manipur protest in bangalore
In a humanitarian crisis, women and girls become easy targets. File photo shows a protest in Bengaluru against the Manipur violence.

Manipur violence: Amid arson and killings, rapes were brushed aside

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Manipur’s activists share a theory. If the horrific video of two young women stripped naked and paraded on the streets in Kangpokpi in Manipur had not surfaced, the rest of the country may not have sympathised with the strife-ridden state, or expressed solidarity with its people, they say. 

According to activists and academicians in Manipur, the video is not just an indication of how far the ethnic conflict had spiralled out of control. It has clearly proved that sexual assault cases have been happening in the state caught up in a whirlpool of violence since May 3.

The video served as a clear “evidence” of the incidents and also sharply brought the issue of sexual violence against women in the conflict-ridden state to the fore, said Marybeth, a social activist in Churachandpur.

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She pointed out matter-of-factly: “Had the video not come out in public, no one would be talking about it. It is not that no one reported about it earlier or no one is talking about the horror; it is just that the authorities are trying to cover up such acts.”  The video will also provoke several other similar heinous acts to tumble out, said the activist. 

Sexual assault cases  

Activists claim that many women and girls have been subjected to acts of physical abuse and sexual assault in the ongoing mayhem in Manipur. There were reports of sexual assault in different places after deadly ethnic riots broke out between Meitei and Kuki-Zo communities on May 3.

The Indigenous Tribal Leaders Forum (ITLF), a Churachandpur-based Kuki-Zomi  civil society organisation (CSO), has compiled a list of 13 cases of ‘crime against Kuki-Zomi’ women in the violence. These include rape, physical abuse and murder. Of these, at least seven were confirmed sexual abuse/assault.

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Unfortunately, such cases took a back seat and got overlooked as the killings and arson took centerstage in the state. Families, CSOs and concerned citizens have been so overwhelmed by the mayhem unleashed in Manipur that sexual violence cases were brushed aside as “collateral damage” or just one of the long list of cases of crimes that get committed in a conflict.

In fact, village chief B Phainom of Kangpokpi (where the naked parade incident took place) had filed a complaint with the Saikul police station. The sexual assault case just figured among the long list of cases that he had submitted to the police. According to activists, at that time, no case or FIR was filed separately over the incident.

Ginza Vualzong, an ITLF spokesperson, said that due to the massive crisis, they were not able to focus on women related cases individually. “Some of them (survivors or their families) may have filed an FIR of such sexual assaults,” he said. “We are not able to follow up on each of the individual cases.” 

Normalising sexual assault 

It is not just the police or the state that displays apathy. Society at large too normalises such sexual assault cases in times of war or conflict, say activists.

In a humanitarian crisis, women and girls become the target to bring down a community. They face additional vulnerability and harshness, particularly pregnant and lactating mothers.

Also read: Kuki-Meitei strife not a Hindu-Christian one, Manipur body tells EU Parliament chief

Even more so when the conflict is about ethnicity, culture and caste. In Manipur, the Meiteis and the Kuki-Zomis are at war based on ethnic identity. The women on both sides are viewed as key bearers of the ‘identity,’ and thus become easy targets. 

Attacks on the women of the ‘other’ side are considered a powerful tool and a means to humiliate the enemy. A sexual assault or rape of a woman belonging to the other community is encouraged and applauded as an indication of ‘victory’.

Activist Marybeth pointed out that it is ‘normal’ that ‘women’s bodies are used as a tool for vengeance, or as a weapon’. And this barbaric act is not justifiable from either side of the warring group, she added.

Revenge rape

A Kuki-Zomi academician who did not want to be named said that rape and ‘revenge rape ’ are used as tools to dishonour the enemy in a war or conflict. In such situations, women are victimised, and men measure their strength or capability in terms of how much they can protect their women.

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“For instance, a pregnant woman is raped to emasculate the enemy (the other),” she said. The act is seen to demonstrate that “they (the men of the other side) are unable to protect their women” and are shamed and weakened.

Meanwhile, the National Commission for Women (NCW) team has finally arrived in Manipur to visit the survivors. Earlier, a few Kuki-Zomi women had written a letter to the NCW and had not received a response, alleged an activist.

Boinu Kuki, another activist, who is privy to the letter, said that the appeal was emailed on June 12 and addressed to NCW chairperson Rekha Sharma. It sought the NCW’s intervention in the matter of sexual violence against Kuki-Zomi women by Meitei vigilantes. A list of sexual assault cases was included in the letter.

Delhi Commission for Women (DCW) chairperson Swati Maliwal, who is currently on a visit to Manipur, met with survivors and their families. Activists hope this will give an impetus to women who have suffered sexual assault to seek justice.

Mayhem in Manipur

The mayhem in Manipur has left more than 100 dead, over 60,000 displaced, and more than 200 villages razed to the ground. Economic activity has ground to a halt and educational institutions remain closed with normal life coming to a standstill.

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The crisis does not seem to be ending anytime soon. Even as violence may subside one day, the wounds are running deep and the damage is going to seep down to future generations as well, pointed out activists.

But, one thing is clear. The video recording, which took its time to surface in the public domain, has at least helped to bring the disturbing issue of sexual violence of women in the Manipur conflict to the fore.

(Ninglun Hanghal is a freelance journalist from Manipur. She is presently based in Guwahati and writes on development and current affairs in the North-East.)

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