REPLUG: How Fake News Created Pretexts to Lynch Kuki-Zo Women in Manipur
Police personnel stand guard in a violence-hit area of Imphal town, Manipur, Sunday, May 28, 2023. Image Courtesy: PTI
[Editor’s note: Widespread atrocities have occurred in the recurrent violence in Manipur since May 3. The author of this article throws light on one critical dimension, which highlights the immensely damaging role of fake news and misinformation when it is allowed to spread unchecked.]
The debate on the ethnic violence that began in Manipur on May 3, is so engrossed with its broader political implications that there is complete silence on atrocities against women, though they are the easiest targets during violent episodes. It also turns a blind eye to the apparent connection between the circulation of fake news (based on fabricated or non-existing facts) about brutalities against women and actual instances of such atrocities. In Manipur, such fake information about rapes of Meitei women is being used by perpetrators of that community to justify their atrocities as “vengeance”.
Women’s Bodies as Instruments to Demonise the ‘Other’
To promote their propaganda and strengthen public support, militant Meitei groups circulated the fake news that the Kukis were raping Meitei women in Churachandpur district. The Director General of Police (DGP) of Manipur, P Doungel, clarified there were no cases of rape of Meitei women in Churachandpur.
There was also an allegation that a Meitei nurse in the Churachandpur Medical College was raped and killed. A picture was circulated as “proof”, but it turned out to be of a woman killed in Mathura, Uttar Pradesh, in 2022. What is more, the father of the purported Meitei nurse, K Achouba, clarified via ISTV, a local news channel in Imphal, that his daughter was safe and the rumours about her were incorrect.
Some Meitei protesters displayed a huge photo of a woman during a recent protest at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi. They claimed it was of a Meitei woman who was physically assaulted by members of the Kuki community. While the image strengthened the portrayal of Kuki-Zo males as “hordes of rapists”, the photo was confirmed to be of a domestic abuse victim from Arunachal Pradesh (See image 1).
Another widely-circulated disinformation was that the “bodies of 37 Meitei rape victims along with that of a 7-year-old child are lying in the morgue of Shija Hospital in Imphal”. But the hospital has strongly denied the claim. In fact, it has firmly stated that the Shija Hospital does not perform post-mortem examinations.
Although each of these misinformation campaigns has been discredited and their falsity confirmed, the damage these have caused could not be undone. Many Kuki-Zo women bore the brunt of such misinformation campaigns, and became victims of targeted violence and varied forms of sexual assault. This author has spoken to locals, survivors and families of some of the victimised women. Several of them told me the perpetrators used the disinformation being circulated and considered or justified their own atrocities as “acts of retribution”.
Here is how it seems to have unfolded: First, fake news about the rape of Meitei women was spread, maligning the Kuki-Zo community. This inflamed (instead of dousing) communitarian feelings and, ultimately, it resulted in the targeted lynching of Kuki-Zo women.
Image 1: The picture in the poster used by Meitei students in Delhi’s Jantar Mantar turned out to be of a domestic abuse victim in Arunachal Pradesh.
Who Bore Brunt of ‘Retributive’ Violence?
Rape and ‘revenge rape’ are an ultimate attack against the enemy or ‘other’. These are regularly used as psychological tools to diminish and dishonour a targeted community through attacks on its female members. This is in sync with what several survivors, witnesses and their family members, whom this author spoke to, have reported: that often, the perpetrators justified their heinous deeds as retribution.
One such survivor Hahat told me that on May 4, Meitei mobs comprising men and women and members of the Meitei extremist groups Arambai Tenggol and Meitei Leepun burnt down her village. She told me the attackers came from a neighbouring village. She also reported that one of the attackers said, “Your people have raped and killed our people in Lamka [in Churachandpur district], so we will do the same to you.”
The mobs bludgeoned Hahat’s older brother and nephew to death in a paddy field. She alleged that they disrobed her niece and the widow of the village chief, paraded them naked, and then encircled and raped them in public. Hahat recalled that the Meitei police commandos remained mere spectators to the mob lynchings and burning of homes. She said they even handed over the two sexually assaulted women to the mob, which further beat them up.
