Decades are a short time in a nation’s journey.
The sexual assault on three Kuki-Zo women and their being paraded naked by a frenzied mob in Manipur- with the police allegedly looking the other way – has rekindled what happened with one Bilkis Bano from Gujarat, more than two decades back, and her still unending fight for justice.
One also learns that when questioned over this horrific incident N Biren Singh, Chief Minister of Manipur, has even admitted on live TV channel that “[Th]ere are hundreds of similar cases ..”(https://www.siasat.com/hundreds-of-similar-cases-manipur-cm-on-delayed-action-on-sexual-assault-of-women-2646424/)
Inadvertently or so, it has also brought forth the deeper similarities between the orgy of sectarian violence in those two regions, one which is still unfolding and one which was witnessed then.
The wanton killings , burning of houses and religious places, violation of women’ bodies, people forced out of their houses and living in refugee camps, allegations of biased behaviour of a callous and apathetic the administration , refusal of sorts by the custodians of law and order machinery to take stringent action against the perpetrators etc (https://www.hindustantimes.com/videos/news/manipur-shocker-women-panels-big-reveal-on-sexual-violence-no-response-from-101689938576240.html ; https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/deadly-arms-in-manipur-loot-recoveries-after-shah-appeal-101685732242231.html), the religious communal angle – it becomes increasingly difficult to differentiate
The two and half month old video of the assault on the Kuki Zo women on 4th May in Kangpokpi district, also involved brutal killing of two male members of the family by the mob. It also underlines the frenzied as well as joyous participation of people in the violence and limitless social cruelty on display, reminding of the similar still pictures flashed in newspapers or on TV channels then, when the bloody happenings were ‘live’ on our screens from the Western state of India.
What is not to be glossed over is the fact that the ethnic or sectarian violence in this north eastern state, which has left 150 people dead – which still simmers – clearly demonstrating the failure of the state government in controlling the situation, has led to demands of the resignation of its Chief Minister and clamping of President’s rule in the state. The continuing strife has also exposed the efficacy of the ‘double engine’ government much talked about by the ruling dispensation at the centre.
As expected, these developments in this north eastern state which borders Myanmar have received wide coverage in the international media (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/jul/22/video-of-women-attacked-in-manipur-breaks-silence-on-systematic-gang-rapes-in-india, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/may/16/separation-is-the-only-answer-manipur-violence-fuels-calls-for-separate-state-in-indiahttps://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/may/16/separation-is-the-only-answer-manipur-violence-fuels-calls-for-separate-state-in-india) as well and growing concern is being expressed by international bodies .
Not many days ago when Prime Minister Modi was visiting France for Bastille Day Celebrations, the issue was discussed in European Parliament, (which was derided as a ‘sign of colonial mind-set’ by India’s official spokesperson. The US ambassador to India also expressed “human concerns” over these developments and also showed the willingness “to assist in any way if asked” to do, though underlining that it is an internal matter of India.(https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/us-ambassador-expresses-concerns-over-violence-in-manipur-offers-assistance-if-asked-101688705271209.html)
These reports or these concerns may remind us about the concerns expressed about the happenings on international fora then (https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/asa20/005/2002/en/) when the situation in the Western state also looked worrying.
No doubt, any discernible observer would note the differences as well.
The foremost being the alleged stigmatisation of the very act of fact finding efforts by the state and its various agencies.
A practice which is increasingly being used in BJP ruled states.
One can recall how the then Raman Singh government had similarly charged scholars, activists under draconian charges few years back when they had gone to investigate a fake encounter killing and how the case could not be sustained and NHRC directed the government to pay compensation to them (https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/nhrc-asks-chhattisgarh-to-compensate-activists/story-w6h09mnvFzBHA9zNdCjgTO.html)
Reports have appeared about how scholars, intellectuals are being targeted for airing their views on the situation with the media, (https://thewire.in/rights/hyderabad-university-professor-two-kuki-activists-summoned-by-imphal-court-for-interviews-to-the-wire) and cases being filed under draconian charges against the civil liberty activists or political workers, for visiting the victims, trying to understand the genesis of the situation and sharing their thoughts, observations to the wider world through reports. (https://thewire.in/rights/pucl-demands-scrapping-of-fir-against-fact-finding-team-that-visited-violence-hit-manipur)
Remember the carnage in the western state in 2002 did not witness any such immediate vindictive action against civil liberty workers and activists for their reports, it is a different matter that leading civil liberty activists were consciously targeted after judicial verdicts in the cases.
One can recall appearance of more than 45 reports by regional, national and international organisations, one of them also included a report by retired justices and also by an international tribunal of women leaders and activists from US, UK, France, Germany, Sri Lanka who toured the state and met women who were violated during the riots and shared their findings. (https://web.archive.org/web/20070630044324/http:/www.expressindia.com/fullstory.php?newsid=17823; https://theprint.in/pageturner/excerpt/one-thing-was-distinctly-rotten-about-2002-gujarat-riots-use-of-rape-as-a-form-of-terror/225511/)
The long silence of the head of the government of the Republic of India – who holds the executive authority – namely the Prime Minister – during the present spate of violence in Manipur has definitely come under scanner at various levels (https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/manipur-violence-why-pm-modi-silent-asks-congress-meitei-kuki-clash-2390117-2023-06-07)
It witnessed a break merely for 30 seconds after 72 days when the sexual assault on Kuki Zo women during the conflict became international news. Of course, neither there was any mention of on-going ethnic violence there nor an appeal for peace nor any comment on the law and order situation nor any desire was expressed to visit the state.
