The horrifying video clips showing Manipuri women being stripped and raped, followed by reports of some six thousand FIRs having been lodged over several similar incidents, have quite understandably shocked civil society which is demanding punishment for the culprits. The government’s pussy-footing over the incident and delay in arresting the culprits have paved the way for the Opposition’s political campaign against the ruling BJP. But while surely lending voice to the civil society protests and supporting the newly formed Opposition platform INDIA in its efforts to dislodge the BJP from power in 2024, we should also expand our viewpoint to the wider national socio-political landscape in which the Manipur violence is occurring. What happened in Manipur cannot be isolated from the wide-spread trend of sexual assaults on women in the course of contests between political parties, whether during elections or otherwise in almost every state of India. The female body has become a battlefield in these contests. The pattern is common, shared by every political party in every state. Women followers or sympathizers of any political party are abducted by its opponent party, and held as hostages to warn its rival party, or used as a proxy in the warfare to be raped to punish the antagonist.
The practice of rape, apart from its use by political interests, has become a widespread popular indulgence among Indian citizens, its rate leaping from year to year. According to the National Crimes Record Bureau (NCRB) report, in 2021 there were 31,677 cases of rape (calculated as 87 every day) across India – which was a 20% increase over those recorded in the year before. The growing cases indicate the trend of reinforcement and imposition of misogynist values and practices in Indian society. Along with similar other customs (like child marriages and dowry demands, which are banned, but still allowed to prevail under a benevolent patriarchal administration), rape is also being socialized as a permissive or tolerable part of our daily existence.
But there is a need to make a distinction between everyday rape cases involving individuals on the one hand, and gang rapes on the other hand carried out under the patronage of socially powerful caste groups (against Dalits), or by majoritarian religious communities (against Muslim and Christian minorities), or by ruling parties in states against their political opponents , where such rapes become a political tool to intimidate their rivals. There is also another dimension to the gang rapes that occurred in Manipur which should be differentiated from those that took place in Rajasthan, West Bengal or other non-BJP ruled states (with which the BJP is trying to equate the Manipur case). The Supreme Court Chief Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, while hearing a plea on July 31, delivered an important judgment making clear the apex court’s position on the Manipur events: “We are dealing with something of unprecedented magnitude of violence against women in communal and sectarian violence. It cannot be said that crimes are happening against women in Bengal also. But here the case is different. We cannot justify what happened in Manipur by saying that this and this happened elsewhere…”
Record of political leaders accused of rape – starting with BJP
If we move beyond the recent events in Manipur, we find that gang rape has been for long a tool in the hands of politicians all over India to serve their interests. Leaders of political parties have been accused of raping women, either from personal sexual motives, or with the political aim of threatening their opponents by resorting to the tactics of gang rape by their activists. Yet, it is these leaders who are being elected by our voters as MLAs and MPs. According to a report released by the Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR) in May 2019, out of the present elected legislators who in courts face serious charges like rape, kidnapping and murder of women, the BJP heads the list with 21 MPs and MLAs, followed by Congress with 16, YSRCP in Andhra Pradesh with seven, BJD in Orissa with six, and Trinamul Congress in West Bengal with five.
Since the BJP politicians head the list of sexual predators, let us first take a look at their performances. Even after the exposure of their party’s ill-reputation (by the ADR), the BJP politicians do not feel ashamed, and instead continue to indulge in their rapacious activities, and support rapists. Take for example the events surrounding the widely publicized Hathras case in BJP-ruled UP, involving the gang rape of a nineteen-year old Dalit girl in Hathras by four upper caste men on September 14, 2020. Soon after their arrest, on October 3, 2020, BJP activists gathered outside the house of their leader Rajvir Singh Pehalvan, raising their voices in support of the accused rapists. Coming to some recent cases, in the Datia district of BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh, on July 14, 2023, a BJP leader’s son was accused of being a part of a gang which raped a nineteen year old woman. (Indian Express, July 17, 2023). On July 21 this year, two BJP leaders and a senior lawyer of UP were booked by the Meerut police for raping a minor girl all through the months between February and May. (Outlook, July 24, 2023).
