The Flaming Fields of Manipur and other Human Rights Challenges

Aug 01, 2023
By PUCL Bulletin Editorial Committee

For over 2 months beginning 3rd May, 2023, Manipur has witnessed horrific violence and ethnic killings at a scale which is frightening and alarming. What started off as a dispute over the demand of the majority Meitei community for inclusion in the list of Scheduled Tribes in the state and its opposition by the minority Kuki – Zo – Naga tribal communities, soon burst along the faultlines of ethnic hostilities between the majority and minority communities. On 3rd May, 2023, following reports of clashes in the border of Lamka – Bishnupur districts, huge marauding mobs of the armed Meiteis started attacking Kuki-Zomi houses, localities and churches in Imphal valley and other districts. Over the next 2 months, the unabated violence only became bloodier, with counter attacks on Meiteis also occurring.

As on date over 150 persons have been killed, over 55,000 persons displaced and living in camps. Today, the entire state has been geographically and ethnically segregated, with the majority Meitei community living in Imphal valley and the tribal communities confined to living in the hilly areas.

The scale, brutality and savagery of the attacks, especially on Kuki-Zomi women, was graphically exposed on 19th July, 2023 through a 26-second short video of an incident that took place in a village in Thoubal district on 4th May, 2023. The video shows the armed mob stripping and parading naked 2 Kuki women, aged 41 and 21, committing gang rape and releasing them. One of the women is reportedly the wife of an ex-Subedar of the Assam Regiment who had fought in the Kargil war. Before the rape the father and brother of the 21-year-old woman were clubbed to death in her presence. The public outcry resulted in the Supreme Court suo motu taking notice of the incident and the continuing violence and remarking:

The Court is deeply disturbed by the visuals which have appeared in the media since yesterday depicting the perpetration of sexual assault and violence on women in Manipur. What is portrayed in the media would indicate gross constitutional violations and infractions of human rights.  Using women as instruments for perpetrating violence is simply unacceptable in a constitutional democracy”.

CJI, SC Proceedings, 20th July, 2023

The comments of the Supreme Court that if the government did nothing to stop the violence it would have to intervene, finally compelled the Prime Minister to break his silence on the issue and state that justice would be done to the women victims. The PM has since lapsed into silence again, not saying anything about the ethnic violence, despite the fact that Manipur is ruled by the same BJP as in the Centre.

The striking issue in the continued violence is the abdication by the state government of its constitutional obligation to safeguard the lives of people, maintain law and order and prosecute the guilty. The allegations that the state government, including the Chief Minister himself, is partisan towards the majority Meitei community, and is tacitly and in more direct ways, complicit in the violence, gains strength from mounting evidence of police forces present during ethnic violence doing nothing to prevent it. Despite the Meitei groups looting weapons and ammunition from Manipur police and Reserve Battalions, the Biren Singh led State government has taken no action against them and have shown no efforts to de-escalate the violent armed conflict, which has disproportionately affected the Kuki-Zo community.

Instead, the government implemented continuous internet shutdowns, and have prevented human rights groups and the media from reporting and investigating the scale of the conflict. They have even registered an FIR against a fact finding team led by women’s rights activists Annie Raja, Nisha Siddhu and Deeksha Dwivedi for addressing the media about their findings when they visited the state. Such abuse of power by the Manipur police has been consistently targeting human rights groups and Kuki community leaders to criminalize human rights work and violate their democratic rights during such a turbulent time.

The PUCL is deeply concerned with the series of violations of fundamental rights of citizens by the Manipur government and demands that they initiate peace processes and dialogue to end the violent conflict which has turned into ethnic cleansing of the state.  The State’s functionaries will have to be held to account for the failure to act to stop the horrific violence, large scale killings, sexual violence and destruction of properties and the consequent humanitarian crisis that has engulfed the state. It is important that urgent humanitarian aid is sent to the state, relief and rehabilitation measures initiated, supplies of essential commodities and medical supplies be arranged and all those guilty of perpetrating violence booked.

Uniform Civil Code

On 28th June, 2023, speaking in a meeting f election booth level workers in Bhopal, the Prime Minister spoke about the need to bring the Uniform Civil Code, one of its core political agendas for many years. The PM made it clear that the issue of the UCC was related to its politics of playing the majoritarian card by targeting the Opposition parties of playing vote bank politics.  Earlier, on 14th June, the 22nd Law Commission invited public inputs on the Uniform Civil Code (UCC). It was very clear that the Government and ruling party were raising the issue of the UCC just a few months before Lok Sabha elections for political purposes. What is noteworthy is that the Central government did not come out with a draft proposal spelling out how it proposed to draft the UCC for people and groups to comment upon; equally the Law Commission neither provided a questionnaire nor any indication of the concerns that should be addressed by a Uniform Civil Code. Very obviously, to the ruling party and the Law Commission, the issue of the UCC was seen on religious and communal lines alone. And not from the lens of gender equality and justice.

Several civil society groups including PUCL-Karnataka, along with women’s rights activists and queer rights activists have written to the Law Commission demanding that a code that aims to address discriminatory practices must not be written on the lines of religion, but gender. The emphasis on this point must be made to ensure that a law governing a diverse society, should not reflect the viewpoints only of the majority community. Instead, PUCL firmly believes that the Law Commission should conduct detailed consultations with stakeholders from diverse caste, religious and Adivasi groups and human rights groups before proposing to introduce a Uniform Civil Code. We carry in this issue 2 important notes on the UCC for the benefit of readers.

Five Years of Bhima Koregaon Arrests

PUCL, as part of the National Campaign to Defend Democracy, hosted a virtual event on July 5th, 2023 marking the second death anniversary of Father Stan Swamy.  The event brought bring together friends and family of all the BK-16 and human rights activists from across the world. More than 500 people participated in the event. Friends and family of the arrested shared emotional and heart-wrenching stories of their anticipation for justice, and about how the 11 people are still coping with the consistently cruel actions of the authorities and dehumanising prison conditions. Each and every speaker also remembered Father Stan for his work with the Adivasi communities, and for how he coped with being in the prison.

The National Campaign to Defend Democracy, a coalition of over 160 organisations including PUCL, continues to work on amplifying the stories of the BK-16 and their friends and family, and raising the demand for their immediate bail. The first article in this edition is a note prepared by the Campaign to share a status update on the case and re-iterate their demands.

48th Anniversary of the Emergency

On 25th June, 2023 which marked the 48th anniversary of the Emergency, PUCL organized a virtual discussion inviting individuals who had resisted the Indira Gandhi-imposed Emergency.  We had earlier invited individuals who had lived through and resisted the Emergency, to share their memories of resistance and reflections of the current political climate. Out of the 16 people who shared their articles, 3 people, Kalpana Sharma, Gita Aravamudan and John Dayal spoke at the event, reflecting on the crisis today and remembering their struggles. All the articles are available in the PUCL website and some of them have also been published in the PUCL Bulletin.

To mark the occasion, we also launched the newly redesigned website on that day. The PUCL has a vast repository and archive of human rights documentation in the form of reports, statements, article, interviews, lectures and rulings. It is our plan to digitise all of this rich history and make it accessible for all by placing in our website. While this is still a work in progress, we invite our subscribers, members and friends of PUCL, and other researchers to visit the website and give us suggestions on how to improve the website experience.