Powerful Indian women seek reprisals over 'heinous' abuse video

A group of Meira Paibi women of the Meitei community gather in front of the partially charred house of an alleged suspect of a viral sexual assault video in Pechi Awang Leikai village of the Thoubal district of north eastern state of Manipur, India, July 22. 2023. [AFP]

Gender trumped tribe for a group of furious Indian mothers who torched the homes of two men from their own community who were accused of abusing women in a video that sparked outrage.

At least 120 people have been killed during months of ethnic conflict between the predominantly Hindu Meitei majority and the mainly Christian Kuki in India's troubled northeastern state of Manipur.

The women from the Meitei community decided to show their anger after the humiliating video surfaced on Wednesday, which reportedly shows two Kuki women being forced to strip naked and then jeered at and harassed by Meitei men in May.

Police arrested four suspects on Thursday but, on the same day, a powerful group of Meitei women known as the "Meira Paibis," or the Mothers of Manipur, set out to burn the homes of two of the accused.

"We condemn the violence against the women and that is why we want capital punishment," Sumati, who gave only her first name, told AFP.

"That is why we destroyed his house."

India is generally traditionalist, conservative and patriarchal but the Meitei have a history of women's activism, with women having a more prominent role in society than elsewhere.

Tens of thousands of people have fled to government-run camps since the violence erupted in May but the video clip has shone a spotlight on the conflict.

'Shamed India'

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said after the video clip emerged that the incident had "shamed India."

Manipur's state government is led by Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and has said it is investigating the "heinous" incident.

"Both communities are condemning this event," said Suchitra Rajkumari, 42, a local activist. "At least in one point they are agreeing."

The Meira Paibis smashed down the walls of the homes of two of the accused before stuffing bales of hay inside and setting them on fire.

Thangjam Lata Devi, the mother of one of the accused, was told she had given birth to a "spoilt" son. Her home was also torched.

"If they decide to exile you, then that's it," she said.

The Meira Paibis said the homes were burned to send a message.

"We condemn what happened to the women," said Sumati, who helped set fire to one of the houses.

"The accused and their family will not be able to live in their village. That is why we destroyed the house."

The Kuki oppose Meitei demands for reserved public job quotas and college admissions as a form of affirmative action, stoking fears that they might also be allowed to acquire land in areas currently reserved for tribal groups.

Human Rights Watch alleges the policies "promote Hindu majoritarianism."

Vigilante justice

But just as Meira Paibis vigilantes administer their form of justice, they have also protected their men.

Some 500 women blocked roads to stop about 100 armed police arresting another suspect linked to the video on Saturday, jeering at security forces in a three-hour standoff.

"Kill us! Take us all!" the women screamed, brandishing burning torches. Their faces were smeared in toothpaste, which they say helps protect against tear gas.

This time, they alleged the men the police wanted to arrest were not responsible and the officers left empty-handed.

The group has blocked roads to bar security forces multiple times during the unrest, accusing the army of being biased towards the Kuki.

"We have a legacy of protecting our people and that gives us inner strength," said Meira Paibis member Matouleibi Chanu.

The Meira Paibis launched dusk-till-dawn patrols after the violence erupted, hammering on electricity poles to raise the alarm.

The army said in June they were forced to release 12 Meitei militia members after troops were surrounded by a 1,500-strong "mob" of women.

"We will do everything to protect our people," said 60-year-old Chongtham Thopi Devi, another Meira Paibis member.

Police said in a statement on Saturday that six arrests had been made in connection with the video and they were conducting "raids" for other suspects.

"We can't use the same force as we do in dispersing men," a senior police officer said, asking not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.

"We often find men hiding behind these women in protests and marches... the women lead always."