NEW DELHI (AP) — Prime Minister Narendra Modi broke more than two months of public silence on deadly ethnic clashes in northeast India, saying Thursday that the attacks on two women while parading naked through a crowd in Manipur state were inexcusable.
A video showing the assaults sparked outrage and was widely shared on social media Wednesday night, despite the internet being largely blacked out and journalists locked in the remote state. It shows two naked women surrounded by dozens of young people who touch their genitals and drag them to a field.
“The guilty will not be forgiven. What happened to the daughters of Manipur can never be forgiven,” Modi told reporters ahead of a parliamentary session as he made his first public comments related to the Manipur conflict.
Without directly referring to the violence, Modi urged state heads of government to ensure the safety of the women, saying the incident was «shameful for any civilized nation.»
«My heart is full of pain and anger,» he said.
The ethnic violence depicted in the video was emblematic of Manipur’s near-civil war, where mobs have razed villages and torched homes, killing more than 130 people since May.
The conflict was sparked by an affirmative action controversy in which Christian Kukis protested the mostly Hindu Meitei’s demand for special status that would allow them to buy land in the hills populated by Kukis and other tribal groups and obtain a share of government jobs.
The fighting has persisted despite the army’s presence in Manipur, a state of 3.7 million people tucked away in the mountains on India’s border with Myanmar that is now divided into two ethnic zones. Warring factions have also formed armed militias, and isolated villages continue to be riddled with gunfire. More than 60,000 people have fled to overcrowded relief camps.
Police said the assault on the two women occurred on May 4, a day after the violence began in the state. According to a police complaint filed on May 18, the two women were part of a family attacked by a mob that killed its two male members. The complaint alleges rape and murder by «unknown malefactors.»
State police have made a first arrest in the case, Manipur Chief Minister Biren Singh said on Twitter, without specifying the number of people arrested.
“A thorough investigation is currently underway and we will ensure that strict action is taken against all perpetrators, including considering the possibility of capital punishment. As far as is known, there is absolutely no place for such heinous acts in our society,» Singh said.
Meanwhile, India’s Supreme Court has expressed concern over the assault and has asked the government to inform the court about the steps it has taken to apprehend those responsible.
“In a constitutional democracy, it is unacceptable. If the government doesn’t act, we will,” said Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud.
The victims are from the Kuki-Zo community, according to the Forum of Indigenous Tribal Leaders, a tribal organization in Manipur. One of them told The Associated Press that the men who assaulted the two women were part of a Meitei mob that had burned down their village earlier.
“They made us take off our clothes and said they would kill us if we didn’t do what they told us. Then they made us walk around naked. They abused us. They touched us everywhere… on our breasts, our genitals,” he said by phone from Manipur.
The woman said the duo were then taken to a field where they were both sexually assaulted. The two women are now safe in a refugee camp.
India’s Women and Child Development Minister Smriti Irani called the incident «reprehensible and frankly inhumane.» She said Thursday that investigations were underway and «no effort will be spared to bring the perpetrators to justice.»
However, the chairman of India’s main opposition Congress party, Mallikarjun Kharge, accused the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party of «turning democracy and the rule of law into a mobocracy.»
Kharge said Modi should speak on Manipur in Parliament, a demand other opposition parties and rights activists have made.
«India will never forgive your silence,» he wrote on Twitter.
Last week, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling on the Indian authorities to take action to stop the violence in Manipur and protect religious minorities, especially Christians. India’s Foreign Ministry condemned the resolution, describing it as «interference» in its internal affairs.