As the northeast Indian state of Manipur continues to endure persistent waves of violence since May 3, a video surfaced this week, depicting two women from the Christian Kuki-Zo community being publicly paraded naked and subjected to sexual assault, allegedly in the presence of state police.
Christian women living in a displaced persons camp in Manipur, India. The northeastern state has seen an outbreak of anti-Christian violence since May, killing hundreds and driving tens of thousands from their homes.
The incident unfolded in the district of Thoubal on May 4, roughly two months prior to the video’s appearance on social media and messaging applications, as per The Indian Express. The newspaper also reported on a strong reaction from India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi on July 20 – marking his first mention of the violence since its inception over two months ago.
“I assure the countrymen that no culprit will be spared. The law with all its might will take one step after another,” said Modi, who hails from the Bharatiya Janata Party, a Hindu nationalist party which is also in power in Manipur state.
“My heart is full of pain, full of anger. The incident that has come to light in Manipur is a shameful incident for any civilised society,” added Modi, whose party projects him as the leader of an emerging global power.
The women have told the media that an unruly mob comprising men from the majority Meitei community, which is predominantly Hindu, and who were allegedly armed with sophisticated weapons, stormed their village that day. As the mob torched homes and threatened to kill local residents, the women sought refuge with the local police, only to be seized by the mob en route to the police station.
In the grasp of their tormentors, they were forced to shed their clothes and endure the indescribable horror of a public sexual assault, an event that was callously filmed and distributed online. The youngest woman, in her 20s, according to the complaint, was brutally gang-raped.
The father and brother of the other woman were murdered in the melee.
The Wire, an Indian media outlet, added to this grim account, citing the victims’ statement that four police officers were present at the scene, watching from their vehicle and offering no assistance or intervention. This additional revelation has amplified calls for justice, putting further pressure on a government already under scrutiny for its mishandling of the violence in Manipur.
One of the women has spoken of individuals among the Meitei mob who showed compassion, some of whom expressed an intention to protect them.
In the face of mounting pressure, the Manipur Police confirmed the registration of a formal complaint against “unknown armed miscreants” – although many of their faces are clearly visible in the video – on charges of abduction, gang-rape and murder.
Two months elapsed without any arrests until mere minutes after Prime Minister Modi’s denunciation of the incident. About 20 minutes later, the Express reported an announcement from the chief minister of Manipur, declaring the first arrest related to the case.
While Prime Minister Modi may enjoy a certain level of popularity in the U.S. and Europe, especially among the Indian diaspora, he has been subjected to substantial criticism within India itself. His perceived silence on the Manipur violence and allegations of his inability to control the unrest have contributed significantly to this criticism.
The central government also demanded that social media platforms remove the video. This demand split public opinion: some question the suitability of permitting such disturbing content, specifically when it depicts female victims, on social media platforms. Conversely, others argued that the video’s public revelation undeniably increased the chance of a commitment to action, and perhaps even the real implementation of justice against the offenders.
(CSI is choosing not to show the video, because of the graphic content and out of respect for the victims.)
The victims of the attack now reside in relief camps in the adjoining district of Tengnoupal, according to media reports.
Behind the ongoing violence in Manipur is the bid for tribal recognition by the Hindu-majority Meitei ethnic group. Having a recognized tribal status could grant them rights to buy land in the hill regions. These regions are the ancestral lands of the largely Christian Kuki-Zo tribes, who fear being pushed out.
The situation worsened when the Manipur High Court instructed the state government to officially consider listing the Meitei community as a tribe. This led to a peaceful protest by tribal groups on May 3, which spiralled into violence due to alleged attacks by Meitei extremists, including the burning of the Anglo-Kuki War Centenary Gate in Churachandpur the same day.
Following unverified reports of attacks by Kuki-Zo people on Meitei individuals, widespread violence against Kuki-Zo people ensued in the Imphal Valley, persisting until the intervention of the Army and federal forces on May 6. Despite the military presence, intermittent but deadly firearm attacks continue, with some videos revealing police amid mobs attacking Kuki-Zo homes.
According to the Indigenous Tribal Leaders’ Forum, at least 114 Kuki-Zo people are confirmed dead, 197 villages have been burned, more than 7,000 houses have been burned or destroyed, 359 churches and religious buildings have been destroyed or burned, and 41,425 people remain displaced since May 3.