For more than 70 days now, people from Manipur and those outside have been urging Prime Minister Narendra Modi to break his silence on the ethnic conflict in the state, which has claimed about 150 lives and left tens of thousands displaced and cut off from their livelihoods. When Modi finally spoke on the issue on Thursday morning, though, his remarks are unlikely to have soothed those who were demanding his intervention.
Outside the parliament building on Thursday, Modi referred specifically to the harrowing video that went viral on social media the day before – showing two Kuki women being paraded naked in Kangpokpi on May 4. The FIR on the incident states that one of them was gang-raped. The prime minister claimed that he was distressed and angered by what he had learnt, and that “all states” must do whatever they can to protect “our mothers and sisters”. He made a deliberate attempt not to single out Manipur – where his party is in power – and also named Congress-ruled Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan as states where the governments must take action against perpetrators of violence against women. Unsurprisingly, he did not mention other BJP states that have seen violent incidents against women and girls. After these incidents, BJP lawmakers have often chosen to side with the accused – the Kathua rape case and Bilkis Bano gang rape case are good examples of this.
Given that he took 79 days to respond to the violence taking place, it may have been assumed that the prime minister would have a lot to say on the immense devastation witnessed. However, he chose a more confusing route – picking on this one incident and seemingly forgetting the context it had occurred in. So below, we list out a few more things the prime minister could consider addressing in his next remarks.
1. The violence itself
Since May 3, there has been a continuous stream of violence in the state. Tensions escalated after the majority Meitei community’s demand for ST status was granted legitimacy by the Manipur high court. Hill tribes in Manipur thought this would infringe upon their rights and carried out a protest.
Ever since then, targeted violence, looting of weapons, action by vigilante groups including those of women and deaths and injuries in the state have made daily news. If one only had the prime minister’s speech to go by, however, none of this would appear to have happened. He referred to the incident in question as if it occurred in a vacuum.
Since it did not refer to the large-scale violence, Modi’s speech also made no appeal for peace – the one thing all parties have been demanding of him from the start. Modi also did not once address the people of Manipur – the worst affected – directly in his address.
2. Anger against the state government
The BJP government headed by chief minister N. Biren Singh has come under intense criticism for its handling of the situation. Early into the violence, Singh claimed there was no ethnic angle at play – and blamed “terrorists” and “infiltrators” for what was going on. Later, he referred to those criticising him on Twitter as “Kukis” and “from Myanmar”.
Kuki groups have reiterated multiple times that they have no faith in Singh, a Meitei, who they believe is allowing armed Meitei groups to target and kill them. Meitei groups too have accused him of not doing enough to safeguard lives and properties. There have been multiple and continuous calls for his resignation, given his government’s failure to bring about normalcy or win the people’s confidence, but Singh continues in his post. Even though BJP-allied parties too have questioned this, Modi had nothing to say about how his party and its leaders have been unable to control a volatile situation – and have even been accused of making it worse for political gain.
3. The information blackout
The shocking incident Modi talked about – of two Kuki women being paraded naked and one of them being gang raped – took place on May 4. It made it to all national headlines and caught political attention only on July 19. Reports say that the Union government is planning to take action against Twitter for platforming this video – even though it is only because the video caught public attention that action is being taken and Modi himself had to comment on it.
The state government has ordered a complete internet shutdown in the state since May 3, claiming that this will help restore peace and stop the spread of rumours. However, many have argued that this shutdown has in fact played the opposite role – ensuring that factual, important information and details on the scale of the violence remain unavailable to the public. In addition, journalists and others trying to reveal reliable information have been working under difficult and antagonistic conditions. Members of a fact-finding commission who said “state-sponsored violence” was at play are now facing a police case.
The Modi government has turned India into the internet shutdown capital of the world since 2015. This was mentioned at a G20 meeting last week as well. Information is seen to be stifled rather than responded to and accountability established. This was clear during the farmers’ protest too. Journalists have been routinely imprisoned for reporting facts, Kashmir is only the worst of the states. Had this video not come out, would there have been any response at all?
4. Not the only instance of rape
Even if Modi was willing to speak out only about sexual violence in Manipur and nothing else, he has ignored reports that there have been multiple such cases filed. According to The Print, at least six cases of rape of Kuki women have been found, including one of an 18 year old. In some of these cases, FIRs have been filed.
5. The plan ahead
Soon after Modi returned from his recent trip to the US and Egypt, he convened a high-level meeting on the situation on Manipur. The meeting was attending by senior cabinet ministers Amit Shah, Nirmala Sitharaman and Hardeep Singh Puri. After that, though, there have been no announcements on the roadmap ahead or what the plan is.
The one mechanism the Union government had set up – a peace committee established during Shah’s visit to Manipur – has failed, with both Kuki and Meitei groups saying they will not participate. Modi made no clarifications on what else, if anything, the Union government has planned to address the situation.