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Story Publication logo May 7, 2024

A Family Fled Ethnic Violence in India. Its Echoes Resonate in the Bay Area

A woman appears to aid an older woman to put a shawl around her shoulders.

A family escaped violence, but still grapples with its impacts.

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Multiple Authors

Tara Manchin Hangzo adjusts a scarf on her mother, Madhumati Khwairakpam, 87, in their apartment with family members in Delhi, India, on March 31, 2024. They were displaced from their home in the northeastern state of Manipur when ethnic violence erupted on May 3, 2023, between the Meitei people, a non-tribal majority living in the Imphal Valley, and the Kuki tribal community from the surrounding hills. Hangzo identifies as Kuki, and her mother identifies as Meitei. Image by Beth LaBerge/KQED.

Sitting on a chair in a rented apartment in Delhi, India, Madhumati Khwairakpam recalled fleeing her home in Manipur.

On May 3, 2023, violence erupted after a local court awarded government benefits to the Meitei people, an ethnic group native to Manipur, a state in northeast India. A majority of the Meiteis practice Hinduism, though Manipur’s dominant ethnic community includes Muslims, Christians and followers of the traditional Sanamahi religion.

Several tribal communities, including the Kuki, who are mostly Christian, protested the court ruling. Waves of armed Meitei mobs, unofficially supported by the state government, according to activists and human rights groups, chanted “Death to Kukis.”

Khwairakpam, an 87-year-old mother of 10 who identifies as Meitei, married into a Kuki family.

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Left: Madhumati Khwairakpam, 87, eats lunch on March 31, 2024, made primarily with vegetables grown in Manipur, India, which the family bought in Delhi. Right: Tara Hangzo holds a photo of her parents, Vungkham Hangzo (left) and Madhumati Khwairakpam, in the apartment Hangzo shares with her mother, Madhumati, and her sister and sister-in-law in Delhi, India, on March 31, 2024. The photo was recovered by Hangzo’s sister-in-law, Renu Takhellambam, at their home in Manipur after the house was looted following the violence that erupted on May 3, 2023. It was the only photo found at the home. Image by Beth LaBerge/KQED.

One year ago this month, the lights in the family’s two-story home were off as they huddled silently in a bedroom. They heard the sound of windows being shattered by tossed stones. Someone called and said the nearby church had been lit aflame. The blasts from gas cylinders used for cooking shook the neighboring houses like bombs.

The reverberations were felt in California's Bay Area.

For roughly three decades, one of Khwairakpam’s daughters, Niang Hangzo, who was born and raised in Manipur, has lived in the Bay Area. Another daughter, Vung Hangzo, also lives in the Bay Area. According to The Mercury News, people born in India represent the largest immigrant group in Santa Clara and Alameda counties. That’s about 250,000 people, as Indian immigrants have settled in Sunnyvale, Milpitas, Fremont and Dublin.

Niang Hangzo co-founded an organization to raise awareness and support for the Kuki people. Bay Area residents who are part of the Indian diaspora attended protests in August. More than 200 people have been killed since the conflict in Manipur began, and 60,000 people, like Khwairakpam, have been displaced, according to Al Jazeera.

Hundreds of churches have been reduced to ashes.

“This is unprecedented,” Niang Hangzo said. “The fact that they were burned seems to be very obvious that this is a real overt act of showing that ‘You guys don’t belong here.’”

KQED’s Lakshmi Sarah and Beth LaBerge traveled to Delhi in March to see how Khwairakpam and her family are coping with the trauma of displacement. Khwairakpam told KQED she doesn’t have hope of seeing her home in Imphal, Manipur’s capital, again. She spoke in the Meitei language known as Manipuri, which was translated by Tara Manchin Hangzo, a daughter who lives with her.

Madhumati Khwairakpam’s daughter, Niang Hangzo, displays side-by-side photos of her family posing in front of their home in Manipur on the left in 2012. On the right, an image of the house after it burned when ethnic violence erupted on May 3, 2023. Image by Beth LaBerge/KQED. India.

One year ago, Khwairakpam and her family stood on the street as their home burned before running to a hotel operated by a Meitei man. Khwairakpam lost one of her slippers in the melee. They watched the mob grow on surveillance video. They stayed at the hotel until the police arrived.

