MUMBAI – Amid what one Catholic leader has described as a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” directed at Christians in India’s northeastern state of Manipur, a video showing two Christian women who belong to the Kuki ethnic group being paraded naked on a public road and molested by a mob of men has sparked fresh outrage.
The incident happened on May 4, a day after deadly riots broke out between the mainly Hindu Meitei and predominantly Christian Kuki-Zo tribes in the remote state, which is governed by the Hindu nationalist party BJP of Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi.
The 26-second video shows a group of men, some appearing to be teenagers, groping and sexually attacking the women and leading them towards an empty field. It emerged only two months later due to an internet ban in Manipur since May 3, a move that has been widely criticized by human rights activists in India.
At least one of the women, aged 21, was gang raped, according to a report filed by the survivors. The police complaint says the other woman was 42, and that the mob of up to 1,000 men, some of whom carried weapons, snatched three women in total.
The 21-year-old victim, who has not been publicly identified, was quoted by media outlets as claiming that local police were complicit in the assault.
“The police were there with the mob which was attacking our village,” she was quoted as saying. “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 police.”
India’s Supreme Court reacted on July 20, after the video went viral on social media.
“We are very deeply disturbed by the videos which emerged yesterday,” Chief Justice D. Y. Chandrachud said.
Using “women as instruments in an area of communal strife to inflict gender violence is deeply disturbing. This is the grossest of human rights violations,” he said. “It is time that the government really steps in and takes action. This is simply unacceptable.”
Catholic leaders joined the condemnations.
“We are shocked at the brazenness of the perpetrators,” said Sister Maria Nirmalini, President of the Conference of Religious in India, a national body of religious major superiors.
“It is disturbing to see the dignity of women being violated,” she said. “It is absolutely condemnable and the perpetrators and the police who stood by watching should be punished.”
Nirmalini demanded action from the leader of Manipur state as well as from Modi, noting that one of Modi’s signature initiatives is a campaign known as Beti Bachao, roughly “save the girl child.”
“Is this how they protect the citizens, and especially women, in the country?” she asked.
Archbishop Dominic Lumon of Imphal told Crux he was “appalled and grieved” by the incident.
“This brutal violence, compounded by other violations being unleashed on our women for the past nearly three months, pains me,” he said. “It is very tragic that the society is being divided on sectarian community lines.”
“How does violence against women of one community not affect, or outrage, the women of the other community? Lumon asked. “We should hold women in highest esteem, not eliminate and kill them.”
“In the relief camps too, the suffering of our women and girls and children is beyond anything,” he said. “They have been uprooted from their homes, abandoned, leaving their communities fleeing for their lives, [which] is itself traumatic. In some places relief materials, medicines are in short supply.”
Cardinal Oswald Gracias, a key adviser and ally of Pope Francis, said he “bows his head in shame” over the images.
“This is a blot on our country, a disgrace for India,” he said.
“This depraved, sadistic behavior is strongly condemned. It’s a heinous crime against our women, [and] there should be stringent action taken which will act as a deterrent. This was a lapse on the part of the government and police, who couldn’t protect these women.”
Gracias noted that India will celebrate the 77th anniversary of its independence on August 15, and said the country needs a “serious reflection” on the safety of its women and young girls.
“What can I answer people who ask me when I travel abroad, ‘What’s happening in your country?’” he said.
“We consecrate the nation to the Immaculate Heart of Mary on the Feast of the Assumption, which coincides with India’s Independence Day,” Gracias said. “Prayers of consecration are recited after every Mass, [and] this year we [will] plead for the maternal protection of our Blessed Mother on our girls and women, for their safety and wellbeing.”
More than 100 people, largely Christians, have been killed so far in Manipur, with the carnage unfolding just ahead of the August anniversary of an anti-Christian pogrom in 2008 in the state of Orissa.
Archbishop Joseph Pamplany of Tellicherry, part of India’s Syro-Malabar Church in communion with Rome, has charged that the violence in Manipur amounts to “ethnic cleansing of Christians” and challenged Modi to defend his claim during a recent meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden that there is no religious discrimination in India.