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Unholy horror of churches burnt in Indian ethnic violence

Large-scale attack on churches by mobs makes it evident that there is 'a religious angle to it,' says a Meitei Christian
A woman along with her child attends the Children's Mass at Baptist Convention Center church in Imphal on July 23

A woman along with her child attends the Children's Mass at Baptist Convention Center church in Imphal on July 23. (Photo: AFP)

Published: July 25, 2023 05:10 AM GMT
Updated: July 25, 2023 05:21 AM GMT

Charred walls, collapsed tin roofs and smashed windows in a burned Kuki community church illustrate how deadly ethnic violence has led to brutal sectarian attacks in India's troubled Manipur state.

At least 120 people have been killed since May in armed clashes between the predominantly Hindu Meitei majority and the mainly Christian Kuki in the northeastern state.

The ruins of the Kuki church in Imphal are just one among the more than 220 churches and 17 Hindu temples destroyed in the months of vigilante violence, according to a report by India Today news magazine.

Across the street from the burned church, Baptist priest Zuan Kamang Damai led a service on Sunday with a congregation just a third of its usual size of about 800 after many of his Kuki parishioners fled.

"After this violence erupted, they moved to different places to save their lives," he said.

"They want to come back, they want to resettle, they want to live with my family," Damai said. "This is what they responded to me, and I comfort them. God is there."

Damai is himself a Naga, another major tribal group in the area who have largely been spared in the cycle of revenge attacks.

But many of his regular worshippers are staying away, fearful of the possibility of violence.

"We have to respect each religion -- regardless of Christians, regardless of Hindu, Muslim, whatever," the 55-year-old said.

While there was "conflict here and there", he said, "we have to avoid attacking the temples".

Land, rights and power 

The cause of conflict is a complex mix of land, rights and power.

The Kuki oppose Meitei demands for reserved public job quotas and college admissions as a form of affirmative action, fearing that they might also be allowed to acquire land in areas currently reserved for tribal groups.

India's Interior Minister Amit Shah has promised a "thorough, in-depth and impartial investigation" into the violence and has said the government "stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the people of Manipur".

But the Human Rights Watch group says that state authorities, led by Shah's Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, have rolled out "politically motivated, divisive policies that promote Hindu majoritarianism".

Many say religious divisions are adding to the trouble.

While the majority Meitei people are largely Hindu, a small number are Christian and some say they too have been attacked.

B, a Meitei Christian who did not wish to be identified beyond an initial, described how he watched in horror as his church was burnt to the ground by a mob.

"The large-scale attack on churches across communities makes it evident that it has a religious angle to it," he said.

But others point out that while churches used by the Kuki community have been attacked, those of the Naga people have not.

Eva, a Christian with roots in both the Meitei and Naga communities who also asked for her real name not to be used, said the conflict is not just about land rights or government jobs.

"Meitei churches were vandalized and burnt," she said. "If it is just a Kuki and Meitei issue, then why were the Meitei churches attacked? The evidence is very clear cut."

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3 Comments on this Story
One reason for the attack (planned) on hilly areas (including hundred of churches) occupied by Kukis and other tribals (who are mostly Christians), and belong to Scheduled Tribes (ST) category, could be commercial exploitation for mining etc of such lands exclusively reserved for STs. The majority Meiteis who form 53% (according to 2011 census) of the Manipur’s population, have been demanding this (ST) status for more than a decade. ST status would give Meiteis access to the hilly areas exclusively reserved for Kukis and other tribes. Most media reports say that Meiteis (mostly Hindus) in spite of being the majority population, occupy only 10% (plains) of the landmass and that Kukis & other tribes occupy the balance 90% which is primarily hilly region. So despite being the majority, they feel they are being deprived from getting access / ownership of the hilly region which is reserved for STs. However, in the Telegraph dated 25th June 2023, Fr Walter Fernandes (Director, North-eastern Social Centre) has lucidly written that out of the reserved 90% of tribal land, 67% is forest cover and cannot be used for human settlement. Fr Fernandes has also given a very balanced analogy of the current Manipur problem. The link is: https://epaper.telegraphindia.com/imageview/437752/19029830/71.html Now coming back to commercial exploitation of land reserved for STs, in today’s (27th July) Anandabazar Patrika page 6, there is a report that the Manipur government has entered into a deal with the Godrej Group for exploiting 67,000 hectare of land in six districts of Manipur for commercial extraction of palm oil. One of the districts is Churachandpur which is predominantly occupied by Kukis and has been in the news of the mayhem in Manipur. Part of the Churachandpur land is reportedly being used for Poppy cultivation – which the Manipur government wants to stop. The Manipur government has denied any such arrangement but the Godjej representatives revealed this commercial cultivation in Guwahati deal during a recent convention on the prospects of Palm Oil in the North-east. The link is: https://epaper.anandabazar.com/imageview_71611_3245310_4_71_27-07-2023_6_i_1_sf.html The million dollar question is how could the Manipur government enter into any commercial agreement on using reserved land without taking the actual land owners of Churachandpur (Kukis and other tribals) into confidence?
So possession of this ninety per cent hilly terrain to be the root cause. The rest is eyewash which in technical parlance is Collateral Damage!
My earlier comments will be: So possession of this ninety per cent hilly terrain for large corporates appears to be the hidden agenda. The mayhem is eyewash which in technical parlance is Collateral Damage!
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