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Manipur Horror: When Government's Media Strategy Failed

Government's Inaction Amidst Unspeakable Crime in Manipur Raises Questions on Priorities and Media Control

By Sanjay Kapoor
New Update

Manipur Violence

Amidst the worst atrocity that has shaken Manipur to its core, the state government's misplaced priorities and handling of the gruesome incident have come under intense scrutiny. The shocking incident of women being paraded naked and raped has not only exposed the horrors faced by the indigenous Christian tribespeople, the Kukis, but has also raised questions about the government's attempts to suppress media coverage and control information flow. With the video of the heinous crime escaping censorship, the government's obsession with internet bans and media silence has drawn criticism, leaving many wondering about their true intent and effectiveness. As the state grapples with the devastating impact of violence, reports of sexual violence and displacement emerge, while the nation debates the government's accountability in the face of this tragic ordeal.

For the BJP government at the center and in Manipur, the bigger question isn't that the horrific incident of women being paraded naked and raped took place but how the video leaked into the public domain. Did the government not make extraordinary efforts to ensure that stories of sexual violence would not escape into the media? It had smothered the media to such an extent that the local press had nothing in it. Social media, which often represents the chaos of life and is difficult to tame, was also silenced by banning the internet and more. Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube had absolutely nothing.

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This is despite the fact that the incident of rape took place on May 4, 2023, and the matter was not only known to the local police, to whom one of the survivors had complained, but also to the National Commission for Women (NCW) that refused to respond to her petition.

It seems that Narendra Modi's resolve, as seen in the banned BBC documentary on Gujarat, to manage the media better just failed. If there was indeed a 'Gujarat moment,' then this was one where the state administration tactically refused to prevent the bloody conflict between the preponderantly indigenous Christian tribespeople, Kuki, and Hindu Meitei; instead, it allowed it to fester. Some people have also accused the government of showing genocidal intent by allowing the majority Meitei to have its sway over Kukis in this violent faceoff.

The turbulence that has gripped the state for the last several months has resulted in the death of more than 100 people and the displacement of more than 50,000. Reports of sexual violence have begun to filter in only now. All this was facilitated by an obsessive ban on the internet imposed by the state government, ostensibly to maintain tranquillity in the state. The internet was banned about 18 times in this state, but the impact of the ban was just the opposite. It fueled violence and disenfranchised those who did not have access to the internet.

For instance, the ban was on mobile internet, which meant that those living in the hilly areas of Manipur, the Kukis, were the worst affected as they rely on mobile phones for communication. This allowed the Meiteis to have a free run when it came to dominating the narrative. It also helped block the news of violence perpetrated against certain groups. Although stray news, on a few occasions, did leak out, they were buried in the national media on inside pages.

Take, for instance, the horrific torching of an ambulance ferrying a mother, her son, and another woman. The ambulance was escorted by the army, but they withdrew when confronted by a large armed mob. Similar happenings, without videos, meant that these incidents were merely added to the figures of deaths and violence, rather than making the rest of the country sensitive to Manipur violence.

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When the video of the parading of nude Kuki women took over social media, it compelled Prime Minister Narendra Modi to speak up for the first time after the state was engulfed in the worst kind of atavistic violence. All these months, he had maintained a studied silence, making people wonder why he was not saying anything. Besides withholding his own views on Christian missionaries and how they support the hill tribes of Kukis or Nagas, the PM appeared to want to ensure that the state does not become an issue when he goes on a globe-hopping trip to the US, Egypt, France, and the UAE. Though Manipur news was frequently appearing in the national media due to various reasons, the party managers succeeded in keeping it low-key.

This is despite the fact that the Home Minister, Amit Shah, travelled to the state for a few days. As a favour to those who wanted peace to return soon, he extended his stay by a few days. It is eminently possible that he was kept in the loop by his officers on what was happening in the state. The home ministry needs to clarify whether the violent rape of the Kuki women was reported to the HM or not. If he was kept in the dark, then it is imperative that he makes an example of those who did so, including the Chief Minister N Biren Singh, who claimed that the police could not do much on the rape incident as thousands of incidents had taken place. He did not elaborate on the nature of the crimes or violence, but the manner in which an old rape case is tormenting the PM has made his supporters raise the issue of a possibility of a conspiracy. It is sickening to see the statements of his camp followers questioning why the rape video has emerged now and not in the past. They do not take into consideration the fact that there was no internet, and the hill people were the most impacted.

The conspiracy theorists believe that foreign forces are behind it. As evidence, they point out the fact that US Ambassador Garcetti had offered to help in Manipur. Similarly, the European Union Parliament in Strasbourg had passed a resolution against the government of India on the ghastly Manipur violence. Interestingly, the EU resolution was taken up at a time when Narendra Modi was in France.

With the disturbing video escaping from forced censorship by the local police and pliant media, there is no guarantee that more horror does not reside in the photo and video galleries of the scared tribals. I wonder how the government will stop the avalanche of these videos from flowing into social media once the internet is restored. Will it resort to preventing Twitter or YouTube from carrying any incendiary video, or will it learn from the lessons of the past by first restoring peace in the state and later attempting reconciliation between the warring communities? After all, until people become stakeholders in maintaining tranquillity, internet bans will not work.

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Sanjay Kapoor is a Senior Journalist based out of Delhi. He is a foreign policy specialist focused on India, its neighbourhood and West Asia. He is the Founder and Editor of Hardnews Magazine. He is a Member of the Editors Guild of India (EGI) and, until recently, served as the General Secretary of EGI.