End the whataboutery around Manipur crisis
A viral video has sparked a political war; parallels are being drawn with other states. But Manipur needs accountability instead
In the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots, the standard Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) response during any television debate was, “What about 1984?” Framing the issue of communal violence as the 2002 Gujarat versus the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom instantly put Congress representatives on the defensive. Now, the BJP retort to the Manipur violence is, “What about Bengal, Rajasthan, Chattisgarh?” Even when Prime Minister Narendra Modi broke his silence on Manipur by referencing the outrage over a viral video of women being paraded naked in a Manipur village, he included references to crimes against women in two Opposition-ruled states.
But this whataboutery is politically flawed and ethically hollow, designed only to provide cover fire to the utter failure of the Manipur government to maintain law and order and protect its citizens.
Yes, Bengal has seen recurring political violence during the recent panchayat elections that must be condemned. Any attempt to normalise the violence seen under the Mamata Banerjee administration by comparing it to the killings during the Left Front government is unacceptable. Yes, Congress-ruled Rajasthan has seen a worrying rise in crimes against women as per National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) data, but also some improvement in filing charge sheets in such cases. Chattisgarh, another Congress-governed state, had the third highest rate (incidents per lakh of population) of rapes involving minor girls as per the 2021 NCRB report. And yet, there is no evidence in any of these states of the police wilfully sheltering the culprits.
Which is why the comparison with Manipur is odious. Here is a state where it took 77 days and a viral video sparking a national outcry for the administration to act against those caught on tape parading naked women. Here is a state where in many instances in the past two months, first information reports (FIRs) are either filed against “unknown persons” or not at all, with very few arrests. Here is a state where arms were stolen from police stations only for the men in khaki to plead helplessness. Here is a state whose chief minister demonised members of one group as terrorists but didn’t sufficiently denounce atrocities committed by another, even going to the extent of saying that hundreds of similar cases happened when questioned about the viral video. It is the stark complicity of a partisan state caught in a spiralling ethnic conflict that makes the situation in Manipur sui generis. To link it to crimes against women in broad terms is to create a false equivalence that won’t solve the serious crisis in a border state.
If at all there is to be a comparison, the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits bears some similarities. Then, Pakistan-backed terror groups targeted Pandit families and forced them to leave, while the government watched on feebly. The Pandits were defenceless, the Kukis and Meiteis not quite. In fact, what makes the Manipur situation even more alarming is that both the warring groups here are well-armed, each marking out their areas of influence and creating a de facto boundary within a state.
If comparisons with sectarian conflict are needed, then a parallel can be drawn with the 2002 Gujarat violence. If Hindu groups such as the Bajrang Dal led the mobs on Ahmedabad’s streets, in Manipur it is militias such as Arambai Tenggol and Meitei Leepun that are accused of spearheading the hate-driven killings in Imphal. The 2002 violence created a separation of communities that still endures. Few, if any, Muslims now own property in the Hindu-dominated areas; the ghettoisation is complete. Now, by creating specific Meitei and Kuki-controlled areas, by even bulldozing and burning down homes in each other’s territories, Manipur has taken this notion of geographical separateness between majority and minority communities to another level.
There is another comparison between Manipur 2023 and Gujarat 2002 that the present BJP leadership might find more discomfiting. The events in Gujarat in 2002 propelled Narendra Modi into the national limelight; not only did he become Gujarat’s unchallenged neta number one, but he was also projected by his supporters as a true Hindutva hero. Reports suggested that an attempt by then Prime Minister AB Vajpayee to get him to resign under the guise of failed rajdharma was rejected by the BJP’s national executive.
In Manipur, too, the violence has only strengthened chief minister Biren Singh’s electoral position; he is now seen as a Meitei ruler, protector of his community’s interests. When he made a dramatic announcement of resigning a few weeks ago, he was surrounded by Meitei women who refused to let him step down. The resignation drama appeared stage-managed, calculated to shore up his hero status with common Meiteis.
So here is the inconvenient question: Can the BJP brass really ask its chief minister to step down today when his removal might only anger the Meiteis? Constitutional morality demands the sacking of Biren Singh but sharply divisive majoritarian politics of the past and present may not allow it to happen.
Post-script: Earlier this week, I spent a tearful evening with a three-time Manipur BJP member of the legislative assembly (MLA), Vungzagin Valte, who is bedridden and partly paralysed after being grievously assaulted in the heart of Imphal on May 4. It reminded me of the brutal killing of Congress MP Ehsan Jafri in Ahmedabad in 2002. Valte’s only crime is that he belongs to a tribal community. Hardly any of his political colleagues have come to visit him and none of the culprits who attacked him have been identified and arrested. If this is the condition of a prominent legislator, consider the plight of the ordinary Manipuri. Forget the whataboutery, what Manipur really needs is empathy and accountability.
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author. The views expressed are personal