The police escorted them to a police station and then to a Kuki woman’s house near the precinct, where they waited to be picked up by the Indian Army. Several family members stayed in a squalid relief camp for three nights before relatives in the United States helped 12 of them pay for flights to Delhi, the sprawling metropolitan area that’s 1,500 miles away from their home.

“Because of them, we were able to escape,” Khwairakpam said of her family in America.

Khwairakpam doesn’t speak Hindi, the primary language spoken in Delhi. She’s had breathing problems when the air quality was hazardous. Her joints ached in the winter.

There are no fruit trees near their three-bedroom apartment like the ones that surrounded their home in Manipur. There isn’t space to sit outside or walk on the street without the blaring horns of cars navigating the congested roads. The family doesn’t know how long they can afford the tight quarters they share, yet they still come together to enjoy each other’s company.

Madhumati Khwairakpam, 87, rests in the room she shares with her daughter, Junia, while her daughter Tara sits with her on the bed at their apartment in Delhi on March 27, 2024. Image by Beth LaBerge/KQED. India.

Junia Hangzo, Khwairakpam’s youngest daughter, does laundry at the apartment she shares with her mother, sister, and sister-in-law in Delhi on March 27, 2024. Image by Beth LaBerge/KQED. India.

(From left) Jason Hangzo, 17, Renu Takhellambam, Jason’s mother, and Junia Hangzo drink tea together in their apartment in Delhi, India, on March 27, 2024. Image by Beth LaBerge/KQED.

‘I didn’t believe it’

On May 4, 2023, Niang Hangzo received a WhatsApp message from her brother as she was on her way to her engineering job in San José. He said their house in Manipur was under attack, but she ignored the message.

“I didn’t believe it,” she recalled. “It’s so preposterous. What’s he talking about?”

Niang Hangzo sits inside her home in Aptos, California, on February 3, 2024. Image by Beth LaBerge/KQED. United States.

She called her oldest sister, who was in Delhi for cancer treatment. It was true. According to Niang Hangzo, who knows many of the families living in the Bay Area who immigrated from Manipur, most of the mob were also from the local area. Some were neighbors.

“They knew my mother,” she said. “She might have been the one who delivered them because she worked as a nurse.”

In response to the violence, she formed the North American Manipur Tribal Association with a former Imphal neighbor, who now lives in Texas, to preserve the heritage of Manipur’s tribal people. Doing something felt important, she said.

“The other option was to just stay and do nothing, just cry and console each other,” she said. “They lost everything. But beyond that, I think nobody anticipated it to be this long.”

Left: Sisters Niang (left) and Vung Hangzo sit at Vung’s home in San José, California, on April 21, 2024. Right: At her home in San José on April 21, 2024, Vung Hangzo looks at a WhatsApp group chat with her sisters that shows a photo of their mother, Madhumati Khwairakpam, in Delhi. The family primarily uses WhatsApp to keep in touch and get updates on the situation in Manipur. Image by Beth LaBerge/KQED. United States.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is currently seeking a historic third term, finally broke his silence more than three months after the violence began. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party holds power in Manipur, a hilly and mountainous state that shares an international border with Myanmar.

The conflict has impacted voting in the region, as armed men have attacked polling stations, according to The New York Times. The third round of voting in the world’s largest general election is scheduled for today. There will be seven phases in total and results will be announced on June 4. Niang Hangzo is afraid of what will happen when the news cycle moves on.

“We could be annihilated, and nobody would know,” she said. “We need to have the government step up and the world to listen.”

Nearly 1 billion Indians are eligible to cast ballots, but Tara Hangzo isn’t one because the government has not established a way for internally displaced people to vote remotely.

“I feel that I’m not part of India. Why should we be denied our right to vote just because we are here in Delhi as a displaced person?”

Khwairakpam was forced to leave her home eight decades earlier.

In the spring of 1944, around the time of the Battle of Imphal, Japanese troops attempted to break Allied lines to invade India through Myanmar, then known as Burma. British Indian troops forced the Japanese to retreat during the fighting that changed the course of World War II.

Kishalay Bhattacharjee, a journalist who has reported on northeastern India, said there are many layers to today’s violence in Manipur. Land, jobs and economic interests in the region, including the illicit trade of narcotics, human trafficking and arms, makes Manipur one of the most strategic states in India, according to Bhattacharjee.

