INDIA: New wave of violence erupts against Christians in the State of Manipur

By Ganesh Rajaraman

Religion Unplugged (13.06.2024) – Manipur is witnessing renewed violence, with the latest escalations being reported from Jiribam district, an area that borders Assam’s Cachar district, after a Meitei farmer’s death was attributed to a Kuki-Zo armed group.

Recently, two individuals from the Hmar-Mizo tribal communities, which are part of the larger Zo tribe, were reportedly killed, and 48 houses and a church owned by tribals were destroyed, displacing more than 800 tribal and 220 Meitei residents.

The immediate cause of the outbreak is believed to be the retaliatory violence by some individuals from the Meitei community against the Hmar-Mizo community following the murder of a 59-year-old Meitei farmer. The suspects in this killing have not been identified, though there are unverified suspicions pointing to Kuki-Zo “militants.” This has sparked a vicious cycle of violence and counter-violence.

On June 6, in alleged retaliation for the death of a Meitei farmer, some Meiteis reportedly set fire to houses belonging to the Hmar-Mizo community. In response, members of the Hmar-Mizo community burned houses of the Meiteis.

Kuki-Zo groups report that a significant number of armed members from the Meitei extremist group, Arambai Tenggol, and the separatist insurgent group, the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), have arrived in Jiribam, escalating tensions in the area.

On June 10, a police convoy heading to Jiribam was ambushed by suspected Kuki-Zo “militants,” injuring one officer, as reported by The Indian Express. The attack occurred on National Highway 37 near T. Laijang village, about 26 kilometers (16 miles) from Imphal in the Kuki-Zo dominated Kangpokpi district. Kuki-Zo groups allege that the police were accompanied by men from Arambai Tenggol and UNLF. The incident took place during preparations for an upcoming visit by Manipur Chief Minister N. Biren Singh.

The Hindu reports that over 1,000 people have been displaced, including about 800 from the Hmar-Mizo communities and roughly 220 from the Meitei community.

Bhagat Oinam, a professor at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, expressed his dismay over the cycle of retribution within his own Meitei community, following the violence in Jiribam.

“Just because one person — a 59-year-old who’s a Meitei, was killed … whoever has killed, we have no idea. … We are only saying possible Kuki militants. … It may not be Kuki militants. The Meiteis of Jiribam, some of them, started burning down the houses of the Hmar community. This is absolutely wrong. And I say this as a Meitei. And, perhaps, this what the Meitei psyche has been. Meiteis have to learn not to react like that,” Oinam told News Nine.

Amid this turmoil, various tribal groups and leaders have voiced concerns over inadequate protection despite the presence of central security forces.

The Indigenous Tribes Advocacy Committee (ITAC) has called for more robust security measures along the tribal boundaries to prevent further incursions by armed groups and Manipur police forces suspected of colluding with local militants.

The ITAC pointed out that before the unrest began in Jiribam, a 40-year-old Kuki-Zo individual identified as L. Lallianmuang from Vengnuam Dibong khunou area in the district, was abducted from his home allegedly by the Meitei extremist group Arambai Tenggol, and his whereabouts remain unknown. On May 17, the decomposed body of a 21-year-old man, identified as Seigoulen Singson, was found in the Jiri River near Muolzawl Village, inhabited by the Hmar Mizo community, in the district. The group said the Hmar-Mizo tribals did not retaliate against the Meitei community at the time.

The group said in a statement that while it appreciates the protection provided by the central security forces in the area, a heavy deployment is required along “the line of separation” on both sides to prevent Arambai Tenggol and Meitei extremists, “assisted by Manipur police forces,” from entering villages and lands inhabited by Indigenous tribes. “Special protection for the villages on the tribal side, such as Zairawn, Mongbung, Phaitoul, Muolzawl and Sizang should be immediately provided to avoid further escalation of violence.”

The Department of Media and Publicity of the Indigenous Tribal Leaders’ Forum (ITLF) claimed that Manipur Chief Minister N. Biren Singh used the violent outburst in Jiribam to divert attention from his election defeat. This reference is to the 2024 Lok Sabha election held from April 19 to June 1, in which the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party lost both of Manipur’s seats.

“According to well-informed reports, banned UNLF, Arambai Tenggol, and Meitei Leepun, are advancing on Jiribam in a convoy of great size, carrying guns and ammunition that was looted from the armouries last year,” ITLF further claimed.

The ongoing unrest in Manipur has its roots in a directive issued by the Manipur High Court in April 2023, which suggested that the majority Meitei community might be granted tribal status. Such a status would allow them to purchase land in the hills, which are traditionally occupied by the Kuki-Zo tribes. This has led to widespread fear among the Kuki-Zo communities of losing their ancestral lands, fueling longstanding ethnic tensions.

Moreover, the area’s rich natural resources, including oil, have attracted the attention of government and corporate entities, heightening the stakes. The push to exploit these resources has led to changes in land legislation and, subsequently, the displacement of several tribal families, intensifying the conflict.

As the conflict has spiraled, it has led to significant displacement and loss of life.

Since May 3, 2023, an estimated 67,000 people have been displaced, with 186 Kuki-Zo individuals reported killed. The violence has also led to the burning of 200 villages and 360 churches and synagogues.

The situation has forced complete ethnic segregation in the aftermath, with Kuki-Zo families moving out of the Imphal region and Meiteis vacating the Kuki-majority areas. This has culminated in near total destruction of properties owned by Kuki-Zos in Imphal and those of Meiteis in the hill districts.

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