Christians Targeted in Bloody Ethnic Conflict in India’s Manipur State

An estimated 160 people have died since the violence erupted in the northeastern Indian state on May 3.

Torched vehicles at the Pastoral Training Center (PTC) in Manipur.
Torched vehicles at the Pastoral Training Center (PTC) in Manipur. (photo: Courtesy photo / Imphal Archdiocese/Anto Akkara)

The local Catholic Church has been shocked by the outburst of ethnic conflict in Manipur state in northeast India. The violence has resulted in 60 deaths officially reported and with an unofficial death toll estimated at 160 — the majority of them tribal Christians — and the displacement of nearly 50,000 people along with dozens of churches and other institutions looted and torched.

“This violence is the worst in the history of Manipur,” Archbishop Dominic Lumon of Imphal, told the Register May 10. Imphal is the capital of Manipur.

“We are worried as it is still simmering in peripheries [mountain areas] and communication is curtailed. Tension is widespread and there is a sense of desperation,” added the archbishop.

To curb rumors that are helping to fan the violence, the Manipur state government has blocked all social media in the region.

“The unprecedented violence has taken the State of Manipur like a storm. … Precious lives have been lost, houses burned or destroyed, belongings vandalized and looted, places of worship desecrated and set ablaze. Thousands have been displaced and rendered homeless and are languishing in different shelters in military barracks and relief camps,” the archdiocese of Imphal said in a press statement on May 10.

Interior shot of a burnt hall at the Pastoral Training Center. courtesy
Interior shot of a burnt hall at the Pastoral Training Center.(Photo: Courtesy photo)

The violence erupted May 3 following a protest by tribal student organizations against the state’s High Court ordering the extension of statutory Scheduled Tribe (ST) status — which mandates free education and quotas in professional education like medicine and engineering and quota in government jobs — to members of the state’s majority Meiteis, most of whom are Hindus and who account for 53% of Manipur’s nearly 4 million people.

Scheduled Tribe status is a provision enshrined in India’s federal constitution to protect the interests of ethnic communities that historically have been geographically isolated and economically backward. The status is conferred on groups by India’s national government, not by individual state governments.

Holy Redeemer Church and school vandalized. courtesy
Vandalized Holy Redeemer Church and school. (Photo: Courtesy photo )

Local media have reported that the peaceful protest, in the city of Churachandpur located in south Manipur, was disrupted by a truck hitting a tribal motorcycle. The truck’s Meitei driver was beaten up by the protesters.

Following this, a tribal war memorial was torched by the Meiteis in retaliation, triggering the widespread violence between the tribals and Meiteis that soon engulfed the Imphal valley dominated by the Meiteis.

The unofficial death toll of more than 160 “may rise rapidly” according to The Shillong Times, a regional daily newspaper.

More than 40 churches of different denominations have been desecrated and torched across the state as majority of the tribals are Christians.

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) in a May 6 statement said, it was “deeply saddened and shocked to note the resurgence of persecution of Christians in the peace-loving state of Manipur.”

Alongside of the CBCI’s remarks, local Catholic cardinals and archbishops and regional Church bodies also issued press statements calling for end to the violence and the protection of the Christians.

Inside the torched Holy Redeemer Church in Canchipur. courtesy
Inside the torched Holy Redeemer Church in Canchipur.(Photo: Courtesy photo )

At an emergency May 8 hearing convened to address the violence in Manipur, India’s Supreme Court of India issued an order for “protection of displaced persons and religious places of worship.”

“We have made our concern explicit about the need for protection of people and property and the need for restitution and stabilization. This is a humanitarian problem. We are concerned deeply about the loss of life and property,” Chief Justice D.Y. Chandrachud told the federal and Manipur governments, which are both controlled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), The Hindu newspaper reported.

The court also noted that it was India’s president, and not the Manipur High Court, who has the authority to designate a community as a Scheduled Tribe.

Attacks on Catholics

“We have been targeted systematically and colossal damage has been done to our churches and centers,” Father Varghese Velickagam, vicar general of Imphal, told the Register.

The sprawling Pastoral Training Center in Imphal, he said, was raided four times on the night of May 3, by assailants searching for ethnic tribals who demanded verification of the identity of the 50 residents there.

Vehicles on the campus at the time were torched during each raid, and food was looted. The center was gutted as result, as was the St. Paul’s parish church on the campus on the following day.

Aftermath of looting at the Pastoral Training Center. courtesy
Aftermath of robbing and looting at the Pastoral Training Center. (Photo: Courtesy photo)

“The assailants were walking in freely with no police help arriving despite our repeated calls. They carried cooking gas cylinders from the Pastoral Training Center on the second day, put all the pews in the church together setting fire inside the church,” Father Velickagam said.

The damage to Catholic churches and other institutions is estimated at more than 200 million INR ($250,000).

Though no deaths have been reported among Catholics, as there are hardly any Catholics in the worst-hit Churachandpur area, the vicar general noted that several Catholics also have been beaten up for their Christian identity by the freely roaming mobs.

“Such organized attacks cannot just happen unless it was premeditated,” he said. “The targets of attack also smacked of fanatic elements out to disrupt the existence of Christianity under the pretext of preservation of culture.”

Some Jesuits living in the Moirang district of Manipur were stopped while returning after providing house blessings. Their van was torched by their attackers while the priests and scholastics were assaulted, but local residents rushed to give them shelter.

“Those who are causing trouble seem to have been sent from outside with a clear mandate to destroy the churches. Even the people who attacked our guys were from outside,” said Jesuit Father Richard Jarain.

St. Paul's Church was completely torched inside. courtesy
St. Paul's Church was completely torched inside.(Photo: Courtesy photo)

“The (Imphal) airport is crowded like a market. All those who have money are fleeing by air as road travel is not safe with sporadic violence continuing,” a Church worker who flew into Imphal on May 8 told the Register.

“Majority of the dead are tribal Christians,” Rev. Fanai Laldawngliana, former moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Manipur, told the Register from Churachandpur. But he also confirmed that some “Meiteis living in hill areas were also attacked with their houses and other properties torched.”

Shifting the Blame?

Reports say state police failed to intervene effectively to protect the minority tribals against assaults from the majority Meiteis. And many observers attributed the problems directly to the actions of the ruling BJP.

“The BJP’s attempt to resolve the problem by backing the Meitei community and projecting them as Hindu will only exacerbate the situation,” an article in the online Scoll news portal asserted on May 10.

The Pastoral Training Center dormitory has been completely destroyed. courtesy
The Pastoral Training Center dormitory has been completely destroyed.(Photo: Courtesy photo)

Meanwhile, a Hindu nationalist media outlet called the Organizer claimed that the Manipur violence has been carried out “with the support of Churches.”

“This allegation is baseless. The Church does not support or organize violence,” said Archbishop Lumon, dismissing the charge.

For his part, Rev. Laldwangliana expressed “shock” at the Hindu nationalist claim. “They are trying to find lame excuses to divert attention from the real culprits behind the bloodshed.”

“I was getting ready to preach at a church when news of the sudden violence came in,” recounted the senior Presbyterian pastor. “Soon after we left, mobs reached there to attack the Christians and the churches.”