Why missionaries are targeted in India’s northeast
Insurgents run a ‘parallel government’ who no one dares defy and prey on Catholic schools as easy targets for ransoms
In this file image nuns hold placard in Calcutta during a protest against the killing of three Catholic priests in the north-eastern Indian state of Manipur on May 15, 2001. (Photo by Deshakalyan Chowdhury/AFP)
Over 25 years ago a gang of four men took me at gunpoint from a basketball court to my school office. They introduced themselves as members of a proscribed organization and made me sit on a chair while they kicked my face.
That was the first attack I encountered on June 14, 1991, in my three decades of working as a Salesian missionary in the northeastern Indian state of Manipur.
Since then I have been held at gunpoint several times, which is a story quite a few of my confreres working in the field of education can also tell.
Many escape because of sheer luck. At least five have been shot dead in the last 30 years in this this insurgent-infested region where peace seems ever elusive.
During the first attack, my abductors wanted me to pay them 400,000 rupees (equivalent to about US$11,500 at the time) and give them a video camera and a gun.
As the priest-manager of Don Bosco School, in the state capital of Imphal, I was unable to meet their demands because I had none of those things. And this is something I made very clear to them.
Their reaction was swift and brutal. With a gun in hand, one of them hit me hard on my left cheek. The pain was severe. Later, medical examinations established that the strike had broken my eardrum. The four men then locked me up and made off with the 10,000 rupees (US$280) they found in my office.
Sadly, such attacks on missionaries and their schoolsin India are not that uncommon, and it does not seem to be the case that they are specifically targeting Christian missions based on some religious agenda.
However, there are about 20 insurgent groups operating in the state and they appear to view Catholic schools as an easy target whenever they want to raise funds to support whatever they are fighting for, which could be for a separate statehood or the goal of establishing ethnic supremacy over other groups.
The victims in such attacks are usually not missioners but teachers, students, neighbors and authorities at both the school and government level.
But a deadly silence prevails as the violence comes from groups that claim to be guerrilla liberators. They have no regard for the law of the land or any respect for human principles of any sort.
Even government and police officials who have been decorated for bravery have admitted in private conversations that in order to survive in Manipur they have to pay insurgent groups.
It is an open secret that these groups collect a share of the salaries from all government employees, who pay it without fuss or complaint because this is the world in which they live.
The insurgents’ word has become the de facto law and they project themselves as liberators of the people.
In recent years, the government’s actions have shown that violence of this kind pays. The state has expressed a willingness to engage in negotiations with these groups, who have been violating the rights and dignity of law-abiding citizens for decades.
Fear haunts even sections of the local media. Most newspapers publish whatever the insurgents dictate, without even caring to check the facts of what they publish. Church personnel and institutions often become the target of such one-sided media reports.
The continuing violence and intimidation made the church in Manipur adopt a new resolution in April 2000: Refuse the militants’ demands and face the consequences. That was at a time when they were demanding each Catholic school pay them 500,000 rupees ( then US$10,000).
But the consequences were deadly.
In December of 2000, 27-year-old Salesian Father Jacob Chittinapilly and his driver were both shot dead in retaliation for the decision they made not to yield to such groups’ extortionist demands.
Just five months later on May 15, 2001, three Salesians — Fathers Andreas Kindo and Raphael Paliakara and a seminarian — were also shot and killed for not paying the bounty demanded by these extortionists.
But it does not stop there. Just as bad if not worse is the defamation campaign that typically follows such a murder.
Father Chittinapilly was accused of being a police informer, which the insurgents claimed resulted in one of their clan being arrested.
Another murdered priest was charged with being a womanizer and a drug trafficker, despite their not being a grain of truth to those accusations.
Unfortunately the local media routinely publish such allegations without giving the accused, or the friends or family of the accused, any chance to defend themselves, let alone conducting an enquiry to try and establish the true facts.
In effect, even if the accused have not been killed, it is as though they are already dead with their guilt taken as read.
Church schools are also often accused of amassing “black” money by collecting capitation fees and donations and evading tax.
But the finance ministry and income tax department, who have the tax documents of these schools and are empowered to act against such accusations, make no move against the schools!
The truth is that the insurgents run a parallel government. For their own survival, elected officials do not conduct probes into these cases if there is a risk of that causing a problem for the outlaws or proving them wrong.
The insurgents also demand that certain children of their choosing are admitted to the Catholic schools, despite the fact that the constitution guarantees religious minorities the right to establish and freely manage educational institutions to help their communities.
But in these cases, the rights and privileges that are afforded to minorities and enshrined in the law are thrown to the wind.
Yet why bother to seek admission to a Catholic school after accusing them all of being evil and immoral? The government has enough men, state machinery and money to build more schools than the church has in the state. But they cannot buy staff with such a genuine level of commitment and dedication, which is a key reason for the success of the Catholic schools.
However, instead of appreciating these facts, the insurgents put the schools under immense pressure and force them carry a cross day after day.
At times they even question the motives of these Christian missionary schools, and speculate about hidden agendas.
Yet thousands of past pupils are now active in every strata of society — from politics and business to bureaucracy and law enforcement. They are the best proof of what underpins these schools, which is to say — providing children with the opportunity to live a full and happy life.
The missioners’ services to educate school dropouts and serve the sick, poor and abandoned also get buried under the propaganda dished out by the militants.
Missioners’ pioneering efforts to codify dictionaries and grammar books in local languages, as well as their literary contributions, also meet the same fate.
And still the government remains silent about this.
State-run schools, which receive millions of rupees in government funding each year, are generally in a poor condition, as evidenced by the substandard examination results of their students.
Neither the insurgents nor the government care one iota about this.
They would spend their time blaming the Catholic schools for a range of imaginary crimes.
But the missioners have no option. As they have no money to pay, they must pay with their lives.
Father Francis Charuvila SDB works in the field of education in the northeastern Indian state of Manipur.
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