In Manipur, Women Are Both Victims and Instigators of Sexual Violence

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In Manipur, Women Are Both Victims and Instigators of Sexual Violence

“Whether they be Kukis or Meiteis, the common factor is that women and children are the worst sufferers of this conflict.”

In Manipur, Women Are Both Victims and Instigators of Sexual Violence

Activists protesting ethnic violence in northeastern Manipur state hold placards in Mumbai, India, July 24, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool

The picturesque northeast Indian state of Manipur, literally the “land of gems,” has been engulfed in a violent ethnic conflict for the past three months. The killings, rapes, and rioting in the state since May, unsurprisingly, did not merit the attention of the national media, until a horrific video from Manipur went viral last fortnight. The 26-second clip showed two Kuki tribal women paraded naked by a mob of men who were groping their genitals and assaulting them. The horrific video has since been removed from YouTube.

Nationwide public outrage followed after the two-month old video surfaced, forcing Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government in the state to break their silence.

The extremely disturbing video of the two women has managed to do what 79 days of bloody conflict could not: put the spotlight on Manipur and on the inaction of the authorities in preventing the ongoing violence. The opposition is now demanding answers from the Modi government on the Manipur violence and has even moved a No Confidence motion against the government in the ongoing parliamentary session.

The gruesome incident took place on May 4. The older of the two Kuki women who were paraded naked now lives in a relief camp. Showing tremendous courage, she narrated her trauma to a reporter from the news portal Scroll, saying, “Everyone should know what happened to us.”

The 44-year-old survivor is the wife of the village chief while the other woman was her 21-year-old neighbor. Although they had managed to flee their homes before the buildings were burnt down, they were caught by Meitei mobs. The men first lynched the younger girl’s father and then lynched her brother, who had tried to protect his sister. Thereafter, the mob forced the two women to strip, and paraded them naked while groping and assaulting them.

The woman’s nightmare was unending; she was forced to strip not once but twice and brutally beaten when she resisted. A fortnight later, a First Information Report (FIR) of gang rape was cursorily lodged against “unknown miscreants.” No further progress was made until the video emerged online last month.

What was most shocking is that the two women had rushed to a police vehicle for help but received none;  the police were instead silent bystanders to the horrific episode.

Violence first broke out on May 3 between the majority Meiteis and Kuki people after a Tribal Solidarity March was organized by the Kuki-Zo tribals. The Kukis were protesting against the proposal to grant Scheduled Tribe status to the Meiteis, who constitute 53 percent of the population in the state. While the majority of the Meiteis are Hindus settled in the Imphal Valley, the Kuki-Zo tribals are Christians living in the hills.

Initial clashes soon flared into rioting, killing, and the burning down of churches, houses, and villages. Women in particular were subjected to the most horrific mob violence, publicly stripped, sexually assaulted, gang raped, and even murdered.

The government clamped down on internet services in the state. After the video of the two women being paraded naked emerged, two months after the fact, angry citizens remarked that the internet ban was aimed at not allowing the rest of the world to know the ugly truth.

Appalled at the unending carnage, which has dragged on for three entire months, a women fact-finding team from the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW) visited Manipur. Annie Raja, the general secretary of NFIW, was part of the three-member team; she spoke extensively to The Diplomat about the trip.

“What is most glaring in these atrocities is the weaponization of women’s bodies,” Raja said. “Women have been used as instruments to exact revenge on the other community, and all this is happening in a modern society! This has to stop.”

Without mincing her words, at a press conference after their visit, Raja held the Manipur state government responsible for failing to halt the carnage in the state. Raja and two of her colleagues were then promptly charged with sedition by the state police.

The complicity of the government in the ongoing mayhem is undeniable. After the horror video emerged, when Chief Minister Biren Singh was questioned about the delay in taking action, he callously declared that ”hundreds” of similar incidents have occurred in Manipur in the ongoing conflict.

Incidentally, the FIR on the video incident was lodged on May 18, but despite clear video evidence of the perpetrators, arrests were made by the police only after July 20, when the video went viral.

To date 160 people have reportedly been killed, the majority of them Kuki-Zo tribals, and over 50,000 have been displaced. The situation was aggravated after 4,000 weapons, along with ammunition, were reportedly stolen from the police armories.

Manipur is not unfamiliar with violence, having been in the grips of insurgency for decades. But the kind of gruesome violence that the state has witnessed in the past 90 days has been unprecedented in terms of scale and ghastliness.

The NFIW fact-finding team spent two days in the state. “We interacted with women from both communities and found that women have no faith in the state and law enforcement machinery. They are planning to take up arms training to protect themselves,” said Raja.

She asserted that the police force, which acts on the directions of the state government, was “totally paralyzed” during the conflict.

It needs to be highlighted that the BJP government in Manipur has been actively playing majoritarian politics at the behest of the Hindu majority espousing BJP government at the center. Radicalized Meitei groups have been inciting hatred among the majority Meiteis for Christian Kuki tribals, labeling them as “foreigners” and “immigrants.”

A protest rally was held by the Kuki Women Organization for Human Rights in Manipur on July 21. The women protesters demanded the resignation of Singh, who belongs to the Meitei community, and accused his administration and the police of being “mere spectators to rape” of Kuki women.

