Majority Meitei want Scheduled Tribe status fearing immigration from Myanmar and Bangladesh. Protests by hill tribes opposed to the demand has resulted in serious violence and, according to unconfirmed reports, casualties. The state government imposed a curfew and shut down the internet. Mostly Christian tribal communities fear losing their land, the bishop of Miao told AsiaNews.
Imphal (AsiaNews) – Violence broke out yesterday in the north-eastern Indian state of Manipur in the wake of a protest in Churachandpur district that sparked tensions between lowland ethnic Meitei, who are mostly Hindu and Muslim, and Naga and Kuki/Zo tribal groups, who are predominantly Christian and live in hilly areas.
The bone of contention is the request by the Meitei, who are more than 50 per cent of the population, for Scheduled Tribe status, which under Indian law provides certain benefits such as quotas in public employment, political representation, and land rights.
The Manipur High Court on 19 April called on the state government to consider petitions for the Meitei community's demand and decide on it "expeditiously".
This prompted the All Tribal Student Union Manipur to stage a protest in Torbung, Churachandpur district, which attracted thousands of people from non-Meitei groups.
Violent clashes followed across the Imphal Valley with some unconfirmed reports of deaths. As many as 15 churches have been attacked.
“This is a fight between the Tribals who are 90 per cent Christian and Meitei who are 90 per cent Hindu and Muslim,” said Mgr George Pallipparambil, Catholic Bishop of Miao, speaking to AsiaNews. “The Meitei want to be included in the ST (schedule tribe) category, giving them access to all benefits, including land”.
“Tribals live in hilly areas,” the prelate explained. “There are many churches of different denominations in the area; so the churches are caught up in this, and torched.”
With tensions running high, a mob stopped a vehicle with a group of Jesuits, including seminarians, on board as they made their way home to Moirang. Visibly drunk, some of the attackers forced the Christians out of the vehicle and set it on force, while the latter fled into the fields.
Others, realising that they had attacked a group of clergymen, apologised and took them to a nearby house. One of the travellers, Fr Stephen Naulak, suffered injuries to his forehead and was taken to a hospital.
To curb the violence, the state government imposed a curfew in most of the state’s 16 districts and suspended mobile internet services for five days.
The Scheduled Tribe Demand Committee Manipur (STDCM), which is leading the movement for the inclusion of Meitei in the Scheduled Tribes category, said the request was not only made for quotas in jobs, educational establishments and tax breaks, but “more than anything else to protect our ancestral land, culture and identity”, which they believe to be "threatened by illegal immigration from Myanmar, Bangladesh and by people from outside the state".
The non-Meitei groups, however, accuse the Meitei of using this argument as a pretext to strip the hill tribes of lands they have held for centuries.