A footage of two women being forcibly stripped, abused and paraded naked on the streets that circulated on social media, had sparked a wave of protests across India last July. The attack occurred in India’s north-eastern state of Manipur and was carried out in early May by a mob of men belonging to the Meitei people, but it only became public time later. While Manipur has been ravaged by interethnic violence since the beginning of May, prime minister Narendra Modi kept a long and embarrassing silence over the issue. It is only when the video of the rape emerged that he finally expressed his concern for the episode. “What happened to the daughters of Manipur can never be forgiven”, Modi said. He added that the entire country has been shamed by the attack and promised tough actions against the perpetrators, but made no mention of the on-going conflict.
The violence in Manipur has spiraled out of control last May with clashes among the Meitei and the Kuki people. The hilly north-east Indian state that lays against Myanmar is inhabited by over 3 million people: more than the half belong to the Hindu Meitei while around 43 percent are Kukis and Nagas, the predominant minority tribes. The toll of the clashes is of 180 dead, 400 wounded and 60 thousand displaced as police forces are struggling to stem the violence. The Indian government has deployed 50,000 additional soldiers, paramilitary troops and police in order to quell the latest round of clashes. Angry mobs and armed vigilantes have set homes, churches and cars on fire, according to a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW). Contrasts over ethnic – rather than religious – divides between the Meiteis, who control the Imphal Valley area and the Kukis, who live in the surrounding hills, have deep roots and have flared up in an outpouring of violence and revenge.
The violence had continued for over four months and the state has become deeply segregated as all Kuki inhabitants of the valley have been displaced to the hill districts and a buffer zone was imposed. The hope in the conflict being solved by the government remains very low in Manipur, especially among the Kukis, who are fighting for their own independent state as they say they cannot any longer live under a Meitei-dominated state. The fuse was lit by Meiteis’ request to attain the special economic benefits and quotas that the Kukis are granted by their protected tribal status. Tribal groups, on the other hand, argue that this would further increase Meiteis’ economic power and eventually allow them to take over their land and cast them as illegal migrants. Kukis, who are largely Christians, have long denounced discrimination and violence perpetrated by the Meiteis, who have close ties to the Hindu far-right Bharatiya Janata Party that rules both in Manipur and at the central government in Delhi. While the police have been accused of siding with the majority Meitei community in the clashes, Manipur’s chief minister N. Biren Singh told journalists that the territorial integrity of Manipur would be “protected at all costs”.
“Manipur has long faced secessionist insurgencies in which both military and state security forces have committed serious human rights abuses. Longstanding ethnic disputes have also erupted into violence”, said Meenakshi Ganguly, Human Rights Watch (HRW) deputy Asia director, “However, instead of adopting measures that would ensure the security of all communities, the Bharatiya Janata Party government of N. Biren Singh in Manipur state has replicated the national party’s politically motivated divisive policies that promote Hindu majoritarianism”. A state-wide internet ban has been in force for two months. Although partially lifted, it has been criticized by international organizations for it prevented the world from “seeing the true extend of human rights violations” taking place in Manipur.
What the Indian prime minister also failed to mention in his outraged but belated statement is that the two women belonged to the Kuki minority, while the attackers were from the Meitei community. Rape and sexual violence have been commonly used as a weapon against women from the Kuki community by Meitei mobs. Feminist scholars argue that a gendered perspective on conflict is not only a useful lens but a necessary one. During war and armed conflicts, rape is frequently used as a means of psychological warfare in order to humiliate the enemy, as previously happened in conflicts such as the Bangladesh’s war, in Rwanda and Sierra Leone, and in ex-Yugoslavia, but also during Partition or the Gujarat riots in India. While prosecution of culprits in war crime tribunals was sporadic before the 90s, laws against sexual violence during conflict have been in place for a long time but implementing them keeps on being a challenge. In 2008 the United Nation Security Council recognized rape as a war crime like genocide.
Rape as a tool of war is not new either in Manipur. In July 2004, 13 women staged a protest in the state capital – they stood naked in front of an army camp in Imphal waving a banner: “Indian Army rape us”. They were protesting against the alleged rape and murder of a 32-year-old woman by paramilitary soldiers. Her mutilated body was found a few kilometers away from her home, where she was arrested the night before. Investigations revealed she was tortured and raped before being killed, allegedly by the Assam Rifles paramilitary. In Manipur, a state that has been shaken by sectarian and separatist violence for decades, the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), 1958, is in force. The act, under which Assam Rifles operate, grants special powers to the Indian Armed Forces to maintain public order in so-called “disturbed areas”. In this case, rape was a tool of the asymmetrical war of the State against its own people. The women of Manipur, with their powerful protest, breached the wall of silence around the rape case.
“It is well known that women’s bodies often become a battleground during riots and conflicts, and rape and sexual assault are used as instruments of violence to punish them”, said Geeta Pandey, the BBC’s correspondent in New Delhi, “The video of the sexual assault of the Kuki women in Manipur is the latest example”. And the situation often worsens into a spiral of revenge attacks.
The ethnic tensions in the small north-eastern state are widely perceived as a security and political failure by the Narendra Modi’s government. An alliance of opposition parties has pushed for a no-confidence vote against Modi’s government on August 10 in order to force the prime minister to address the issue of ethnic clashes. With the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party holding a strong majority in the lower house of parliament, the no-confidence vote did not affect its stability but compelled Modi to discuss the issue. Modi delivered a two-hour speech mainly focused on the accomplishments of his government and criticized the opposition for “defaming India” through the vote, to which opposition walked out. Afterwards, Modi addressed the conflict, stating that “there would soon be peace in Manipur”.
As expected, the no-trust motion failed but represented a bold attempt by opposition forces to put pressure on Narendra Modi in sight of general elections in May 2024, where the Indian prime minister will seek a third term in office, and showcase the unity and power of the INDIA grouping. At the end of July, 26 opposition parties announced the creation of the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) led by the Indian National Congress, claiming that the future of democracy and secular values are at risk in India under the ultra-Hindu nationalist government. As Modi seems not to be ready to admit its failures in the handling of Manipur violence, the country and the international observers are expecting the Indian prime minister to take a strong position on Manipur. “Addressing Kuki aspirations for tribal autonomy will no doubt prove complex, as it will face stiff opposition from both the Meiteis and Nagas” wrote Praveen Donthi, Senior Analyst for India at the Crisis Group, “New Delhi will need to overcome its reticence and take bolder steps to still Manipur’s ethnic turmoil”.
Cover photo: women take part in a candle-light protest at a street in Imphal on August 26, 2023, to condemn the sexual violence against women and for peace in the ongoing ethnic violence in India’s north-eastern state of Manipur (photo by AFP.)
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