Manipur Church

The first eleven days of May 2023 have, in many ways, been a defining period of Indian history! Plenty has happened in a rapid-fire stream of events. Ironically, each one of them are indicators of how crimes and the criminalisation of society has become the ‘new norm’; these include, the May Day rallies with a focus on the four labour codes which are patently against the rights of workers; the U S Commission on International  Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its Annual Report on 1 May stating that conditions for religious freedom in India “continued to worsen in 2022”; the continued protest by the Indian women wrestlers at Jantar Mantar for the expulsion of the chief of the Indian Wrestlers Federation on very serious allegations; the Elections in Karnataka on 10 May (with communalism and corruption as the mainstay); the release of the fake, derogative and insensitive film ‘The Kerala Story’; the  release of World Free Press Index on 3 May which places India at a pathetic 161 out of 180 countries in a global survey; the release of the official data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) on 8 May, which states that just from Gujarat  there were  7,105 women went missing in 2016, 7,712 in 2017, 9,246 in 2018, and 9,268 in 2019, and 8,290 women went missing in 2020. A total of 41,621 women who  went missing  from Gujarat, in a span of five years; two Supreme Court orders on 11 May which directly hit out at the Governors of Maharashtra and Delhi for usurping the authority of the democratically elected Chief Ministers of their states. And much more!

Interestingly the recently released USCIRF Report stated, “Throughout the year, the Indian government at the national, state, and local levels promoted and enforced religiously discriminatory policies, including laws targeting religious conversion, interfaith relationships, the wearing of hijabs, and cow slaughter, which negatively impact Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Dalits, and Adivasis (indigenous peoples and scheduled tribes).” These past eleven days have also witnessed large-scale violence on Christian tribals in Manipur state and continued attacks on Church personnel and institutions in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and elsewhere. The USCIRF report, though focussing on 2022, is spot-on the reality which Christians in India have to face today with frightening regularity!

The violence which erupted in Manipur on 3 May has been simmering since years now. It is basically an issue between the Meiteis who are largely concentrated in the Imphal valley and the tribals who live in the surrounding hills. Most of the tribals are Christian; whereas most of the Meiteis are Hindus, though there are some Christian Meiteis too, The Meiteis comprise about 60% of the population and they control political power (40 of the 60 lawmakers in the state assembly belonging to the Meitei community), have plenty of economic resources and are generally more educated than the tribals from the hills.

The Meiteis have been demanding Schedule Tribe (ST) status for themselves, since a long time now. The reason they give is that they too face economic and social difficulties due to illegal immigration from other states. They also claim that they are not allowed to live in the hilly areas of the state due to the laws protecting the Scheduled Tribes. On the other hand, the tribal communities, predominantly the Kukis (the largest tribe in Manipur), are opposed tooth and nail to the granting of ST status to the Meiteis. The Meiteis they say are not indigenous people and they fear that granting them ST status would mean that they would lose land resources and other privileges currently protected and guaranteed under Article 371C of the Indian Constitution.

The recent tragedy seems to have had its inception in the 27 March order of a single judge of the Manipur High Court; the order directed the Manipur government to consider the inclusion of the Meitei community in the list of Scheduled Tribes and to send a recommendation to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs expeditiously, preferably within a period of four weeks. The high court was hearing petitions that prayed for the inclusion of the Meitei community as a Scheduled Tribe in Manipur “to preserve the said community and save the ancestral land, tradition, culture and language”.MLAs from tribal areas have been petitioning the state government for an appropriate negotiation on the issues. However, the negotiations never took place, causing BJP MLAs belonging to the Kuki community to withdraw their support from the state government.

In a hearing in the Supreme Court on the Manipur violence on 8 May, the Chief Justice of India D. Y. Chandrachud strongly told senior advocate Sanjay Hegde, who represented the original petitioners in the case which led to the March 27 order in the Manipur High Court, “You should have told the High Court about Constitution Bench judgments which had held that the High Court does not have the power. It is a Presidential power to designate a Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe” It was so obvious that the Manipur judge had no right to pass an order which was patently anti- Constitutional; he was apparently bowing to the diktats of his political bosses and the Hindutvadis!

