, according to the last census in 2011. The Christian Kukis, and other tribes, constitute 30% of the population and are spread out across the poorer hill areas. The Kukis have long been recognised as a Scheduled Tribe under Indian law. 

While the Metei community also enjoys certain benefits on account of being recognised as a “socially and economically backward class”, they have been demanding the ST status instead, arguing that it is necessary to preserve their community land and “save its ancestral land, tradition, culture, and language”. The demand has gained traction in recent years.  

Land in the hill areas is protected under Article 371C of the Constitution that bars non-tribals from owning it. The minority community fears that Meiteis, who already enjoy the demographic and political advantage as well as benefits associated with the SC, OBC or Economically Weaker Section status, would acquire hill lands if they are given ST status. This, they believe, would further marginalise them in the state.

Rebuilding Life

Bethany* has no idea how she will cobble together her career as a dental doctor now. A Bachelors in Dental Surgery from Noida’s Institute of Technology and Science (ITS) Dental College, she was just a month away from graduating from her Junior Residency Programme from Imphal’s Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences (JNIMS) Hospital. She and her friend were the only women from the Kuki-Zo community in her class. 

“We couldn’t take the exams as we had to flee. But the hospital nevertheless conducted the exams knowing full well that so many of us were in hiding and were running for our lives,” she says.

Bethany now lives in Delhi with a relative in a two-bedroom flat in Kishangarh. She is looking for work but that is a challenge without the certificate of graduation which attests that she has completed her residency. “I always dreamt that I would open my own clinic back home, or I’d look for government jobs in Imphal. But I can’t now. I never want to go back to Manipur. I won’t even send my kids there. Manipur is like a dead valley,” she says.

Things are even more difficult for her friend from Junior Residency who fled to Mizoram. “When they were fleeing, their vehicle was stopped by a mob. They managed to flee, but the mob burnt the vehicle, along with all her belongings, and certificates,” she says. 

Bethany too had to flee under similar circumstances. A mob had gathered outside her home and she had seen her local church, the Gilgal Presbyterian Church, burnt. Her family’s social life revolved around the church and its loss has hit her hard. She, her younger sister and parents, all fled to Delhi.

The Gilgal Presbyterian Church in Imphal, razed by rioters/Bethany

“Nothing is left now. The people from my community are all gone. There is no one back in Imphal,” Bethany says.

Bethany’s father is unemployed, and her mother who is a government employee does not know if she can return to her job now. There is pressure on her to start earning soon. Her sister recently graduated from school and is preparing for competitive exams. “She is disturbed. We all are. Frustrated and traumatised. We will have to start anew. Buy the most basic things. All our savings are gone. We don’t have a place to call home anymore,” she adds. 

The ongoing conflict has created deep mistrust between the majority Meitei community and the Kuki-Zo tribes. Even before the violence unfolded, Bethany says, she felt the bias against her community. “My friend and I were the only two women from the Kuki-Zo tribe in our class. All the professors, most of the doctors were from the majority community,” she adds. “What is unfolding right now seems nothing less than ethnic cleansing to me.”


*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the women 


  • Ankita Dhar is a reporter with Behanbox. She is also a digital artist whose artwork has documented political prisoners in India.

Malini Nair (Editor)

Malini Nair is a consulting editor with Behanbox. She is a culture writer with a keen interest in gender.

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