Violence Against Manipur’s Women Must be Addressed

By Emily Thompson

Videos of two tribal Kuki women being paraded naked by a mob of allegedly majority Meitei men surfaced last month, attracting international condemnation. The video depicts two frightened women being coerced to walk naked amidst a gathering of clothed men. In the distressing footage, the women appear to be subjected to groping and sexual assault while surrounded by a mob of men, many of whom are holding long canes or sticks as potential weapons. The women said in their police complaints they were later gang raped. Since then, there have been several other cases of women being deliberately targeted in violence that has resulted in more than 180 deaths and rendered tens of thousands homeless.

As per CNN and Reuters reporting, officials have announced the arrest of four individuals, with police conducting further raids. Authorities are currently questioning over three dozen men in connection with the apparent sexual assault. The horrifying video surfaced more than two months after the incident occurred, which was preceded by ethnic violence in Manipur, leading to statewide internet restrictions being imposed on May 3.

One of the smallest states in India, Manipur has a population of 3.2 million. Meiteis, who represent 53 percent of the population, reside in the more prosperous valley, while the Kukis, who comprise 16 percent of the population, live largely in the surrounding hills.

Over the past three months, the situation has worsened significantly, pushing it to a critical point where it has become a major concern for the nation. In response to the government’s perceived inaction in containing the unrest and other failures, a no-confidence motion against the ruling party, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is scheduled for the upcoming week. Although the motion is unlikely to dethrone Modi’s government, it serves two crucial political purposes: firstly, drawing attention to the authorities’ failure to address the escalating conflict effectively; and secondly, uniting the opposition under a new, broader coalition.

This violence has fueled opposition against Modi’s government, coinciding with a newly united and assertive opposition coalition known as the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA). The opposition seeks to challenge the BJP’s dominance, both nationally and at the state level.

On the national stage, the no-confidence motion against Modi’s government is the first test for the INDIA coalition, comprising around 26 political parties united in challenging the BJP’s Hindu nationalist ideology and addressing economic issues like inflation and unemployment.

India’s opposition has accused Modi of maintaining silence on the ethnic violence engulfing the northeastern state governed by his party. The Parliament began debating a no-confidence motion against his government on Tuesday, which is expected to be defeated.

Congress party lawmaker Gaurav Gogoi, while initiating the debate on the motion, expressed concern over the situation in Manipur, stating, “If Manipur is burning, India is burning. If Manipur is divided, India is divided.”

Gogoi said the no-confidence motion was never about numbers, but about seeking justice for Manipur. He said Modi’s silence showed the failure of his party on a state and federal level, and said Modi “has not uttered a word of condolence” or even appealed for peace in Manipur since the violence began in early May.

For the past three months, Modi has largely refrained from addressing the bloodshed in the remote state, which is on the verge of a civil war. The opposition has resorted to the no-confidence motion as a means to compel Modi to discuss the Manipur conflict on the Parliament floor.

Meanwhile, reports of rapes, burnings, and decapitations have surfaced, indicating a deeply disturbing escalation of conflicts. The violence seems to stem from the state government’s attempts to extend benefits and job opportunities, once exclusively reserved for Kukis, to the Meiteis, which has sparked tension between the two groups.

India has a history of interethnic, sectarian, and insurgent violence, and the prevailing Hindu nationalist ideology propagated by Modi’s government has contributed to an atmosphere of discord and animosity, possibly even fueling violence in some cases.

Instead of seeking reconciliation between the two groups, the state government imposed an internet blackout, further exacerbating the already tense situation. The blackout was only partially lifted last month, but it did little to quell the unrest.

While the no-confidence motion is unlikely to topple Modi’s government, it is intended to raise awareness about the urgency of resolving the conflict and shedding light on the government’s shortcomings in handling the situation. However, the motion’s limited impact on the government’s position might offer little relief to the thousands who have fled the violence in Manipur or the many others who continue to live in fear.

Northeastern India has been plagued by interethnic conflicts for decades due to its geographical isolation, porous international and state borders, presence of migratory tribal groups, and the political and economic instability of neighboring countries like Bangladesh and Myanmar. Under Modi’s government, these conflicts have seen heightened tensions and complexities. Assam, for instance, has experienced long-standing tensions between ethnic Assamese and Bangladeshi migrants, leading to a political dimension to the conflict. In 2019, the federal government’s declaration of about 1.9 million Bangladeshis in Assam as stateless further exacerbated the situation.

Manipur, another northeastern state, shares similar challenges as Assam, being impoverished and under-resourced. Inequality, whether real or perceived, worsens existing tensions within the region. As Scheduled Tribes, the Kuki have historically received special access to land permits, jobs, and other benefits to address past oppression and denial of education and livelihood opportunities.

However, a court ruling issued on May 3 proposed that the Meitei people should also be designated as Scheduled Tribes, granting them access to benefits and land in Mizoram’s hill country that were previously reserved for Scheduled Tribes. In response, Kuki and other Scheduled Tribes protested against the ruling, resulting in a statewide suspension of mobile internet services and a “shoot-at-sight” order to maintain public order. The lack of internet connectivity concealed the violence until late July, when the video surfaced, triggering national outrage.

The growing opposition movement poses challenges to Modi’s government and may potentially influence the political landscape in India. However, the complex interethnic conflicts and regional dynamics in the northeastern states remain deeply rooted and require comprehensive and sustainable efforts to promote peace and stability.

As of the present moment, Modi and his BJP seem to maintain a strong hold on power, despite the alarming atrocities unfolding in Manipur and the growing unity among the opposition. It is improbable that this situation will drastically change before the upcoming 2024 national elections. However, the impending no-confidence motion provides the opposition with a valuable opportunity to hold Modi and the BJP accountable for persistent issues such as violence against women.

Modi’s popularity in India can be attributed to his emphasis on two key messages: economic development and Hindu nationalism. These factors have contributed to the BJP’s strength. Nevertheless, the opposition sees potential in weakening the BJP’s position by focusing on state-level victories and strategically contesting seats.

The escalating violence in Manipur has reached a level where it can no longer be ignored. The need for a comprehensive and sustainable solution to address the underlying causes and promote peace in the region is paramount. It requires not just the attention of the Indian government but also the cooperation and support of the international community to ensure the well-being and safety of the affected communities.

While the political landscape may remain largely unchanged for now, the no-confidence motion and the overall growing discontent with certain policies and actions under Modi’s leadership provide a platform for the opposition to voice their concerns and hold the government accountable. As India approaches the 2024 national elections, it will be interesting to witness how the dynamics evolve, with both Modi’s government and the opposition vying for support and influence among the electorate. The situation in Manipur has shed light on the urgency of addressing interethnic conflicts and violence against marginalized communities, emphasizing the need for long-term solutions to promote peace and inclusivity across the nation.

Image: Pixabay

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