The horrors of violence in Manipur: Internet ban failed and access to weapons is easy

Without internet access to fact check, the ground has been littered with rumors, hate speech and fake news

A Manipur policeman stands guard as members of Meira Paibis, a powerful vigilante group of Hindu-majority Meitei women, block traffic to check vehicles for members of the rival Kuki tribal community, in Imphal, Manipur, June 19, 2023. (AP)A Manipur policeman stands guard as members of Meira Paibis block traffic to check vehicles looking for members of the rival Kuki tribal community, in Imphal, Manipur, June 19, 2023. (AP)

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A chilling video of two women from the Kuki community in Manipur being stripped off, paraded naked, groped and raped by a mob went viral. I tried to watch the full video, but gave up within seconds, as I was shaken and deeply traumatized by what I saw. I shudder to think of the horrors experienced by helpless women.

The pride and honor of any community is perceived to be related to the women’s body. Since time immemorial, women’s bodies have been political battlegrounds. In times of conflict, communities assert their worth by violating the bodies of women from rival communities. Such crimes are mostly seen as an acceptable form of warfare and the perpetrators enjoy impunity. Tragically, my home state of Manipur was no different.

The horrific incident happened on May 4, more than two months before the video hit social media. According to reports, two weeks later, a first information report (FIR) was filed. by the families of the victims. The government not only failed to act during this period, but also pretended to ignore it. It is only due to outrage on social media that Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh tweeted that the authorities had become aware of the his-motorcycle incident soon after the video surfaced and he made an arrest. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has finally broken his two-month silence on the conflict to condemn this appalling incident. But it’s too little, too late.

Manipur has been on fire for over 75 days due to an ethnic conflict between the two communities Meiteis and Kukis. More than 150 people were killed, bodies mutilated, women raped, dozens of villages razed to the ground, and more than 50,000 people fled their homes to seek refuge in relief camps. Two months later, there is no sign of peace or normality. Now, due to the viral video, tensions are rising in various parts of the state. The fault lines run deep and there is enormous mistrust between the two communities. Manipur continues to be a powder keg.

Why has the violence continued for so long? There are three reasons for this:

First, both the state and central governments have failed to restore law and order. In May, more than 30,000 security personnel from the paramilitary forces were brought into Manipur. Additional forces were introduced last month. Yet the violence continued unabated. Last month, the prime minister released a statement on an unprecedented deal with the interior ministry. Under it, the valley areas were to be administered by the state government and the hills by the union government. This was similar to an unofficial government statement by presidents in select areas. Despite this unique arrangement, the carnage continued.

Secondly, the ban on the Internet, including broadband services, imposed in the first week of May has not yet been lifted. The government has shut down the internet with the intention of controlling the spread of fake news and disinformation on social media. But in the long run, it did more harm than good. Without internet access to fact check, the ground has been littered with rumors, hate speech and fake news. Any bad guys from community X looking to cause trouble can resort to spreading rumors of attacks by members of rival community Y in some distant village. With passions running high, such a rumor becomes the basis for a community’s retaliation by attacking another community’s neighboring villages. This leads to counter-retaliation. Thus, the vicious circle continues.

The viral video in question hit the internet over two months after the incident. The internet ban has kept the violent atrocities happening in Manipur hidden from the rest of the world. Yet the government has shown no intention of lifting the ban. An appeal filed in the Supreme Court also yielded no results. The petitioners were invited to apply to the Manipur High Court.

Thirdly, easy access to weapons and ammunition, especially in the name of self-defense, has further prolonged the conflict. The looting of the government armory and the uncontrolled entry of weapons from the border with Myanmar have ensured that most of the village volunteer groups are armed. The young men are trained in the use of weapons and build bunkers to protect themselves in case of provocation. With everyone on tenterhooks in this decoy situation, the slightest provocation can escalate into an all-out firefight resulting in deaths and destruction of lands and livelihoods. The environment in Manipur is no less than that of a civil war.

The ordinary people of both communities have suffered immensely in the past two months. Men and women in conflict areas have lived in perpetual fear for their lives, land and property. Haven’t had a good night’s sleep or a relaxed meal in over two months. Due to the conflict, they have not been able to grow rice, the staple food of the state, this planting season. This has created fears of famine next year.

As I argued in my previous article (Calming the Manipur storm: Lessons from Gandhi for the central leadership, IE, 13 July) the path forward is a conundrum that will take years of concerted effort to piece together, and there are lessons to be learned from Gandhi’s Noakhali experiment. I hope the mounting public pressure will finally force the government to wake up and work to restore normalcy to the state.

The writer is founder, Femme First Foundation

First published on: 2023-07-21 at 12:30 CEST

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