Orphanage run by Kuki-Metei couple offers hope for harmony

[Gunjan Sharma]

KEITHELMANBI, 4 May: A year after ethnic clashes polarised the state and its people, a Kuki-Meitei couple running an orphanage fostering children from both communities are testimony to the harmony that once was and hope that it will be so again one day soon.

Donjalal Haokip and Rebati Devi, who have no biological children of their own, operate the The Ema Foundation home in Keithelmanbi, the sensitive zone between the Imphal valley and Kangpokpi, the former dominated by Meiteis and the latter by Kukis.

Is it an easy task considering the tense situation in the state?

“No. But love is the only counter for violence and the way to peace,” 52-year-old Haokip told PTI from the home located in the foothills of West Imphal and Kangpokpi.

The couple, who have been running the orphanage since 2015, fosters 17 children, including Meitis, Kukis, Nagas, and even Nepalis.

They remember vividly the events of 3 May, 2023,when ethnic clashes broke out over a ‘Tribal Solidarity March’ organised in the hill districts to protest against the Meitei community’s demand for ST status.

“When the violence began on 3 May last year, we thought by the grace of god the situation will be okayby morning. But another day passed and each passing moment felt like a nightmare. I sent an SOS to Assam Rifles. They assured us support and made some deployment outside the orphanage,” Haokip, a Kuki, said.

The months that followed were tough and the couple was constantly fearful of what lay next for the children and them.

“The first threat was that we are a Meitei-Kuki couple, and then we had children from the communities… our family feared that we will be a very easy target. But we decided to stay put and despite difficulties we have managed to survive,” he said.

The couple got married in 2012 and children at the home call them ‘mummy’ and ‘papa’. The kids attend a nearby school run by the Assam Rifles. The eldest among them studies in Class 10 while the youngest is four years old.

“When my mother passed away in 2008, my wife and I were planning to erect a memorial stone… but we thought again that instead of spending money on a stone erection we can start this and hence named it Ema, which means ‘mother’ in Manipuri. I sold some family land, we used some savings, and then constructed this space.

“Later, officials from Assam Rifles approached us to offer free education to the children and they started going to their school,” Haokip added.

The hill state has witnessed sporadic, sometime intense, ethnic clashes since 3 May last year between the majority Meitei community and the Kukis, resulting in the loss of more than 200 lives and displacement of over 60,000 people. While Meiteis are concentrated in Imphal city, the Kukis have shifted to the hills.

Rebati Devi, 47, said the children did not go to school for months.

“They had an idea that something is going on but they did not know what exactly… we did not want the children to know the gory details of the conflict…they are innocent. But once they started going to school and interacted with other children, they became aware and have been asking questions since then.

“So far, we have been able to ensure a safe space for these children, but the challenge also is to not let them develop animosity towards each other… we tell them that they are brothers and sisters like before and they do not belong to any community,” she said.

According to the couple, there are no signs in the state yet that the Kuki and Meiteis can co-exist peacefully like before.

“We are safe so far but it’s no longer the same… we cannot go to either of the areas… we cannot move around even for basic chores. Earlier, people from different parts of Manipur used to visit us because they wanted to spend some time with children or celebrate occasions like birthdays or anniversaries,but that has completely stopped now.

“So, there are no visitors now and children miss it,” Haokip said.

Haokip and Rebati hope better sense will prevail and people will look for peace rather than fight each other.

“We are one. We all are one…. it’s high time we look for harmony rather than bay for each other’s blood and kill people. The government’s role will come later, but we hope people take this resolve themselves,” Rebati said.

“I want people to recall the previous years that how everybody used to live together with harmony… the state of Manipur needs love and love will lead to peace,” she added. (PTI)