Two nights ago, coming out of a ‘no connectivity’ zone in a remote part of Ladakh, what my phone feed flashed was a video already viral – two terrified Kuki women, paraded naked and sexually abused by a mob of Meitei men in Manipur.
On WhatsApp, I found several groups from across the Northeast where the video was already the major point of discussion. What stood out as a common strain in all of those chats was: How could our men do this to our women? Is this our Northeast? Are these our men?
On Instagram, a prominent Assamese who organises a Northeast festival in New Delhi and elsewhere commented: “Disgusting. Manipur, you have let all of us (read Northeasterner) down.”
On Twitter, the first post that popped up on my screen was from a young politician and former student leader of Assam, Luringjyoti Gogoi. “Always used to take pride in the level of respect for women in the Northeast. Yesterday’s video from Manipur has shattered and devastated me…Are we allowing ourselves to become animals?” he tweeted.
A million thoughts swirled in my head even as I was struggling to swallow the harrowing details now overtaking my timeline. So much was tumbling out of Manipur on my digital feed, from a state badly battered due to the ongoing conflict between two communities for nearly three months now – completely abandoned by the government.
The double engine, having just succeeded in grinding down and trivialising the horror, has no route map for redress or peace. I particularly recalled writing down in my notepad what two distressed fathers from a Kuki village in Kangpokpi district had told me over the telephone on May 29. Their daughters were killed at their place of work in Imphal on May 5. Their fathers said they suspected their girls were raped before they were murdered but there was no way to confirm it, since they feared travelling to the Meitei-dominated Imphal to claim the bodies kept at the morgue of a government-run hospital.
When did such horror unfold before?
The May 4 video also made me wonder, when was it last that such a horrifying episode of sexual abuse of women had been documented in my region during an ethnic fight between two communities? Gradually, a canvas emerged; things fell in place, aided principally by some key words that had appeared in those shocked reactions I had soaked in on social media from across the Northeast on the brutality and shamelessness of a bunch of men from within the region. Those key words were – us, our, we.
Ethnic conflict is not new to Manipur and to the Northeast in general.
One tribe/community burning down another’s property is not new either – rather it’s seen as a pattern. Killings too are not new, unfortunately; a disturbing fact.
But I also reckoned that cases of rape and sexual assault – in the long-drawn out militancy-affected Northeast – have more often than not been examples of our women violated by their men. Their, here, means the face of the state on the ground – the security forces, men who typically belonged to the mainland, accused of sexually assaulting women from the region often under the protection of the Armed Forces (Special) Powers Act (AFSPA).
A knock at the door in 2000
My mind sharply recalled the night of June 13, 2000. A knock at the door of Naruttom Haloi (name changed), a resident of Assam’s Nalbari district, preceded a harrowing time for his family. A group of Army jawans had surrounded their modest house. No sooner did Haloi open the door, heavy boots barged in.
Haloi lived with two wives. The first wife and he were badly beaten, and then pushed out of the house. The jawans, thereafter, dragged a frightened second wife from under a bed and allegedly gangraped her.
Haloi and his first wife screamed for help; villagers came; the jawans fled.
According to the Assam-based Manav Adhikar Sangram Samiti (MASS), which later documented the case based on the victim and witness testimonials, Haloi took his second wife to the nearest army camp the next morning to complain to the officer in charge.
The officer, as per the Haloi family’s testimony to MASS, handed them Rs 200 and five kilograms of rice. In a state with AFSPA at play, that generosity of the man in uniform came laced with sharp advice – do not speak of the incident to anyone. The scared duo trod back home, and never filed a police complaint.
Heinous crimes like this one that took place 23 years ago in Assam, and the one in Manipur’s Kangpokpi district recorded on May 4, have a parallel – they can never be documented fully without taking into cognisance the patriarchal pull and push of our and their women, and therefore the right over their bodies against their will.
That humid day in Nalbari, the army officer could most likely offer that appalling advice to the hapless rape survivor seeking justice from him only because she was their woman. Let’s also not forget a fundamental thought that must have driven the perpetrators residing in that village in Nalbari district for some time to target the victim – she was Haloi’s second wife, and that information might have been key; she was no ‘Sati Savitri’ after all. Only ‘Sati Savitris,’ as per an Indian male-controlled society, have a right to dignity, right?
Revenge, retribution and a vicious cycle
In Manipur on May 4, as per the testimonials of the survivors, the Meitei men told them – our women were raped by your men in Churachandpur (that contention was based on a fake video). Therefore, their women were to pay the price through their bodies. Case after case of sexual abuse in conflict zones under the umbrella of state immunity have also held up that the same rule could be operative – their women would have to pay a price with their bodies for their men’s fault.
Four years after that wretched Nalbari case, on another humid summer day, in neighbouring Manipur – also under AFSPA then – Thangjam Manorama was allegedly raped, brutally tortured and killed by an Assam Rifles team. Let’s also not allow ourselves here to ignore the thought that Manorama went through what she did also because she was being made to pay the price as their woman.
Let’s also reckon here that the horrifying Manorama case from July 2004 gave independent India the most powerful, and distressing, symbol of women’s resistance to state-sponsored rape – around 30 middle-aged Meitei women who belonged to Manorama’s community stripped naked in front of the citadel of their honour, the Kangla Fort standing in the middle of the state capital Imphal, to protest the sexual abuse. That incident made the country note with shock and horror what was happening to women in Manipur then – only to be replaced on another July day, nearly 20 years later, by yet another horrifying sight of what a set of women from that state had to undergo during another conflict.
PM speaks. And he does not.
This time, the perpetrators were Meitei men. The gaze of the perpetrators in both the crimes, let’s acknowledge, has not altered – like Manorama was seen as their woman by her perpetrators, the Kuki women were also looked at as their women by the Meitei mob. It gave both sets of culprits the license to sexually assault a woman during a conflict.
With the May 4 video kicking up nationwide outrage, finally Prime Minister Narendra Modi was forced to break his silence on Manipur. That he didn’t speak about those survivors inside the temple of our democracy, the Parliament, as the norm is, but outside it, and also not without attacking opposition-ruled states, may be overlooked in the interest of focusing on what he said. After all, absorbing the string of sentences – spoken post a deathly, unprecedented silence over nearly three months – must take precedence over propriety.
There too, unfortunately, the male-controlled gaze of our and their women could be spotted. Modi rightly expressed “sorrow and anger” at the incident; he called it “a shameful act”. But the most operational part of that short speech spoken in front of a battery of TV cameras was this – “What has happened to the daughters of Manipur can never be forgiven.”
In other words, he expressed a sense of ownership over the survivors – as our women, our daughters whose perpetrators must be punished.
Bilkis Bano redux?
Barely nine months ago, the Modi government okayed the release of as many as 11 convicted rapists in the prime minister and the home minister’s home state of Gujarat. When you juxtapose his July 20 speech against that October 2022 decision, you are left wondering, what must be the reason for Modi choosing to be the first Indian prime minster to support a set of convicted rapists being released from jail.
Was it their woman at play then?
Was Bilkis Bano theirs?
Did the Indian state just make use of that damaging and poison-filled patriarchal gaze?