PATRALEKHA CHATTERJEE | Horrors of Manipur signal a total collapse of governance

The Asian Age.

Opinion, Columnists

The happenings in Manipur point to a collapse of governance even if you go solely by official statements

Women from the Zo-Kuki community stage a protest demanding separate administration for Tribals of Manipur, in Churachandpur. (Image: PTI)

Alfred Hitchcock once famously said, “every film I make is a comedy”, and considered Psycho (1960), perhaps the greatest horror film ever made, a practical joke. In Hitchcock’s films, even the most deadly and terrifying situations have an undercurrent of comedy, which adds to the horror.

Sometimes, the lines between horror and humour blur in real life too. Even as we are trying to process the horrific images coming out of ethnic violence-scarred Manipur -- the viral video clip showing visuals of two Kuki tribal women being paraded naked by a mob of men, the chilling ground reports and testimonies of survivors, there has been a stream of statements which would be comic if the context was not so tragic and ghoulish.

Wrestling Federation of India chief and BJP MP Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, who is out on interim bail in a sexual harassment case of female wrestlers, is among the latest to hold forth on Manipur. Last Saturday, he called the viral video showing two Kuki women being paraded naked and sexually assaulted by a mob of men “very sad”, and noted that “incidents happened in Rajasthan and West Bengal as well”.

As someone who is not an expert on Manipur, a state of 3.7 million people, or India’s Northeast, but has visited the state more than once, and has many Manipuri friends, I hesitate to make definitive statements analysing the various threads leading up to the ongoing ethnic tension and strife. Every day, there is a new report sledge-hammering unimaginable horror.

We may not ever know the full magnitude of the horror.

But some things leap out, even if one goes by the public statements by those in positions of power, and footage that has not been contested. Whichever way you slice or dice it, a few things are glaringly evident. We are seeing the use of “women as instruments to perpetrate violence” and that is “simply unacceptable in a constitutional democracy”, as the Supreme Court recently observed.  We are also seeing savagery as spectator sport when heinous acts are not only committed but publicly cheered.

In 2012, a 45-year-old Dalit woman, a widow, in Maharashtra’s Satara district, was thrashed and paraded naked, after an upper caste family claimed that their daughter had eloped with her son.

In the age of social media and hyper-connectivity, savagery does not end with the act. It is also filmed and shared. Remember the name Shambhu Lal Raigar? A few years ago, the Supreme Court had sought an explanation from the then Rajasthan government on whether Raigar, who had allegedly hacked and burned alive a Muslim labourer in Rajsamand district of Rajasthan, had uploaded videos of the gruesome act while being lodged in Jodhpur jail.

The happenings in Manipur point to a collapse of governance even if you go solely by official statements.

This is a state which has a “double engine sarkar”, which the BJP touts as the best possible model of governance, especially in election season. Nongthombam Biren Singh, a former footballer and journalist, and chief minister of Manipur since 2017, is a member of the BJP. But as has been widely noted, it took more than two months between a complaint being filed relating to the savage sexual assault on two women in Manipur, the terrifying video going viral in the social media, and the police swinging into action. 

As media reports have pointed out, the FIR (First Information Report) gathered dust at two police stations, even though there were numerous high-profile visits and high-level meetings in the state to discuss the turmoil during this period. On June 4, the Narendra Modi government set up a commission of inquiry into the Manipur violence, headed by former Chief Justice of Gauhati high court Ajai Lamba.

The state reacted to something as heinous as this only after the video clip went viral. Then, arrests were made swiftly. Does the state depend primarily on the social media for intelligence-gathering? The official response explaining the delay in swinging into action was odd.

As reported in a few days back in this newspaper, chief minister N. Biren Singh, who has been facing calls for resignation, said: “There were over 6,000 FIRs even as the violence continued. The police were trying to identify the case when the video surfaced. As soon as we got hold of the video, we could identify the culprits and action was taken immediately and we arrested four persons, including the main culprit.” (Two more people were later arrested, taking the number to six.)

In brief, the chief minister of an Indian state is publicly admitting that his government got to know about a horrific crime committed in the state only when a video clip went viral in the social media. Moreover, the reason for the huge delay in acting was the sheer number of FIRs. This suggests that the actual situation is a lot worse. Clearly, what we know so far offers only a partial picture, and there are perhaps many more sordid instances of sexual violence in Manipur and women’s bodies being used to settle scores in an ethnic conflict. 

How does this reflect on governance in the state?

Another oddity is flagging the growth of infrastructure in Manipur in response to questions about the horrific sexual violence in the state. In a recent interview to Al-Jazeera, a BJP spokesperson spoke about the Centre and the BJP-led Manipur government giving high priority to road development and other infrastructure projects. While the Modi government’s focus on infrastructure development in the Northeast is laudable, it does not in any way take away from the ongoing horror story nor can it be leveraged as an explanation for the collapse of governance.

Last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi finally broke his silence and spoke out on Manipur. He condemned the alleged sexual assault of women in Manipur state as “shameful” and promised tough action. With more than 100 people dead, many more wounded, an ongoing Internet shutdown and a traumatised population, we need to look within.

The happenings in Manipur have jolted India but it cannot be business as usual once the state no longer makes it to prime-time television and the front pages. Some are worried about how the world outside is reacting, of India’s “image” taking a knock in the wake of the recent ethnic clashes between the majority Meitei and minority Kuki, and turf wars over land and power. What matters more is what is happening to women, children, and men in Manipur. We must move beyond condemnation to analysis of what led to the total collapse of governance leading to sexual violence to settle scores.