MORE than 100 churches have been burned to the ground in ethnic violence in Manipur, north-east India, a partner in India of the charity Open Doors said on Wednesday.
The number dead and injured is difficult to verify owing to suspension of the internet, but, on Tuesday, the BBC referred to officials’ reporting 60 dead, 200 injured, and tens of thousands displaced.
Clashes between different ethnic groups in the state date back decades. More than half (53 per cent) of the population are Meitei, a largely Hindu group that also includes some Christians, and who live in the Imphal Valley region. The two main tribal groups are the Naga and Kuki, who are mostly Christian, live in the hills, and have “Scheduled Tribe” status under an affirmative-action programme that grants eligible groups access to forest lands, a guaranteed proportion of government jobs, and places in educational institutions.
Last week, demands by the Meitei people for access to the status prompted protests. Thousands of tribal people took part in a rally organised by the All Tribal Students Union of Manipur. Violence broke out on Wednesday of last week between the Kuki and Meitei. Thousands of Indian troops have been deployed to the state, and thousands of people have been moved to camps for safety.
On Wednesday, the Open Doors partner said that the rally had been peaceful, and that Christians had been “heavily victimised” in a “flagrant display of violence and destruction and catastrophe”.
“It is the Christian community who was basically targeted,” he said. “Reports suggest that more than 100 churches have been burned down. . . Many casualties have happened, but we are not able to establish how many. But 80 per cent of the people who have been killed are Christians. Everything which had a Christian identity or Christian mark was attacked by the majority community in Manipur.”
Christians had sought shelter in army camps, where they were surviving on a single plate of porridge or rice, once a day. They had abandoned homes in the capital of Manipur, which had been burned down or destroyed. Some had fled the state via aeroplane. The fate of Meitei Christians was of particular concern, the Open Doors partner said, because they felt “rejected by both groups”. They were “severely victimised” and “under immense pressure to reconvert”.
The majority Meitei community had “a sense of superiority, that they follow a superior religion”, he said. “They control the resources; they have higher political representation.” The government, which was representative of the Meitei community, had failed to protect Christians, because of a “lack of political willpower”.
He spoke of moves by the government to evict tribal people from the hills of Manipur, where they had been living for hundreds of years. The possibility of including the Meitei in the Scheduled Tribal status had caused concern that “those who are already privileged, powerful, [and] have political control, they will control an even higher proportion of resources and power.” In the wake of the clashes, Manipur was going to be divided by ethnicity into two “very clearly demarcated areas”, he suggested.
International reporting on events in Manipur included interviews with Christians. A youth tribal leader who works in the state capital, Imphal, told CNN that his house had been ransacked on Thursday of last week: “A lot of houses are burnt; all our churches have been vandalised, some have been burnt. I barely escaped — the mob was already in the house.”
On Monday, The Telegraph, an Indian online news site, quoted L. Thangkholet Khongsai, a Kuki Christian pastor, who reported that a mob had burned down the compound of Kuki Christian Church in Imphal, as well as the theological college where he taught and his home.
The secretary-general of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, the Most Revd Felix Anthony Machado, quoted in the news site The Wire last Friday, spoke of “the resurgence of the targeting and persecution of Christians in the peaceful state of Manipur in the north-east”, and “disturbing reports in the news and on social media that the Jesuit Fathers serving in these areas have been threatened and made to feel insecure”.
John Dayal, a spokesman for the All India Catholic Union, told the news site: “The arson and killings are almost on the scale of Kandhamal in Orissa in 2008 (News, 3 January 2008).”
A statement from the Evangelical Fellowship of India issued by its general secretary, the Revd Vijayesh Lal, on Thursday of last week urged “all parties involved to exercise restraint and work towards a peaceful resolution of the issues. We urge the people of Manipur to avoid forces that instigate division and cause polarization. We also appeal to the state and the union government to engage in constructive dialogue with all stakeholders to address the underlying causes of the conflict.”
Writing on the news site Scroll.in on Wednesday, Nandita Haksar, a human-rights lawyer, observed that the “most fundamental conflict” in Manipur was “the resentment of the tribal people . . . against the unequal development and disparity in infrastructure between the Hills and the Valley”. She referred to figures illustrating the disparity in government spending, and the lack of both medical infrastructure and access to water in the Hills.
Tribal communities felt that the political party in power in the state, the BJP, she said, was “playing a dangerous communal politics by backing the Meiteis as ‘Hindus’, as against the tribal peoples who are predominantly Christian. Hindu nationalism has allowed the burning of churches and growing religious fundamentalism in the Valley.”
She concluded: “The people of Manipur are victims of deadly identity politics that has kept them from having conversations across the community. . . Identity politics must be replaced by a politics that leads to development and peace.”