The rapist tentacles of BJP leaders extend beyond India’s borders, as evident from the case of Balesh Dhankar, the founder president of Overseas Friends of BJP and now a prominent BJP activist in Australia, who organized the reception ceremony for Narendra Mody during his visit to Sydney in 2014. Today, he is facing trial in Australia after being charged with thirteen counts of sexual attacks on women. (Telangana Today, July 19, 2023).
Coming to the latest incidents in Manipur, which occurred under the auspices of a BJP chief minister, the BJP is trying to undermine their gravity and divert attention from his irresponsible administration, by reiterating that similar incidents had happened in Congress-ruled Rajasthan. It is highlighting two cases – first of a 17-year old Dalit girl raped at a university playground in Jodhpur, and the second of a 20-year old Dalit woman gang-raped and killed by three men in Bikaner on June 21, 2023. Certainly, the incidents expose the failure of the Congress government to protect women. But then, the BJP has no right to occupy the `holier than thou’ throne. To go back to Rajasthan in 1992 ruled by the then BJP chief minister Bhairon Singh Sekhawat, it was under his administration that the worst sexual crime was committed in September that year which caught world wide attention. Bhanwari Devi, an auxiliary nurse and a social activist, tried to prevent a child marriage (which is banned under law) in her village Bhateri. This intervention by her irked the dominant upper caste Gujjars who patronized child marriage. To teach . her a lesson, they set up a gang to sexually assault Bhanwari Devi, subjecting her to repeated rapes in a field on September 22. Following her complaint, some of the accused were brought to the court. During the hearings, the five accused were defended by the local BJP MLA Dhanraj Meena. After a three year long fight for justice through the usual lackadaisical judicial process, what did Bhanwari Devi gain at the end ? In November 1995, the district and sessions court in Jaipur acquitted all those accused of gang raping Bhanwari Devi. To add insult to injury, the new BJP MLA Kanhaiya Lal Meena organized a victory rally in Jaipur greeting the acquitted criminals.
While turning its weapon of propaganda against non-BJP ruled states by picking up incidents of rape there, the BJP conveniently ignores the shocking case of gang rape of Bilkis Bano and the killing of her family by self-proclaimed zealots of the Hindu Sangh parivar in Gujarat in 2002 under the aegis of its then chief minister Narendra Modi – who is now the Indian prime minister. As usual, following the same pattern of acquittal of the criminals in the Bhanwara Devi case in 1995, the BJP government of Gujarat in August 2022 released the eleven convicts who were imprisoned for their involvement in the Bilkis Bano gang rape and massacre case. The BJP ministers displayed their generosity by approving the application for remission of sentence made by these murderers.
With this record of their sexual atrocities, can the BJP leaders, ministers and activists claim to implement the slogan of `Beti Bachao…’ that Narendra Modi has popularized ?
Role of other ruling political parties and leaders in cases of gang rape
Let us have a look at the performance of other political leaders from the Congress, the Left and the Socialist spectrum regarding cases of sexual aggression against women in states where they had ruled in the past and are ruling now. One of the most infamous cases of gang rape occurred in 1990 in West Bengal which was then ruled by the CPI(M)-led Left Front government. On May 30 that year, three women health officers (two from the government’s health department and one from UNICEF), were assaulted and raped by a gang (which was later found to be aligned with the ruling party) on Bantala Road in the district of south-24 Parganas. One of the officers and their driver were killed by the assailants. There is a secret story behind the incident. These officers were returning to Kolkata with incriminating documents that implicated some CPI(M) panchayat heads who were found to have siphoned off UNICEF funds (meant for uplift of villages) to their own coffers. Anita Dewan, the UNICEF representative in that team of women health officers, who detected this, was therefore targeted and killed by the CPI(M) goons.
What was the response of the CPI(M) leadership to this incident ? The then Chief Minister of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu dismissed it saying: “Such incidents do happen … mistakes do occur” – exposing the typical patriarchal mindset of indifference to sexual aggression against women. Prasanta Sur, the then health minister in the CPI(M) cabinet, molly-coddled the gang of rapist killers saying that they might have mistaken the victims as child-abductors. Later under public pressure, the accused rapist killers were arrested and were found to be CPI(M) activists.
