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Christians among over 50 killed, 23,000 fleeing ethnic violence in northeast India

A woman cries as she waits at the airport to flee ethnic violence that has hit the region, in Imphal, northeastern Indian state of Manipur on May 7, 2023. Some 23,000 people have fled ethnic violence in northeast India that has reportedly killed at least 54, the army said On May 7, 2023, although there was no new 'major violence' overnight.
A woman cries as she waits at the airport to flee ethnic violence that has hit the region, in Imphal, northeastern Indian state of Manipur on May 7, 2023. Some 23,000 people have fled ethnic violence in northeast India that has reportedly killed at least 54, the army said On May 7, 2023, although there was no new "major violence" overnight. | ARUN SANKAR/AFP via Getty Images

In Manipur, a state in northeastern India, violence has erupted claiming the lives of 58 individuals, many of whom were Christians, and resulting in the destruction or burning of at least 50 churches. The local Christian community has accused the Hindu nationalist government of supporting the attackers.

Beginning last Wednesday, the violence was reported in several areas in the state, but mostly in the Imphal Valley and Churachandpur. The Christian victims have identified the predominantly Hindu Meitei ethnic community as the attackers.

The Meiteis have experienced longstanding tensions with Christians, who are mostly from tribal communities, over land ownership and affirmative action policies.

At least 58 people have died in the ongoing violence, according to the Indian media outlet Scroll.in. It’s not known how many of those killed are Christians, but reports coming from Manipur suggest the majority of them could be Christian.

As the suspension of telecommunication services in Manipur continues, determining the full scope of the damage suffered by the Christian community remains challenging. Nonetheless, after military personnel were sent to the impacted regions and police received shoot-at-sight orders on May 4, the intensity and frequency of the attacks diminished by late evening.

Close to 10,000 troops from the Army and Assam Rifles have been stationed in Manipur, according to media reports, which also say over 13,000 individuals have been relocated to secure shelters established by the Army and state government.

Numerous others have sought refuge in neighboring states such as Mizoram, Meghalaya and Nagaland, where Christians are in the majority.

Unverified reports say Christians were attacked in 27 villages. Until Thursday, Christians were being assaulted in the presence of state police and commandos, as mobs continued to roam the streets.

Tensions persisted, as of early Sunday. Nine out of the 16 districts in the state were under curfew, and internet services across the state remained suspended.

According to media reports, members of the Meitei community have also been attacked.

A public interest litigation petition was filed before the Supreme Court Saturday, alleging that the attacks on tribal communities in Manipur were supported by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which is in power both in the state and at the national level, Bar and Bench reported.

The PIL claimed that 30 tribal people had been killed and 132 were injured, but no formal complaint had been registered by the police in relation to any of the incidents.

The petitioner called for a Special Investigation Team to be constituted, headed by Harekrishna Deka, former Director General of Police of Assam, and monitored by Chief Justice Tinlianthang Vaiphei, former Chairman of the Meghalaya State Human Rights Commission, in order to prosecute the accused.

The Meiteis mainly reside in the Imphal Valley, whereas Christians, originating from different tribal communities, dwell in the neighboring hills. Despite Hindus and Christians each constituting about 42% of the state's populace, the Meiteis have maintained dominance in both political and economic spheres.

The BJP secured a victory in the 2017 state election, after which Chief Minister N. Biren Singh redefined the majority of tribal settlements as reserved forests, essentially branding them as illegal immigrants. The tribals live in resource-rich forests.

Singh also reportedly ordered the demolition of churches in Imphal, claiming they were illegally constructed on government-owned land.

The Meitei community has been seeking legal recognition as a tribal group, which would grant them increased power through access to affirmative action and legal protections.

Last month, the state’s highest court instructed the government to consider the Meiteis’ demands, causing anxiety among the tribal communities. The violence broke out last Wednesday when a tribal student group staged a protest against the Meiteis’ demand for legal tribal group recognition.

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