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  • Writer's pictureKnox Thames

Religious Persecution at the Far Edge of India

Spurring India’s political leadership to change course and confront religious violence will take outside pressure.

As is often the case, religion, and ethnicity closely correspond in India. Conflicts that erupt centered around race can quickly morph into religious battles. Such problems recently erupted in Manipur state, with predominantly Hindu ethnic groups targeting Christians belonging to a different ethnic group.

One cannot go much farther east in India than Manipur. One of the so-called Seven Sister States in India’s far east (along with Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Tripura), Manipur shares a long border with Myanmar. The capital, Imphal, couldn’t be farther away from India’s geographic and political center. Surrounded by the Himalayas, Imphal is roughly 1,500 miles from Delhi, making it closer to Dhaka (370 miles), Naypyidaw (500 miles), or even Bangkok (1,100 miles).

While India is majority Hindu, many of the Seven Sister States have majority-minority populations. It’s estimated that Nagaland is 88 percent Christian, Mizoram 87 percent Christian, and Meghalaya 75 percent Christian, while Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh have a plurality of faiths. The Kuki people in Manipur generally identify as Christian, while the larger Meitei community is typically Hindu. Notably, showing the cross-border ethnic ties in the region, the Kuki are related to Myanmar’s Chin community. Chin State, just across the mountainous border from Manipur, is 85 percent Christian.

The entanglement of religion and ethnicity with land and power triggered mass violence against Christians earlier this month. Riots broke out on May 3 when the state high court proposed granting the Meitei community Scheduled Tribe status. The indigenous Kuki people, already deemed a Scheduled Tribe, feared this would lead to the confiscation of their lands. They expressed their opposition through peaceful protests, and some Meitei groups responded violently against the protesters, which quickly took on religious overtones. The conflagration targeted churches, Christian homes, and businesses across the state. According to some reports, the violence resulted in 71 killed, 231 injured, 1,700 houses and 121 churches damaged, and 45,000 people displaced.

Why such concern over a label? Benefits from Scheduled Tribe status include reserved seats for government jobs, schools, and elected offices. The Meitei are the largest group in Manipur and predominately live in Imphal and its surrounding areas. Considering this, observers note many Kuki fear that “if the Meiteis are granted Scheduled Tribe status, the constitutional and legal protection given to the marginalized tribals of Manipur will be rendered meaningless.” Religious freedom advocate Elizabeth Kendal further outlined, “As ‘Scheduled Tribes’ [Kuki] ancestral lands are protected, and their people are eligible for affirmative action to help facilitate their advancement.” The addition of religion to ethnic identity only amplified Kuki concerns.

The central government dispatched thousands of army and paramilitary forces into Manipur to quell the attacks, institute a curfew, and set up refugee camps. India’s Supreme Court has ordered the state government to report on current conditions. The Supreme Court also expressed skepticism about the Manipur High Court’s request to add the Meitei to the Scheduled Tribe list.

What happens next? The army has stopped the violence. But how to overcome the ethnic and religious divisions? Civil society leaders can try to fill the void. Catholic Archbishop Lumon said, “Two communities are warring, but it has affected all the people of Manipur irrespective of which community one belongs.” Fr. Varghese Velikakam stressed the Catholic Church’s role in the conflict must be to “maintain neutrality and foster peace and unity.”

But civil leadership can only do so much. Political leadership is needed but lacking, and other efforts will struggle without positive engagement. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the party of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, runs Manipur. Some view the violence as the natural continuation of the BJP’s scapegoating of minorities.

One constant problem for Indian Christians in BJP-run states are issues of conversion. While BJP activists often accuse Christians of offering inducements, the more significant problem is pressure coming from the Hindu majority to “encourage” reconversions. Such actions have reportedly happened in Manipur in the aftermath of the violence against ethnic Meitei who have converted to Christianity. According to church leaders, “Their Hindu brothers are asking [Meitei Christians] to return to Hinduism, failing which they threaten to make their life difficult.” The official explained that there might only be one or two Meitei Christians in certain villages. Confirming such fears, rioters burned down dozens of Meitei Christian house churches during the attacks.

Spurring India’s political leadership to change course will take outside pressure. Modi’s planned June visit to Washington, D.C., and meeting with President Joe Biden provides an opportunity for U.S. leaders to press Modi in a positive, inclusive direction. Even before Manipur, the national situation in India was trending in the wrong direction. The U.S. Department of State’s recent report on religious freedom in India begins with a list of violations against Indian Muslims and Christians.

However, while State Department reports consistently document such human rights abuses in India — much to New Delhi’s consternation — public criticism is rare. The Biden administration’s religious freedom ambassador did highlight instances of “extreme hate speech” against Indian Muslims, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken standing by during the report’s release. Still, no criticism was directly and publicly leveled at the Indian government.

Only on background did an unnamed senior State Department official say he was “saddened” by the report’s documentation of “continued targeted attacks against religious communities, including Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindu Dalits, and indigenous communities.” He said the United States continues to “encourage the [Indian] government to condemn violence and hold accountable… all groups who engage in rhetoric that’s dehumanizing towards religious minorities and all groups who engage in violence against religious communities and other communities in India.”

To begin to see changes in India, such prodding must come from Biden himself. Talk of shared democratic values against authoritarian China will increasingly sound thin if religious minorities in India fare no better than religious minorities in China. Yet considering policymakers’ heightened view of India’s importance as a counter to China, any such interventions would be surprising.

While one could hope for BJP national leadership to bring Indians together across the many faiths calling India home, Modi’s years of governance have demonstrated such hopes would be misplaced.

Yet Manipur is not central India. Its history, geography, and people are different. Its distance from New Delhi may prove helpful in distancing it from the divisive politics of Modi’s party leadership. Hopefully, the violence will serve as a shock to the system in Manipur, spurring interethnic and interfaith understanding, engagement, and peace.

Knox Thames served in a special envoy role at the U.S. Department of State during the Obama and Trump administrations, focused on religious minorities in the Middle East and South / Central Asia. He is currently a senior fellow at Pepperdine University. Follow him on Twitter at @KnoxThames.

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