Father Isaac Honsan, pastor of St. Paul’s Church, stands in the rubble after the church was set on fire in a recent attack. / Photo credit: Anto Akkara

Indore, India, Aug 16, 2023 / 13:30 pm (CNA).

As India celebrated its 77th Independence Day marking freedom from colonial British rule on Aug. 15, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) asserted the patriotism of Christians and called for “resolving internal challenges with empathy, understanding, and unity.”

“India’s journey to freedom was not solely forged on the battlefield but also through unwavering determination, sacrifices, and visionary leadership from those of diverse backgrounds, including the Christian community,” the CBCI said in a press release.

Though British imperialism spread in India when the East India Company began trading there in the 17th century, the British Parliament took total control over the Indian subcontinent in 1858.

Following the massive freedom struggle led by Mahatma Gandhi — the prophet of nonviolence — the British ended their rule over the Indian subcontinent in August 1947, dividing it into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan.

Hindu nationalist outlets, under the influence of the ruling BJP (the Bharatiya Janata Party, one of the two major Indian political parties alongside the Indian National Congress), have called into question the patriotism of India’s 34 million Christians. The CBCI statement addressed the charge, saying: “Christian freedom fighters left an indelible mark on India’s history. Their dedication and sacrifices serve as a poignant reminder that the fight for freedom was a collective endeavor that transcended religious and cultural boundaries.”

“Our nation’s strength is derived from its ability to confront and resolve internal challenges with empathy, understanding, and unity. The diverse fabric of our country is a source of strength, but it also requires ongoing efforts to ensure that every citizen’s rights and aspirations are respected and protected,” the bishops stated.

Violence in Manipur

In an apparent criticism of the 105-day-old bloody ethnic conflict in the northeastern state of Manipur — in which ethnic Christian Kuki tribes have been targeted — the CBCI further called for “meaningful dialogue seeking solutions that prioritize the well-being and future of all the citizens, especially those who are suffering and feel abandoned due to conflicts, sentiments of hatred, and acts of violence.”

The tiny state of Manipur, with a population of 3.7 million, has been engulfed in a violent conflict between ethnic Kuki tribals and Meiteis that began May 3 following a solidarity march by members of the Christian Kuki tribal community in south Manipur. The protest was against a controversial order from the state high court for extending Scheduled Tribe status to the ethnic Meiteis. (Scheduled Tribe status is a provision of India’s national constitution that mandates free education and quotas in professions such as medicine and engineering, as well as government jobs.) The Meiteis were originally followers of indigenous Sanamahism and many converted to Hinduism as well as Christianity. Meiteis constitute more than 52% of the state’s population.

Reports of tribal Kuki attacks on ethnic Meiteis spread like wildfire after the protest, which in turn plunged the Imphal Valley, which accommodates 90% of Manipur’s population, into an outburst of violence against Kuki tribal Christians. At the same time, ethnic Meitei settlements in the Kuki-dominated hills surrounding the valley were also targets of violence.

“It is our earnest appeal that the governance system should uphold the secular fabric of our country, reinforce constitutional values, and cultivate an environment of peaceful coexistence of various communities,” the CBCI statement said.

A CBCI delegation led by its president, Archbishop Andrews Thazhath, visited Manipur in late July. According to the Times of India, Biren Singh, the beleaguered BJP chief minister of Manipur, in a statement on Independence Day eve acknowledged that “with over 150 dead and hundreds injured, homes and places of faith razed to the ground, we are not leaving a good legacy for our children and future generations.”

The Catholic Church in Manipur, which accounts for 100,000 members among the 1.5 million Christians in the state, welcomed the CBCI statement for Independence Day.

“The beauty of this country is the diversity of culture, faith, and ethnicity, with a feeling of common brotherhood,” Father Varghese Velickagam, vicar general of the Archdiocese of Imphal, which covers the entire Manipur state, told CNA Aug. 15.

“Any forces that scheme to destroy these noble ideals should be resisted immediately,” said Velickagam, who issued a summary of the violence against Christian targets in early August and stated that more than 600 churches had been destroyed.

“The resolution of the crisis in the northeastern state [Manipur] is possible only through ‘peace’ and the central [federal] and the state government is putting all its efforts into it,” said Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his Independence Day address.

However, Modi has been widely criticized, even internationally, for his protracted silence on Manipur bloodshed as the state government, led by the BJP, has failed to curb the bloodshed against the Kuki tribal Christians and has even condoned it.

“Killings will only stop when the assailants are arrested and put behind bars,” pointed out Colin Gonsalves, a Christian lawyer who has been representing Kuki tribal groups in the Supreme Court of India, in an interview.

“No communal attack can continue in the country without the state head giving support … The police can stop violence in 24 hours if they are told,” Gonsalves said, pointing to state complicity in the unabated violence in his interview, which has gone viral.