TWO women who were forced to parade naked through the streets and allegedly gang-raped by a mob in Manipur, India, were members of a Presbyterian church in the region, an ordinand in London diocese, who knows the family, has said.
A video of the incident, which was shared on social media last week, has provoked outrage and demonstrations around the country. President Modi has said that the actions of the men brought shame on the country, but he has not addressed the wider violence, which is rooted in religious and tribal conflict.
The attack on the two women happened in early May, as conflict broke out between the largely Hindu Meitei, in Manipur, and largely Christian Kuki-Zo tribes. At least 140 people have been killed. More than 250 churches are reported to have been destroyed, and villages have been razed to the ground (News, 9 June).
It is reported that the two women were fleeing with family members when they were found by police, but a mob of Meitei men surrounded them and stripped them, before repeatedly raping the 21-year-old woman. The woman’s father and brother were killed by the mob as they tried to defend her, according to video evidence that is now online.
The ordinand, Kailean Khongsai, who was born on the border with Myanmar, said that the family were well known to his wife’s family. “The young woman was a worship leader in their church. The father who was beaten to death was a church elder. The family is so traumatised they cannot eat.”
A complaint was filed to the police within days; but it was only when the video went viral that the police investigated, arresting six men.
Mr Khongsai said that other testimonies of sexual violence against women were emerging. He is a leader of the forum for tribal groups originating in north-east India, Unau Welfare UK, and has received reports of other Kuki women being raped and killed. He has also heard of Christians’ being mocked for their faith. “Their killers mock them, saying, ‘Can your Jesus save you now?’ before killing them.
“Our voices are unheard,” he said. “No action is following on from Mr Modi’s words; our souls feel like refugees, cut off from the land and communities that birthed us.”
He had been in contact with the Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen, who published a report on religious persecution, and who is preparing a briefing note for the Prime Minister on the conflict.
Mr Khongsai said that the violence was rooted in conflict over tribal ancestral lands as well as religion, as the Kuki-Zo’s land covers a large area of rainforest, in which natural gas has been discovered and part of which has been identified for palm-oil cultivation.
In May, the state High Court, on the government’s recommendation, gave the Meitei “Scheduled Tribal” status, entitling them to the same benefits and quotas as the minority Kuki-Zo (News, 12 May). The Kukis argued that this would reinforce the Meitei’s already greater strength in the region, and could result in the loss of their ancestral lands.
The Kuki-Zo are calling for the international community to recognise the human-rights emergency that is under way in Manipur, and support their calls for a separate administration to safeguard their human rights, including religious freedom.
The Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief, Fiona Bruce MP, raised the violence in Manipur in the Commons, where she described it as “systematic and premeditated”. She asked what the Church of England was doing to “draw more attention to their cries”.
The Second Church Estates Commissioner, Andrew Selous, promised to draw the latest report on the violence to the attention of the Archbishop of Canterbury.