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Manipur Violence: Thousands displaced, churches destroyed

Violence in the Indian state of Manipur has put India’s Christian minority on the edge.

Two days of violence against Christians in the northeastern Indian state of Manipur has left an indeterminate number of Christians dead. Thousands more have been displaced as a result of the unrest fueled by Hindu nationalism. Churches have been vandalised or burned down. The victims' needs are being assessed by CSI's local partner.

The attacks began on May 3, with incidents reported in the Imphal Valley and Churachandpur. The attackers are members of the predominantly Hindu Meitei ethnic community, which has long clashed with Christians over land ownership and the government's affirmative action policies, which are intended to assist the most socially disadvantaged groups.

On May 4, unconfirmed reports stated that at least 15 Christians had been killed and that houses and churches had been damaged, destroyed, or burned in 27 villages.

Despite the state government imposing a curfew in the affected areas and suspending internet access on May 4, mobs continued to attack Christians.

"Christians are being attacked in the presence of state police and commandos," a local source told CSI. “It doesn’t seem as if there’s a curfew, as mobs can be seen roaming the streets. All of my family members and friends have fled to the forest.”

Thousands evacuated

It is difficult to accurately assess the full extent of the damage inflicted on the Christian community due to the ongoing suspension of telecommunication services in Manipur, which borders Myanmar.

By the late evening of May 4, the intensity and frequency of the attacks had decreased after military personnel were deployed to the affected areas and police were given shoot-at-sight orders. Thousands of people were reportedly evacuated to safer locations by military personnel.

“The pogrom we were fearing didn’t happen,” the source said the following morning, adding, however, that tensions prevailed and some minor incidents were still being reported.

According to some media reports, members of the Meitei community have also been attacked.

Call for peace

The United Christian Forum of North East India has appealed for peace. “As a Christian organization, we believe in the value of human life and the importance of respecting the dignity of every individual,” the forum said in a statement.

“We call on all members of society to refrain from engaging in violent acts and to instead engage in peaceful dialogue to address their concerns.”

Explaining the background to the violence, the source said the Meiteis primarily inhabit the Imphal Valley, while the Christians, who are from various tribal communities, reside in the hills that surround it.

Although Hindus and Christians each comprise approximately 42 percent of the state's population, the Meiteis have held sway over political and economic life.

Unequal treatment

The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won the state election in 2017 at a time when Christians were struggling for equality.

Since his appointment, the state's Chief Minister N. Biren Singh has been promoting an “anti-tribal agenda,” the local source added, pointing out that Singh reclassified the majority of tribal settlements as reserved forests. As a result, those who live there were effectively labeled illegal immigrants. The tribal communities had been living in the forests for generations.

Singh also reportedly ordered the demolition of churches in the state capital of Imphal, alleging they were built on government land.

The government’s policies seem to be strategically aimed at economically weakening the tribal population while bolstering the Meiteis, the source said.

Special rights for Meitei

The Manipur High Court ordered the state government to respond to the Meitei community's request for tribal status in April, which would grant the Meitei community special protections such as reserved parliamentary and state legislature seats, affirmative action in education and employment, and property protection.

The unrest began on May 3, following a rally organised by a tribal student group, which was held to protest the demand by the Meiteis for legal recognition as a tribal group. According to reports, the protest was marred by violence. Soon after, reports surfaced of Meitei attacks on Christians that were indiscriminately lethal.

Following such widespread violence, it is critical to deliver justice to the victims and ensure that the state prevents such incidents from occurring again, according to CSI's local partner. "This will be the focal point of our intervention," they stated.

Copyright (C) 2023 Christian Solidarity International - USA. All rights reserved.

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