More than a decade after that shameful event, things did not change in CPI(M)-ruled West Bengal. Rape continued to be used as a tool to gain political mileage. In September 2007, Tapashi Mallik, an eighteen year old girl was raped and murdered by CPI(M) goons . She was targeted because she as a member of the Jomi Banchao (Save Farmland) Committee, was leading a struggle against the CPI(M)-led Left Front government’s forcible acquisition of lands of farmers in her native place Singur. The government wanted to occupy these lands to allow the Tata industrial house to set up a motor factory. But this would have led not only to the displacement of the small farmers who owned the lands, but also to the unemployment of the agricultural labourers who worked on those lands. Tapashi had to pay the price for upholding the rights of these victimized people.
L.et us turn our attention to the attitude and role of other political parties with regard to sexual violence against women. In West Bengal, ruled by Trinamul Congress, on February 5, 2013, a 37-year old woman was raped at gun point inside a car in Kolkata’s Park Street. Although being a woman herself, the Trinamul Congress Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee displayed utter insensitivity to the plight of the victim by dismissing the incident as a “fabricated incident and cooked up conspiracy by the Opposition” to malign her government. A few months later, in June that year, in Kanduni, a few kilometers away from Kolkata, a 20-year old woman was abducted and raped by goons who were suspected to be followers of the ruling party. .Things have not changed even after a decade or so of Mamata Banerjee’s rule. In April, 2022, a minor girl was raped in Nadia by a Trinamul Congress panchayat leader. She died later. What was Mamata’s response ? She said: “I heard that there was a love affair between the boy and the girl.” It is interesting to observe how a popular woman politician has internalized the prevailing male attitude of suspecting victims of rape and dismissing their cases. This again throws light on the contours of the wider national socio-political landscape which I referred to at the beginning, and which incorporates women politicians within the patriarchal political system.
When we turn to Bihar, ruled by Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United) party, we find a similar scenario. In May 2018 reports surfaced about the rape of girls over several months in a shelter home in Muzaffarpur. The home was run by a politician and former MLA Brajesh Thakur. T.he social welfare minister in Nitish’s cabinet, Manju Verma was in charge of looking after shelter homes in the state. Following public outcry against her failure to prevent such happenings, she resigned. Responding to the shameful event, Nitish Kumar blamed pornographic sites in the social media for prodding the rapists ! A year later, he selected the same Manju Verma as a candidate of his party for the 2020 Bihar assembly polls.
But as for misogynist defence of rapists, no one can beat the veteran Samajvadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav of Uttar Pradesh, who claims to be a socialist. When asked for his response to an incident of rape by some men, alleged to be his party’s followers, he came out with the infamous comment: “Ladke to ladke hi rahenge, galtia karte hain….kya aap unhe rape ke liye phansi denge ?” (Boys will be boys and they make mistakes …Because of their acts of rape, should we hang them..?) (Re: Quoted by NDTV, April 10, 2014). A year later, reacting to an incident of gang rape, Mulayam Singh expressed his disbelief saying: “Four men can’t rape a woman.” (Re: India TV, August 19, 2015).
Congress leaders are no exceptions. Even ten years after the gang rape and death of a woman in Delhi in December 2010 (known as the Nirbhaya case) that led to the enactment of stringent laws against rape, a Congress MLA from Karnataka, K. R. Ramesh Kumar was reported to have made this comment (passing it off as a joke) in December 2021 on the floors of the legislative assembly : “ When rape is inevitable, lie down and enjoy it.”
I can go on endlessly narrating the cases of sexual aggression suffered by women in India under every regime, irrespective of the political hue of the ruling party, and the endorsement of rape by political leaders. But at present, I don’t want to indulge in a blame game by weighing on the scales to judge whether one political party is more guilty or another less guilty of such heinous crimes. Instead, I want to highlight some of the new alarming trends that we observe not only in the on- going conflict in Manipur, but are manifest in social behavior and practices all over India.
