Rioting mobs have taken the lives of at least six people and destroyed or burned down 25 churches in the northeastern Indian state of Manipur. Since May 3, thousands of victims, the majority of them Christians, have fled as their homes and businesses have gone up in flames.
While tensions over property rights and economic interests have existed between the state’s ethnic groups for decades, local leaders told CT that church burnings are the result of the growth of Hindu nationalism among the dominant Meite community.
The chief minister of Manipur, N. Biren Singh, described the situation as a “prevailing misunderstanding between two communities” and said that his government was committed to protecting “the lives and property of all our people.”
“We should not allow the culture of communal harmony in the state to be disturbed by vested interests,” Singh said, adding that he also intended to address the community’s “long-term grievances.”
Manipur borders Myanmar and is home to a diverse range of ethnic groups, including Meiteis, who are a numerical majority in the state and are predominantly Hindu, and various tribal communities, who are largely Christian.
Primarily based in Imphal Valley, a region which includes Manipur’s capital, the Meiteis have long dominated the state's political and economic landscape. Meanwhile, 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 the Hindu nationalist organizations 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.
This month’s violence came weeks after the Manipur High Court ordered the state government to respond to the Meitei community’s request for Scheduled Tribe status. The designation gives communities special constitutionally backed protections including reserved seats in the parliament and state legislatures, affirmative action in education and employment, and property protections.
But believing that this categorization would dilute their own protections and political representation, Manipur tribal groups have long fought this change.
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 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.
Christian leaders from the area told CT that they believed this violence was religiously motivated.
“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 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? 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 for security reasons 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.
On Wednesday, thousands of people across the state, the majority Christians, gathered locally to protest the Meitei’s demand. Although the event ended peacefully in several districts, there were reports of arson, vandalism, and confrontations in other areas.
In the district of Churachandpur, one unidentified group set fire to a famous war memorial. Infuriated by this arson, there was a clash among locals, resulting in the destruction of homes and forcing hundreds of residents to seek refuge in nearby forests. Retaliatory attacks by local youths targeted Meitei neighborhoods in Churachandpur, and the violence caused two deaths and injured 11. Some reports alleged attackers carried sophisticated weaponry.
In response, groups of people targeted several tribal neighborhoods in the capital city of Imphal. Residents told The Wire that mobs burned down 23 houses and injured 19 residents.
One victim of the attacks was a tribal legislative assembly representative who sustained severe head injuries and is currently in critical condition.
“Tribals were not prepared for a war. They were holding peace rallies against the demand for Scheduled Tribe status by Meiteis. The Meiteis on the other hand, were planning for this kind of confrontation for a long time, it seems. They collected gun licenses and guns and then lit the fire,” Haokip said.
In the wake of the violence, the government has imposed a curfew and suspended internet access. The severity of the situation has led the Indian government to deploy military to the affected areas and authorize it to use lethal force in “extreme cases” in addressing the increasing violence. The federal government has additionally invoked Article 355, giving it authority over the state of Manipur. More than 7,500 people have been evacuated to safer places.
As of the evening of May 4, interpersonal violence has abated, although some residents have reported burning buildings and church vandalism.
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. “We also appeal to the state and the union government to engage in constructive dialogue with all stakeholders to address the underlying causes of the conflict.”
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.”