Even by his own standards, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s silence on Manipur was stunning. A civil war has raged in the state for nearly 80 days now. Over 150 people have been killed, thousands are still displaced. Let alone visit the state, Modi, the master orator, managed to avoid saying a word about it – until Thursday morning.
Addressing TV cameras outside Parliament, he said: “The Manipur incident that has surfaced is shameful for any civilised society.”
The incident he was referring to goes all the way back to May 4, a day after clashes broke out between the Meitei and Kuki communities. A group of Kuki people fleeing to the forest for safety were intercepted by a mob. Two men were killed, and the women in the group were paraded naked and sexually assaulted by the mob.
This account features in a police information report filed on May 18 – two months ago.
It is hard to believe the Manipur government wasn’t aware of these distressing accounts of sexual violence – they are part of the police record and have even featured in media reports. If the prime minister had cared to scrutinise the allegations that his party colleague, Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh, has been acting as a Meitei strongman, rather than a constitutional leader, he, too, may have learnt about the scale and extent of the violence.
But it was only after a video went viral and bared the humiliation of the women to the world that the chief minister and the prime minister deigned to speak.
Biren Singh outrightly lied. He claimed that Manipur police had swung into action after taking “suo-moto cognisance of the incident” – an attempt to cover up two months of police inaction.
Instead of pulling him up, Modi came to his defence. “I request all chief ministers to strengthen law and order in their states,” he said. “Particularly for the protection of our mothers and sisters, they should take the harshest actions, no matter where the incident occurs, whether in Rajasthan, or Chhattisgarh, or Manipur.”
Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh are Congress-ruled states. Like the rest of the country, they keep throwing up horrific incidents of sexual violence against girls and women, a chronic symptom of India’s deep-seated patriarchy and misogyny. Neither of them, however, is currently aflame the way Manipur is.
Earlier this week, the civil war threatened to spill over into another community, after a mentally-ill Naga woman was shot dead, allegedly over her tribal identity.
To equate the horror of Manipur with other states is nothing but a deflection.
Even when Modi spoke, he spoke as a leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, not as India’s prime minister.