Police collusion with mobs, FIRs gathering dust, political grandstanding—and a crackdown on free speech. The atrocity in Manipur has all the signature elements of an Indian tragedy. Reminder: You can always use the gift link to share this Big Story with others.
Researched by: Rachel John & Anannya Parekh
Content alert: This is a story about a horrific incident that involves gang rape and killings.
First, the big picture
Since May 3, the state has been wracked by ethnic violence—pitting the dominant Meitei community against the tribes. Please read our detailed explainer on the roots of this conflict in this Big Story
The Meiteis: constitute 64.6% of the population—and live in 10% of the land—concentrated in Imphal Valley. The valley accounts for 40 out of 60 seats in the legislature. They are most commonly referred to as “Manipuris”—and are mostly Hindus.
The tribes: There are 34 recognised tribes in Manipur. They are 35.4% of the population—and live in the hills—which constitute 90% of the state. The tribes are broadly divided into Kuki and Naga—and they are predominantly Christian. In fact, Manipur has an almost equal number of Hindus and Christians—41% each.
The problem: Meiteis have been demanding recognition as a tribe. The reason: only members of the tribal community can buy land in the hills. If the Meiteis were granted tribal status, they could expand into the hills—hence the enraged backlash.
The trigger: The latest round of violence was sparked by a court order. A petitioner asked the Manipur High Court to direct the state government to accept the Meitei demand—and to recommend their inclusion in the list of scheduled tribes. That’s when all hell broke loose:
Where we are now: According to the official numbers, 142 people have been killed in the ongoing violence. There have been 181 arrests—and 6,745 people have been detained. Around 55,000 people have been living in relief camps. Armed forces have been called in to maintain the peace—and the internet has been shut down in most of the state. This is likely why it took two months for the clip documenting the atrocity to emerge on social media.
What happened in Manipur
The horror story did not become public until a video of two of the survivors went viral on Wednesday. But here is how it all started.
The trigger: was a viral photo of a young woman’s body wrapped in a plastic bag—shared with a false caption (you can see a screenshot in this Twitter link):
A young Meitei woman who worked as nurse in one of the hospitals of Churachanpur was r@ped and k!!led brutally by the kuki people. All of these horrible incidents was also happening right inside the hospital. Imagine how the girl must've felt in that moment.
The image was, in fact, of a 22-year-old woman in Delhi murdered by her parents in 2022. Both the police and the father of the allegedly murdered Meitei nurse made it clear that this was fake news on TV. But the photo had already spread far and wide.
How it began: The initial timeline looks like this:
- On May 4, the Kuki residents of the B. Phainom village—which is 45 km from Imphal—were warned of Meitei mobs approaching their location.
- Residents began fleeing the village, but at least five people were left behind: a family of three including a 56-year-old father, his 21-year-old daughter and a 19-year-old son. The two other women were aged 42 and 52.
- They fled to a forest for shelter but were caught by a mob of militant Metei men.
Three versions of police (in)action: According to the official FIR, they were first rescued by the police and were being taken to the police station. But the men stopped and seized the women. The two men—father and brother—were killed trying to protect them. But one of the survivors—the 21-year-old—offered a very different account to Indian Express:
The police were there with the mob which was attacking our village. The police picked us up from near home, and took us a little away from the village and left us on the road with the mob. We were given to them by the police… After all the men were killed, and the mob did what they did, we were just left there and we escaped.
Today, a local Superintendent offered a completely different account:
Asked how police personnel did not, then, identify any of the perpetrators, the SP said the allegation in the complaint was untrue and police were not present at the site. “That very day, the Nongpok Sekmai police station was being mobbed by people trying to loot arms. Police were busy guarding the police station,” he said.
What the men did: According to one of the older women:
“When we resisted, they told me: ‘If you don’t take off your clothes, we will kill you’,” said the woman, who is in her forties. She said she took off “every item of clothing” only in order to “protect herself”. All the while, the men allegedly slapped and punched her.
