IN MID-JULY, a video of two naked women being paraded by a mob from Manipur, a state in northeast India, went, sparking outrage across India and internationally.
It turned out that this had been taken in early May and the police were aware of the sexual assaults on the women – who are from the Kuki-Zomi tribal community, which is mainly Christian. Indeed officers were present as one was assaulted and her father and brother murdered, after which survivors formally reported the crime.
Yet for 70 days, disturbingly, no action had been taken against the attackers, from the mainly Hindu Meitei community, until public protests made it impossible to keep ignoring the case. The prime minister, Narendra Modi, then went on camera to express dismay and promise to punish the wrongdoers. There have since been arrests.
This was largely portrayed in the media as an example of appalling gender-based violence, which is indeed one aspect. Some news coverage however explained the background of attacks on Christians in Manipur, sometimes on ethnic but also religious grounds. And several reports highlighted the damaging role of the far-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) , which controls the national and state government.
Yet locally and globally, political and business leaders and major media organisations continue to bolster the BJP’s power and status and downplay concerns about faith-based hate and persecution in India. Indeed, a rally in Manipur on 29 July blamed the violence on “Chin-Kuki narco-terrorists” who were largely ‘illegal’ immigrants and demanded that a National Register of Citizens be brought in there. This could lead to even Kuki people settled for generations being held in detention camps if the authorities deem them unable to prove their citizenship.
This increases the risk that matters will take a sharp turn for the worse, with casualties on a massive scale – and reigniting tensions across South Asia could have even more drastic consequences. Putting profit and power above human rights and compassion is dangerous in multiple ways.
Stoking conflict and treating others as less than human
A form of violent Hindu supremacism known as Hindutva has become increasingly influential in India, inflaming divisions in Manipur, a northeastern state, and elsewhere. While claiming to champion Hinduism, it is far removed from what is best in that tradition and, in many ways, closer to the ideology of the Italian and German extreme right in the 1920s and ‘30s, on which the movement was modelled. Across the world, other faith traditions too, including Christianity, Islam and Buddhism, have been misused to promote violent abuses, despite strong opposition within these faith communities.
Modi and his right-hand man in national government, home minister Amit Shah – who, with Manipur chief minister N Biren Singh, have done much to create the current situation – were indoctrinated themselves when young. Horrific violence has occurred elsewhere in India on their watch (including notoriously in Gujarat), especially against Muslims, though Christians, Dalits and others have been targeted too.
As in other areas and countries, different ethnic and religious communities had long lived together, with friendly cooperation as well as occasional friction. The Indian Constitution is based on the notion that the country should be a multicultural democracy in which all are equal. Yet Hindutva leaders have pushed the notion that Muslims and Christians are, at best, second class citizens, at worst a threat to the purity of India.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a far-right paramilitary group with close connections to the BJP, had been busy radicalising Meitei people, the dominant group in that state, while the BJP-led administration has used its influence to fuel conflict. The disadvantaged Kuki minority were repeatedly portrayed by the chief minister in a negative light, inflaming mistrust and prejudice. And a series of measures have eroded their already precarious position, while peaceful protests have been suppressed. Escalating tensions have driven some people in different communities into armed groups or led them to find excuses for attacking civilians, though the video evoked horror and anger among Meitei women too.
In recent years, Hindutva leaders pushed for new laws to make Indians reapply for citizenship, under the guise of a crackdown on “illegal” immigration – a National Register of Citizens. This meant that Indians from minority communities, or poorer people without proper documentation – or, even if they have this, legal representation or powerful protectors – could lose their rights. They might even be interned in concentration camps .
As was pointed out, this was the opposite of democracy, in which citizens choose their rulers, not the other way round. There was a major backlash and plans to roll this out were put on hold. But in Manipur in 2022, the BJP-led authorities announced similar measures, which could arbitrarily strip citizenship even from Kuki families settled in India for generations. There are indeed some people who have crossed the border from Myanmar but many are refugees, not illegal, as a Manipur court pointed out in February.
In addition, the Kuki have held ‘scheduled’ legal status, allowing some kinds of protection and affirmative action. But in 2023, a court had ruled that this should be extended to the Meitei group, which would have undermined the livelihoods and security of Kuki people. Meanwhile even those in the dominant local ethnic group who were not Hindu came under attack.
