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Why are churches burning in India’s Manipur state?

Violence in the Indian state of Manipur has left more than 60 people dead, thousands displaced, and burned-out churches smoldering. 

A church set ablaze amid violence in the Indian state of Manipur. Courtesy photo.

Catholic leaders have strongly condemned the clashes and called for countrywide prayers for peace.

What is behind the conflict, and why has it set India’s Christian minority on edge?

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What happened?

Tensions had been rising for months in Manipur — one of India’s smallest states, located in the far northeast of the country — when thousands of people gathered May 3 for a rally in the state’s Churachandpur district.

They were protesting against moves to include the local Meitei community under India’s Scheduled Tribes category. They argued that the step would give the Meitei people — who account for more than half of the state’s population — greater access to land, jobs, and other resources at the expense of other ethnic groups.

The Meitei, who are predominantly Hindu, live in the state’s more developed central Imphal Valley but are not permitted to settle in the surrounding hilly regions, which constitute 90% of the state. The hill regions are reserved for the local tribal population, who are also allowed to live in the valley. 

The May 3 demonstration was organized by the All Tribal Students’ Union Manipur, a group associated with the Kuki people, a predominantly Christian hill tribe. The gathering descended into violence, though it is unclear precisely what triggered the skirmishes.

Over the next few days, armed mobs attacked cars, homes, and churches belonging to the Kuki community, setting them on fire. The fighting displaced an estimated 23,000 people, including Meiteis.

State authorities cut the internet temporarily as troops moved in to restore order with permission to “shoot on sight.”

A map showing the state of Manipur’s location within India. Filpro via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Is it a religious conflict?

While the clashes pitted a largely Hindu ethnic group against a chiefly Christian one, the dispute does not appear to be driven principally by religious differences. 

Commentators stress other factors such as the state’s changing demographics, and a battle over equitable access to land, healthcare, education, and jobs in a remote region with scarce resources.

Manipur borders Myanmar, a country engulfed in civil war since a military coup in 2021. The conflict has led to an influx of members of the Chin ethnic group, a kindred tribe of the Kukis. Local authorities have mounted a controversial eviction drive, seeking to clear illegal immigrants from forest settlements.

The Meitei have sought for years to be added to the Scheduled Tribes category, which would offer advantageous access to resources. On April 20, a judge at Manipur High Court asked the state government to consider the request. The May 3 rally was organized in response, so the Scheduled Tribes debate was a significant factor in the violence, though not the only cause.

Manipur has a history of violence and ethnic division. The princely state was incorporated into India in 1949, two years after the nation secured independence from British rule. The region has suffered a long insurgency, as well as bouts of ethnic conflict that echo the latest clashes. 

Yet according to the Catholic Archbishop Thomas Menamparampil, the religious dimension of the conflict should not be discounted.

The emeritus archbishop of Guwahati in Assam state, which borders Manipur, said that “what began as an inter-ethnic clash hastily developed an inter-religious dimension” due to the polarized atmosphere created by what he called “the majoritarian Hindutva regime at the national level.”

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The archbishop was likely referring to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which rules both India and Manipur state, and insists that Hindutva, or “Hindu-ness,” is the bedrock of the country’s culture.

Menamparampil connected the push to secure Scheduled Tribes status for the Meiteis with “the Hindutva demand that the tribal status be taken away from Christian tribal communities.” 

“Most tribal people in Manipur are Christians. A sense of fear united the entire Christian community belonging to various tribes into a single body,” he suggested.

Why does it matter?

Does an outburst of violence in a far-flung Indian state matter to Christians in the rest of the country?

Yes, it seems to matter a lot. Although the Kuki are predominantly Baptists, India’s Catholic leaders were quick to condemn the violence. 

Cardinal Oswald Gracias, the Archbishop of Bombay and a member of Pope Francis’ Council of Cardinals, expressed shock at what he called “the resurgence of persecution of Christians in the peace-loving state of Manipur.”

Archbishop Andrews Thazhath, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), appealed for nationwide prayers “for peace in the state of Manipur and for warring parties to enter into dialogue and rebuild Manipur into the beautiful, peace-loving place that it was.”

But unlike Archbishop Menamparampil, the serving archbishops did not connect the violence to wider political developments in India. 

The rising sense of competition for limited resources among Manipur’s ethnic groups appears to be making peaceful coexistence increasingly difficult.  

Menamparampil said that action needed be taken now to head off further outbreaks of violence.

“No community must be made to feel hoodwinked or bypassed. Existing privileges should not be taken away from weaker communities,” he commented. “At the same time, there should be a common effort towards general collaboration so that the majority community too will continue to prosper as in times past.”

The advocacy group Open Doors ranks India 11th on its 2023 World Watch List, saying that it is, in parts, “a scary place to be a Christian.” India’s 2011 census concluded that 2.3% of the country’s vast population is Christian. They are a tiny minority that feels perpetually vulnerable to majoritarianism. 

India is thought to have overtaken China as the world’s most populous nation. The country is a rising force on the international stage, and its policies on religious freedom affect hundreds of millions of people and shape global attitudes.

Manipur may seem like a world away, not only to Christians outside India but also to many within it. But for many Indian Catholics, it offers a chilling vision of what they fear could happen in their own areas if the spark of conflict were lit. 

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