Manipur assault video emboldens women to speak out

Chiin Sianching
Image caption,Kuki nursing student Chiin Sianching was dragged out of her room, beaten and left for dead

New allegations of violence against women are emerging in the north-east Indian state of Manipur, as the response to a viral video showing two women being paraded naked by a mob encourages others to speak.

Warning: This article contains details some readers may find distressing.

For more than two months, Mary (not her real name), a Kuki woman, could not find the courage to go to the police.

Her 18-year-old daughter had been abducted from outside their home, gang-raped overnight and left badly beaten on their doorstep.

“The attackers threatened that they’d kill my daughter if she spoke about it,” Mary told me when I met her outside the relief camp where they have been living since ethnic clashes broke out between the Meitei and Kuki communities in Manipur in May, claiming more than 130 lives.

Then something changed.

A video of two Kuki women being paraded naked by a mob emerged last week on social media.

There was widespread outrage and condemnation, leading to the arrest of six men.

This prompted Mary to make a police complaint.

“I thought if I don’t do this now, I won’t get another chance.” she says. “I will always regret that I didn’t even try to get my daughter’s attackers punished.”

Mary says that her daughter now talks about killing herself, but that she reassures her she can still make something of her life.

Nineteen-year-old Chiin Sianching fears she could easily have met a similar fate.

She and a friend were singled out for belonging to the Kuki community, she says, and attacked in the hostel they lived in while studying nursing in the state capital, Imphal.

“The mob kept banging the door of the room we were hiding in, shouting that your men have raped our women, now we will do the same to you,” she says.

She called her mother to say that it could be the last time that she would speak to her. Minutes later the two young women were dragged out on to the street and beaten unconscious – Ms Sianching thinks the mob thought they were dead, so ran away.

Police who found their bodies only realised they were alive after checking their pulses.

Honour and shame

Fake news on social media, purporting to show women being sexually assaulted by Kuki men were fuelling this mob of Meitei men against Chiin and her friend.

Early in the conflict a photo of a dead woman was circulated, apparently showing a Meitei nurse who had been raped and killed by Kuki men. Later, many news outlets debunked this.

Faultlines quickly deepened after the conflict flared up, causing a complete separation of two communities who had previously lived alongside one another. Both now have barricades at village entry points and there are continuing reports of overnight clashes.

Meitei groups have told the BBC that women from the community also faced sexual assault – the BBC has not been able to confirm this. But the video of the two Kuki women being paraded naked united Meitei women in protest too.

Sinam Surnalata Leima and other members of the Meira Peibis
Image caption,Sinam Surnalata Leima, a Meitei women’s leader, condemns the attack on the Kuki women as a “heinous crime”

Manipur has a longstanding tradition of women playing a powerful role in civil society, among them the Meira Peibis, or torch-bearers – also known as the mothers of Manipur – who have protested against abuses of power by the state and the army, and human rights violations.

Sinam Surnalata Leima, who leads the Meira Peibis in a group of villages where the two Kuki women in the video were attacked, says that villagers themselves handed over the main suspect to police.

Then the local members of Meira Peibis got together and burned his house.

“The burning is a symbol of the community’s condemnation of the heinous crime that those men committed, their actions cannot tarnish the whole Meitei community’s honour,” says Ms Leima.

The accused’s wife and three children have been banished from the village.

But why did the mob act the way it did, in a society that regards its women highly

“It was grief and revenge for the Meitei women who had been attacked by Kuki men,” Ms Leima reasons.

She does not personally know of any such attacks, but says Meitei women would not discuss a crime of this kind, as it would be considered shameful.

State police said soon after the start of the clashes that they had not received reports of violence against Meitei women, but a spokesman for the Meitei community told me there had been many unreported attacks.

Khuraijam Athouba, who represents a Meitei organisation called Cocomi, said that Meitei women had chosen not to speak about the “violations they faced”.

In his view the focus should remain on the issue of killings and displaced people, rather than sexual violence.

Justice

The brother of one of the Kuki women who was seen paraded in the video is tormented by all of these issues.

The mob that stripped and sexually assaulted his sister, also killed their father and their younger brother – he and his mother were saved as they were visiting family in another village when the clashes started.

The 23-year-old man has a blank expression for most of the time when I meet him in a small room in the home of one of his relatives.

I ask him what he would like the government and police to do?

“Arrest each person in that mob, especially those who killed my father and brother,” he says.

“And treat both communities with fairness.”

Gracy Haokip, a researcher supporting victims of the clashes
Image caption,Gracy Haokip: “If it wasn’t for this video, we wouldn’t have got so much attention”

Faith in the federal and state government seems lacking in both communities.

The Chief Minister of Manipur, N Biren Singh, who belongs to the Meitei community, promised the “harshest punishment to the accused, including capital punishment”. But when asked about the calls for his resignation for failure to resolve the conflict, he said, “Don’t want to go into this, my job is to bring peace to the state and punish miscreants.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi broke his silence on the conflict only after the video of the two women sparked national outrage.

“What happened with the daughters of Manipur can never be forgiven,” he said, adding that no guilty person would be spared.

But for Ms Leima, that statement painted her community in a bad light and ignored the violence that has raged since May, causing 60,000 people to be displaced.

“The prime minister spoke when Kuki women were attacked. What about everything we have been facing, are we Meitei women not citizens of India?” she asks.

The video has put the spotlight back on the continuing Manipur conflict.

“If it wasn’t for this video, we would have not got so much attention from the government and other political parties,” says Gracy Haokip, a researcher supporting victims of the clashes, including the nursing student, Chiin Sianching.

She says it will help the http://ujiemisiapel.com/ survivors who have courageously shared their experiences while trying to rebuild their lives.

Chiin tells me about the speech she gave to the women in her community, when she told them that she had enrolled into another nursing institute situated in her local area.

“My mother told me that God has kept me alive for a reason, so I have decided I will not give up my dreams.”

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