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Manipur Unrest: Many Churches Burnt, Curfew Imposed

IC Correspondent IC Correspondent
05 May 2023
When a tribal person posts anything against the state, he is arrested, but this never happens when Meitei people make inciting and communal comments against the ethnic minority/tribals.

The situation in Manipur is grim and every one is tensed. Is it the result of some stray fight turned into a full-blown civil unrest or well planned and executed Pogrom?

I was on a work visit to Churachandpur (the locals call LAMKA) district from 25 to 30 April. Indigenous Tribal Leaders Forum (ITLF) called eight-hour bandh on 28th April from 8 am to 4 pm to protest against the eviction of Kuki villagers from protected forests. 

The bandh was total but after 5 pm the police along with paramilitary and commandos started to gather at New Lamka along with many vehicles and the area was getting tensed. 

Shortly, gun shots were heard while shouts of anger also filled the area. Tear gas shells were lobbed; for the first time I experienced burning in eyes and irritation on the nostrils but the youngsters on the street were boldly pushing the forces back. It was like a battle field with well-trained groups advancing and retracting. The mob went back joyous when the police released some of the leaders, who were arrested that evening on suspicion of burning a gym.

On the previous night, an open gym at PT Sports complex at New Lamka town was set on fire by miscreants and the District Magistrate ordered IPC 144 and imposed Public Curfew prohibiting the movement of any person.  

On 3rd March, a Tribal Solidarity March was announced by student organizations in all the 10 hill districts of the State and thousands of tribals participated, singing “we shall over come”.

The main grievances of the protesters are the following:

1) The demand for Scheduled Tribe status by the dominant Meitei community and the recommendation of the Manipur High Court. 2) The declaration of the tribal lands as reserved and protected forest without the information and consent of the hill tribals. 3) The abuse of government machinery by elected leaders to coerce the masses to fulfil communal purpose. 

There are several reasons why the protesters oppose the Meitei demand for ST status. Some of them are the following:

1. If the dominant community of Meitei is granted ST recognition, the Constitutional provision of Article 371 C that safeguards the interest of the present Scheduled Tribes can be rendered null and void. The category of ‘Scheduled Tribe’, meant to safeguard the hills’ tribals from the dominant community, will be rendered meaningless.

2. All the constitutional provisions meant to safeguard the tribals from the dominant Meitei community will be rendered useless. This includes: The Hill Areas Committee order 1972; the Manipur Land Reform and Land Revenue Act 1960; the Manipur Hill Areas Village Authorities Act 1956; and the Manipur Hill areas District Councils Act 1971.

The state claims that tribals are encroaching on reserved and protected forest. But the protesters counter it on many grounds:  

1. The Hill tribes have always inhabited the hills, even before the formation of Manipur as a state. They are indigenous to the hills which were only put together as part of Manipur by the British. 

2. The declaration of reserved and protected forest was not made with the informed consent of the tribals. The tribals, who are the first stakeholders, must first and foremost be made to understand the implications of declaring reserved forest.

3. There are ongoing law suits by Tribal Chiefs and Human Rights Organizations against the declaration of reserved forests. The state is bulldozing over due constitutional procedure. 

4. The Hill Area Committee (HAC) has not been consulted regarding these declarations. This is a breach of the Hill tribals constitutional safeguards.

The state claims that the hills are hotbed of drug cartels. But the protesters argue that the state is not taking action in this regard. They make the following counter-claims:  

1. There are many insurgent groups in Manipur. Many of them rely on such drug trade. Who, however, really profits from this? A few rich and powerful people, some in the hills, but most of them in the valley with connections to politicians. 

2. They can catch drug peddlers in the hills anytime. The state should answer why it is not arresting the Kingpins. 

The protesters point out that the Manipur Government is communal. They substantiate their claim by pointing out the following points: 

1. The construction and opening of Chandrakirti statue in Behiang, where a renowned tribal chief was deceived by two Meitei generals. 

