It may seem far removed from the reality we live in but the debate in the past month over the burial of a Catholic woman in a Baptist society in Manipur is just another reflection of growing religious intolerance in our country.

Ritah Haorei’s body lay in a Catholic church in Hundung village in Ukhrul district from August 7 to September 18 after neighbouring Leingangching village denied her husband Yangmi Haorei permission to bury her. Yangmi Haorei, a resident of Leingangching, had been excommunicated because of his faith. The village had in 1973 passed a resolution banning all religious denominations except Baptist Christians.

Both villages are predominantly inhabited by the Tangkhul Naga tribe. Many Naga villages in Manipur and in Nagaland have passed similar resolutions.

When Ritah Haorei was finally laid to rest in Leingangching, it was on “humanitarian grounds” and not as her constitutionally-guaranteed right to practise the religion of her choice.

Looking through the records of the case and the parties involved, it is ironic that the judge of a secular High Court quoted passages from the Bible, an insurgent group with the motto “Nagaland for Christ” gave orders based on the principles of secular laws and cited humanitarian law to deny people their human rights, while tribal bodies used customary laws to justify religious intolerance.

The parties to the dispute are: (a) the Leingangching village authority, (b) Yangmi Haorei and four other Catholic families, (c) the parish priest of the Catholic church, (d) the Catholic joint action committee, (e) the Baptist church, (f) the Tangkhul Naga Long, the tribe’s apex body, (g) the Government of the People’s Republic of Nagalim, a government-in-exile established by the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), an insurgent group fighting for a sovereign Naga state, and (h) the Indian state, which includes the district administration, courts and state government.

The first question that must be addressed: can a village in India pass a resolution stating it will be “a Baptist village” and not allow people to practise other religions? Can the village authority throw out villagers, damage their property and not allow them to till their land if they convert to another religion?

Catholic versus Baptist

Though Leingangching passed its Baptists-only resolution in 1973, no one bothered about it for several decades, perhaps because there were no Catholics in the village.

But in 2009, the parish priest of the Sacred Heart church in Hundung wrote to the Leingangching headman and village authority informing them that five families had converted to Catholicism and they should not be disturbed. In his reply on November 24, 2009, the headman said no other religious denominations could be allowed within the village. He said the five families had broken the village law and must apologise, failing which they would have to find somewhere else to live and work.

In March 2010, the families were evicted, their properties destroyed and their “citizenship of this village” cancelled. They, in turn, filed a first information report against the villagers.

Their treatment angered the Catholic community, which sought the intervention of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah).

In November 2010, the Government of the People’s Republic of Nagalim run by the insurgent group gave its order. It fined Yangmi Haorei a pig worth Rs 20,000 “for violation of their village avowed sectarian constitution/agreement” but held that he and the other families could not be prevented from converting to any religion. It also said all five families “being bonafide citizens of the village shall enjoy all rights as entitled to other fellow citizens of the village” and that they should not be harassed. It directed Yangmi Haorei to withdraw the FIR and the villagers to pay compensation to the five families.

The families withdrew the FIR and the Catholic community paid the Rs 20,000 fine. But the Leingangching village authority rejected the order.

The Catholic community marches with the coffin of Ritah Haorei in Manipur's Ukhrul district. Photo credit: via Facebook)

Fightback over funerals

On September 15, 2014, Joseph Lungshi’s wife Ningmila died. Lungshi was among the villagers who had converted to Catholicism. He was not allowed to bury his wife in the village.

On December 10, 2016, Ninghorla, also among the five families, died and was denied a burial. The Sacred Heart church in Hundung gave her a spot in its cemetery.

When Yangmi Haorei too was not allowed to bury his wife, the Catholic community decided to fight back. And so Ritah Haorei’s body lay in a glass coffin in the Sacred Heart church for over a month. Three days into the protest, the Catholics marched to Leingangching to bury her but failed to get past the Baptist villagers.

The procession was led by Paotam Zimik, a well loved leader of the Catholic community. He died on September 1 and I attended his funeral. Zimik was married to my husband’s sister. When the funeral procession made its way to Ukhrul, the two-hour journey took five hours because people wanted to pay their respects. Many said the stress of Ritah Haorei’s case had taken a toll on him.

The president of the Tangkhul Naga Long was conspicuous by his absence at the funeral. He had sent Zimik a notice for a Rs 5,000 fine for leading a protest march on August 16. Zimik had received permission from the deputy commissioner for the procession. The same day, the Catholic joint action committee had submitted a memorandum to Chief Minister N Biren Singh seeking his intervention in the case.

On August 28, Yangmi Haorei filed a writ petition in the Manipur High Court seeking security for his wife’s burial and resettlement of the five families in Leingangching. He cited a Gauhati High Court order in a case where Catholic families had been thrown out of Phokhungri village in Nagaland. In that case, the court had on May 26, 2014, quashed a village resolution that allowed only Baptists to live in Phokhungri.

In the Leingangching case, though, a day before the Manipur High Court was to give its order, Ritah Haorei was buried. The judge observed, “This court would like to express happiness at the admirable accommodating spirit shown by both sides in resolving a very contentious issue relating to the burial of late Smt Ritah Haorei. This court would like to put on record the genuine humanitarian gesture shown by the private respondents.”

Quoting from the Bible, the judge said: “… Surely there is at least one wise person in your fellowship who can settle a dispute between fellow Christians.”

That “wise person” was the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), but it specifically stated that Ritah Haorei’s burial was on humanitarian grounds and not as a right. In its September 2 order, it also directed Yangmi Haorei to withdraw all cases.

Growing hatred, from Manipur to Goa

Many Baptists have expressed anger, distress over the incident. But these liberal voices remain isolated, ineffective. The fundamentalists have both the organisation and the arms.

I watched the events in Manipur unfold from the other end of the country, Goa, where a similar controversy is raging. Here, Catholics and Hindus in a village have objected to a Muslim graveyard. It is a controversy that, like the one in Ukhrul, began before the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 2014. The Muslim villagers’ plans for a new cemetery have faced resistance for several decades, forcing them to dig up old graves to bury their dead.

The opposition is now more vociferous, with religious extremists from the majority community fanning the flames of disharmony. Liberal voices can hardly be heard. Slowly, we are witnessing the hyper-normalisation of intolerance and as we watch, we are unable to imagine a political alternative.

Nandita Haksar is a human rights lawyer, teacher, activist and writer