By May, dozens of Christians had been killed, thousands driven from their homes and hundreds of churches set ablaze, including some with mainly Meitei congregations. The human cost was high. Lun Tombing, who was hiding with her husband and small daughters when their home, car and church were burnt by a mob, described how “we witnessed all this while trembling behind the bushes constantly afraid of being discovered.” After being in a refugee camp, they found shelter with a relative in the nation’s capital. “Even after we reached Delhi, whenever my daughters heard a bang or a sudden noise, they would start to scream, ‘Mummy, they are coming,’” Tombing said.
The use of mainstream and social media to stir up hate and intimidate has been a common tactic, as London School of Economics researchers commissioned by Open Doors had found in 2021. Fake news about supposed attacks on Meitei women by Kuki man had been spread just before the assaults shown in the video. Some of those opposed to the government, unhelpfully, have also shared inaccurate footage, at a time when truth is vitally important. A powerful far-right media presence has been used not just to incite violence and frighten victims but also gloss over top national and state politicians’ responsibility, yet this has become increasingly difficult.
In mid-July, the BJP vice-president in nearby Mizoram, R Vanramchhuanga, a Presbyterian, resigned from the party, recognising that it was anti-Christian as numerous churches in Manipur were destroyed. Later that month, a top BJP leader from Bihar, Vinod Sharma, announced his resignation, pointing to the gap between what was happening and what he regarded as core to being Hindu. “Is this the Sanatana Dharma” – duties based on universal truths and values – “we’re upholding? As a human being, I couldn’t tolerate this and raised my voice against this injustice”, he said.
Meanwhile, many in India have been led by their beliefs consistently to uphold equality and care for all harmed by anti-minority and caste-based brutality, sometimes at considerable personal cost. Yet overseas, attempts to buoy up the regime’s prestige and control with the help of leaders elsewhere have been largely successful, undermining Indians striving for justice.
Glossing over far-right terror
As violent division engulfed Manipur, Narendra Modi was being feted across the world. Images were widely circulated of him being warmly greeted by leaders such as the UK prime minister Rishi Sunak, the US president Joe Biden, the French president Emmanuel Macron and Japan’s prime minister Fumio Kishida. Undoubtedly politicians and top businesspeople may sometimes be required to be cordial to those with whom they deeply disagree but, in many instances, far closer relationships with India’s rulers have been cultivated.
In mid-2023, James Cleverly, the UK foreign secretary, urged that the Indian regime be given a seat on the United Nations Security Council – which could enable it, if atrocities escalated, to veto any future resolutions offering support or protection to its victims. Giant social media companies have failed to take adequate action against hate speech inciting violence.
Such cooperation may appear to be in the economic interests of other countries, though even this may be questionable. Modi’s mismanagement of the economy, and revelations about some of his close business associates such as Gautam Adani, may lead more cautious observers to wonder to what extent the apparent opportunities are hype rather than reality.
The BJP and RSS also have considerable influence in many countries, such as the UK, including being backed by some Hindus who are generally kind and decent people, yet naïve about the negative side of a movement which often portrays itself in glowing terms. So politicians and other leaders may hope to win votes or support by soft-pedalling on those responsible for the type of violence shown in the Manipur video, or at least to avoid being bombarded by orchestrated storms of criticism. Groups such as Hindus for Human Rights may not be as well-connected.
Yet the risks of assisting the regime are considerable, even if ethical issues are set aside.
If state-sponsored violence were to escalate on a massive scale across much of India over the next few years, which is quite possible, the destruction wrought could be massive, on top of the terrible human cost. A major refugee crisis could also pose huge challenges internationally – and the potential for embarrassment for Modi’s allies is considerable.
To make things worse, accelerating anti-Muslim violence could worsen tensions between the Indian and Pakistani governments, both of which possess nuclear weapons. Leaders of both, so far, have been careful to avoid letting hostilities get out of hand and hopefully this will continue, but there is a small but appreciable risk that safeguards will fail, resulting in almost unimaginable devastation. And other powers could be drawn in too.
The BJP may temporarily seek to dampen down the violence in Manipur and punish a few of those it manipulated into perpetrating abuse on video. Yet, when the furore dies down, and elsewhere in India, grave abuses may continue and get even worse. Alongside care for survivors, people of goodwill, of all faiths and none, can play an important part in supporting, not undermining, those striving for a more just and peaceful India.
© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016) and has been involved in seeking greater inclusion. She wrote on ‘Health or Wealth?’ in Feast or Famine? (DLT, 2017). Her latest articles can be found here. Archived articles (pre-2020) are here.