Delay in political action to match security steps has made situation worse.
The incident itself took place on May 4. A police FIR was filed on May 18. However, it was only after a video of the horrific incident – involving two Kuki women being paraded naked down a street by a mob of Meitei men – went viral on July 19 that the powers, be it in Delhi or Manipur, were suddenly stirred into a semblance of action.
Prime minister Narendra Modi broke his silence on Manipur, finally, after two and a half months of continued unrest in the state, to say that the entire country had been shamed by the incident, promising that action would be taken according to law. The National Commission for Women, which had been sent a complaint on the matter on June 12, but did nothing until July 19, quickly took “suo motu cognizance” of the case as the video circulated. Manipur police, which had sat on the FIR for exactly two months, promptly found and arrested some of the perpetrators who had also allegedly gang-raped the younger of the two women. Their newfound efficiency in doing the jobs they earn salaries to do came amid widespread public outrage and a statement by the Chief Justice of India-led Supreme Court – which also took suo motu cognisance of the incident – saying, “We will give some time to the government to act, or we will take action.”
What has been happening in Manipur since May 4 has been clearly revealed to the country’s public by the video, but the fact that such incidents were happening cannot have been unknown to the BJP-led state government.
In fact, Manipur chief minister N Biren Singh said in a television interview that there had been hundreds of such cases. He holds the state home ministry portfolio. It is under his watch that such things have been happening. His continuance in office is unconscionable. How he has remained in office despite presiding over a state where there has been a total failure of law and order for two and a half months is the greatest of mysteries.
In opposition-ruled states, even a relatively minor political clash between supporters of two rival parties draws strident demands for President’s Rule. This, here, is a state where there has been a virtual civil war for more than two months, which the army and paramilitary forces have been unable to stop. Despite this, there is not even a change of chief ministers. The BJP’s central leadership otherwise changes its CMs overnight and has done so multiple times in states including Gujarat, Uttarakhand, and Karnataka, mainly for electoral reasons. Here was a case where some action genuinely needed to be taken for constitutional reasons, but nothing was done, and nobody can say why.
The belief among the regime and its faithfuls that managing headlines and image is more important than managing reality has been exposed earlier during the Covid-19 pandemic, the Chinese incursions, and generally in the everyday efforts to turn the entire news and social media into channels of propaganda for the regime. The people of Manipur, who are dying, being raped, and having their houses burnt, are experiencing the limitations of that approach. Even if the government were to start doing its constitutional duty now, it is perhaps too late. So much has happened, so many tens of thousands have become refugees, and so many lives have been irretrievably damaged, that stopping the madness will be more difficult now than it would have been in the first few days of the conflict. The immediate and urgent imposition of President’s Rule has become the necessary first step to stop the mayhem. It is highly unlikely that any solution to the crisis is possible without first taking some credible steps for confidence-building.
The deeper underlying problems are complicated and cannot be solved without the involvement of all three major communities in Manipur: the Meitei, Naga, and Kuki. This is because, after all that has happened since May 3, no Kuki leader can survive going back from the demand for a separate administration. However, Kuki, Naga, and Meitei nationalisms have long been in mutual conflict because of their overlapping territorial claims. Therefore, the thorny issue of separate administration will have to be tackled. While de facto separation between the hills and plains is a reality now, with buffer zones between the two patrolled by the Indian army and paramilitary forces, there is no such separation of territories within the hill areas which are inhabited and claimed by both Nagas and Kukis. The only solution to this conundrum that does not involve further bloodshed is for autonomy and democratic power-sharing in the hill areas.
The current situation in Manipur is also related to the ongoing civil war in neighbouring Myanmar, with which it shares a border. The arrival of Kuki-Chin refugees from there, which sparked fears of changing demography, is the second of the underlying reasons behind this conflict. However, only a small fraction of the Myanmarese refugees went to Manipur (most went to Mizoram), and the ones who went to Manipur settled in areas already dominated by the Kuki community. Therefore, it is also necessary to avoid exaggerating the problem of refugee “influx”. The propagandist efforts to paint Kukis in general as illegal foreign immigrants have been responsible for inflaming public sentiments in Manipur and fuelling the current conflict.
The rumour mill seems to now be working overtime to spin the present troubles in Manipur as being somehow caused by China. It was not a Chinese mob, though, that paraded those women naked and raped them on May 4. Nor was it Chinese police who, according to the testimony of one of the two women, handed them over to the mob. It was not the National Commission of Women in China that failed to act on the complaint about the incident for more than one month. It was not the police in China that failed to act on the FIR of the case for more than two months.
The many failures of administration, law and order, and justice, that have come to light with just this one video show starkly that the blame for the current mess in Manipur lies squarely with the leaders of Manipur, and India.