MUMBAI, India – Church leaders in India have expressed concern over the theft of two Marian statues in the northeastern part of the country but have warned against reading too much into the actions.
Two statues were found missing on the morning of March 31 but were later recovered. The statues were both in grottos in the state of Arunachal Pradesh — one in Tezu parish in the Miao diocese, and one in Doimukh parish in the Itanagar diocese.
“This is very worrying and shocking as such incident has never occurred in the past in our places,” said Taba Koko from the Doimuk parish.
Arunachal Pradesh is located at the foot of the Himalayas, and parts of it are the subject of a territorial dispute with China. Miao and Itanagar are the only two dioceses in the state.
“The recovery of the stolen statues at Tezu tells us not to see too much into stray incidents. In fact at Doimukh, the statue was recovered from a person who was found to be mentally unstable,” said Archbishop Thomas Menamparampil, the emeritus Archbishop of Guwahati, in the neighboring state of Assam.
“But what worries the Christian community is the steady way in which the right wing party is building up its base in Arunachal Pradesh, a region strongly claimed by China, though it lies on this side of the Himalayas. The long-term strategies of the fundamentalist groups, especially their ability to bribe people to instrumentalize them for political purposes, are certainly a cause for anxiety,” the archbishop told Crux.
Menamparampil was alluding to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has ruled India Since 2014, with Narendra Modi serving as prime minister. The party is affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a militant Hindu nationalist organization.
Pema Khandu, the chief minister for the state, was elected on the ticket of the secular Congress Party, but soon thereafter changed his affiliation to the Peoples Party of Arunachal, which was allied to the BJP. Just a few months later, his government formally joined the BJP.
Christians make up around 30 percent of the state’s population, making it the largest individual religion in the state, with Hindus coming close behind at 29 percent. Nationally, Hindus make up nearly 80 percent of India’s population, with Christians only comprising 2.3 percent.
India is holding its general elections from April 11 – May 19, and many observers say it might be the closest poll in years, with the Congress Party making significant gains in state polls held in December.
Religious minorities have been suspicious of the BJP’s religious ideology, especially since incidents of harassment against minorities – particularly Christians and Muslims – have increased since the party took power.
Father Felix Anthony, the spokesperson for the Northeast Bishops Council, said he hopes the theft of the statues is not part of a larger scheme.
“It is indeed a matter of great relief that both statues have been discovered. We wish to assure ourselves that these are isolated incidents and not the handiwork of some vested interests,” he said.
“Thank God, it’s been found. We would appreciate efforts taken by our smart youth from Tezu parish in discovering the stolen statue,” the priest told Matters India. The boy who found the statue said it was in a field near the parish.
He noted the other statue, missing from the grotto of Doimukh parish in the Diocese of Itanagar, was also recovered from a person who is reportedly mentally unstable.
“Let us find out why the boy had taken away the statue. Hope he is not playing in the hands of some vested interests,” he reiterated.
Anthony also said the Church in Arunachal Pradesh is praying for peace and harmony in the state, which has experienced violence related to India’s upcoming general election.
The priest said the vandalism of the grottos calls for “vigilance from all of us, especially in the context of what is happening in Arunachal these days.”
Speaking to North East Today, Anthony added that “both the incidents are strikingly similar on many counts. Both the grottos were vandalized late at night and the statues were found missing early on the morning of the 31st.”
“Both are very prominent centers of Arunachal Pradesh. Both are grottos and not churches or chapels. Though it appears to be a well thought out handiwork of people who want to disturb the peaceful atmosphere in the state, we hope the administration takes necessary measures to restore the feeling of safety and security of all the people, especially when the election is around the corner,” the priest said.