Violence against women: viral video highlights targeting of women amid ethnic conflict in India

Rebecca Root, IBA Southeast Asia CorrespondentTuesday 29 August 2023

A brutal and prolonged attack against two women in Manipur, India, which was filmed and later circulated online, has highlighted the targeting of women amid ethnic conflict in the region. The incident has led to calls for national and international authorities to take further action.

‘In India, during partition and [during] other regional conflicts driven by political and economic agendas, sexual violence against women and girls has been a weaponised mechanism to shame, control and obliterate the existence of specific communities’, explains Rupa Khetarpal, an associate professor of teaching at Rutgers School of Social Work in New Jersey and an expert in global gender-based violence (GBV).

The two women, whose names haven’t been disclosed, belong to the Kuki-Zo ethnic minority group and were reportedly abducted by men from the Meitei community, an ethnic majority in Manipur. They were paraded naked through a mob and subjected to gang rape. The assault took place in early May amid escalating violence between the two ethnic communities. ‘The incident is seeded in the ethnic conflict plaguing Manipur’, says Ramesh Vaidyanathan, Co-Chair of the IBA Asia Pacific Regional Forum and Founder and Managing Partner of Advaya Legal in Mumbai.

The two communities have long had a tense relationship, but this turned to violence after a student rally held in the Manipur capital of Imphal on 3 May. The march, attended by members of the Kuki minority, was held in protest against the potential inclusion of the Meitei community in the Scheduled Tribes category of people in India – a grouping of Indigenous peoples who fall outside the predominant Indian social hierarchy. This would grant the Meitei rights not necessarily afforded to other ethnic groups.

Since the early-May protest, over 150 people have been killed in shootings, lynchings and fires in the region, while 60,000 have been displaced as entire villages have been burned to the ground. The targeted rape of female community members has also been reported.

Though courts in India have historically treated gender-based violence offences with utmost stringency, there are challenges plaguing the enforcement process

Ramesh Vaidyanathan
Co-Chair, IBA Asia Pacific Regional Forum

Mihira Sood is a Delhi-based lawyer and Executive Director of the Centre for Child Rights & Juvenile Justice. She says that sexual assault, as a weapon of ethnic violence, goes back to the notion of patriarchy, ‘that women are the possession of men and violating their honour in this way is the best way to humiliate and dishonour the men of that community so women become collateral damage’.

The video of the assault led to global outrage, while some have criticised the Indian government’s response as lacking. Internet restrictions meant the video didn’t appear online until July. ‘The fact that this systemic use of rape as a weapon of fear and intimidation was concealed and allowed to persist for so long raises serious concerns about the safety and security of women in the ongoing conflict in Manipur’, said Harish Sadani, Executive Director of Mumbai-based Men Against Violence & Abuse, in a statement.

On 20 July, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi called the incident ‘shameful’ and unforgivable. ‘I assure the nation, the law will take its course with all its might. What happened with the daughters of Manipur can never be forgiven’, he said. Several men have since been arrested and dozens more questioned in connection with the assault. However, Sadani highlighted that ‘it is also alarming that arrests were made only after the video went viral and the Prime Minister spoke out, nearly 70 days after the case was filed’.

Neither the Indian government nor the Manipur Police force responded to Global Insight’s request for comment.

The Supreme Court of India has committed to becoming involved if the necessary steps aren’t taken, says Vaidyanathan. But Sood believes the government ‘doesn’t feel any incentive to instruct the police to crackdown on the violence against the tribal people and punish the members of the Meitei community behind this violence’. It’s ‘especially worrying’, she says, that the government has instead focused on punishing the people sharing the video online.

Aakar Patel, Chair of the Board of Amnesty International in India, believes the UN Human Rights Council should establish an independent international accountability mechanism in relation to Manipur and consider options to respond to gender persecution with effective remedies and reparation.

As it stands, India does have ‘stringent and comprehensive’ laws around GBV, Vaidyanathan says. There’s the penal code, which details several offences against women and girls, alongside laws addressing specific subjects such as domestic violence and sexual harassment. But India is a country where GBV is an epidemic, says Khetarpal, with the highest rate of GBV in the world – and reported crimes against women are increasing in number each year. Khetarpal adds that the laws against GBV are rarely enforced.

‘Though courts in India have historically treated these offences with utmost stringency, there are challenges plaguing the enforcement process’, says Vaidyanathan. ‘These include under-reporting of these offences, judicial delays on account of the backlog of cases, inadequate infrastructure and resources for collection and processing of evidence and the absence of training and expertise.’

The disturbing video and the subsequent global attention could, however, lead to improved policy measures being taken by central and state governments, Vaidyanathan says. He adds that lawyers have been advocating for stronger legal protection for women and an improvement in the implementation of the existing legal framework. They’ve also been leading awareness campaigns, collaborating with support groups and engaging in policy advocacy. ‘With heightened efforts in this direction, beneficial outcomes can be anticipated’, he says.

To help, Khetarpal says the international community should advocate for stricter laws that hold people accountable and better protect those affected by GBV and conflict. ‘There needs to be consequences and sometimes voices that come from outside can strengthen and empower the voices inside the country’, she says.

Image credit: Joaquin Corbalan/AdobeStock.com