At present, the two women victims of the horror video have filed a petition before India’s Supreme Court against the BJP state government and the BJP-ruled central government. Alarmed at the numerous cases of gender violence in the conflict, the court said it was “not an isolated case” and described it as “systemic violence.” Coming down heavily on the state police, the court has called for a healing touch in Manipur.

After the horror video emerged, several other incidents of gruesome violence against women during the conflict came to light. On May 4 itself, in yet another incident, two young Kuki nursing students were dragged out of their hostel and assaulted by a mob of Meitei men.

Nisha Sidhu a social activist and member of the NFIW team, told The Diplomat that they met the two nursing students in a relief camp in Churachandpur, where the survivors painstakingly narrated their traumatic experience. A mob armed with sticks, knives, and guns had barged into the hostel looking for Kuki girl students. The two girls, aged 19 and 20, were dragged out of their hostel rooms, mercilessly punched, beaten, and left on the roadside bleeding and injured.

An emotional Sidhu said, “The Kuki women are grieving. In Churachandpur, they showed us their Wall of Remembrance – a wall plastered with pictures of those Kukis who have been killed in the clashes. They have also lined up symbolic black dummy coffins along the road.”

One of the most disturbing aspects of these brutal crimes against women is that it was not men alone who were the perpetrators; survivors have recounted several instances of women participating and inciting the men to rape and kill. In another incident, a 19-year-old Kuki girl who had just stepped out to withdraw money from an ATM in Imphal was raped on May 15. She recalled how Meitei women were part of the mob and they were the first to assault her. “Why are you beating me… Am I not your sister?” she had cried out.

The young nursing student, too, had recalled to Scroll how Meitei women had egged on the men to “rape and kill and not keep them alive.” The student said it was painful to hear women talking like this.

As numerous survivor accounts have shown, the Meitei women’ group Meira Paibis (literally “torchbearers”) – earlier famous for being the guardians of civil society – have now turned into perpetrators. Survivors have gone on record to state that Meira Paibis has been equally culpable, from assaulting young Kuki girls to provoking Meitei men to rape them.

Recently the Indian Army publicly called out the action of armed women mobs in Manipur. Questioning  the “peaceful blockade,” the army said the Meira Paibi women had blockaded roads and prevented them from saving lives.

“Whether they be Kukis or Meiteis,” asserted Raja of the NFIW, “the common factor is that women and children are the worst sufferers of this conflict.” She added, “Wherever we went, all the women just want to go back to their homes.”

But even if the violence were to stop, Manipur may never be the same. Raja recalled that when visiting Kuki and Meitei camps, they came across a few women who still had contacts with their neighbors and did not bear any ill feeling toward them. But for the most part, the fault lines between the Kukis and Meiteis have become so stark that hatred for each other has become deeply ingrained. The earlier intermingling of the two communities has become a distant memory.

Nicky Chandam is a performance artist living in Imphal and the founder of Octave Foundation. An anguished Nicky spoke to The Diplomat. “All my life, I have been fighting against ‘labels,’” she said. “After violence broke out, I felt extremely betrayed. All those whom I called friends, we had shared so much and suddenly for them I became a Meitei. They stopped communicating with me. It hurt me a lot.”

Nicky said she started visiting the relief camps and distributing relief materials. She soon realized that the men were running the camps, and they were oblivious to the basic needs of the majority of those living there – the women and children. “The lactating mothers, already traumatized by their displacement, needed baby formula, the pregnant women needed supplements, women needed bare essentials to survive there,” Nicky said.

She then started focusing solely on taking care of the needs of women and children. They are now trying to arrange for counseling sessions for residents of the camps.

For Manipuri people living and working outside the state, the constant worry and fear for the safety of their loved ones has been a harrowing experience. Lamcha (name changed), who works in Delhi’s IT sector, recalls how difficult it was getting his father evacuated from Imphal. Being a Kuki, their house was no longer a safe place in the valley, which is the stronghold of the majority Meiteis. Lamcha enlisted the help of friends and first shifted his father to a relief camp and thereafter to the city of Guwahati.

“How long can we sustain ourselves outside the state? Our homes are gone, our businesses are gone,” said Lamcha, speaking about other members of his community.

Since the last fortnight, there has been much talk about the need for peace talks between the two communities to enable a return to normalcy. What my interactions with people on the ground have revealed is that a lot of time has been lost and the divisions between the two communities have been deeply entrenched. Even the geographical divide is a reality now, with the Kuki-Zos strictly relegated to the hills and the Meiteis in the valley. Stepping into each other’s territory is not permitted. The central forces are manning the buffer zone in between.

In such a deeply divided state, peace talks seem a distant prospect. What is first needed is an initiative to rebuild trust between the two communities through the help of civil society.

The horror video shocked not just India but has unsurprisingly also had international repercussions. An alarmed European Union passed a resolution condemning the Manipur violence and denouncing the “nationalist rhetoric of the BJP.”  However, the Indian government responded by stating that the conflict was an “internal matter.”

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, reacting to the viral video, slammed Modi saying, “PM, the issue is not that it’s a shame for the country. The issue is the immense pain and trauma inflicted on the women in Manipur.”