NEW DELHI — Prime Minister Narendra Modi has broken more than two months of public silence over deadly ethnic clashes in northeast India, saying on Thursday the assaults on two women as they marched naked through a crowd in Manipur state were unforgivable.
A video showing the assaults sparked massive outrage and was shared widely on social media on Wednesday night despite an internet shutdown and lockdown on journalists in the remote state. It shows two naked women surrounded by dozens of young men fiddling with each other’s genitals and dragging them across a field.
“The culprits will not be spared. What happened to the girls 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 dispute.
Without directly referring to the violence, Modi urged state heads of government to ensure the safety of the women and said the incident was “shameful for any civilized nation”.
“My heart is filled with pain and anger,” he said.
The ethnic violence depicted in the video was emblematic of Manipur’s near-civil war, where mobs ransacked villages and burned homes, killing more than 130 people since May.
The dispute was sparked by an affirmative action controversy in which Christian Kukis protested a demand by the predominantly Hindu Meiteis for special status that would allow them to buy land in the hills populated by Kukis and other tribal groups and get a share of government jobs.
The clashes have persisted despite the presence of the army in Manipur, a state of 3.7 million people nestled in the mountains on India’s border with Myanmar that is now divided into two ethnic areas. Warring factions have also formed armed militias, and isolated villages are still raked by gunfire. More than 60,000 people have fled to crowded relief camps.
Police said the assault on the two women took place 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 disbelievers”.
State police 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 the death penalty. Let it be known, there is absolutely no place for such heinous acts in our society,” Singh said.
India’s Supreme Court, meanwhile, expressed concern over the attack and called on the government to inform the court of the steps it has taken to arrest those responsible.
“In a constitutional democracy, this is unacceptable. If the government does not act, we will,” Indian Chief Justice DY Chandrachud said.
The victims are from the Kuki-Zo community, according to the Indigenous Tribal Leaders’ Forum, a tribal organization in Manipur. One told The Associated Press that the men who assaulted the two women were part of a Meitei mob that had previously burned down their village.
“They forced us to take off our clothes and said we would be killed if we didn’t do what they were told. Then they made us walk around naked. They abused us. They touched us all over… on our breasts, our genitals,” she said over the phone from Manipur.
The woman said the duo were then driven to a field where they were both sexually assaulted. The two women are now safe in a refugee camp.
India’s Minister for Women and Child Development, Smriti Irani, called the incident “condemnable and downright inhuman”. She said Thursday that investigations were ongoing and “no effort will be spared to bring the perpetrators to justice.”
The chairman of India’s main opposition Congress party, Mallikarjun Kharge, however accused the ruling Hindu nationalist party, Bharatiya Janata, of “transforming democracy and the rule of law into mobocracy”.
Kharge said Modi should speak about Manipur in parliament, a request that has been made by other opposition parties and rights activists.
“India will never forgive your silence,” he wrote on Twitter.
Last week, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling on the Indian authorities to take action to end the violence in Manipur and protect religious minorities, especially Christians. India’s foreign ministry condemned the resolution, calling it “interference” in its internal affairs.