Christian Olympian Kom appeals against sectarian violence in Manipur

India's bronze medallist in boxing at the 2012 London Olympics calls on the Indian government to solve the situation. For the past two days, violence has pitted majority Hindu Meitei against Christian Kuki tribal groups. Some 13 deaths have been reported so far, with some 9,000 displaced, but the number could be higher. Mobile Internet services have been suspended.

Imphal (AsiaNews) – On Wednesday sectarian violence broke out in the north-eastern Indian state of Manipur. For the past two days, majority ethnic Meitei, who are predominantly Hindu, have clashed with members of the Mostly Christian Kuki tribal group.

For local boxing champion Mary Kom, “The situation in Manipur makes me unhappy. [. . .] “Since last night it has become more frightening.” In view of events, "I ask the state and central governments to take steps and (to) maintain peace and security”. Sadly, “some people have lost family members in this violence."

In a separate statement, Metropolitan Archbishop Peter Machado of Bangalore writes: “It is with deep concern that we note the resurgence of the targeting and persecution of Christians in the peaceful state of Manipur in the North-East, where the Christian population comprises 41%.

The prelate goes on to say: “We have received reports that three churches built in 1974 and some houses have been set on fire, and the people have been forced to flee to safer places.” What is more, “there have been disturbing reports in the news and on social media that the Jesuit Fathers serving in these areas have been threatened and made to feel insecure.”

Finally, “It is distressing to hear that despite having a sizable Christian population in Manipur, the community is being made to feel insecure. We are reminded that even the world-famous female boxer Mary Kom hails from this state.”

Born into a poor Baptist family of tenant farmers, Kom is a well-known national sporting figure thanks to the many medals she won during her 20-year boxing career, including a bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics in the flyweight category (51 kg).

Kom has also served in the Rajya Sabha, India’s upper house of parliament, and in 2014 actress Priyanka Chopra played her in a Hindi-language biopic.

After winning her sixth world title in 2018, the Manipur government bestowed upon her the title of "Meethoileima" (loosely translated as great queen or exceptional lady). The following year, a stretch of road in the district where she lives was named after her. In 2020, she received the Padma Vibhushan, India's second highest civilian award.

A member of the indigenous ethnic Kom group, she took to Tweeter when violence broke out, appealing to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, posting pictures and writing: "My State Manipur is burning, kindly help".

Since then, Internet has been suspended in the state and it is currently hard for any information to filter out, but according to some local sources at least 13 people have died and more than 9,000 displaced people have been registered.

So far, the authorities have deployed more than 6,000 army soldiers and Assam Rifles, a paramilitary group under the control of the central government that normally patrols the Indian side of the border with Myanmar. For the past two years, thousands of refugees have crossed into India, driven by that country’s civil war.

In Manipur, shops, houses, churches, and temples have been set on fire in a number of districts, including Imphal (where the homonymous state capital is located), Churachandpur, Bishnupur, Kangpokpi and Tengnoupal. The homes of some police officers have also been attacked.

To cope with the crisis, the state government imposed a curfew and issued “shoot-at-sight” orders where “all forms of persuasion, warning, reasonable force, etc. have been exhausted".

Some residents told local newspapers that lawlessness prevails in some areas, and violent gangs are freely roaming the streets since state authorities have failed to act.

“I fled my home in Eastern Imphal with four of my elderly family members on Thursday afternoon,” said Golan Naulak, a member of a Scheduled Tribe (ST).[*] “We have lost our home, my car, documents and all our belongings,” he added. “We are currently taking shelter at the compound of Manipur Rifles in the city.”

In neighbouring states, the authorities have set up helplines to collect information and organise evacuation flights.

The outburst of violence can be traced back to recent events. The Meitei, who constitute more than half of the state’s population and live in the lowlands, want to be included in the Scheduled Tribes list, which provides benefits such as quotas in public employment, political representation and land rights to disadvantaged groups.

The Meitei claim that their situation has deteriorated as a result of massive influx from Bangladesh and Myanmar, but under existing legislation they cannot move to hilly areas inhabited by ethnic Kuki and other tribal groups.

For their part, tribal groups fear that if the Meitei are granted ST status, they will seize their lands.

After the Meitei Tribe Union took their demand last month to the Manipur High Court, the latter issued an order on 19 April directing the state government to consider the petitioner’s request to have their group added to the ST list.

Following the court’s ruling, tribal groups joined a protest rally organised by the All Tribal Student Union Manipur in the Torbung area, Churachandpur district, which, in turn, sparked sectarian clashes.

(Nirmala Carvalho contributed to this article)


[*] Scheduled tribes are socio-economically disadvantaged groups officially singled out under Indian law for affirmative action policies.