In the clip that went viral on Wednesday, we can see a mob of Meitei men dragging the two naked women toward the fields—with the clear intent of assaulting them. The government has forced Twitter etc. to scrub the video and associated screenshots from their platforms—and made it a crime to share the clip on social media.
About the rapes: According to the FIR, the younger woman was brutally gang-raped—but one of the older survivors says no one was raped: “We were not raped by them—they just took off our clothes and touched our bodies.” Other reports say at least two of the women were raped.
Not just ‘one rape’: The chaotic conditions and social shaming makes it difficult to pin down exactly what happened. Each news report has a slightly different account from an unnamed survivor. But there is plenty of evidence that women are being raped in Manipur. The Print uncovered at least six cases—but many women have not filed police complaints.
This morning, The Telegraph carried the account of a nineteen-year old who says she was assaulted by around 150 armed men and women who had raided her healthcare institute:
My friend and I were caught and identified by the gang, made up of men belonging to Arambai Tenggol and Meitei Leepun (radicalised Meitei youths) and some women. For over half an hour, these men kicked us around like kids playing with a football. Groups of men were jumping on us.... I am at a loss for words to describe what happened.
I can never forget the screams from the women who were enjoying the assault on us and were prodding and provoking the men to kill us. Before I fell unconscious, I could hear some of them discussing whether I was still alive. They left us, probably because they took us for dead.
Quote to note: Under pressure for his government’s inaction, Chief Minister Biren Singh angrily declared:
There will be 100 similar FIRs here. Don’t have to hear allegations. You have to see the ground reality. Hundreds of similar cases have taken place. That is why the Internet has been shut. For one case, you all... but I condemn it.
This is indeed true. As of July 4, 5,995 FIRs were registered in Manipur. But we’re not sure why Singh thinks this collapse of law and order is an effective defence of his government.
The police investigation… or lack thereof
The zero FIR: Days after the women had escaped to a safer area—on May 18—their family members filed a ‘zero FIR’—which can be filed in any police station. The police are supposed to register the complaint—then forward it to the station that has jurisdiction over the area where the crime occurred. But this did not happen until June 21.
The arrests: The FIR gathered dust for 62 days—even as a series of high-profile meetings were held to “review the security situation.” The police claim they could not find the perpetrators until earlier this week: “We only came to know about the video yesterday. Now that we have evidence in the form of the video, we have swung into action and have begun making arrests.” They have indeed arrested four men—of whom one has been identified by name.
A blanket ban: The government’s most effective actions have been aimed at scrubbing any evidence of the clip from the internet. Orders were sent to all social media platforms—and they were executed asap. MoJo Story editor Barkha Dutt says the ministry ordered YouTube to block her videos—even though she has not shared the uncensored clip in any of them.
What the PM said: Modi finally broke his silence with this 36-second statement delivered just before the beginning of the Parliament's monsoon session:
Apart from expressing his heartfelt sorrow, he also indulged in a subtle form of whataboutery: “Whether it is in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh or Manipur, in any corner of this country, politicians must rise above political rhetoric to ensure women are respected,”
Point to note: The Supreme Court has threatened to step in if there are no signs of immediate action.
The bottomline: This is hardly the first time that women have been the casualties of ethnic hatred. This will not be the last—not until we stop treating women’s bodies as just ‘collateral damage’—to be endured and ignored.
Our earlier Big Story has a detailed explainer on the roots of the conflict between the Meitei community and the Kuki tribes. For the most reliable survivor accounts, read Scroll, The Wire and Indian Express. The Telegraph has an important account of a survivor in a separate case. The Print and BBC News take a broader look at sexual violence in northeast conflicts. The Hindu has an extended defence offered by CM Singh. This older Washington Post piece reminds us that armed forces have an equally appalling record of rape/murder in the northeast. Alt co-founder Mohammed Zubair’s thread offers a useful account of the fake news that triggered the atrocity. Journalist Makepeace Sitlhou’s must-read thread explains how the media—both Indian and international—failed while reporting on the violence in Manipur.