On expected lines, the tribals, whose lives and livelihood are at stake, were not going to keep quiet. On 3 May, the All Tribals Students Union of Manipur organised a protest march in which over 60,000 tribals participated. The protest was to voice their opposition to the order of the Manipur High Court asking the state government to send a recommendation to the central government to include the Meitei community in the Scheduled Tribe (ST) category. This had certainly hurt their sentiments; for them it was a non-negotiable. The protest followed large-scale violence. Who threw the first stone, is anyone’s guess! What is clear however is that the Hindu Meiteis went on a rampage: burning and killing, destroying houses and Churches mainly of the Christian Kukis but also of Christian Meiteis.

The violence which went on for some days has killed at least 62 people and displaced more than 35,000; about 300 people have been injured and more than 1,700 houses were burned. In a report on the Manipur violence, the well-known international advocacy group ‘Open Doors’ states, “It is the Christian community who was basically targeted .Reports suggest that more than 100 churches have been burned down. . . Many casualties have happened, but we are not able to establish how many. But 80 per cent of the people who have been killed are Christians. Everything which had a Christian identity or Christian mark was attacked by the majority community in Manipur.” The reality apparently is far more serious!

There is an eerie silence and a tense calm prevails at the moment in Manipur; but, no one is sure what the future holds. Thousands of Christian Kukis and other tribals have taken refuge in the neighbouring states and in make-shift relief camps. Expressing his anguish on the crisis CJI Chandrachud, in his comments in the Supreme Court hearing, told the Centre and the Manipur Government, We have made our concern explicit about the need for protection of people and property and the need for restitution and stabilisation. This is a humanitarian problem. We are concerned deeply about the loss of life and property” The petition filed by the Manipur Tribal Forum  states that “the attacks had the full support of the party in power in the State as well as the Centre which supports the dominant group and has planned the attacks on account of a non-secular agenda.”. The divisive game-plan of the ruling regime is there for all to see! It will be a long time before peace (leave alone a sustainable one) is restored in Manipur!

In keeping with the ‘Hindutva’ agenda of the ruling regime, attacks continue on the Christian minority. The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) chairperson Priyank Kanoongo continued to be at his vicious best attacking Christian institutions and ranting and raving that children in these institutions were being ‘forcibly’ converted. On 8 May, without prior intimation Kanoongo went unannounced along with CWC State and District teams and a police force to the St Francis Orphanage, in Sagar in Madhya Pradesh. The renowned orphanage is doing humanitarian service for the orphans and differently -abled children at Shampura for the past 150 years. The selfless work of this institute in the caring of children in great need, has been recognised by all sections of society!

A statement on the raid said, “They did not give any prior information for their visit, or they have not given any intimation for any kind of search warrants or orders. Irrespective of producing the status quo order by the Honourable High Court of Jabalpur, the NCPCR and CWC authorities have ransacked the entire premises. The office computers and files were destroyed. The rooms of sisters in the convent in the Orphanage was raided unlawfully. They desecrated the altar of century-old church in the campus. When the priests of the place objected to any kind of search, they were beaten up by the police and took two of the priests into custody. Now they under bail. The NCPCR and CWC forcefully took away CCTV DVR, Office computers, mobile phones of priests, documents of inmates etc. They shifted an inmate citing they found his parents without any proper documentation. The action of NCPCR and CWC on St. Francis Orphanage is illegal in action and contempt of court procedure.

Kanoongo’s track record against minorities would make an impartial citizen of India hang one’s head down in shame. On 13 December 2021, he directed the Gujarat Police to register an FIR against the Missionaries of Charity (Mother Teresa sisters) in Baroda for allegedly “luring young girls into Christianity and hurting Hindu religious sentiments.” An allegation which was false and fabricated. Early in March, he insisted that the principal of a Catholic School in Jabalpur be arrested for unsubstantiated charges and that the Catholic Bishop of Jabalpur be booked for fraud! His agenda is clearly to defame Catholic institutions and the good work done by the Christians!

