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End this nightmare in Manipur

24 May 2024

The religious dimension of the violence cannot be ignored, writes David Campanale

© Diocesan Fraternity

The RC Archbishop of Imphal, Dr Linus Neli, prays in the ruins of St Joseph’s, Sugnu, in Manipur State

The RC Archbishop of Imphal, Dr Linus Neli, prays in the ruins of St Joseph’s, Sugnu, in Manipur State

THE Foreign Secretary, Lord Cameron, last month announced his assessment of linked factors in the violence in the state of Manipur, in north-eastern India. He told the House of Lords: “It is right to say that we should not downplay the religious aspects of some of this strife. 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.”

His conclusion echoed findings that I made with members of the Council of Experts who advise the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FORB), Fiona Bruce MP, about the violence that began on 3 May last year (News, 12 May 2023).

In his statement, Lord Cameron referred to a report that we circulated last June for the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance (IRFBA). It was published days after shocking smartphone footage from the region went viral. In the footage, three women from the largely Christian Kuki-Zo community were paraded naked in the streets before being sexually assaulted. The scenes rightly caused outrage in India and around the world.

One year since the start of the violence, we have published a review of the evidence for the IRFBA, together with the findings of other agencies, who agreed that there was a linked motive to the attacks. The update report paints a grim and unsettling picture, very much in keeping with the viral footage. There were many pictures that we deemed too disturbing for publication in the report, including a severed head on a fencepost, amputated hands, and dismembered torsos of Christians.

ONE thing that the report makes abundantly clear, as Lord Cameron highlighted, is international agreement that Christian persecution is associated with the ethnically driven violence and the hateful propaganda and misinformation that fuelled it.

It is an opinion shared by the European Parliament and by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which concluded that there was a “clear religious dimension to an ethnic conflict”. Among the body’s recommendations are that India should be designated “as a ‘country of particular concern’” for engaging in “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom”.

One of the clearest pointers to this is the far from random nature of the destruction that was meted out, as the violence flared up on the streets of the state capital, Imphal, and beyond. The Kuki-Zo tribal people of the hillsides bore the brunt of the attacks: there were more than 100 deaths, and 2000-plus homes and 360-plus churches and synagogues were destroyed.

It soon became clear, however, that Christians from the majority Hindu Meiteis were also being targeted: at least 240 of their churches were destroyed by arson. (I do not use the term “targeted” lightly; after the initial destruction, many of the homes and livelihoods set ablaze had been marked with paint, seemingly months before the “sudden” unrest.)

Many of the Meitei believers were forcibly subjected to Ghar Wapsi (or “homecoming”) ceremonies, where they were pressured to return to their indigenous religion of Sanamahism. There are indications that they were made to sign affidavits of renunciation and burn their Bibles.

Given all the collected evidence, the significant part that religious hatred and persecution has played, and continues to play, in Manipur should not be contentious — and yet it seems to remain so, for some. Responding to a report by special rapporteurs for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights processes in Geneva, the Indian government claimed that the violence was purely ethnic, and “no specific community can be exclusively held responsible for the unrest.”

However blame is apportioned, the conflict has been disastrous for all concerned. Tens of thousands (by one estimate, more than 60,000) of both Kuki-Zo and Meiteis are still languishing in IDP relief camps. Conditions are often dire, especially for the Kuki-Zo, who have fled to regions far from hospitals, supplies, or proper sanitation. According to Kuki-Zo church leaders, not a single member of the Kuki-Zo tribe remains in Imphal, the capital city of the valley where the Meitei are in the majority.

Many displaced Kuki-Zo people have been encouraged to return home — for those whose homes are still standing. They are reluctant to leave the camps, however, as the threat of violence still hangs over them.

THE night before voting in India’s Lok Sabha elections was due to begin on 19 April, two Kuki-Zo guards were murdered. Their bodies were mutilated, parts of their bodies were hung from trees, and other parts were dragged around.

Despite this, there are reports of peacekeeping troops’ being pulled from the region. “As a result,” C. H. Mang, a pastor from the region, told me, “the Meitei militants have free movement for massive attacks on the Kuki-Zos. The basic unanswered question is, ‘Why has the violence not been stopped, even after one full year?’”

This is a question that urgently needs a response. After the outrage caused by the viral video of the women paraded naked and assaulted, the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, told the nation last August: “I want to assure all citizens that all our efforts are under way, and peace will soon be restored. Manipur will move forward with new atma vishwas [confidence] towards development soon. . . Together we will confront this challenge and bring back peace.”

Today, that hope seems even more distant than it did back in August. The Kuki-Zo and Meitei people are divided, both geographically, the populations separated by buffer zones, and also now by deep enmity and distrust, even between Christians of both ethnic groups.

“The body of Christ in Manipur is suffering,” Kiran (not his real name), a Meitei pastor from Imphal, says. “There is division, hatred, and enmity.”

At an online prayer gathering of Kuki-Zo church leaders which I attended a few weeks ago, the devastation, trauma, and tragedy of what has happened to the people of Manipur — and particularly to Christians from both tribes — was made abundantly and heartbreakingly clear (News, 10 May). We must pray for our Indian brothers and sisters who have lost everything and are in so much pain.

It is also high time that governments and other actors worldwide seized the initiative and pressed the current (and, most probably, next) Indian government to make good on its promises and the commitment to religious freedom clearly outlined in the Indian Constitution.

David Campanale is a multi-award-winning investigative journalist, who spent 30 years at BBC News, and a former director of Tearfund. He was recently deposed as the Liberal Democrat PPC in Sutton and Cheam over concerns about his Christianity. Letters.

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