Almost 80 days after the outbreak of violence in Manipur, the nation suddenly woke up to the tall leaders of this country mentioning the northeastern state for the first time in the current context – and spelling things as they are.
But one may wonder why are the Prime Minister and Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh suddenly telling us about the state of their hearts – 'Manipur'? Or why that strange, unfamiliar word 'humanity' is coming out from the mouths of other BJP leaders such as Smriti Irani?
Wasn't it seditious or outright treason to suggest that rapes could happen in Manipur or that crimes against humanity could take place in PM Modi-ruled India? Wasn’t it just the other day that women’s rights activists who visited the state found themselves in danger of being arrested for sedition, for saying that women had been raped as part of organised, 'state-sponsored' violence?
Oh wait. Of course. The other day, there was no video of Kuki women in Manipur being paraded naked by a Meitei mob. If it’s not on video, it’s not TV-worthy. And if it’s not TV-worthy, it didn’t happen.
Does It Take Virality To Break Radio Silence?
This time, a video is viral. On millions of smartphone screens, people can watch the worst moment in the lives of these women: being stripped of human dignity and paraded by a mob. Like a Game of Thrones 'walk of shame', it has all the elements to induce horror, pity, and excitement that make for viral video content. Who knows this better than that master of the TV and smartphone screen – PM Modi?
Hurting hearts must be displayed without delay, tears expertly shed at the temple of democracy. At least until Madhu Kishwar writes her expose telling us the women and the video were 'sacrificial victims' of a terrorist conspiracy aimed to defame and persecute Hindus.
Let’s look closely at Biren Singh’s tweet. He says, Manipur Police took 'suo-moto cognisance' (i.e., didn’t wait for a formal complaint to initiate an investigation) of the incident 'immediately after the video surfaced'. They went out and promptly 'made the first arrest'.
But that tweet is a lie.
Police Couldn’t NOT Be in the Know
Manipur Police didn’t get to know of the atrocity when the video 'surfaced'. Rather, the police was in the loop beforehand.
A little context would help establish how. On 3 May, violence broke out in Manipur and people of the Kuki community began to face attacks from the Meitei community. A day later, a Meitei mob allegedly stripped, paraded, and gang-raped these three women from the Kuki-Zo community, while they were under the protection of a police team.
The police knew – their team witnessed this atrocity, after all. They must also have seen the perpetrators gleefully film the atrocity: a trophy of their triumphant exploit.
If the police knew so did Biren Singh. But he said nothing. The video wasn’t viral yet, at least outside Manipur.
The survivors were not silent. They filed a complaint with the police as several reports suggest. They wanted to be heard so badly but were noticed by the state and central governments – and television media in India – only when once the video of them being paraded naked, stripped of clothes, dignity, went viral. Their active voices seeking justice didn’t count - seeing them naked, helpless, humiliated, and silent did.
On 15 May, for instance, a YouTube channel of the Zomi Students' Federation carried an audio account of a 13-minute interview with survivors of this incident. It’s a piece of sober documentation which responsibly avoids revealing the speakers. But this was not picked up by India’s electronic media.
A survivor’s voice, telling her story in an emotionless voice, in a language that is 'foreign' to Delhi/Mumbai newsrooms is, let’s face it, boring. Bring us a video with the survivors silent but naked, being assaulted by the mob, and we’ll think about it.
And, of course, Biren Singh took no notice.
On 18 May, the complaint was finally registered by the police in an FIR. Now it was official. Yet, no word from him. On 1 June, a survivor of this particular atrocity told Hoineilhing Sitlhou, a sociologist at the University of Hyderabad, and narrated her ordeal in detail.
Sitlhou spoke to several women over call and in her written account, included testimonies of survivors of rape and of brutal assaults that could have been fatal. She also spoke to the family members of these women who were raped and killed.
All in all, based on oral testimonies, she documented four separate incidents of violence against Kuki women: the stripping and parading of three women; the rape and murder of two very young women; the murder of a woman shot down whose body was found burnt, and dismembered; and the abduction, rape and brutal thrashing of an 18-year-old woman.
