It all started with a thrashing for wearing lipstick in class. It set off a chain of events that began with a show of solidarity on Facebook and ended with a school being burnt down, putting an entire town on the edge.

St. Joseph’s Higher Secondary School, a well-known Catholic church-run school in Manipur’s Chandel district, was burnt down on the night of April 25. The police have arrested two Kuki Students’ Organisation functionaries in connection with the incident.

“The school authorities had recently suspended six students,” said K Jayanta Kumar, Inspector General of Manipur police. “KSO wanted them to revoke the suspension, but the school authorities refused to do so, so it seems they burnt down the school.”

The police found copies of the “ultimatum” issued by the student organisation pasted on the school’s gate, said Kumar.

‘Abusive and unbecoming’

The six students, enrolled in class 9, were allegedly suspended for their “abusive and unbecoming” posts and comments online about the teacher who had beaten their classmate, the principal of the school said in an interview to a local cable news channel.

The student who had written the post against the teacher was suspended for six months while the other five who had commented on the post were proscribed for a month each from school. The student who was originally punished in the classroom was not part of this.

The principal, a Christian priest, blamed the episode on “the misuse of social media”.

“Yes, corporal punishment was given, but they used the wrong channel for redressal of their grievance,” said the priest. “She should have come to me or my assistant, but she went to [social media] and defamed my teachers.”

Suspension – and intervention

After the students were suspended for their alleged online transgression, one of the students – the one who wrote the Facebook post – reportedly approached the local branch of the Kuki Students’ Organisation, which wields considerable influence in the area.

The student outfit demanded that the school authorities should revise its decision and reinstate the students.

Several rounds of negotiation involving the student outfit, school authorities, and local church leaders followed. However, they failed to arrive at a solution, prompting the student outfit to call for the closure of the school. The police say the school was torched down as authorities refused to shut down the school.

Manipur’s youth affairs and sports minister, Letpao Haokip at the site. Photo: By special arrangement.

‘Not communal’

The torching of the Catholic school has put the area on the boil. Residents of Sugnu, the town where the school is located, poured out to the streets, demanding action against the guilty. Several tribal groups have issued strongly-worded condemnations. Manipur’s youth affairs and sports minister, Letpao Haokip, went to the spot on April 26, promising monetary aid and even offering a part of his salary.

The incident comes days after a grenade was found outside a missionary school in Imphal. However, the police said there was no communal angle to the incident in Chandel. “It is not like the cases in Imphal area where there are monetary demands from insurgent groups,” said Kumar.

Chandel is a Christian-majority district – almost 90 % of the population are Christian. Most Kukis too, the most dominant group in the district, are Christian. This is in contrast to the Imphal Valley, where the majority Meitei community are followers of Hinduism.

The Kuki Students Organisation’s president Paothinthang Lupheng said the outfit would cooperate with the police’s investigations, although, the group’s unit in the area has refuted the allegations. Lupheng, however, concede that their workers got “involved in something they should not have in the first place” by ordering the closure of the school. “That is the mistake they have committed,” he said