India: Hindu nationalism drives interreligious clashes

Local Church sources say that the clashes that have pitted Hindus against Christians in the state of Manipur are part of a wider agenda — to encourage the Hindu base to vote for the ruling BJP party in upcoming elections.

The fierce ongoing clashes in Manipur, India are part of a wider plan to destabilize inter-religious harmony and increase support for the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), according to an Indian bishop who spoke on the phone with Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).

The bishop, who asked not to be identified for safety reasons, is in direct contact with Christians on the ground in Imphal, the capital city of Manipur, and its surroundings.

“Many lives have been lost, many more than are officially published in the papers. The violent activity outside the capital city is very much underreported,” he explains.

In addition to the fatalities, a report sent to ACN by the Archdiocese of Imphal on June 20 claims that more than 50,000 people have been displaced by the weeks of fighting.

“The real reason for this is the size of the Christian population. Two tribal groups, the  Kukis and the Nagas, occupy a huge portion of the state’s land. What the Hindus, or the Meiteis, a mostly Hindu tribal group, feel is that they should be allowed to go and occupy land owned by the [Christians]. And the BJP runs both the federal government and Manipur, so there is tacit permission to go ahead,” explained the bishop.

Arson attack on Holy Redeemer Parish in Canchipur

Though the official narrative insists that this is an ethnic dispute, the bishop says that it has become an interreligious issue. “There are also Christians among the Meiteis, and many of their churches have been destroyed, which is clear proof that it is not just about land.” The bishop adds, “The end of this is nowhere in sight, and the mistrust between the two groups will not easily die out.”

These opinions are confirmed by reports from other local sources that reached ACN in June, which put the number of Meitei churches destroyed since the beginning of the conflict at 249. The sources also say that more than 200 Kuki villages have been attacked, and countless houses are wrecked. “The question one must ask amid the fighting between the Kukis and the Meitei is why the Meitei gangs burn and destroy 249 churches in the heart of Meitei territory. How did they know where the churches were located if this had not been planned?”

The report by the Archdiocese of Imphal openly questions the role that state security forces have played in the conflict. “It is hard to say if the state forces were outnumbered or overwhelmed with calls for help, or if they were complicit. The absence of security personnel in places where they were most needed raises questions. If there was sincere concern, why was it that state forces were not able to prevent prolonged episodes of violence in even one place of attack? Why is it that vulnerable places were left unguarded even after attempted attacks?”

Finally, the document describes in detail an attack on St. Paul’s Pastoral and Training Center in Imphal. Mobs forced their way on to the premises three times, demanding to see identification papers for all the people inside to confirm that there were no Kukis. Despite having confirmed this on every occasion, attackers still set fire to the building, including the church, destroying everything they could.

The bishop says that the main motive for all this is the upcoming general election. “Elections are next April in India, so the Hindu nationalists want to terrorize people before that. They will use pressure against Christians and Muslims, and then try to win over Hindus because of that. But I hope it doesn’t work,” he says.

At the same time, the prelate refuses to make any generalization about Indian Hindus, saying that “90 percent of them are excellent people. That is why we have hope that things will not go that way. They do not agree with what is happening, but they are afraid to say it, because it will get them into trouble.”

Manipur has a history of ethnic tension between the mostly Hindu Meiteis and the Christian Kuki and Naga tribes. The latter tribes are recognized by the government as underprivileged minorities and therefore benefit from special treatment, including access to land reserved for tribals. The Meiteis have recently demanded the same privileges, but the Kukis are opposed, as it would open their homelands to occupation. This led members of the Meitei group to go on a rampage, which began by hunting for members of the Kuki community, but quickly led to attacks on Christian schools, places of worship, and other buildings.

According to the bishop, the Church is waiting for the situation on the ground to normalize slightly, so they can ascertain what ACN can do to help the victims. Meanwhile, all people of good will are asked to pray. “Pray for these people, especially in the upcoming months. I am sure God will bring some good from this, because the good Meiteis will realize that they were manipulated and made to hate others. I am sure of that,“ the bishop says. 

Filipe d’Avillez & Maria Lozano