Stories Big Media missed: Sexual assault in Manipur and, as always, climate reporting

In too many cases, news is reduced to headlines, a few paragraphs, sensationalism or opinion.

WrittenBy:Kalpana Sharma
Date:
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News of the floods and devastation caused by the incessant rain in north India has predictably pushed Manipur onto the backburner – but it should not remain there. It is incumbent for the media to focus on the violence in the state, as I have argued in an earlier column.

After more than two months, we are finally seeing more in-depth reporting on this conflict-torn northeastern state, mostly on independent digital media platforms and some in the international media. 

Greeshma from Suno India has been doing almost daily podcasts from Manipur. They’re remarkable for the detail in them, and lets you hear the voices of the affected people. This report by Suno India focuses on the experiences of two women and illustrates what thousands like them must have gone through. 

The most recent reports by international news platforms on the conflict include one by Aakash Hassan for The Guardian, in which a Kuki farmer tells him, “People are building bunkers on both sides, they are positioning guns…New Delhi should understand that this is preparation for war.” Or this one by Soutik Biswas of the BBC that captures the latest situation in Manipur. Both reports essentially remind us that there is no “normalcy” in the state as the government continues to claim.

Despite the uptick in reporting, however, there is a crucial aspect of conflict, one that often remains shrouded in silence for a long time, and gets overlooked: sexual assault and rape of women.

Sexual violence and rape occur in most conflicts, from those between religious or ethnic groups to the ones between the local people and the police or the army. For decades now, rape has been employed as a weapon of war. Back in 1994, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda declared rape as a war crime and a crime against humanity.

It is known that because of the stigma attached to rape in conservative societies, these assaults are often not reported to the police. Women will not speak about them. Their families too are part of the silence that surrounds sexual assault. This happens even in so-called “normal” times, but more so when people are caught in violent conflict.

This week, the first reports of sexual assaults in Manipur have appeared. This report by Sonal Matharu in The Print is one of the first. The disturbing testimonies recorded by the reporter illustrate the hesitancy of rape survivors to report the crime of rape and sexual assault. 

That these stories are only now emerging, a good two months after the horrific violence began in Manipur, is not surprising. From past experience, we know that this is what happened in Gujarat in 2002, following the communal violence. The story of Bilkis Bano is now known because of her determination to fight for justice. But for every Bilkis, there would be many others who kept quiet. 

We saw this repeated in the communal violence that gripped Muzaffarnagar and Shamli in UP in 2013. The stories of rape emerged only after the fact-finding efforts of women’s groups and journalists like Neha Dixit who doggedly followed up on these stories. Although a handful of the survivors did turn to the criminal justice system, their journey to get justice has been almost endless, as this story in Scroll tells us about a rape survivor from Muzaffarnagar. 

Thus, it is no surprise that Manipuri women, both Kuki and Meitei, have hesitated to speak on the record about what they went through. Yet, it is a story that must be recorded, and told, so that we understand the true costs of such a conflict. 

Unlike the silent survivors of rape, women in Manipur, especially Meitei women who are part of a group called Meira Paibi, have been in the news for a very different reason.  While the army has projected them as being obstructionist, the Kuki see them as partisan. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. But, at a time of such heightened polarisation, it is easy to jump to conclusions. What is important is to understand who these women are, the reasons for their militancy which was principally against the security forces, and why they are reacting as they are in the current conflict. 

For people willing to invest their time into reading and understanding their cause, several newspapers such as Indian Express, have laid out useful information about the group. But as news has been reduced to headlines and a few paragraphs, or sensationalism and opinion, especially on the television, the history and the processes that lead to conflagrations, like the one in Manipur, are usually overlooked. 

This understanding of history and process is also essential when reporting the devastation caused by the deluge in north India. We see images of the destruction, but apart from the incessant and heavy rain, what are the other factors that have caused it?

Again, if people have the patience to read, there have been articles in several newspapers by experts and by journalists that spotlight this. They tell you about how infrastructure projects, such as roads, are being built without due consideration to the fragility of the Himalayas. They inform us that despite rules that concrete structures cannot be built close to riverbanks, this is being done in all the tourist hotspots, including those hit badly by the floods last week. And they also speak of the routine and uncontrolled dumping of construction debris into smaller streams that ultimately lead to the images we saw of rivers – of mud and logs – raging through the streets of small towns in Himachal Pradesh. 

All these are human interventions that have contributed to the extent of the damage caused in these last weeks.

Unfortunately, such information appears in the media after the devastation, not before. It is more than possible that local journalists have been reporting about such violations of environmental rules. But the rest of the country only knows once the devastation has taken place.

It is also clear that extreme climate-related events, such as the deluge last week, are now a frequent occurrence across the world thanks to global warming. The New York Times published an article on July 10 headlined: “Climate disasters daily? Welcome to the ‘New Normal’.” It reported on the extreme heat, storms, and floods that the United States has experienced in the recent weeks, and the possible reasons for it.

To fully understand the connections between climate change and a local flood, journalists need to constantly keep up with the science behind global warming. Not so long ago, major newspapers in the country had full-time environment reporters. 

You could argue that any well-trained reporter should be able to understand and report on these subjects. Unfortunately, given the workload of most reporters, this is not entirely possible, and there is a need for specialisation in subjects such as the environment, health, or rural and urban development. If the media had continued specialised beats like the environment, it is possible that some early warnings of the disaster building up, especially in the hill states, would have been sounded or amplified. 

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