On the same day, in another location, members of a 40-strong mob of men and women told 22-year-old Agnes Neikhohat and her friend that if her community’s members can “do all those bad things”—meaning rape Meitei women in Churachandpur, as the rumour went—“then do you think we will let you off easily?” Neikhohat told this writer that members of the mob directly confessed they were seeking revenge, for they said, “Why won’t we be able to do the same to you all?” At around 4 p.m on May 4, a mob battered Agnes and her friend, students at the Nightingale Nursing Institute at Porompat, Imphal, with sticks, punched them in the head and face until their teeth fell out, kicked them on the stomach and back till they were unconscious, and left them for dead or to die, she said.
On the next day, 5 May, Themnu and Chongpi [names changed] from the H Khopibung village of the Kangpokpi District, were raped and murdered just 2.9 kilometres from Porompat. The two women in their 20s worked at a car wash in Konung Mamang, Imphal. Their grieving family members told this writer that Meitei miscreants allegedly gagged and dragged them inside a closed room and confined them from 5 p.m to 7 p.m. They alleged it was local Meitei women who handed over the young women to the mob, and even urged the crowd to assault them “as a retaliation”.
The family told me Themnu and Chongpi’s co-workers could do nothing to help the young women but heard them screaming and pleading for release from outside the locked room, indicating the possibility they were raped, molested, and tortured. When the room was finally opened after 7 p.m, it was filled with a mixture of the victims’ blood and hair. They had succumbed to the brutality. The victims’ parents were told that the bodies of their daughters were in the morgue at the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences, Imphal or JNIMS (See image 2).
Image 2: Themnu and Chongpi
On May 6, 45-year-old Thiandam Vaiphei, a widow and mother of two, was allegedly butchered, shot and burned by Meitei mobs in the Pheitaiching village of the Kangpokpi district. Her body was identified on May 7, by Pastor Thianna Vaiphei Suantak, who accompanied the Gorkha Regiment and Andro Police officers to claim whatever was left of her mutilated body.
Eighteen-year-old Kim was abducted from Checkon in Imphal on May 15. She was taken to a compact Meitei settlement on the Wangkhei Ayang Palli Road, where a mob of men and women allegedly assaulted her, kicking her in the stomach; hitting her eyes with the butt of their gun. When she resisted their sexual advances, they allegedly threatened her with dire consequences, including chopping her to pieces. Her medical report, when she was later examined at a hospital in Kohima, confirmed assault and rape. After regaining consciousness (she fell unconscious due to the pounding on her head), she reported overhearing their plans to kill her. But, feigning the need to urinate, she managed to escape with help from a Muslim auto-driver she met completely by chance.
Collective Denial or Conscious Self-Deception?
Misinformation, disinformation and rumours can incite many people to violence during a volatile situation. But information can easily be cross-checked, validated, or negated. Sometimes, all it takes is a phone call to confirm or deny information—as this writer has sought to do.
Therefore, two questions arise in the context of the violence in Manipur: did the perpetrators believe (or still believe) that “Meitei women were raped in Churachandpur by the Kuki-Zo men”, which is fake news that has been negated many times?
Or, was this ‘news’ spread as part of a planned disinformation campaign, which hoped to create a pretext and allow the perpetrators to justify their premeditated atrocities?
In another context, journalist Syed Ali Mujtaba reported on the “misinformation unleashed against Muslims by the Meiteis” during the anti-Muslim violence in 1993, in which 130 Pangals were killed by the Meiteis over three days. That episode provides us with a precedent to deduce the possibility that misinformation, disinformation and outright lies can be strategically used as propaganda and pre-planned to create or deepen social rifts and foster violence.
Manipur boasts of many internationally renowned organisations that call themselves “civil society”. Where are these organisations, which say their objective is to save women and rehabilitate women survivors? A meeting ground between the Kuki-Zos and the Meiteis can be found only when both sides of the narratives are equally considered. This will enable the restoration of faith in the current government.
The writer teaches at the Department of Sociology, University of Hyderabad. The views expressed are personal.
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