The bone-chilling video of two women, stripped naked and dragged to a paddy field by a group of armed men in Manipur, has expectedly stirred the collective conscience of the nation. Available information suggests that the horrific incident happened in the Kangpokpi district of the state on May 4, a day after ethnic clashes between the Meitei and Kuki communities first broke out. The victims in the video belong to the Kuki-Zo tribe while the mob, which sexually assaulted them, was made of Meiteis, claims the Indigenous Tribal Leaders’ Forum, an umbrella organisation of various tribes living in Manipur.
While the incident occurred on May 4, the video of this heinous crime surfaced only on July 19, just a day before the monsoon session of Parliament was to begin. Sources close to the N. Biren Singh-led BJP government in Manipur have raised suspicion about the timing of the release of the video, particularly as the incident happened near B. Phainom village, which falls under Heirok assembly constituency, represented by BJP MLA Thokchom Radheshyam Singh. The former advisor to the chief minister resigned from the post as he had never been “given a responsibility” since his appointment on December 31, 2022. Radheshyam, 58, a retired IPS officer, has been a known detractor of Biren Singh.
While that doesn’t in any way make him accountable for what happened to the women in Kangpokpi on May 4 and the subsequent release of the video, it is surprising that such a video remained under wraps, since information now flows perhaps faster than light, facilitated by internet and mobile phones. Of course, there has been a ban on the internet in Manipur for the past two months, but hundreds of videos from Manipur have regularly come out on social media. Not that it was a video that needed to be even made in the first place, let alone leaked. But how did it stay away from the public gaze for 75 days?
It's not that the incident came to light only because of the video. Thangboi Vaiphei, the 65-year-old headman of B. Phainom village, a settlement of around 40 families, filed a complaint about the incident at Saikul police station on May 18. A local news portal, the Hills Journal, had published a story on June 4 about the incident and the subsequent complaint by the village headman. Despite that, it took the Manipur police more than a month to register an FIR (eventually on June 21).
There was no action on the FIR till the video surfaced on July 19. Chief minister Biren Singh justified the delay by saying that piles of FIRs had been registered over the past two months—about murder, arson, and even sexual assault—and that the police teams were overburdened even though cases were being looked into thoroughly. Within 24 hours of the video appearing on social media, the first arrest was made. “Earlier, there was no video to identify. Community people protect each other and don’t identify the perpetrators. We could not possibly organise any identification parade given the tense situation in the state. So, the probe moved at a slow pace,” says a top Manipur police official.
The absence of policing was evident even during the occurrence of the incident. The victims, along with two men, who had fled to a forest to avoid a rampaging mob, were rescued by a police team from Nongpok Sekmai police station. But the mob abducted them from the police team near Toubul (Sekmai Khunou), about 2 km from the police station, while they were being taken to the police station for shelter.
Even when the complaint was first filed, a news report was published, and finally, an FIR was registered—all taking a span of more than a month—the video was nowhere to be found. There was no mention of the video in the complaint or in the news report. The state’s cyber police wing is now probing the source of the video, but unofficial accounts suggest that the video may have been released by some Meitei political leaders belonging to both the ruling party and the Opposition.
The question still remains: how was the video kept under wraps for so long? According to people following this case, even though one of the perpetrators recorded the video, it was not shared beyond a select group of villagers for two reasons—the women vigilante groups, known as Meira Paibis, prohibited sharing of these videos, and the internet suspension has been strictly enforced in Kangpokpi, a Kuki-inhabited locality. In Manipur, Meira Paibis, or ‘Women with Torches‘, are Meitei women who are not formally organised and have no political leaning but become active when the state or society faces any crisis. They exercise considerable moral and social influence among the Meiteis.
While women’s activism in Manipur has a long history, the current avatar of Meira Paibis can be traced back to 1977. That year, women from across the Manipuri society joined hands against growing alcoholism and drug abuse in the state. In 1980, a large group of women marched to a police station and forced the administration to release a man who had been detained on suspicion of insurgency. Soon, women across the state began to hold night vigils with flaming torches and stood guard against the armed forces arresting or detaining boys on charges of involvement in militancy. Gradually, Meira Paibis expanded their focus areas—from human rights violations by armed forces to demands for Inner Line Permit (ILP)—and began to work as the Manipuri society’s most influential vigilante group.
During the ethnic clashes that have been going on for the past two months, Meira Paibis have allegedly taken the role of a facilitator, claims even the Indian Army. On June 24, they repeated their 1980 act as some 1,200 women blocked a convoy of the Indian Army in Itham village in Imphal East district and forced the release of a dozen hardcore militants of Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL), a banned militant group that was behind the 2015 ambush of a convoy of the Army’s Dogra Regiment in Manipur, leading to the death of 20 soldiers. One of the 12 militants, self-styled Lt Col Moirangthem Tamba alias Uttam, was the mastermind of the ambush.
Since the beginning of the cycle of violence in Manipur in May, several senior officers have been claiming that Meira Paibi groups block roads, restricting the movements of armed forces and helping miscreants destroy targeted villages. At the same time, they are careful not to bring a bad name to their community. “On many occasions, Meira Paibis have even stopped young men from shooting videos that may showcase the community in bad light. As the video shows, no other women, except the victims, were present during the incident. I’m sure the women of the locality tried to ensure that the video did not move. That there was no internet certainly helped,” says a Meitei social media activist.
Another person claims that Meira Paibis did not approve of this incident and strictly warned the men not to share the videos. In an interview, the victims have even claimed that they were not raped, but stripped and touched in their private parts while some Meitei men helped them escape. The complaint too mentions that they were helped by some unknown individuals to escape.
Yet, sources say that the video somehow reached some of the top politicians, “who waited for an opportune moment to use them to their advantage”. Just a day before the Parliament session, the video was leaked to the Kuki groups by some Meitei political leaders. As the central BJP is in no mood to remove Biren Singh as CM, this video was a kind of self-destructive missile by his rivals to take down the government, claims a source related to central intelligence.
Whatever the motivation, it has forced Prime Minister Narendra Modi to break his silence on Manipur. Whether or not the leak of the video brings in some radical changes in both the Manipur and Union government’s handling of the situation, it has—as the PM said—made the entire nation hang its head in shame.
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