MUMBAI, India – A Catholic school in northeastern India was set on fire after a dispute surrounding the suspension of several students.
St. Joseph Higher Secondary School – the second oldest Catholic school in the state of Manipur – was badly burned on April 25: At least ten classrooms were destroyed, and the school’s files and other documents were reduced to ash.
Manipur is in India’s northeastern panhandle bordering Myanmar, and the state has a large tribal population. The Christian community is large: 41.29 percent of Manipur’s more than 2.8 million people are Christian, only slightly less than the 41.39 percent that are Hindu. The rest mostly follow Islam or indigenous religions.
Two officers of the Kuki Students’ Organization were arrested after the incident. The Kuki are one of the hill tribes in the area.
Father Jacob Chapao, Director of the Manipur Catholic Youth Organization, issued a statement saying “such a barbaric act of vandalism on an educational institution is against the cause of humanity.”
In a communique, Chapao said the incident arose after a teacher disciplined some students in an “inappropriate” way, involving corporal punishment.
The priest said the next day, a girl who witnessed the paddling made a post to Facebook “using threatening, abusive and slang words.”
Chapao said the post went viral, even spreading to WhatsApp – which is often used to organize large mobs in India – and the faculty summoned the students involved and their parents to the school. In all, six girls were suspended from the school – five for one month, and one for six months.
“Their parents agreed and signed the paper of agreement except the main girl since she didn’t bring appropriate parents,” the priest said.
After two days, members of the Kuki Students’ Organization came to the parish to meet the principal, and to request that the suspensions against the girls be lifted.
The priest asked for time to speak about the case with the staff but said the KSO then threatened and tried to blackmail several of the teachers.
“Whatever be, there was a staff meeting [on April 25] and it was decided to have a meeting on April 30, along with the parents of the particular children [and the] school teachers to reconcile and see the need of the situation,” Chapao explained.
However, this meeting wasn’t to take place. The KSO demanded the school be closed and threatened both the staff and parents of students. That night, the school was set on fire.
Police said the men arrested have admitted to trying to close the school, but they are still investigating the fire.
“It is a deeply painful and unfortunate event that the temple of learning, the harbinger of hope could be so brazenly reduced to ashes by some unscrupulous people in the society,” said a statement from Catholic Educational Society Manipur.
The school’s principal said the whole incident could have been avoided if the students used proper channels to air their grievances.
“Yes, corporal punishment was given, but they used the wrong channel for redressal of their grievance,” said the principal. “She should have come to me or my assistant, but she went to [social media] and defamed my teachers.”
The fire comes as India entered the final stages of its weeks-long general election. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has ruled India Since 2014, is seeking to continue in power with Narendra Modi serving as prime minister. The party is affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a militant Hindu nationalist organization. The BJP also rules the state of Manipur.
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.
“Persecution and Christianity go hand in hand,” said Father Felix Anthony, the public relations officer for the North East Catholic Bishops’ Council.
He told Crux the incident in Manipur “calls for prayer and conviction that the Lord rises every time there is an effort to keep him buried in the tomb.”
Government minister Letpao Haokip called the burning of the school an “act of extremists.”
“Whoever is involved in this act will be booked and punished. I will help in the reconstruction of the school so the students do not lose an academic year,” he said.