In the State of Manipur India, ethnic tensions between the majority Meitei people and the minority ethnic Kuki/Zomi/Mizo people in Manipur spilled out into violence and targeting of minority religious communities. It is reported by local partners that Meitei mobs killed 50 people, injured hundreds, burnt or vandalized 130 churches, and have caused 1000s to be displaced mostly over the course of May 3rd-4th, 2023.
The state of Manipur is divided between the valley and the hill regions. According to the last Indian census, Manipur has a population of 28,55,794 of which approximately 58.9% live in the valley and 41.1% inhabit the hill regions. The hills comprise approximately 90% (or 20,126 sq. km) of geographical area of the state and are the homeland of the hill tribes ethnically divided into Naga and Zo (Zomi, Kuki and Mizo) ethnic tribes since the pre-colonial era. The ethnic tribes are largely Christian. The valley, on the other hand, is inhabited mainly by the Meitei (also Meetei or Meithei), who are largely Hindu.
Part of the tension leading to the outbreak of violence, was the consideration of including the majority Meitei people in the scheduled tribe category that is a program of affirmative action meant to ensure adequate representation and protection for historically and currently disadvantaged people groups in India. In April, the Manipur High Court asked the Indian government to decide on the Meitei community’s request for scheduled tribe status. Many of the ethnic minority groups in Manipur, who are already scheduled tribes, opposed the addition of the Meitei people as a scheduled group because the addition of the majority group in the region would reduce or erase their ancestral land and protected forests, job opportunities, economic programs, educational privileges, and other tribal benefits.
One of the immediate triggers for the violence was a protest ‘Tribal Solidarity March’ organized by the All-Tribal Students Union Manipur (ATSUM) in opposition to the demand for inclusion of the Meitei Community in the scheduled tribe category on May 3rd, 2023 10:30 AM in the hill areas of Manipur.
Key Issues: Ethnic Targeting and Attacks on Religious Communities
On May 3rd, a mob of counter-protestors, reportedly over 200 Meitei, clashed with the tribal protestors and killed a boy at 2:00 PM. They also burnt the centenary gate of Anglo-Kuki War, a valued tribal monument. The violence continued into the afternoon and some houses were burned. In the evening, groups of Meiteis started burning churches of the minority ethnic tribes and some Meitei churches at Imphal city. This was followed by forcible entry of Meitei mobs in Manipur University campus at 10:00 PM and threatened over 200 students of the Zo ethnic tribes, who were luckily taken by the Indian Army to the Army Camp. Violent Meitei mob then started attacking and torched tribal houses particularly houses of the Zo ethnic tribes in different tribal localities of Imphal city at 10:10 PM the same night. After that, the violent Meitei mob looted gun stores, Manipur Police, Village Defence Force, Manipur Rifles camps at 10:30 PM and burning of tribal houses was further intensified from the Meitei mob of over 2,000 at 11:00 PM all over Imphal City. On May 4th, the violence continued, with more churches and villages burned. The Indian army and paramilitary groups were able to eventually stop the violence with a curfew and reportedly evacuated over 20,000 people. The government shut down mobile internet services for 5 days throughout the state and issued a shoot on sight order in certain areas.
As of May 10th, 2023, the Kuki Baptist Convention and Churchandpur District Christians Goodwill Council recorded over 150 churches and church properties that were burnt, demolished, or vandalized, though this may not be a complete list of churches that were damaged. Targeted churches included those belonging to Baptists, Presbyterians, Catholics, Evangelical, and Assembly of God churches. The vast majority of these churches were completely burnt.
The Asia Pacific Baptist Federation issued a statement condemning “all forms of violence” and calling for “calm and the restoration of peace in Manipur.”
The federation—a regional affiliate of the Baptist World Alliance—includes 65 member conventions and unions in 22 countries and more than 40,000 churches.
“The reports of attacks on churches, sacred spaces, properties and individuals are deeply troubling and a violation of fundamental human rights,” the federation stated.
On 13 May, provoked by the tragic suffering and pain coming out from Manipur, 21Wilberforce Ambassador, Rev. Dr. Wati Aier, and a team of Forum for Naga Reconciliation (FNR) along with representatives from the NSCN (IM) and NNPGs travelled to the Kuki Baptist Association Mission Centre in Khaibung, Chümoukedima district, to stand in solidarity with those displaced by the violence. As they stand in solidarity with all people impacted by the riots, the NSCN (IM) and NNPGs through the FNR contributed relief materials in the form of 200 bags of rice and 15 bags of lentils (dal).
“Impossible becomes possible,” said Rev. Dr. Wati Aier, since “we are all human beings and can go beyond our hurts and pain, and it is a lesson for all of us to reach out to others.”
“The kind of response we are getting now from all the Naga Political Groups – in a normal situation, such things would be impossible, but to understand human pain and suffering is living, and so we must practice critical empathy,” he remarked.