On 7 May, more than one hundred Hindutva’ elements forcibly entered the Catholic Vishwadeep School in Durg (40 kms from Raipur) Chhattisgarh, where a summer catechesis camp was being held for almost 200 catholic children from Standards VII-XII. They alleged that the program was meant ‘to convert Hindu” children to Christianity’. They left only after the police and Government officials came to the school and intervened.

All the above are not just aberrations but a meticulously planned effort to put Christians on the back-foot. There are any number of documented instances of attacks on Christians and Christian institutions since 2014 and particularly in the last five years!  The agenda of the ruling regime is clear: they would like to raise the ‘bogey of conversion’ as much as possible in their desire to bring in a national ‘anti-conversion law’. By doing so, they ensure that the minorities (particularly Muslims and Christians) toe their fascist line. It will make it much easier for them to realise their ultimate goal of a nation- state by 2025! They have no qualms of conscience in stating this; time and again the likes of Anant Kumar Hegde, a BJP leader, has been saying “we are here to change the Constitution”. He is certainly not lying!

There are certainly several voices that speak out against the atrocities to which the Christians in many parts of the country are subjected to. There are outstanding examples like Archbishop Peter Machado of Bangalore who have taken a visible and vocal stand and at great risk! There are other individuals and groups: clerics, religious and laity who run the race selflessly and even ready to lay down their lives like Jesuit Fr Stan Swamy for a greater cause. This is not enough! Much more needs to be done!

Sadly, a large percentage of the hierarchy, the clergy, religious and laity do not want to be a witness to the person and message of Jesus in today’s India. Most prefer to remain ensconced in their comfort zones. Whilst there are certainly some statements that have been issued by some Bishops on the killings and attacks of the Christians of Manipur, most of these clearly lack the necessary condemnation and the transparent courage to hold the Government responsible. Several Bishops are afraid that if they do not toe the line of the Sangh Parivar and their ilk, there will be plenty of skeletons tumbling out of their cupboards! Some of the hierarchy have the audacity and the dishonesty to say that the so-called attacks on the Christians are just ‘a few and far apart’! That the Church in India today pathetically lacks servant-leadership wedded to the Gospel of Jesus and the Constitution of India is there for all to see! Falling prey to a fascist agenda, like the Kerala Bishops Council regarding the fake and derogatory film ‘The Kerala Story’ as ‘a work of art’ is a sign of how pathetic the situation has become! Crimes are committed by those in power today; these need to address! Complicity in these crimes is a betrayal of Jesus and his Gospel!

In 2018 the CBCI Assembly had ‘United in Diversity for a Mission of Mercy and Witness: ‘I am with you always, to the end of the age’ ” (Mt 28: 20) as their theme! Their statement said, “Any attempt to promote nationalism based on any one particular culture or religion is a dangerous position. It may lead to uniformity but never to genuine unity. Such misconceived efforts can only lead our nation on the path of self-annihilation. Mono-culturalism has never been and can never be the right answer to the quest for peace, progress and development, especially in a country like ours that has a rich diversity of culture, language, region, race and religion. Violence always recoils upon the violent sooner or later, “For all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mt 26: 52). We deplore the rising incidence of atrocities against women, killings, caste rivalries and communal violence which includes attacks on Christian institutions and communities. Therefore, let us follow the path of true nationalism that can lead our motherland to true peace, harmony, progress and prosperity. Authentic nationalism respects the human dignity of every citizen, regardless of one’s economic status, culture, religion, region or language”. The tribals of Manipur, the Christians and other minorities who are under attack ,want the Church to use similar words today!

Fr Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights, reconciliation and peace activist/writer. Contact: [email protected]

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