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Concerns raised over Manipur relief camps

10 May 2024


Voters show their fingers marked with indelible ink after casting votes at a polling station during the elections in Guwahati, Assam, on Tuesday

Voters show their fingers marked with indelible ink after casting votes at a polling station during the elections in Guwahati, Assam, on Tuesday

ONE year after the outbreak of violence in Manipur, India, in which hundreds of churches were burned down (News, 12 May 2023), thousands of Christians remain in relief camps after being forced to flee their homes.

At a special service in St John’s, Southall, on Saturday, the Revd Onkho Haokip, a Baptist minister, reported that people were dying in relief camps owing to a lack of food and medicine. There are reported to be 230 widows and 30 orphans living in just one set of camps in the Lamka area.

Candlelight processions, prayer meetings, and some protests took place in several cities across India on 3 May, the anniversary of the conflict, the Catholic News Agency reports. In Delhi, Christian leaders took part in an ecumenical prayer gathering at the Sacred Heart Cathedral, where hymns were sung by refugees dressed in black.

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 living 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.

Clashes erupted in May last year after demands by the Meitei people for access to the “Scheduled Tribe” status prompted protests. Last September, UN special rapporteurs raised the alarm about alleged acts of sexual violence, extrajudicial killings, home destruction, forced displacement, torture, and ill-treatment (News, 15 September 2023). The rapporteurs were critical of the Indian government, and referred to an “apparent slow and inadequate response”. Most of those killed and subjected to gender-based violence were from the Kuki community, it said.

Reuters reported last month that the number of the dead, 160, reported by the UN in September had risen to 220. About 60,000 displaced people, mostly Christians, are living in camps.

“I have no house; I have no village; I have no church,” the director of Gospel for Asia, the Revd Prim Vaiphei, told a Zoom prayer meeting last month. “But God provided me people to take care of us and to carry out the funeral of my son.” He described being forcefully removed from his home in New Lambulane, Imphal, by Indian forces. He had urged his fellow Christians to forgive, he said.

The meeting was organised by Kailean Khongsai, a C of E ordinand who was born on the border with Burma, and who has sought to draw attention to the religious dimensions of the violence (News, 9 June 2023).

Among those speaking from the region was the general secretary of the Kuki Organisation for Human Rights, the Revd Dr S. Chongloi, who said that the divide between the hills and the valley in the state had been “completed”. A buffer zone is now in place, monitored by federal paramilitary forces.

The cries of Kuki Christians seemed to have fallen on “deaf ears” among Indian leaders, he said. More than 300 churches and 200 villages had been burned, and thousands of people had been displaced and rendered homeless. He described carrying out a mass funeral in December after the bodies of people killed had finally been handed over by the authorities. He requested prayer for “peace and normalcy” and the restoration of Kuki institutions, including schools and hospitals.

The general secretary of the Kuki Baptist Convention, the Revd Dr M. Thongkhosei Haokip, who chairs the Kuki Christian Leaders Fellowship, described how roads made the delivery of supplies difficult, and said that people were dying in medical emergencies because evacuation by air was unavailable.

Children living in relief camps were “really dejected and have no future”, the Revd Stephen Zou reported. “Imagine a family that cannot pray, that cannot have a square meal together for the last 11 months. . . I pray to church leaders all over the world, please remember us, that we really need strong leadership.”

The Revd Dr Robert Haulemsang, a director of ministry in the Evangelical Church, said that he was concerned about the horizons of internally displaced persons (IDPs): “Many of them would like to leave the relief camps, but they are saying ‘where would we find our livelihood?’”

Last week, Christian Solidarity Worldwide reported “discontent” among displaced Manipuris unable to vote in elections in India. Amid ongoing clashes, the charity’s president, Mervyn Thomas, condemned a “lack of commitment by the central government to intervene in any meaningful way. . . There appears to be no clear pathway to integrating these communities, or any plans for development.”

On Zoom, David Campanale, a media adviser to the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief, Fiona Bruce MP, and a former BBC World Service journalist, spoke of the need for a “global appeal to the world community and the churches” to coincide with the anniversary of the attack.

Last June, he published a report, Violence in Manipur, North-east India: Investigative report to the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, after an evidence-gathering session. There was a “clear religious dimension” to the violence, it concluded, noting that Meitei churches had not been spared in the attacks.

The report was praised as “very good” by the Foreign Secretary, Lord Cameron, in the House of Lords last month (News, 19 April), after the Bishop of Winchester, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen, raised concerns about “disturbing reports of violations of freedom of religion or belief” in Manipur.

“It is right to say that we should not downplay the religious aspects of some of this strife,” Lord Cameron said. “Sometimes it is communal, tribal, or ethnic, but, in many cases, there is a clear religious part of it. We should be clear about that.”

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