Rita Haorei, a resident of Leingangching hamlet in Manipur’s Ukhrul district and a member of the Tangkhul tribe, died on August 7. More than two weeks later, her body lies unburied on the premises of a church in the neighbouring village of Hungpung after the Leingangching village council refused to grant Haorei’s family any space for her burial.
According to Haorei’s family and Ukhrul’s Catholic institutions, Haorei was denied burial in the Baptist-dominated Leingangching village because she was a practising Catholic. “The only reason the villagers didn’t allow the burial is because of her faith,” said TS Dominic, parish priest of the Sacred Heart Parish, where Haorei’s body is being kept. The Catholic and Baptist schools of Christian thought differ vastly on some of the religion’s tenets.
However, the Leingangching village headman, Wungreikhan Kasar, claimed that the issue was an “internal matter of the village” that had to do with its local governing laws and was not linked to religion. “It’s extremely sad that the name of our village is coming up for all the wrong reasons in the media,” he said, “but I want to clarify there is no issue of religion in my village. The truth is, she [Rita Haorei] is not a bonafide citizen of my village. She and her family have been banished from the village since 2010.”
Wungreikhan Kasar claimed that Rita Haorei’s husband, Yangmi Haorei, had tried to float a “village development body” along with one SP Solomon back in 2001 in a bid to grab land. “They formed a self-appointed village committee and tried to take over land in the village without informing the land owners,” alleged Kasar. “Since then they became the enemies of the village and have been socially boycotted ever since.”
The headman said the Haorei family was finally “excommunicated” from the village in January 2010, after Yangmi Haorei allegedly “tried to sell clan land again to outsiders”. We let them live in the village even after they formed a self-appointed committee but instead of submitting to the village, he tried to disintegrate it.”
‘Only one denomination’
Yangmi Haorei could not be reached for comment. However, the Ukhrul-based Tangkhul Catholic Council contested the headman’s claims. “The development council became non-functional with the expiry of Solomon in around 2004 itself,” said the council secretary Vincent Kasar. “And after that things went on peacefully till 2009 when the parish priest of the Sacred Heart Parish approached the headman of the Leingangching to say that some people wanted to convert to Catholicism. The Haorei family was also among the first three families from the village who wanted to join the Catholic denomination.”
Yangmi Haorei and the president of the Sacred Heart Parish Pastroral Council even wrote to the headman of Leingangching about wanting to become Catholics, added Vincent Kasar.
In response, the headman, according to Vincent Kasar, contended that the village constitution allowed for “only one denomination” and that the Haoreis had to leave the village if they wished to convert to Catholicism.
The Tangkhuls are a Naga tribe. In Nagaland, almost all villages have their own separate constitution and customary laws. These laws vary across clans and villages. Village council courts in the state have the power to adjudicate in case of civil criminal justice involving decisions according to Naga customary laws owing to the state’s special status granted by Article 371 A of the Indian Constitution. Although Article 371 or the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution – which allows for decentralised governance in certain tribal areas in the North East – does not apply to Manipur, Naga inhabited areas in the state, such as Ukhrul, do enjoy some autonomy in their functioning. Article 371C of the Constitution guarantees certain safeguards to these hills districts, allowing for public life among the Tangkhuls to be largely governed by their customary laws.
Leingangching village’s constitution, which Scroll.in has seen, affirms that it is a “Baptist Christian village”. “There should not be any denominational activity dividing the existing religion (that is, Baptist Christianity),” the document goes on to say.
The Haoreis along with five other families were excommunicated from the village in January, 2010.
When asked if the village council allowed its residents to follow any other denomination apart from Baptist Christianity, headman Wungreikhan Kasar conceded that they weren’t. “However, that’s only because no one has ever moved any motion to amend the constitution,” he insisted. Leingangching’s constitution was drafted in 1973.
The episode has triggered debates and protests against the “one village one denomination” rule, widely followed in the villages in Christian villages in Manipur and Nagaland. On August 16, a Catholic congregation carried out a rally in Ukhrul town against so-called religious intolerance.
An editorial in the paper noted:
Nothing can be more farcical than this and it borders dangerously close to what some religious fanatics have been preaching and practising, even going to the extent of killing in the name of religion.
The fanatic side of the Village Authority of Leingangching may not have come to light if the mortal remains of a lady, who happened to belong to one of the families banished for adopting a different denomination, had not come to light.
According to social scientist Walter Fernandes, the issue was not a religious one as much as it was a power struggle. “Of course, there is religion in it, but it is primarily a power struggle,” explained Fernandes. “The village leaders want to hold on to power, so they don’t want divisions. If one family is allowed to join another denomination, the leaders fear many others will follow suit and their [the leaders’] power will wane.”
A similar incident had taken in the East Khasi Hills in Meghalaya recently, where local Christian residents allegedly refused to let a man be cremated according to traditional Khasi rituals. The man was an adherent of the Niam Khasi, an ancient monotheistic religion of Khasis, before most of them converted to Christianity. People in Mylliem, a village close to Meghalaya’s capital Shillong, reportedly took to the streets to oppose the cremation.