UCA News

Manipur violence portends fires in India’s tribal belt

The ruling BJP backs tribe status for the state’s Hindu Meitei but wants to deny it to tribal Christians in other states
People queue up for food at a distribution counter opened by the Indian army at Imphal airport on May 7, as they flee ethnic violence that has hit the northeastern Indian state of Manipur

People queue up for food at a distribution counter opened by the Indian army at Imphal airport on May 7, as they flee ethnic violence that has hit the northeastern Indian state of Manipur. (Photo: AFP)

Published: May 08, 2023 11:46 AM GMT
Updated: January 02, 2024 05:34 AM GMT

By all accounts, the violence in India’s northeastern state of Manipur has been a long time coming. If anything, the governments—both in the state and in New Delhi—led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took no steps to defuse tension or forestall violence.

Manipur borders Myanmar and having a previous history of insurgencies has a heavy presence of the Indian army and paramilitary forces. It is also covered under the notorious Armed Forces Special Protection Act (AFSPA) which gives unfettered powers to the military and puts many of its actions, including the deaths of civilians at its hands, beyond the purview of the law.

A conflict between two ethnic groups over constitutional status as tribes with reservations in jobs, education and elected bodies was allowed to turn anti-Christian. Christians, including Catholics, of all three or four communities in the region, the Meitei on the one hand and the Kukis, Hmars or Mizos, and Chins, on the other have been victims.

Unofficial figures put the death toll in the violence that began on May 3 at 88, with the government admitting to 54. Men, women, and children, including some government civil employees, are among the dead.

The churches destroyed were creeping up towards the 100 mark as relief workers entered the troubled areas. Tens of thousands are homeless, many now in government refugee camps. As always happens, all religions are represented among the victims.

Hinduism and Christianity are both comparatively new to this state, which was once an independent kingdom of Kangliepak in the Imphal valley, where the people had their own religion, Sanamahism, together with their language and script. In 1704, King Charairongba accepted Vaishnavism, a version of Hinduism, and changed his name to Pitambar Singh.

Christianity came in the last decades of the 19th century with American missionaries, whose work resulted in the current preponderance of Baptists and Presbyterians in the state, with Catholics fewer in number as the third denomination. Salesians and Jesuits are deeply involved in education and welfare.  Sanamahism is said to be seeing a revival.

But the powerful Hindu group Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and its motley wings, backed by the central and state governments have been hard at work radicalizing the Vaishnav Hindu Meitei, to make common cause with the mainland Hindutva. This is reflected in the demand that the Meitei also be given the Constitutional status of Scheduled Tribe (ST) which the Christian Kukis, Mizos, Nagas and other tribes enjoy.

This would also mean that the economically and politically weaker non-Meitei groups, who live in the very hilly terrain, would lose an important equalizer. Political power, in the state legislature and government, is with the Meitei.

The BJP is currently in power in the state.  The Arambai Tengol and Meitei Leepun, the RSS equivalents among the people of the Imphal valley, have led the mob violence, according to Meitei Christian groups.

The state government had also borrowed a page from the Yogi government of Uttar Pradesh by using the bulldozer in recent times to demolish buildings, including churches in the valley region.

While in Manipur, the BJP wants ST status for Hindu Meitei, it wants Christian tribal people in other states--like the Bhils and Santhals--to be ejected from the list, which allows constitutional protections and concessions.

In the Chhotanagpur region covering Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and parts of Madhya Pradesh, and in the tri-junction region of Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, and Rajasthan where the tribal Bhils are the indigenous ethnic community, the RSS says converts to Christianity should not have reservations in legislatures, educational institutions and government jobs. This has led to much political strife in the entire region, which occasionally breaks into confrontations and violence, especially if an election is in the offing.

The massive anti-Christian violence in 2008 in Kandhamal in Odisha had the same template. The RSS triggered violence first against the non-tribal Panos, which eventually impacted Christians of both Dalit and tribal origin. More than 75,000 people were rendered homeless and close to 400 churches and Christian institutions were destroyed. The wounds are still to heal. Government assistance to rebuild churches has not come, and many in the poor communities still await jobs or the small land holdings they once had.

Pioneering development and displacement studies scholar, the Jesuit Dr Walter Fernandes, who has lived in north-east India for decades, says: “The conflict in Manipur is tribal-non-tribal but some political forces are trying to turn it into a Christian-Hindu communal conflict to divert attention from the real issues. It is true that most tribals in Manipur are Christian and most Meitei who are 53 percent of the population are Hindu. The Meitei live on 10 percent of the land and want to be declared a scheduled tribe in order to access 90 percent of the land which is protected as tribal land and the high court has passed a judgment in their favor. Attempts are made to divert attention from this issue by giving it a religious color.”

The immediate trigger of the violence was an alleged attack by mobs on a large procession by Kukis and others opposing moves to extend the ST status to non-tribals in the state.

The clashes quickly spread to Churachandpur and other districts in the valley and the nearby hills and wherever there were mixed populations. Amidst reports of attacks on Kukis all over this area, there were heartening reports of how Kuki women made cordons to help Meitei women and children to escape the violence and reach safe havens.

But for Kukis and Meitei alike, the situation remains fraught. There were reports of clashes and lone persons were attacked as far away as New Delhi.

The state governor gave “shoot at sight” orders to the security forces, but they could not prevent a heavy death toll among the public or the destruction of properties.  The federal government and administrations of several states mobilized airlifts to rescue their students and officials from the troubled state.

And even as Manipur burns, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and federal Home Minister Amit Shah remained confined to Karnataka, campaigning for the state elections. Faced with the defeat of the BJP in the southern state, Modi and Shah have evoked the Gods, particularly Lord Hanuman, in their election speeches.

The violence has seen a strong reaction from Catholic and Protestant churches.  While the Evangelical Fellowship of India was the first to condemn the violence, Archbishop Peter Machado of Bengaluru, who has moved the Supreme Court against the persecution of Christians in his state of Karnataka, condemned the violence in strong terms.

The All India Catholic Union called out right-wing political groups who had triggered the widespread violence and the consequent massive loss of life in the state. The failure of the intelligence system, the law and order machinery has been compounded by an absence of political processes to resolve the deep distrust between ethnic communities.

Amidst the violence, a public interest litigation petition was filed before the Supreme Court for the evacuation of the Manipuri tribal people who had fled to central police camps. In its petition, the Manipur Tribal Forum alleged that the attacks have the full support of the BJP which is in power in the state as well as at the center.

Another petition has also been filed before the apex court by the Hill Areas Committee Chairperson and BJP legislator Dinganglung Gangmei challenging the March 27 order of the Manipur High Court on ST status for the Meitei community. It remains to be seen if Gangmei will be able to face the massive political pressure on him by his party to withdraw his petition.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

Help UCA News to be independent
Dear reader,
Lent is the season during which catechumens make their final preparations to be welcomed into the Church.
Each year during Lent, UCA News presents the stories of people who will join the Church in proclaiming that Jesus Christ is their Lord. The stories of how women and men who will be baptized came to believe in Christ are inspirations for all of us as we prepare to celebrate the Church's chief feast.
Help us with your donations to bring such stories of faith that make a difference in the Church and society.
A small contribution of US$5 will support us continue our mission…
William J. Grimm
UCA News

Share your comments

1 Comments on this Story
It is quite plain that the RSS is the greatest antinational force in the country, trying to break, divide and destroy the country. It is both anti-Christian and anti-Hindu (in a hidden way). It follows the path of darkness like a brute without any conscience, moral or remorse.
Asian Bishops
Latest News
UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia
UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia
UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia