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Religion is at the heart of Manipur clashes, says ordinand

09 June 2023

Alamy

Demonstration by members of the Meitei community on Monday at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi, against the ongoing violence in Manipur state

Demonstration by members of the Meitei community on Monday at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi, against the ongoing violence in Manipur state

THE demolition of churches in Manipur, India, is evidence that the violence in the state has a religious motivation, a Church of England ordinand born in the region said this week.

Kailean Khongsai, who was born on the border with Burma, described how his parents had been forced to flee their home, leaving behind the family dogs. Their pastor’s son had been killed.

“It’s so brutal,” he said. “We can’t sometimes reveal, and our church leaders can’t co-ordinate because the internet is down.” He expressed anxiety that those “on the periphery” were disseminating accounts that distorted or diluted the truth. “We are praying that God will reveal the truth some day.”

The state government extended the shutdown of internet services, begun on 4 May, until 10 June. It has spoken of the need to “curb the spread of false news, rumours and misinformation through social media platforms”. The violence, which has claimed 98 lives and displaced 35,000 people, broke out on 3 May (News,12 May).

It is reported that a peaceful rally was held by members of the majority-Christian hill-dwelling tribal groups against moves to include the majority-Hindu Meitei community in “Scheduled Tribe” status (an affirmative-action programme that grants eligible groups access to forest lands, a guaranteed proportion of government jobs, and places in educational institutions). Clashes between the Kuki (one of the tribal groups) and Meitei escalated, prompting the deployment of thousands of Indian troops to the state.

A BBC World Service report from the state last month reported that “Meiteis were targeted in Kuki-dominated areas and Kukis were targeted in places dominated by the Meiteis.” A report on the website Scroll.in, published on 5 June, referred to security officials’ agreement that “most of the nearly 100 deaths took place in the first three days of violence when an overwhelmingly large number of those who fell to the mobs were Kuki.” It also documented concerns by Meitei people that the government was not doing enough to protect their communities from Kuki militants.

On Tuesday, Mr Khongsai attributed the violence to radical Meitei groups — Arambhai Tenggol and Meitei Leepun — and said that they had been able to conduct their aggression because of police collusion. The burning of 100 churches in the Imphal valley — the majority-Meitei area of the state — was evidence of a “pre-coordinated plan” sponsored by the state, he said. There was evidence of police “paving the way for the mobs”.

“Wherever the mob goes, they don’t attack the personal house first, they will first demolish the church and burn down the church,” Mr Khongsai said. “Then, when people are in panic, they will burn the house. . . Now all the valley churches are gone, completely destroyed . . . so they are shifting their gears to the village churches.” Meitei churches had also been destroyed, he noted.

“Their first target is always the church. Why? That’s the question. Another question is: if we had burned down over 100-200 temples, how will the central government react? They might kill us.” The government had failed to make a “serious commitment” to promote peace in the region, he said.

His concerns are echoed in the Scroll.in report, which refers to “a widely-shared video of the Manipur police accompanying a mob, many of whom are wearing the Arambai Tenggol’s colours”. An editor of a local newspaper reported that the group had come to prominence in April when its members stormed the house of a Meitei Christian pastor accused of insulting the indigenous Sanamahism faith.

The expansion of Christianity in the state, which included the conversion of some Meitei people, was part of the context, Mr Khongsai said. When he was a high-school student, there had been just 15 churches in the state capital, Imphal; but on a recent visit he had learned of as many as 300. This had caused unhappiness among some Meitei people, he said, while tensions had been exacerbated by attempts by Meitei people to access land in the hills.

Bobo Moirangthem, a schoolteacher in Churachandpur who joined an Arambai Tenggol unit, told Scroll.in: “Most of the Meiteis are converting to Christianity; so we just want to bring people back.” The founder of Meitei Leepun, another group accused of stoking the violence, told the website: “Only with a strong Meitei population, a strong Hindu population, can India be a strong nation.”

Meitei people complain that the state has failed to protect them from Kuki militants in the wake of a Suspension of Operations agreement signed in 2008. At a Meitei rally for peace earlier this month, banners could be seen calling for an end to the agreement, and calling for Manipur to be saved from “armed Kuki immigrant militants from Myanmar”.

“We try to not to promote hatred as far as possible but sow love and care,” Mr Khongsai, who chairs Manipur Tribal Welfare UK, said. “There are so many good Hindus and so many good Meteis; so we don’t want to brand them as bad people — we just want to be very careful. That is why whenever we speak up we say it’s a particular group.”

Beginning on 29 May, India’s Minister of Home Affairs, Amit Shah, made a four-day visit to Manipur, and announced a series of peace-building measures, including the establishment of a judicial panel led by a retired high-court judge to investigate the clashes, and the creation of a peace committee to encourage talks.

Currently training at St Mellitus, Mr Khongsai is due to be ordained next year. In a recent conversation with a cousin, he had learned of the burning of 30 houses. His mother had reported that “even bread, a small rice bowl is a luxury for them now”.

The Archbishop of Canterbury said in a message on Twitter last week: “I’ve been distressed to hear about the attacks on the indigenous tribal Christians of Manipur, India, and of the churches that have been destroyed in recent weeks.” He joined Mr Khongsai in praying that “regional authorities would protect all minority groups, including Christians and their places of worship, and that justice and peace would prevail”.

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