Muslim Mirror News
Rioting mobs have taken the lives of at least six people and destroyed or burned down 25 churches in the northeastern Indian state of Manipur. Since May 3, thousands of victims, the majority of them Christians, have fled as their homes and businesses have gone up in flames, Christianity Today reported.
According to the newspaper’s local sources, longstanding tensions over property rights and economic interests between various ethnic groups in the state have created a volatile environment. However, these sources believe that the recent wave of church burnings is primarily linked to the increasing prevalence of Hindu nationalism among the Meite community, which holds significant political power.
The chief minister of Manipur, N. Biren Singh, described the situation as a “prevailing misunderstanding between two communities” and said that his government was committed to protecting “the lives and property of all our people.”
“We should not allow the culture of communal harmony in the state to be disturbed by vested interests,” Singh said, adding that he also intended to address the community’s “long-term grievances.”
The state of Manipur, located near the border of Myanmar, boasts a rich ethnic diversity, with a number of different groups coexisting within its borders. The Meitei people form the largest demographic within Manipur, and are predominantly followers of the Hindu faith. Meanwhile, several tribal communities reside in the region, with many of them being predominantly Christian.
Churches are being attacked in Manipur, India. The regime fails to contain the violence – it may spread to Nagaland. pic.twitter.com/IwhiTYygNe
— Ashok Swain (@ashoswai) May 4, 2023
The Meitei population, mostly concentrated in the Imphal Valley where Manipur’s capital is located, has traditionally wielded significant political and economic power in the state. Conversely, the tribal communities, who constitute roughly 35.4% of the population, are primarily located in the hill areas surrounding the valley, which make up 90% of the state’s territory.
For decades, the issue of land ownership and control has been a major point of contention between these two groups. However, tensions have recently escalated due to the growing political influence of the Hindu nationalist organizations Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). These groups seek to promote Hinduism as the dominant religion in India and have exploited the Meitei community’s political clout to further their agenda in Manipur.
The recent outbreak of violence in Manipur occurred shortly after the Meitei community requested Scheduled Tribe status from the state government. This designation would provide the community with special constitutional protections, including reserved parliamentary and state legislature seats, affirmative action in education and employment, and property rights. However, tribal groups in the state have opposed this move, fearing that it could dilute their own protections and political representation.
BJP ruled State Manipur is burning.. driving wedges between communities have resulted in these riots . Army is called in. The same people want to set the most peaceful state – Kerala – on fire through bunch of lies – #TheKeralaStory ! Kerala will see through this diabolic game.. pic.twitter.com/McJs6LBHGy
— John Brittas (@JohnBrittas) May 5, 2023
While some believe that the violence was largely a response to this political decision, local leaders view it as a sign of the increasing influence of the BJP and RSS, particularly given the viciousness and severity of the attacks on churches. These groups have historically struggled to gain a foothold in Manipur due to its diverse mix of tribal, Hindu, Christian, and Muslim communities.
Christian leaders from the area told CT that they believed this violence was religiously motivated.
“In this pogrom, the Hindu Meiteis not only burned down churches belonging to tribals but also churches that exclusively belong to Meitei Christians,” said Ngaineilam Haokip, an academic at university in Kolkata, who grew up in Manipur. “They targeted their own brethren who follow Christ by burning their churches.”
“If this is not a pogrom, what is? They are burning churches when the protest rally was simply against the inclusion of Meiteis as Scheduled Tribe by All Tribal Student Union Manipur (ATSUM). There is definitely a religious angle here,” said a Christian leader in the area, who for security reasons asked to be identified by the name Lien.
Since the BJP came into power in 2017, it has pushed for the Meitei community to identify as part of the Hindu nationalist movement, despite the fact that roughly 10% of Meiteis practice an indigenous religion called Sanamahism.
In response to the Manipur High Court’s directive on April 19th, the state government was given four weeks to review the Meitei community’s request for Scheduled Tribe status and make a recommendation to the federal government for its consideration.
Following the Meitei community’s demand for Scheduled Tribe status, thousands of people across Manipur gathered on Wednesday to protest, with the majority being Christians. While some protests were peaceful, reports of arson, vandalism, and confrontations emerged in other areas.
In the district of Churachandpur, a war memorial was set on fire by an unidentified group, leading to clashes and destruction of homes, forcing hundreds of residents to seek refuge in nearby forests. Retaliatory attacks targeted Meitei neighborhoods in the district, resulting in two deaths and 11 injuries, with some reports suggesting that attackers used sophisticated weaponry.
As a response, some groups targeted several tribal neighborhoods in the capital city of Imphal, with mobs burning down 23 houses and injuring 19 residents. Among the victims was a tribal legislative assembly representative who suffered severe head injuries and is currently in critical condition.
“Tribals were not prepared for a war. They were holding peace rallies against the demand for Scheduled Tribe status by Meiteis. The Meiteis on the other hand, were planning for this kind of confrontation for a long time, it seems. They collected gun licenses and guns and then lit the fire,” Haokip said.
In response to the violence, the government has imposed a curfew and suspended internet access in the affected areas. The Indian government has also deployed the military to the region and authorized the use of lethal force in extreme cases. Additionally, the federal government has invoked Article 355, granting it authority over Manipur. More than 7,500 people have been evacuated to safer places.
As of the evening of May 4, the interpersonal violence has subsided, although some residents have reported incidents of burning buildings and church vandalism.
The Evangelical Fellowship of India expressed sadness and concern over the violence but did not attribute the events to religious extremism or suggest that Christians were targeted because of their faith.
“We call upon all parties involved to exercise restraint and work towards a peaceful resolution of the issues. We urge the people of Manipur to avoid forces that instigate division and cause polarization,” said Vijayesh Lal, the general secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India in a statement. “We also appeal to the state and the union government to engage in constructive dialogue with all stakeholders to address the underlying causes of the conflict.”
The North East Students Society of Delhi University, a group that represents the Christian tribal community, condemned what they described a “division along the lines of religious faith and communal identity fueled by political propaganda.” Representing a similar constituency, the Naga Students Union Delhi urged the government to “address the underlying issues that have led to these events by wider consultation with the various stakeholders.”