Note: Some of the details in this story are disturbing.
A viral video of a horrific sexual assault in India forced police to act after they’d failed to respond to the victims’ complaints over two months. Several men had paraded two naked women publicly and gangraped at least one of them.
It took the disturbing video, which many said put the whole country to shame, for police and the government to act and for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to break his silence on an underlying ethnic conflict that has claimed more than 140 lives and displaced some 60,000 people.
Police in the small northeastern Indian state of Manipur, which has witnessed deadly ethnic clashes and widespread violence for two months, finally arrested six men over the last few days for publicly parading the two women, reportedly in the presence of police, and allegedly raping at least one of them.
The video shows a frenzied mob of men carrying knives and sticks in their hands walking two naked women on a road and onto an agricultural field, with some men groping them on the way.
The incident happened on May 4, during the early days of the ethnic clashes in Manipur. The two women, along with the father and brother of one of them, were trying to escape after their village was attacked and burned down by an armed mob of hundreds.
The mob intercepted them. First, they killed the two men, then sexually assaulted at least one of the two women.
The gruesome incident went unreported until the video finally made its way onto social media last week, shocking this country of 1.42 billion people and attracting international attention.
The video sparked widespread protests and led to thousands expressing anger on social media, terming it “disgusting,” “shameful” and “shocking” and urging the government to bring the attackers to justice.
One of the two women in the video later claimed in an interview with the Indian news outlet Scroll that the attackers told her, “If you don’t take off your clothes, we’ll kill you.”
Modi called the incident “shameful.”
“The Manipur incident is shameful for any civilized nation; the entire country has been shamed,” Modi said Thursday. “I assure the nation the law will take its course with all its might. What happened with the daughters of Manipur can never be forgiven.”
India’s Supreme Court said it was “deeply disturbed” by the “simply unacceptable” viral video and asked the government to bring the perpetrators of the crime to justice and file a report on what it was doing to prevent such incidents in future.
On Sunday, the U.S. State Department said it was deeply concerned by reports about the video and called the incident “brutal” and “terrible,” the Reuters news agency said.
Washington encouraged a peaceful and inclusive resolution to the Manipur violence and urged authorities to respond to humanitarian needs while protecting all groups, homes and places of worship, a State Department spokesperson said.
Not an isolated incident
India has a shameful record of sexual assaults, with 86 women being raped daily on average, according to the latest government data.
And more cases of sexual violence reported to police in the last two months but never acted on have come to light.
Indian media reported Saturday that police records show a similar incident happened May 5, with two women in their early 20s being gangraped and brutally murdered by a mob of about 200 people. But after more than two months, no arrests have been made.
In another incident on May 15, an 18-year-old girl was abducted and gangraped in the state’s Imphal East district, Indian media reported.
Manipur police, now under pressure to act swiftly, are examining thousands of complaints, including those of arson, killings and sexual assaults, even as the violence continues unabated.
A conflict over territory
The violent conflict in Manipur, the northeast Indian state of 3.3 million people, is between two communities – Meiteis and Kukis – predominantly over land but with evident religious overtones. Meiteis are mainly Hindu, comprise 53% of the state’s population and live in the valley. Kukis are mainly Christian, about 40% of the population, and live in the hills.
The violence began early in May when a court suggested that land rights and other economic benefits enjoyed only by the tribal community of Kukis could be extended to Meiteis too. Kukis started protesting, arguing that the move would further strengthen rival Meiteis, allowing them to buy land and settle in predominantly Kuki areas.
The protests led to regular violent and armed clashes between the two communities in which several houses, temples, and churches were burned down and sexual violence was used as a tool of intimidation.
“There is a complete collapse of governance,” Patricia Mukhim, and activist and editor of The Shillong Times, told CBS News. “It is a humanitarian crisis and a civil war.”
Manipur’s tribal communities have fought one another for decades but also clashed with India’s military over varied demands of a separate homeland. More than a dozen militant outfits are still active in the state.
Did “divisive policies” lead to the conflict?
Opposition politicians have alleged that the government of the state, which is run by Modi’s Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), is biased in favor of the Meiteis.
Mukhim asserted that even the police are siding with Meiteis.
She explained that the right-wing political party has concern on the part of Meiteis that Kukis will outnumber them as non-Indian Kukis from the bordering country of Myanmar constantly come in.
“For Meiteis, it’s kind of a fight to the finish. … It’s now or never,” she explained. “They feel if they drive Kukis out they would be able to occupy some of their land.”
Earlier this month, a European Parliament resolution said the violence in Manipur was a result of the “divisive policies promoting Hindu majoritarianism.”
India responded by saying the EU Parliament should focus on its own internal issues and that “such interference in India’s internal affairs” was “unacceptable” and reflected “a colonial mindset.”
Several opposition leaders have questioned the federal and the state governments for, in their view, not doing enough to quell the widespread violence in the state.