Hours after K Somokanta fled his home on the afternoon of May 3, it was burned down by a mob.

A teacher in a private school in Manipur’s Churachandpur town, Somokanta now lives in a “relief camp” in adjoining Bishnupur district’s Moirang sub-division. Twenty-three such camps – which have come up in schools, guest houses and market complexes – house nearly 5,000 Meiteis who were forced to escape rampaging Kuki mobs in Churachandpur since ethnic clashes broke out in the state earlier this month.

The same day, around 80 kilometres away in the Manipur valley, in Thoubal district’s Wangjing area, another mob set fire to an institution for underprivileged children run by A Robindro, a pastor in a church nearby. Strikingly, the arsonists were men from the Meitei community to which Robindro himself belongs.

A church in the Imphal Valley. Credit: Special arrangement

A community ‘sandwiched’

In strife-torn Manipur, where clashes between the Meitei and Kuki communities since May 3 have left thousands of people homeless and more than 80 dead, one set of people has been at the receiving end of violence by mobs from both sides: Meiteis who follow Christianity, like Somokanta and Robindro. The community of around 3 lakh people are a minority among the Meiteis, most of whom are Hindus or followers of an indigenous faith called Sanamahism. Many Hindu Meiteis also practise some elements of Sanamahism.

“Some Meiteis believe that because we have converted, we have become tribal,” said a resident of Thoubal who asked to remain unidentified. “They associate Christianity with tribal people.”

In Kuki-dominated Churachandpur, homes of all Meitei Christians, who are over 1,000 in number, according to local estimates, have been set afire by Kuki mobs.

In the valley, where Meiteis are the majority group, there are no reported instances of Meitei Christian homes being targeted. But mobs have torched scores of churches and other religious institutions belonging to the community. In Churachandpur, the mobs spared the community’s churches. Most Kukis are Christians.

“We are sandwiched in the middle,” said a person from the community who lives in Imphal. The person asked not to be identified by name given the community’s precarious position in the conflict.

‘They associate Christianity with tribal people’

Although this is the first instance of the community coming under attack for their faith, many said there had always been distrust.

The church attends one person to whom Scroll spoke to was razed by a mob which also tried to scale the walls of his brick factory – according to him, because the complex houses a prayer hall. “I had switched off all the lights so they couldn’t find it. So it was saved,” he said.

The pastor, A Robindro, was not so lucky. A Bible teaching centre he ran for orphans was torched and vandalised. The mob scribbled profanities on the walls of the prayer hall.

Robindro’s home behind the centre, however, was not touched. Regardless, he continues to live elsewhere. “I feel scared,” he said.

Being Meitei and Christian

If their faith is making them feel insecure in the valley, it has not come to their rescue in the hills either. The Kukis have made no distinction between them and other Meiteis. Neither their homes nor their business establishments have been spared by the Kuki mobs in Churachandpur. “I don’t think they see us in a very different way as they see the other Meiteis,” said Somokanta.

Members of the Meitei Christian community, for their part, share diverse beliefs. Some say both identities matter to them equally. “I am a Meitei and I just happen to follow Christianity–Meitei will always be my ethnicity,” said Robin, a resident of Churachandpur currently in exile in Moirang. He asked to be identified only by his first name.

Another Imphal resident, however, said it was his religious identity that he held dearer. “Even though by bloodline I might be a Meitei, I would lean towards my Christian identity more since I do not follow any of the Meitei traditions,” said the person who requested not to be named.

Editor’s note: The names of some people interviewed for the story have been removed at their request.