ASIA/INDIA - Manipur, torn by conflict, tries to reconnect the threads of dialogue

Wednesday, 7 February 2024 religious minorities   civil war   dialogue  

Bangalore (Agenzia Fides) - Gratitude for the humanitarian and spiritual aid provided by Indian Catholic communities and NGOs to the people of Manipur, torn by conflict; waiting and patience because "the peace process is gradual and will take time": this is what Linus Neli, Archbishop of Imphal, capital of the state of Manipur, in North-East India, said during the general assembly of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India (CBCI), which brings together the bishops of the community of the three rites present in India (Latin, Syro-Malabar, Syro-Malankar). To the bishops - who during the assembly re-elected Mgr Andrew Thazhath as president of the CBCI - the Archbishop of Imphal addressed a speech taking stock of the crisis in the state of Manipur, where Christians represent around 40% of the population.
Bishop Neli highlighted the demographic, historical and ethnic aspects of Manipur, tracing the reasons for the ethnic conflict between the Kuki and Meitei communities, and highlighting the relief and rehabilitation efforts made by the Catholic communities. He said that according to official data, around 180 people, including women and children, have been killed so far and several houses, businesses and places of worship have been burned. The destruction of around 300 churches, the closure of many educational institutions and the displacement of more than 60,000 people are all phenomena that have reduced the pastoral and social work of the local Church to a minimum and caused great difficulties. According to NGO reports, the wounds are deep: clashes have occurred almost every day in the territory in the three months following the outbreak of ethnic violence, starting on May 3, 2023. These incidents, first limited to the Churachandpur district, inhabited by the Kuki-Zo community, have spread to the western and eastern urban districts of Imphal Valley and the rural district of Bishnupur Valley. The violence, which continues sporadically today, has displaced thousands of people and many refugees have left the state. Local media also report that hundreds of trucks carrying humanitarian aid have been blocked or attacked. Given the widespread violence, businesses and entrepreneurs large and small in the state are suffering on both sides. The violence nearly crippled the state's economy, leaving the community in dire straits. Several entrepreneurs said their businesses suffered losses of more than 70% and it became difficult for them to meet their daily expenses, forcing them to lay off employees and take other cost-cutting measures. Retail inflation soared to 11.63%, and the internet was out for long periods, affecting businesses and residents. According to Sominthang Doungel, one of the leaders of the Kuki community of Manipur, all political problems in the state are linked in one way or the other to the land issue. "The crux of the problem is the overlapping land rights claimed by the Kuki, the Meitei and the Nagas. The best solution," he says, "would be to set up a special committee composed equally of Kukis, Nagas and Meitei, in order to examine the various questions that arise on the ground. The Meitei represent 51% of the population of Manipur, which has 2.3 million inhabitants, but are concentrated in the plains, where they hold only 10% of the territory. The Kuki and Naga represent 40% of the population, but occupy 90% of the territory because they are mainly located in the hills. The Meitei are more represented in politics and the state assembly. Although tensions between the Meitei community and the Kuki tribes have existed for some time, they came to light in the first week of May after the Manipur High Court ordered the state government to send a recommendation to the federal government to grant “recognized tribe” status to the Meitei. This status would allow them to access lands and facilities specifically provided by the Indian Constitution for the protection of indigenous groups. The Court's order was strongly opposed by the Kuki, who argued that it would further strengthen the already dominant Meitei community. Hence the outbreak of violence. Nine months after the first clashes, the two groups are completely separated, one not having the right to enter areas inhabited by the other. This distance guarantees, for the moment, the absence of conflict. This is a first step in trying to move towards true reconciliation, notes the Interreligious Forum led by Thomas Menamparampil, archbishop emeritus of Guwahati (in the neighboring state of Assam), known for his peace efforts in the northeastern region of India. The Forum attempts to forge bilateral relations to relaunch dialogue and begin peace negotiations, by involving various components of civil society such as women's groups, intellectuals, religious leaders, grassroots communities. (PA) (Agenzia Fides, 7/2/2024)