Another layer is the armed militias.

“I think the most important story is the rise of a civil guerrilla outfit amongst the Meiteis,” Bhattacharjee said, referring to the Arambai Tenggol, a radical Meitei group that is allegedly abducting people and threatening the government, according to news reports.

“They are the ones who are spearheading the attack against the Kukis,” Bhattacharjee said.

Mob violence has created a situation that Sanjib Baruah, a professor of political studies at Bard College in New York state, believes resembles a civil war.

“There is ample evidence pointing to the fact that the state government bears the lion’s share of the responsibility for this violence,” he wrote in March in Studies in Indian Politics, an academic journal.

A poster of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi hangs on a wall in Delhi, India, on March 31, 2024. The poster advertises the G20 summit, which took place in September 2023. Image by Beth LaBerge/KQED.

Chitra Ahanthem, an independent journalist, said many people, including the media, have oversimplified the conflict.

“It’s not about the majority versus the minority. It’s not about the Hindu versus the Christian. It’s not about the poor tribal versus the entitled, majority community,” she said. “It’s much worse than that because the real reason is just too murky.”

She believes it comes down to geopolitics and India’s business interests in Myanmar, where a civil war has been raging since the military coup in 2021. She said the conflict in Manipur provides a reason for the central government to activate more forces in the region, which is useful for India to defend itself against China.

Ahanthem was in Manipur in November to aid in the relief work. Because she is Meitei, she was only able to visit Meitei camps.

“There are people who have committed suicides inside relief camps because they don’t see a future,” she said.

People from the Meitei community in Delhi who have spoken out critically against the state government have had their homes in Manipur attacked by local militia, she said. Because of the retaliation tactics, many Meiteis in Delhi contacted by KQED said they did not want to speak to the media.

“Society is on its back foot when you are not allowed to ask questions. And that’s exactly where Manipur is,” Ahanthem said. “That’s exactly where India is — that you cannot ask questions anymore.”

Tara Hangzo buys vegetables from a shop owner from the Naga tribal community in Manipur in the Munirka neighborhood of Delhi, India, on March 30, 2024. “Will I ever have peace of mind? Will my community ever have a peace of mind? … Will we trust them [Meitei people]?” Hangzo asked. “We will not be able to live together in peace for many years to come.” Image by Beth LaBerge/KQED.

Tara Hangzo (center right) prays during Good Friday services at the Evangelical Baptist Convention Church in Delhi, India, on March 29, 2024. Hangzo belongs to the predominantly Christian Kuki tribal community. Image by Beth LaBerge/KQED.

‘At least we have one another here’

Tara Hangzo’s life has drastically changed since coming to Delhi. It’s not just the extreme heat and cooler weather but also the water and food. Even the rice tastes different, she said.

“We have very special rice. It’s almost sticky,” said Tara Hangzo, who continues to participate in the protest movement. “Everything was so natural and so fresh. We were living in a lap of nature.”

Ching Songput, daughter of Madhumati Khwairakpam, prepares tea in her kitchen in Delhi, India, on March 27, 2024. Image by Beth LaBerge/KQED.

She stops and looks at the stands on the side of the road to see if there are any items native to Manipur. She spends most of her time taking care of Khwairakpam and Junia Hangzo, her younger sister who has Down syndrome, with the help of her sister-in-law, whose husband died several years ago.

Ching Songput, Khwairakpam’s oldest daughter who is in Delhi for cancer treatment, doesn’t mind that she lost most of the material things like clothes and jewelry, but she wishes she still had the photo albums and videos from when her three daughters were young. Those were lost when the family’s compound was ransacked. The only photo recovered is of her mother and father, which is now in Khwairakpam’s Delhi apartment.

For nearly a week, 11 members of the family shared Songput’s three-bedroom apartment. The family is devout Christian and has formed friendships with many people in the Kuki Christian community in Delhi.

“We have a church, so we get busy with that,” Songput said. “We miss what we used to have in Imphal. But at least we have one another here.”

(From left) Ching Songput, Tara Hangzo, and Junia Hangzo shop for food at a market in Delhi, India, on March 27, 2024. Image by Beth LaBerge/KQED.

Tara Hangzo (right) and her sister Junia Hangzo walk through Delhi, India, on March 26, 2024. Image by Beth LaBerge/KQED.


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