An outbreak of communal violence in India’s north-eastern state of Manipur has seen as many as thirty-five churches destroyed in a tribal dispute over access to government recognition and resources.
Long-standing demands for affirmative action by the state's Meitei community have led to reaction from members of the existing Kuki tribe, who fear that their own access to jobs and resources will be lost.
A Christian-project leader in Manipur, Matthew, told Premier: “The demand for Scheduled Tribe status by the Meiteis, who make up the majority community in Manipur, has led to protests and violence with tribal groups opposed to this demand. This has resulted in forced evictions, property damage, and displacement of both Meiteis and Kukis.”
The Indian army has sent in a unit of the Assam Rifles to restore order, a curfew has been imposed and the internet suspended for five days. Video on social media shows armed youths on the streets and several church buildings that are on fire.
At least sixteen separate buildings of the Presbyterian Church of India have been destroyed by fire, according to a list from an Anglican missionary, seen by Premier. These include the Ningthoukhong Presbyterian Mission Compound in Manipur, which is described as the ‘oldest mission compound’ in the region. The document says the pastor’s quarters, Synod building, Sunday School Hall and kitchens were “all burned to ashes”.
“These are established churches there in their own right, strong and faithful who have been there for generations”, commented Ram Gidoomal CBE, Chair of South Asian Concern. “They're being seen with resentment and seen as easy targets - ‘let's burn them’”, he added.
Due to concerns for the safety of Christians in the region, sources have asked to remain anonymous, but include leaders from established churches.
Speaking to Premier, ‘Matthew’ went on to explain:
“The Kukis are the dominant tribal group in Churchandpur, while the Meiteis are the majority in Imphal. Government relief centres have been established in both locations to house the affected communities separately”.
Reports from several sources underline what is described as “the tense and volatile nature of the situation in Manipur”, with many Kuki Christian leaders in hiding and the urgent need for intervention to prevent further escalation of the conflict. Churches used by both communities have been burned.
“Inflammatory remarks made by a Meitei Christian pastor have sparked religious tensions, resulting in the burning of churches belonging to both Meitei and Kuki communities”, explained Matthew.
“This has worsened the religious and communal complexities of the situation, with allegations of Meiteis trying to expel all tribals from their areas and tribals retaliating by chasing Meiteis out of the hilly tribal regions”, he added.
According to Ram Gidoomal, the violence is not directly about religion but competition for scarce resources. “Scheduled caste status is given to those tribes that may face unfair discrimination in terms of jobs, in terms of income earning, and all that. So essentially, these tribes want to be recognised as scheduled tribes, they want that sort of classification. So what's happening is they feel discriminated against because they're not getting the jobs... that is the root cause of what is going on” he explained.
Ram Gidoomal urged prayers for Manipur: “Pray for peace, for reconciliation, for wisdom for all who are involved in this and especially for the leaders, but pray also for the federal government to take this seriously and seek to achieve a compromise between those who are seeking tribal status”, he said.
“That is the heart of it, economy and jobs. It's not really about religion or faith. In this instance, I would argue that give people a job, give them food in their mouth, and that at least meets a very basic human need. And that's what we need to pray for”, he concluded.