By Nageshwar Patnaik inn Bhubaneswar, July 23, 2023: The distressing incident of sexual violence against women in Manipur, with a shocking video of two women being paraded by a mob going viral in social media, has triggered nationwide outrage. The barbaric incident happened in the Kangpokpi district of the state on May 4, a day after ethnic clashes between the Meitei and Kuki communities first broke out.

The victims in the video belong to the Kuki-Zo tribe while the mob, which sexually assaulted them, was made of Meiteis, according to the Indigenous Tribal Leaders’ Forum, an umbrella organisation of various tribes living in Manipur.

Incidentally, Thangboi Vaiphei, the 65-year-old headman of B. Phainom village, a settlement of around 40 families, had filed a complaint about the incident at Saikul police station on May 18. A local news portal, the Hills Journal, had published a story on June 4 about the incident and the subsequent complaint by the village headman. Despite that, it took the Manipur police more than a month to register an FIR. There was no action on the FIR till the video surfaced on July 19.

The Supreme Court expressed its profound concern over the videos that emerged depicting the parading of two women, using them as an instrument of communal strife, leading to gender violence, branding it as the grossest human rights violation. The Apex Court’s suo motu cognizance of the sexual assault seen in the video and its issuance of ultimatums to both the Union and the State governments to bring the perpetrators to book or to step aside and let the judiciary take action are a stinging indictment of their failure in restoring normalcy in Manipur.

A new video showing a head on a spike emerged from Manipur on Friday, offering new evidence of the barbaric nature of the ethnic clashes in Manipur. In both cases, the victims were from the Kuki community, and while the attacks on the women took place on May 4, a day after the clashes first began, the beheading of the man is believed to have taken place on July 2.

The outrage expressed by Members of Parliament and political representatives cutting across party lines forced Prime Minister Narendra Modi to finally break his silence after two and a half months of widespread and continuing violence in Manipur. He, however, is yet to acknowledge the causes and the consequences of the conflict that is threatening to spiral out of control. Mr. Modi’s stand on the Manipur violence till now had betrayed a nonchalant attitude towards the crisis in the State.

The events of the last two and a half months reveal a significant gulf between the Meitei and the Kuki-Zo communities. Home Minister Amit Shah visited Manipur in late May in the aftermath of the brutal violence, but there has been little movement on getting the displaced people back to their homes or cooling down ethnic hostility; sporadic incidents of violence continue to disturb the State.

Proof of state complicity can clearly be seen. Though it started as a purely ethnic-communal violence, the Manipur Chief Minister N. Biren Singh preferred to wage it as the state’s war on ‘narco terrorists’ justifying the use of state forces to aid the radicalised Meitei militia in attacking and burning down Kuki Zo settlements in the foothills surrounding the Imphal valley. The Chief Minister’s policies and utterances have shown that he is unable to rise above partisan politics. The Kuki community sees him as part of the problem.

The ruling BJP too is divided on ethnic lines. While Singh’s government has finally sought to take action against the crime committed on May 4, by arresting four men following the outrage. A biased government is always detrimental to peace, and it got flared up under the present chief minister, who has been accused of complicity with radical groups like Meitei Leepun and Arambai Tenggol, the main executors of the ethnic cleansing of Kuki Zo community.

The violent conflict could have been staved off had the state remained neutral and implemented the provisions of the constitution without any bias. The prolonged violence is primarily due to the long standing conflict over rights under the constitution which had been simmering since the pre-statehood days.

The delimitation commission report has been stalled because it recommends giving more seats to the tribals in proportion to their increased percentage of population in the state. Tribal lands were marked as reserved forests and protected forests without following the norms that require the tribals to claim pre existing rights, if any.

Since the valley Meitei community had absolute control over the legislature, the executive and judiciary, most of the resources allocations to the state had always been appropriated by it. The Hill Areas Committee of the Legislative Assembly, has virtually remained a non-starter and denied its constitutional functions and powers.

The ethnic violence in a way is perceived as war of liberation from such gross injustices by the tribal Kuki Zo people, while the Meitei militia see it as a war to claim tribal land. The intent of both communities are different as Kuki Zo community desired constitutional order whereas the Meitei intent is a challenge on the constitutional rights of tribal Kuki Zo community.

Steps towards reconciliation would require much better leadership than what the much touted “double engine” government of the BJP has offered so far and replacement of the present chief minister by a non-controversial leader. The Union government needs to ensure that all sections of citizens including the Kuki Zo community.

Besides, Central armed forces may be engaged to create effective buffer zones along ethnic boundaries. Once the violence is brought under control, deliberations should be expedited for a political settlement to ensure that such costly conflict do not flare up in future.

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