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Bay Area Activists Raise Awareness of Violence in India’s Manipur State

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A group of people stands outdoors in a grassy area holding signs.
Niang Hangzo, vice president of the North American Manipur Tribal Association stands with a sign that reads, 'Sikhs stand with Manipur' at a protest in Fremont on July 30, 2023.  (Lakshmi Sarah/KQED)

On May 3, a mob rushed into a tribal area in the Indian state of Manipur.

“They started screaming ‘Kill Kuki, Kill Kuki’ and started burning our church,” Niang Hangzo, a San José resident who immigrated to the United States in 1990, told KQED.

Hangzo was born and raised in Manipur. Nestled in the mountains of northeast India, Manipur, which borders Myanmar, is about the size of New Hampshire and has a population of 3.7 million people.

Twenty of Hangzo’s family members used to live in this region, which is currently engulfed in violent conflict. At least 150 people have died as a result and more than 60,000 were displaced, according to the International Crisis Group. Those displaced include Hangzo’s 86-year-old mother, six of Hangzo’s siblings and several cousins who are now in Delhi, more than 1,500 miles from their homes.


The violence erupted after a local court ruling awarded government benefits to the Meitei, a mostly Hindu community that maintains a majority in the area. The Kuki tribal community, who are mostly Christian and represent the minority faction, protested. That prompted the waves of armed Meitei mobs that are unofficially supported by the state government, according to activists and human rights groups.

The Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, which is in charge of India’s central government, has stoked politically motivated policies promoting Hindu majoritarianism, according to Human Rights Watch.

The bloodshed is resonating within the large Indian diaspora in the Bay Area. Rallies, hunger strikes and educational Zoom meetings were held to raise awareness of the persecution of the Kuki community in Manipur.

Hangzo, like most of her family in India, is a member of the Kuki, which is sometimes referred to as Kuki-Zomi or Kuki-Zo.

After the mob burned the church, Hangzo’s family hid in a local hotel. They watched the growing mob outside on the security camera before escaping to an army camp. Hangzo and others convinced them to leave the region by plane.

“They had to run for their lives with just the clothes on their back,” said Hangzo, who works as an engineer in the tech industry.

With luck and help from people Hangzo describes as “angels,” the family made it safely out of the region. Images from the local news channel showed their homes looted and burned. Eleven members are now crowded in a three-bedroom apartment in New Delhi, India’s capital. Despite leaving all their possessions behind, Hangzo said they feel fortunate to have made it out alive.

Since the violence broke out in Manipur, Hangzo has dedicated her time to informing people about the conflict.

She is one of the founding members of the North American Manipur Tribal Association, a national organization formed to promote awareness of the hill tribes of Manipur in the U.S.

The group wrote letters to President Joe Biden, asking him to raise the issue when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the U.S. at the end of June. NAMTA also coordinated efforts with the Indian American Muslim Council, Hindus for Human Rights, as well as Indian Christian organizations.

“There’s not much we can do on our own, but I think the atrocities and the stories from Manipur have shaken people and shaken the conscience of other people,” Hangzo said.

Indian communities in the Bay Area held rallies in Oakland, Palo Alto and Fremont after a video showing two Kuki women being assaulted in public went viral in India. Members of the Muslim, Sikh and Dalit communities in the Bay Area also combined efforts to pressure congressional leaders to take action.

A group of people stands outdoors in front of a building holding signs while one person speaks into a megaphone.
Shan Sankaran (left) stands alongside Niang Hangzo (right) at a rally outside of Oakland City Hall on July 23, 2023. (Courtesy of North American Manipur Tribal Association.)

Pieter Friedrich and Shan Sankaran protested the treatment of the Kuki with a hunger strike. Friedrich, a human rights advocate, ended his fast after nine days at the request of NAMTA and the Federation of Indian American Christian Organizations.

On Thursday, Sankaran, a Sunnyvale resident, ended his hunger strike after 10 days. Sankaran said if the central government wanted the crisis under control, they would’ve taken action earlier.

“This is not the first incident under this administration,” said Sankaran, recalling how Modi was denied a visa to the U.S. for several years for “severe violations of religious freedom.”

Friedrich, who has written extensively on Hindu nationalism, said “what is happening in Manipur is being driven by the Hindutva movement in India,” which is the political ideology that believes in Hindu supremacy and that India’s identity is inseparable from the Hindu religion. Friedrich wants Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Fremont) to publicly condemn the violence in Manipur on the House floor.

“I’ve consistently used my position in Congress to defend human rights and admire the activists who work to drive change on these important issues,” Khanna told KQED in a statement.

He added that he “condemns all violence against civilians or places of worship in Manipur and speaks out on those issues whenever I can.”

Hangzo wants to see politicians “raise the humanitarian issue of the ethnic cleansing of the Kuki-Zomi and the genocide that is in progress.”

“Their lands are being seized,” she said of the Kuki.

Hangzo gets up every morning and routinely checks news and messages to see what happened the night before. Her mother wants to return to Manipur and be among familiar surroundings.

“It’s very difficult living in sort of limbo for them and for us,” said Hangzo, who plans to go to India in December. “We have become so embroiled in what’s happening out there that that’s become our reality more than what’s going on here.”


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