2. The imposition of section 144 Cr. P.C. whenever the tribals mobilise to demand their rights. This law is only supposed to be used when there is threat of violence. 

The previous SP of Churachandpur was transferred immediately after the people demanded their rights on 10th March because he allowed them to march peacefully. 

3. When a tribal person posts anything against the state, he is arrested, but this never happens when Meitei people make inciting and communal comments against the ethnic minority/tribals.

4. The government servants, district employees and Job Card holders are always forced to join various programmes that have no relation with their job or designation. This happened when Chandrakirti park was opened, during the Sangai festival, and then again when the open gym was to be inaugurated.Those Job holders are often given show cause notices, get transferred or given some other punishment for not complying with the orders.

Jesuits Attacked

On the fateful 3rd May evening, in the district of Bishnupur, a Jesuit team was attacked by a mob near Moirnag. 

The team was returning, after house blessings, to their residence in Moirang, some 45 km south of the state capital of Imphal, when an angry mob stopped their vehicle.

They were allowed to go ahead as some persons in the crowd recognized the vehicle but some drunken people who were ahead of the crowd misunderstood that the Jesuit team had ignored the people’s demand to stop.

They forced the vehicle to stop, broke its windshields and assaulted those inside — priests, seminarians and a lay teacher. The priests and seminarians were wearing the cassock. The mob also burned the vehicle.

However, some local people took the Jesuit team to their homes and protected them. Later, they took the team to the police station, where they spent the night. Two seminarians in the team were injured and given first aid in a hospital. They returned to their friary safely. 

Some people with vested interests seem to give the issue a communal colour. They go round destroying churches in the Imphal Valley. A few churches have been destroyed even in the Moirang area under Bishnupur district.

Until now, as many as 24 churches belonging to different Christian denominations have been destroyed since the trouble began, according to a list circulated among Christian groups in the region.

It was shocking to read the names of 16 people allegedly killed by the Meiteis and 27 villages where houses were burned down. 

Those causing trouble seem to be outsiders who have come with a mandate to destroy churches. Even the attackers of the Jesuit team were apparently outsiders.

Church expresses anguish

A forum representing Christians of all denominations in north-east India expressed anguish over the ongoing unrest in Manipur where the government has issued “shoot-at-sight orders in extreme cases.”

The order was issued by T Ranjit Singh, the state’s Commissioner of Home, in the name of the Governor of Manipur.

The administration has suspended internet for five days to prevent rumors from spreading. But it has severely affected dissemination of news from the troubled areas.

Primarily based in Imphal Valley, a region which includes capital, the Meiteis have dominated the state's political and economic landscape. Tribal communities make up around a third of the population (35.4%) and are mainly concentrated in the hills surrounding the valley, 90 percent of the state’s geographical area.

For decades, the issue of land ownership and control has been a source of conflict between the two groups. But in recent years, these tensions have been exacerbated by the political influence of organizations like Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which have sought to promote their faith as the dominant religion in India and have used the Meitei community to advance their political agenda in the state.

While area leaders believe that the violence was largely a reaction to this political decision, they see its viciousness and severity, particularly the attack on churches, as the growth of the influence of the BJP and the RSS. Radical Hindu ideology historically has struggled to find a foothold in Manipur, because of its mix of tribal, Hindu, Christian, and Muslim communities.

“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 the 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 it? 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 asked to be identified by the name Lien.

After the BJP came to power in 2017, it sought to create a Hindu nationalist identity for the Meitei community. This encouragement to see themselves as part of the Hindu-fold has come even as nearly 10 percent of the community practice an indigenous religion known as Sanamahism.

After the court’s April 19 directive, the state government was given a four-week deadline to review the Meitei community’s request and make a recommendation to the federal government for its consideration.

The Evangelical Fellowship of India expressed sadness and concern over the violence, though it did not link the event to religious extremism or suggest that Christians had been 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. 

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.”

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