Whereas the then head of the Republic, felt the need to visit the state less than a month after these bloody developments and remind the then custodians of the state about their Raj Dharma. Looking at the gravity of the situation the reprimand was considered very mild then but it definitely underlined the failure of the governance then practised.
There is no means to know whether the present President of the Republic – who herself comes from a tribal community – has written to the executive authority about the situation in the state sharing her concern or not.
Reports are available which tell that what the then President of the Republic K R Narayanan had felt during that period (https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/i-felt-helpless-during-gujarat-riots-narayanan/articleshow/riots ) or what he had shared with the Nanavati Shah commission (https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/post-godhra-riots-were-a-conspiracy-narayanan/articleshow/1088397.cms) which must not have been soothing to their ears.
There was a time when Manipur was earlier much discussed in the mainstream media when the historic fast was undertaken by Irom Sharmila to repeal the draconian AFSPA ( armed forces special powers act).
It had also received national international attention when a group of elderly women had gathered in front of 17 th Assam Rifles headquarters and then stripped their clothes off to protest the brutal rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama (https://www.hrw.org/reports/2008/india0908/3.htm ; https://www.dailyo.in/politics/mothers-of-manipur-naked-protest-thangjam-manorama-indian-army-afspa-meira-paibi-18391)
Meira Paibi, ( Women Torch Bearers) the social movement of women in Manipur had even carved out a niche in its struggle against social evils as well as its torchlight processions, in opposition to draconian laws
Today all those struggles are a thing of the past.
This is a New Manipur..
Despite a long history of social and political movements it may be difficult to comprehend why the sectarian violence in Manipur – which has not yet stopped since last two and half months – did not receive the attention it deserved in the rest of the country, why it did not hit the conscience of the citizenry similarly on a big scale, till the video of the sexual assault went viral, whereas the carnage in Gujarat then created an uproar then not only in rest of India but was heard on foreign shores as well.
Is it because Manipur is a relatively small state with a population of around 2.8 million whereas Gujarat is a big state (population 70 million plus)
Or was it because the rest of India always remains oblivious of the situation in the North Eastern states? (https://www.outlookindia.com/website/story/the-neglected-states-of-the-nation/220206)
Was it because what is happening in Manipur involves the Meiteis ( 53 per cent of the population mainly Hindus- who populate the valley) and Kukis ( mainly Christians, who are considered tribals and who are less than 30 per cent of the population ,who largely populate the hills) and relations between both these ethnic communities have witnessed strains for various reasons in recent times or was it because the simmering conflict in the state helps further the majoritarian Hindutva agenda in rest of India “?
There is no denying that the judgement of the Manipur Highcourt granting ST status to Meitis acted as a trigger – a judgement which has been stayed by the highest courts.
Or is it because the majoritarian agenda pursued and peddled by the RSS-BJP combine had relatively less purchase then and two decades after the carnage there is growing acceptance, legitimation of the basic premises of Hindutva signifying that India has radically changed.
There could be many such questions.
When Gujarat 2002 was unfolding before us, which was the first ‘live’ riot brought to our bedrooms thanks to the TV networks- it was a wakeup call for all conscious people us to know the deep penetration of anti-minority ideas in the people’s psyche.
It was a shocking realisation that despite the commitment of the founding fathers / mothers of Independent India towards Secularism and pluralism, and their wholehearted efforts to lay foundations of a democracy and the related institutions, its social basis is still weak and much needs to be done about it.
Was not it Dr Ambedkar who had cautioned us earlier how “Democracy in India is only a top dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic.”
It was a period when the old dictum ‘What Bengal Thinks Today, India will think tomorrow ..’ much popular during colonial period, received a new life albeit with a twist. To underline gravity of the situation and emphasise need to be vigilant, it was rephrased to underline that ‘What Gujart Witnesses Today ….’
Today when the north-eastern state still remains in turmoil and failure of institutions coming under scanner again and again whether similar rephrasing is needed today ‘What Manipur is witnessing today …’’
Remember what the NCW Chief had said about the response of the Manipur government over the rape and sexual assault complaint filed by the Commission itself. She claimed that ‘[t]hat Manipur government officials did not respond to three complaints on violence against women. (https://www.hindustantimes.com/videos/news/manipur-shocker-women-panels-big-reveal-on-sexual-violence-no-response-from-101689938576240.html) –
Lastly, India has definitely changed qualitatively since the year 2002
India turning colour (may not be de jure but de facto —) abandoning its basic principles and becoming more Saffron, does not look outlandish today.
It is time to gather enough wisdom and energy and forces to stall such a possibility, resolve to rededicate oneself for reinvigoration of the idea of secular India, a plural India where all communities would live in peace and harmony and there would not be any discrimination on the basis of faith.
Perhaps it is also time to say goodbye to the ‘myth of age old tolerance’ in our society, much talked about even by a section of the educated people in the country.
How can a country, a people who refused to even look at a section of the marginalised people as equally human since centuries would be termed tolerant?
The viral video or other testimonies of survivors are another proof, what kind of barbarians and criminals we harbour in our society who at the drop of hat are ready to unleash unimagined cruelty on the ‘other’ and draw vicarious pleasure in full public view in violating women. Such brutes receive political patronage, in fact; there is a synergy between them,
And how we with our stony silence let such rapists being declared ‘Sanskari’ and being felicitated for their heinous, anti-human acts.
Subhash Gatade is a political commentator