Depths of depravity
The first new characteristic that marks the present cases of sexual assaults on women is the habit of the perpetrators of taking pictures of their acts and displaying them in public – thus bragging about their macho pride. The parading of naked women and their rape in Manipur were video-taped by their rapists and circulated through the social media. Instead of hiding their misdeeds, as the rapists in the past did, this new generation of sexual predators are keen on publicizing their acts. Facilities offered by the social media and video have empowered them to blackmail their female victims by threatening to come out with visuals that they had recorded in the past during their intimate moments. This practice of displaying acts of rape through the social media by the perpetrators has become common all over India. Has this perverse tendency been spawned in the current patriarchal misogynist environs which are patronized by politicians, which I talked about earlier ?
The second new feature that characterizes the recent political scenario is the support lent by women of one community to the acts of sexual aggression against women of another community whom they consider their enemies. Thus communal or ethnic loyalties overcome gender solidarity. In Manipur for instance, the Meitei women’s organization `Meira Paibi’ has played a crucial role in attacking and capturing Kuki women and handing them over to their male partners. Listen to the horrifying experience of an eighteen-year old Kuki girl Reina Haokip, who was abducted and taken to Wangkhel Ayangpeli, a Meitei-dominated locality, where she was subjected to assaults by members of the Meira Paibi: “First, the Meira Paibis started hitting me. When I told them that I was a woman just like them, they started hitting me even harder. Then these women called a few more men. A group of armed men in black T-shirts with a logo arrived.” From the logo, Reina Haikop could make out that they were members of the Meitei armed outfit called `Arambai Tengoll.’ They blindfolded her, tied her hands and took her away to a distant spot where they raped her. (Re: In an armed conflict, the war on women, published in THE HINDU, July 29, 2023). There are numerous reports of Meitei women blocking roads to prevent the police from reaching Kuki villages to protect the villagers, and to obstruct the delivery of relief to the besieged Kuki families.
Meitei women have also been victims of Kuki vengeance. On May 28, an eighty year old Meitei woman, S. Ibotombi was burnt alive by Kuki militants in Kakching district. (Re: The Wire, July 25). Till now, there has been no condemnation of the killing by Kuki women.
Such animosity by women of one community against those of another in situations of civil strife is not peculiar to Manipur. I remember while visiting Gujarat in the aftermath of the massacre of Muslims in 2002, I heard reports of Hindu women joining their male partners in raiding Muslim households, looting TV sets and other accessories and proudly displaying them as trophies.
The role of the judiciary
While going through all the daily reports and discussions about the happenings in Manipur, I miss any mention of the origins of the present turmoil. It was a verdict by a judge of the Manipur High Court which triggered the ethnic conflict. The judge, M.V. Muralidharan directed the state government to consider the inclusion of Meities (upper caste Hindus) in the Scheduled Tribes list. Fearing that this would allow the Meities to encroach on their reservation. quota, the Kukis held a demonstration on May 3. The Meiteis retaliated, thus leading to a spree of killings and destruction of homes that still continue.
Apparently overwhelmed by the reports of the conflagration in Manipur, two weeks later, the Supreme Court decided to intervene. On May 17 , referring to Muralidharan’s order, a bench led by Chief Justice D. Y. Chandrachud declared : “We have to stay the order of the Manipur High Court. It is completely factually wrong, and we gave time to Justice Muralidharan to remedy his error and he did not… We have to take a strong view against it now.” But the apex court’s intervention was too late. By then, the damage had already been done. An erroneous verdict by a judge who is ignorant of the constitutional provision that judicial orders cannot be passed to change the Scheduled Tribes list, sparked off a deadly ethnic conflict. It exposes the inferior quality of our judges at the lower level – yet another symptom of the moral degeneration of our system that I talked about earlier.
Let me end by making a humble request to our honourable Chief Justice of India, D. Y. Chandrachud – ‘Shouldn’t the Manipur judge Muralidharan be punished for his irresponsible verdict that led to the present tragedy in Manipur ?’
Sumanta Banerjee is a political commentator and writer, is the author of In The Wake of Naxalbari’ (1980 and 2008); The Parlour and the Streets: Elite and Popular Culture in Nineteenth Century Calcutta (1989) and ‘Memoirs of Roads: Calcutta from Colonial Urbanization to Global Modernization.’ (2016).