Young tribal Christian beheaded; India’s top court demands report from Manipur gov't

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

India's Supreme Court has called for an update on the law-and-order situation in the northeastern state of Manipur even as a tribal Christian was beheaded, and three others were shot dead in the region amid ongoing communal violence that began over two months ago.

The situation in Manipur worsened on Sunday after a man identified as David Thiek was killed and beheaded in Langza, a tribal village in the district of Churachandpur, home to Kuki-Zo tribes, Indian media outlet First Post reported.

A resident told First Post that Thiek was one of a handful of village volunteers who stayed in the village to protect homes from being looted while others fled after being instructed to vacate their houses.

Additionally, three individuals were shot dead in Manipur's Bishnupur district, at the border with the hill district of Churachandpur, escalating the conflict between the majority Hindu Meiteis and Kuki-Zomi tribes that has taken at least 137 lives since May 3. The three were identified as 34-year-old Ningombam Ibomcha, 26-year-old Naorem Rajkumar and Haobam Ibocha. 

The Supreme Court is currently considering two petitions related to the ongoing violence. One, filed by the Manipur Tribal Forum Delhi, requests the protection of the Kuki tribe, which is mainly Christian, by the Indian Army, Live Law reported. The other contests a previous High Court directive to consider including the Meitei community in the Scheduled Tribe list.

This issue concerning Scheduled Tribe status for the Meiteis has reportedly triggered unrest in the state. The next hearing has been scheduled for next Monday.

Senior Advocate Dr. Colin Gonsalves, appearing for the Manipur Tribal Forum, argued that the situation in Manipur had worsened. The Solicitor General of India countered that conditions were gradually improving due to the deployment of armed forces and the establishment of relief camps.

The clashes, which have resulted in displaced villagers, arson, and rampant violence, began in the state following a Manipur High Court ruling that asked the state government to respond to the Meiteis' demand for a tribal status, which would give the majority community economic benefits and quotas in government jobs and education.

Rahul Gandhi, India's main opposition leader, recently visited the region and expressed dismay at the state of affairs.

"I came here because I wanted to share the pain of the people of Manipur. It is a horrible tragedy that has taken place," said Gandhi, a leader of the left-of-center Congress Party, according to NPR. He urged the government to improve basic amenities in the relief camps, including food and medicine and called for an end to the violence.

Amid the unrest, colleges in Manipur resumed classes on Wednesday, but displaced students fear returning, missing crucial lessons and exams, The Print reported. Online courses initially offered were hindered by an internet shutdown.

The situation is particularly difficult for Kuki-Zomi medical students, according to faculty members and local authorities, as the major medical colleges are located in the Meitei-dominated valley district of Imphal.

Kuki student organizations have attempted to raise the issue of displaced students with college authorities and the directors of respective institutions but to no avail.

As the Supreme Court seeks an updated status report from the state and peace seems increasingly elusive, it is clear that the conflict in Manipur has created a deep humanitarian crisis.

The Indian Army has deployed additional forces to control the situation, yet the tension remains high.

Church associations in Manipur report the destruction of over 400 churches, Christian schools, homes and seminaries belonging to both Meitei and Kuki-Zomi communities.

A recent report authored by journalist David Campanale and presented to the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance said the Meitei Christian community also faces severe persecution, mostly at the hands of people from their own ethnic community.

The Manipur state government is led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which is being accused of backing the Meiteis in their conflict with Kuki-Zomi tribes.

The report, circulated by British parliamentarian Fiona Bruce, the Prime Minister's Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief, also said the violence had displaced nearly 50,000 individuals and devastated hundreds of villages.

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