An Indian soldier inspects the ruins of a ransacked church in Manipur State An Indian soldier inspects the ruins of a ransacked church in Manipur State  (AFP or licensors)

Manipur Archbishop: 'Fear, uncertainty' following ethnic clashes in Indian state

A fortnight after violence first broke out in the Indian state of Manipur, Archbishop Dominic Lumon of Imphal appeals for aid for those affected, lamenting the loss of life due to mob violence.

By Joseph Tulloch

Two weeks ago to the day, a spate of ethnic violence erupted in the northeastern Indian state of Manipur.

Most of the victims belonged to the so-called "hill peoples", a majority-Christian collection of tribal groups concentrated in mountainous rural areas.

The clashes broke out after the hill peoples objected to the attempt by members of the Meitei ethnic group, which predominates in Manipur, to claim official tribal status. 

Government recognition of the Meitei as a "scheduled tribe" would allow them to compete with the hill peoples for the government jobs and university places reserved for tribal groups, as well as granting them access to the regions’ forests.

Violence over the past two weeks has seen at least seventy people killed, and thousands forced to flee, with schools, homes, churches and temples burnt. 

Local Archbishop’s appeal

Archbishop Dominic Lumon, the head of the Diocese of Imphal, which covers the entirety of the state of Manipur, has launched an appeal for funds for those suffering from the violence.

In a note accompanying the appeal, he says that “there is fear, uncertainty and a general sense of hopelessness and desperation” in the region.

“Two communities are warring,” he adds, “but it has affected all the people of Manipur irrespective of which community one belongs [to].”

Noting that reports show that at least 45,000 individuals have been displaced and are currently living in government-run refugee camps, he stresses that this information is based on the data he has available, and the actual number is likely higher.

An uncertain future

The Vicar General of the Diocese of Imphal, meanwhile, says that the violence has raised “unsettling” questions about the situation in the state. 

In a letter sent to all of India’s bishops, Fr. Varghese Velikakam says local police failed to stop the attacks. “Why is it that vulnerable places even after attempted attacks were left unguarded?” he asks.

"Unconfirmed numbers of the destroyed (mostly burnt) churches are more than 40," he writes. "The Catholic Church and its institutions have suffered the fury of the mob in at least eight places."

Moreover, he emphasises, the high rate of attacks on church buildings, including those unrelated to the current conflict, suggests that the violence was “pre-meditated” and spurred on by “fanatical” groups.

Despite the apparently targeted attacks, however, Fr Varghese says, the Church must “go slow” and refrain from “hasty decisions”, which could be interpreted as biased. The Church’s role in the conflict, he stresses, must be to “maintain neutrality and foster peace and unity.”

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17 May 2023, 12:40