Why the Delay in Speaking Out?
Accounts of these atrocities documented by Sitlhou had one thing in common: Meitei mobs committing these crimes, telling their victims (and perhaps, themselves) that they were avenging rapes and brutal killings of Meitei women by Kuki men. She listed several instances where Meitei supremacist militants circulated images from other contexts, as well as fabricated claims of rapes and killings of Meitei women.
Each of these viral claims had been disproved – but they had done their job, strengthening the racist trope of Meitei womanhood being violated by 'hordes' of rapist Kuki-Zo men.
After that detailed account on 1 June of so many horrific rapes, atrocities, and murders of 'Manipur’s daughters' and 'Manipur’s mothers', we did not hear from either Biren Singh or PM Modi.
Sitlhou’s account has since been vindicated. Each of the incidents she documented has been confirmed – in some cases by FIRs registered by the Manipur police and in others by rigorously vetted stories by investigative journalists of reputed international and national news publications some of whom have personally met and listened to rape survivors, mothers who heard their daughters being raped and killed, and witnesses – for hours and published those stories.
And yet, not a sound from our leaders' anguished hearts. Even today, those other victims are forgotten – because videos of them being tortured, raped, beaten, and murdered have yet to be seen by the world.
When asked by India Today why he had remained silent, Biren Singh responded, saying, “There are hundreds of similar cases, that’s why we banned the internet,” he said.
Let’s take a moment to digest this statement.
It is chilling to hear a Chief Minister casually declare that he knows of “hundreds of cases” of rape by violent ethnic mobs during the last two and a half months. It makes PM Modi’s whataboutery about Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh look absurd.
“Hundreds of Cases" Remain Uncovered Still
Sexual violence and police apathy is a serious issue in any part of India. But that is a very different problem from what the CM himself suggests is an 'epidemic of rapes' by ethnic mobs.
The question that Biren Singh needs to answer is: how many of those 'hundreds' of rape victims has he met or tried to meet? How many have been helped to file complaints with the police? How many FIRs have been registered; and what is the progress with investigation in each of those FIRs? Will the Meira Paibis who dramatically stopped Biren Singh from resigning as CM, ask him these questions? Whether these 'hundreds' of women are the Kukis or Meiteis, he doesn’t seem to care much.
On top of all, why should he remain CM if he admits that hundreds of rapes and atrocities have happened on his watch?
PM Modi has not said anything about the "hundreds of cases" of which Biren Singh spoke. He has not said a word about all the ơther rape survivors and victims, the ones who were not seen in a viral video.
With some stale pieties – 'temple of democracy', 'Manipur’s daughters' – he has attempted to assure us, in effect: the video shocks me as much as it does you, it’s an isolated, stray incident; I’m going to ensure the rapists are punished; these things happen, they even happen in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh; all is well with India under Modi, we’re still on the golden path to Amrit Kaal.
What Does 'Justice' for Rape Look Like?
Biren Singh’s promise of the death penalty is another deflection tactic of course – as the death penalty for rape always is. And it works if our conscience needs a viral video of an atrocity to take notice of rape.
If our moral gaze can only be held by a sensational spectacle of women stripped and paraded on camera, then political leaders find it easy to escape accountability for their complicity in sexual violence, especially when such violence is an integral part of the majoritarian politics of these same leaders.
They can simply deflect our attention by offering us the hope of another satisfyingly sensational, publicly staged spectacle: one in which the rapists are hanged, or shot dead on TV in custodial killings (as in the Disha case in Hyderabad).
In this instance, the story of the police 'making a first arrest' immediately after the video became public, is suspicious. Has the police really arrested someone based on an investigation and evidence? Or have they, as so often happens, grabbed someone at random to appease the video-induced outraged?
(This is Part One of the two-part series on how women remain vulnerable to sexual and humanitarian crimes in regions of conflicts and war zones and what it takes for governments to take cognisance of the horrors they underwent.)
(Kavita Krishnan is a women's rights activist, known for her advocacy in problems of violence, especially in the Nirbhaya rape case of 2012. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)