The video shows how a group of men on a dirt road in Manipur humiliate two naked women and drag them to a field. There they were allegedly raped by a group of men. India is shocked and indignant.
The images would date from May 4, but only went viral on Wednesday. This is because the internet was shut down in the Manipur region, a measure taken by the Indian government to limit access to information in the state that has been plagued by communal violence for more than two months. In this way, the conflict between the Meitei majority and the Kuki minority remained underexposed for a long time.
Although the incident was known to the police soon after the events, it was not until Thursday, a day after the images went viral, that the police made an initial arrest. The police have now announced that they have opened an investigation into kidnapping, gang rape and murder. The women in the video are now said to be safe and staying in a refugee camp.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the incident has “shamed” India and that “no culprit will be spared”. “I assure the nation that justice will take its course with all its might. What happened to the daughters of Manipur can never be forgiven,” said Modi, who has come under fire for keeping tight-lipped about the conflict in Manipur for two months.
Rape as a weapon
In the northeastern Indian state of Manipur, near the border with Myanmar, it has been unsettled for months. The victims in the video are said to be Kuki, a predominantly Christian minority group in Manipur. The perpetrators would then again be Meitei, the dominant population group in the state. The latter group consists mainly of Hindus. The women’s humiliation was part of an attack on their village.
Such attacks have become a regular fixture in Manipur. Kuki and Meitei attack each other’s villages and burn them to the ground. At least 130 people have been killed. Some 60,000 others are on the run. The incident shows how sexual assault and rape are weapons, especially in India.
At the root of the conflict are tensions between the different ethnic groups in Manipur. The Kuki are an indigenous population group that enjoys special rights as a ‘scheduled tribe’ or ‘established tribe’. This status entitles them to a certain number of jobs in government and educational institutions. The Naga, the third major ethnic group in Manipur, have the same status. As ‘scheduled tribes’, Kuki and Naga are also allowed to live in the forested areas of the state. This is prohibited for other population groups. That’s where the shoe pinches for the Meitei. They believe they are also entitled to all those benefits and want recognition as a ‘scheduled tribe’.
Criticism of Modi
Since the Meitei are already the dominant group in Manipur, both politically and culturally, the Kuki and Naga fear that if they lose their advantages over the Meitei, they will be completely outnumbered. They fear losing both their land and their rights. The Kuki are therefore fighting for more autonomy within India. That is not negotiable for the Meitei.
Drug trafficking also plays a role in the conflict. The Manipur government is waging a controversial ‘war on drugs’ against poppy production in the state. Poppy is the basic product for opium. Neighboring Myanmar is one of the largest opium producers in the world and, according to the government, poppy is widely grown in the Kuki areas. The Christian Kuki distance themselves from this accusation and feel targeted by the Hindu government.
At the head of that government is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Hindu nationalist party of Indian Prime Minister Modi. He has now condemned the assault of the two women, but has remained remarkably quiet about the conflict despite the outbreak of violence in recent months. That’s not a coincidence. With his Hindu nationalist rhetoric, Modi has sharpened the ethnic tensions within India. Ethnic minority groups have long felt targeted by his policies. The video caused so much outrage that the prime minister had no choice but to react. Opposition parties and Kuki strongly criticize Modi’s actions in Manipur.