Indian Prime Minister Modi Finally Comments on Manipur Violence, Church Says It Is ‘Too Late’
While he finally condemned the continuing bloodshed, more than two months after Christians were targeted by deadly ethnic strife, critics say his muted response refutes claims his Hindu nationalist party will protect Christians’ security.
With India and observers elsewhere in the world stunned by a viral video of the naked parading and public rape of two Christian women in simmering Manipur state, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had little option but to break his widely deplored silence on the bloodshed there.
“The video showing atrocity against women in Manipur is the most shameful,” acknowledged Modi while entering the Indian Parliament on July 20 for its monsoon session, reacting to the shocking May 4 video. Amid the national outcry, Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has banned viewing of the video in India.
“The Manipur incident has shamed the entire humanity and [1.4 billion] people of the country are feeling shamed,” added Modi.
Modi’s delayed response was criticized by Catholics leaders.
“The Prime Minister’s reaction has come too late. He should have spoken out when the bloodshed started but just kept quiet all through,” Archbishop Dominic Lumon of Imphal, who heads the Catholic Church in the strife-torn state, told the Register.
“Fear is pervasive even now [after 79 days] and peace remains a dream for us. Everyone is living in fear as violence keeps erupting in the [Imphal] Valley and its peripheries frequently,” added Archbishop Lumon, who heads the 100,000-member local Catholic Church in the tiny state in northeast India, which has a total population of less than four million people.
“On some days, there is relaxation of curfew. But yesterday it was strict curfew due to fresh violence.”
Manipur erupted into violence on May 3, following a solidarity march by members of the predominantly Christian Kuki tribal community protesting a controversial order from the state High Court calling for extending Scheduled Tribe status to the ethnic Meiteis, originally followers of indigenous Sanamahism with many converts to Hinduism as well as some Christian converts, who constitute over 52% of the state’s population. Scheduled Tribe status is a provision of India’s national constitution that mandates free education and quotas in professional education like medicine and engineering, and in government jobs.
Reports of tribal Kuki attacks on ethnic Meiteis circulated immediately after the protest, which in turn plunged the Imphal Valley that accommodates 90% of Manipur’s population into an outburst of violence against Kuki tribal Christians. At the same time, ethnic Meitei settlements in the Kuki-dominated hills surrounding the valley also were the targets of violence.
While the official death count now totalling around 150, with the overwhelming majority of the victims being Kuki Christians, human rights observers estimate the figure to be underestimated.
“Though we have very few Kukis in the Imphal valley, a dozen of our churches have been destroyed. All our 500 families around Sugnu church had to flee for life when the violence started. They are now refugees in safe areas while our oldest church at Sugnu was gutted nearly a month later,” said Archbishop Lumon.
Though Archbishop Lumon did not personally elaborate about how the church was burned down, and how non-Manipuri nuns and others were evicted from a convent and school complex, news media have published reports of Meitei fundamentalists fighting security forces and carrying out arson attacks at that time in late Mary, immediately ahead of a visit by India’s Home Minister Amit Shah to survey the situation in the state.
Nearly 60,000 people, most of them Kuki Christians, now have fled their homes to the Kuki-dominated hills and to other states to escape the arson attacks, and more than 300 churches have been burned and destroyed.
According to multiple media reports, a clear anti-Christian political agenda is in play in the strife, with the Hindu nationalist BJP state government condoning the targeted violence by Meitei groups.
Despite actions such as the attempted looting of government weaponry by Meitei fundamentalists, the government has taken little action against them and confined itself to a muted appeal for the return of thousands of other stolen police weapons that had been used in attacks on Kuki villages. A defiant fundamentalist mob even burned the property of a BJP Meitei minister L Susindro, infuriated because of his installation of a “drop box” to facilitate the anonymous return of looted weapons.
A week after the July 2 beheading of David Thiek, a Christian Kuki, the Register telephoned Meirembam Ramesh Mangang, the alleged beheader of Thiek who was photographed holding the head in his left hand and a blood-stained dagger in the other, to confirm the legal impunity that is reportedly extended to such Meitei assailants by local authorities.
Remaining free despite Kuki representatives circulating a “wanted poster” with photos of him, Mangang’s response when answering the phone was “Are you a Hindu or Christian?” When told that the caller was an “Indian” and a journalist, he disconnected without further comment.
Yet another shocking killing took place in Imphal on July 15, when Lucy Maring, a mentally ill Christian tribal woman, was kidnapped, shot and her face disfigured.
Christians Elsewhere Respond
“On the positive side, Christians and churches outside [the state] are coming out in protest and extending support to us,” Archbishop Lumon said. I am glad that even bishops are coming to visit Manipur and speak up for us in this hour of crisis.”
Archbishop Andrews Thazhath, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, headed a team that the conference sent to the state on July 23-24, to express solidarity with the beleaguered local Christians and others who have been targeted there.
“It is our earnest appeal that the governance system should uphold the secular fabric of our country, reinforce constitutional values and cultivate an environment of peaceful co-existence of various communities,” the bishops’ conference said in a statement following the visit.
In the statement, the CBCI team said it was “heart-wrenching” to view communities that are now deserted as a result of the violence, and are likely to remain uninhabited for the time being “ given the mutual mistrust and fear that continues to prevail.” The team also expressed concern regarding “what is the actual situation and the future of those who have fled from these places and the future of their children, in the midst of all these vulnerabilities.”
The unprecedented attacks on Christian targets in Manipur have galvanized Christians across the country to participate in the street protests, including at the parish level in the southern Christian heartland of Kerala, where Hindu nationalists led by Modi have been trying to woo Christians to support the BJP by assuring them of “security.”
The accommodating attitude some Kerala bishops displayed to these BJP overtures was evident when Archbishop Joseph Pamplany of Thalassery declared that he will support the party if rubber prices are increased in order to address the plight of local farmers, drawing strong criticism from some Catholics.
However following the protracted bloodshed in Manipur targeting Christians under Modi’s silence, Archbishop Pamplany reversed his stand and declared on June 29: “Can the Prime Minister who said in the U.S. that there is no discrimination in India say the same before the Christians in Manipur?”
“The government is bound to ensure that the right to life and the freedom to practice the religion of one’s choice, guaranteed by the Constitution, are protected,” said Archbishop Pamplany.
European Union Resolution
The situation in Manipur has also provoked international concerns. On July 13, the European Union parliament passed a resolution urging India to “take all necessary measures and make the utmost effort to promptly halt the ongoing ethnic and religious violence, to protect all religious minorities, such as Manipur’s Christian community, and to pre-empt any further escalation.”
In response, the Modi government denounced the resolution as “unacceptable,” stating that it reflected a “colonial mindset” and constituted “interference in the internal affairs of the country.”
Jesuit Father Cedric Prakash, an outspoken human rights activist, decried the Indian government’s “blunt rejection” of the EU resolution. Speaking with the Register, he also criticized the U.S. and French governments for rolling out the “red carpet” for Modi during visits there in recent weeks, and for remaining silent about the continuing conflict in Manipur.
This political disconnect from human rights was most evident in France, where Modi was the chief foreign guest on July 14 at France’s national Bastille Day celebrations.