Manipur's ethnic violence splinters teams and sporting dreams

Manipur's ethnic violence splinters teams and sporting dreams


The unrest in the state, divided football teams like Eastern Sporting Union (ESU) along ethnic lines

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BENGALURU (Reuters) – Ethnic clashes in India's Manipur state saw its most successful women's club fail to field a team in the Indian Women's League in 2023-24, with its coach fleeing his burning home and a number of players in self-imposed exile interstate.

The unrest in the northeastern state, which has resulted in more than 200 dead and tens of thousands displaced, divided football teams like Eastern Sporting Union (ESU) along ethnic lines and forced some players out of the state.

"At first we didn't think it would be that bad, but suddenly it was everywhere," former ESU skipper Irom Prameshwori Devi, who has since joined East Bengal, told Reuters of the outbreak of violence.

"We had five Kuki players in the team ... they were scared because Kukis were being attacked on the streets of Imphal. We were trying to assure them it would be fine, but houses were being burned by then."

Violence erupted in Manipur on May 3, 2023 between the majority Meitei and minority Kuki communities over the potential sharing of economic benefits and quotas in government jobs and education.

As warring groups set fire to each other's homes and places of worship, football teams in the capital Imphal also found themselves splintered.

ESU coach Ngampao Kipgen, a member of the Kuki tribe, told Reuters he was forced to flee to the hills with his family after his house was burned down.

"They came in the middle of the night. I had to leave with my wife and children," Ngampao said. "I have no team here, no income. I am helpless."

According to official figures released in February, Ngampao's house was one of more than 13,000 structures destroyed during the violence.

ESU manager Homendro Irengbam said the conflict, which broke out while the team was playing in the IWL in the western state of Gujarat, drove a wedge between players.

"Our Kuki players were staying with Meitei roommates but once the conflict started, they wanted to stick together," he said. "Match preparation, team meetings, everything was disturbed. That was reflected on the field."

The team tried to put on a united front, Devi said, but finished fourth in the group stage before crashing out in the semi-finals of the 2022-23 competition, a contest they had won in the inaugural 2016-17 season.

When the tournament ended, the manager urged his players not to return to Manipur.

"I told them, 'If you go back, you'll become village defence volunteers. You'll stop playing football and join the war'," Irengbam said.

While most ESU first team players were signed by clubs around India, many Manipuri players did not escape the fighting.

"Some players have joined volunteer units. They have taken up arms. It's a miserable situation," ESU coach Ngampao said.

Today, Manipur remains divided with Meiteis controlling the Imphal valley, which includes the state capital and most of the sporting infrastructure.

The Kukis are in surrounding hills with the two sides separated by a stretch of no-man's land monitored by federal paramilitary forces.

Manipur has been a hotbed of Indian sport, sending a stream of athletes to the Olympics and other international competitions.

The state women's team has won 22 of 28 national soccer championships, claiming their most recent title earlier this month, but without any Kuki players.

Six players from Manipur, none of whom are Kukis, are in the women's national team, which is ranked 55 places above the men and represents India's best hope of World Cup qualification.

But ESU can no longer afford to play in the national Indian Women's League after community contributions dried up due to the conflict. "Unfortunately, we were not able to even pay some of the players," Irengbam said.

Midfielder Lhingneilam Kipgen, one of ESU's Kuki players, said she had not returned to Manipur due to the violence and joined Delhi-based Garwhal United, but still missed her old club.

"I hope ESU come back. When things are better I want to join again," she said.

The unrest also prevented Kuki players reporting for pre-season training for Imphal-based NEROCA and TRAU, the two biggest men's soccer teams in the state. Both teams have since been relegated from India's second tier after playing the 2023-24 season in exile.

"The mental trauma is still there for all the players. We are participating against all odds," TRAU general secretary Phulen Meitei said.

"Our own people are (being) killed ... football is less important than life."