By Robin Gomes
The Seven Sister States of India is a popular term for the 7 contiguous states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura prior to the inclusion of the state of Sikkim into the North Eastern Region of India. They share borders with China, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal. Some of these states have sizeable Christian populations, mostly Protestants.
Among these, Manipur state has a population of some 2.85 million, mostly ethnic and tribal groups, the majority of whom are Hindus. Christians come next with over 41 % of the population. Of these, Catholics number only some 98,000.
Archbishop Dominic Lumon of Imphal, the capital of Manipur state, was recently on his so-called “ad limina” visit to Rome, which bishops of dioceses around the world are required to make every 5 years or so.
He spoke to Vatican News about the Church in the Seven Sister States as well as in his native state of Manipur.
Church in the Seven Sister States
He noted that despite the remoteness and poverty of the North Eastern Region, people there have embraced Christ. Today, the Church of the region has many native bishops who are sending missionaries to other dioceses.
Except for Assam, the rest of this remote area is economically very poor and geographically remote with hardly any industry.
The Catholic Church came to the north-east region about 100 years ago, and the Gospel message has been well received by many tribes and linguistic groups. Today, the Seven Sisters have 15 dioceses, and about 50% of them have native bishops.
Church in Manipur
The Church in Manipur is hardly 70 years old. The first missionaries were Italian missionaries of the Salesians of Don Bosco (SDB). But in the late 1960s when the Indian government asked foreigners to quit, missionaries from south India, particularly from Kerala state, came and established the Church. Today, if the Church in Manipur is strong, it is because of the missionaries from south India.
Initially, Catholic missionaries used to occasionally come from Dibrugarh, Shillong and other places and go. When Italian Salesian Bishop Oreste Marengo was made Bishop of Dibrugarh in 1951, he sent 2 resident missionaries to Manipur. With this, the organized mission of the Catholic Church began in the state. From then on, there was no stopping.
The Diocese of Manipur was erected in 1980, and in 1995 it became an archdiocese. The first bishop and archbishop of Imphal was Joseph Mittathany from Kerala.
From a receiving Church to a missionary Church
Archbishop Lumon said that they have received the faith and today, many of their young men and women are coming forward to become priests and religious and are ready to serve other lands. They are encouraging their seminarians to opt for neighbouring dioceses.
Currently, 60% of the clergy and religious of Imphal Archdiocese are native vocations. The mostly young locals are replacing the ageing missionaries of the past. Even though the archbishop welcomes vocations from outside, locals are now opting for the priesthood and religious life.
Emigration of young people
The emigration of Manipur’s young people to other states of India is a huge problem, according to Archbishop Lumon. He pointed out that since there are no opportunities in Manipur, there are sizeable sections of young people from Manipur in every big metropolitan city of India, either for studies or for employment.
Besides being a brain drain, he explained, emigration is also a financial drain because thousands of parents are financing their children outside the state, with the result that a lot of money is being drained out of the state.
For the 71-year old archbishop, “Education is the need of the hour.” Today, each of his 55 parishes and mission stations has a school where some 70,000 students below 15 years of age are being educated. One of the best colleges, he said, is run by the Salesians, and there are 2 other colleges and a nursing college too.
The Church in Manipur is trying to provide young people with education and skill, so they can go out if they want. He said they don’t have any technical schools because there are no industries where they could find a job.
The Archdiocese of Imphal has a 150-bed hospital that caters to marginalized rural people. He noted that Imphal city has many specialized hospitals but they cater to rich people. The Church, instead, cares for rural people.
In the interior and remote areas, the Church has dispensaries run by nuns who are nurses, and they are doing “fantastic work”. But their work suffers because a government rule requires that every dispensary must have a doctor, but no doctor wants to go to these remote areas.
According to Archbishop Lumon, “agriculture is the mainstay of the people”, and the social service wing of the Church is providing agro-based social service. They train and help people in agriculture, horticulture, in the cultivation of fruits such as pineapples, bananas and many other crops. But the big problem is marketing these products as the remote areas are not connected. The archbishop hopes that with the arrival of train services in about 5 to 6 years, this problem will ease a bit.
The archbishop explained the rural poor youth who cannot afford to study in the state, much less go out elsewhere, “take to different ways of life”. Drug addiction is not a huge problem, he said, but it is a problem because sharing the border with Myanmar, Manipur is a corridor for drug trafficking.
There is also a high prevalence of HIV/AIDS, not because of sexual relations but due to drug abuse.
Archbishop Lumon explained that pointed out that young people also fall prey to ideologies. Manipur was never a part of India and many in Manipur resent Indian rule saying they must retain their original sovereignty. Other groups are also against the Indian rule, because of which, the archbishop said, Manipur has political instability and insurgency problems.
The Catholic Church arrived in Manipur 40 years later and the Protestants who are largely Southern American Baptists and Presbyterians. All Christian groups have the Manipur Christian Organization at the state level. Against any attack on Christian interest, they are all united. But relations turn sour when it comes to evangelization or what is called sheep-stealing.
Manipur has village village-based Churches. According to the local Protestant mentality, Archbishop Lumon explained, the Catholic Church cannot enter where there is already a Protestant Church. So this one-village-one-church policy, he said, makes ecumenical relations turn sour.