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The Manipur horror has, so far, counted for nothing

Did the Manipur incident, in which two women were stripped, molested, assaulted, humiliated, publicly paraded and then gang raped, remind you of the 2012 Delhi gang rape in a moving bus?

Certainly, the incident was equally shocking and horrifying. And there was also a nationwide uproar.


But there were significant differences. First of all, much of India seemed appalled but still somehow, detached. During the 2012 case, people’s reactions suggested a personal connect: she could have been anyone’s sister, daughter, or friend. This was absent this time because — and this is shameful but true — many Indians in the heartland find it hard to identify with their Northeastern brothers and sisters.


   There was a second difference. The 2012 gang rape case led to a political earthquake. People marched on the streets attacking the government for its failure to keep women safe. Though law and order does not come under the Delhi government, then-Chief Minister Sheila Dixit was personally blamed and the incident contributed to her defeat in the subsequent election. There were angry demonstrations outside UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi’s house and though Sonia invited some of the protesters in and listened to what they had to say, the incident badly damaged the reputation of the Congress-led UPA government.


   This time around, the political fallout has been very different. There are very few angry demonstrations at India Gate and nobody has tried to gherao Home Minister Amit Shah. Television channels have not hosted nightly debates asking ‘are women safe in India?’ And the BJP government at the Centre has been content to let matters be. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had not said anything about the continuing violence in Manipur for weeks, briefly broke his silence to condemn the incident after the video became viral, but did not say much again either.


   And though the assault and molestation represented a clear failure of the law and order situation in a BJP-ruled state, and was part of the crisis that has raged for months, there was little or no real public anger against the BJP. On social media, many pro-BJP handles resorted to whataboutery, downplaying the incident while raking up other cases of violence against women in the rest of India (essentially, in states that were not ruled by the BJP). Soon, a nauseating game of your-rapist-is-worse-than-my-rapist became the default option for many supporters of the Modi government. This defence amounted, in effect, to saying: “everyone’s doing it; why worry about one incident?”


   While the 2012 incident had crippling political consequences for the UPA, the Manipur horror has, so far at least, counted for nothing. Even Chief Minister N. Biren Singh, who should have been sacked long ago, and who, instead of trying to control the violence, prefers to call some of his own citizens ‘Burmese’ on social media, continues in office. As for the Centre, which ignored the collapse of law and order in Manipur for months, there has been no political damage at all.


   So, what’s made the difference?


  Well, some of it has to do with the ‘Northeast factor’. If the incident had happened in, say, Lucknow or Bhopal, there would have been a bigger political fallout. Not only is the Northeast far from the political consciousness of many Indians, there is also a worrying perspective to the effect that it is a disturbed region of sorts anyway, where law and order is always fragile.


 "Prime Minister Modi has learned that if you keep the media in check and sit out a crisis, then, sooner or later, the problem seems to go away."

   But much of it has to do with the Modi government and the way in which it manages the environment and defuses dissent. Ask yourself this: if Manipur had been on fire for six weeks, if armouries had been looted, if men carrying these looted weapons roamed the streets, and if citizens were in serious danger, would Manmohan Singh have kept quiet?


   Would we have let him? Wouldn’t he have faced a barrage of angry questions? Wouldn’t he have been forced to answer them, in public, on camera, inside Parliament?


   And yet, when journalists have covered Prime Minister Modi, who has rarely been out of the headlines over the past four weeks, Manipur has never been mentioned. I am told by people who measure these things that until the hideous video of the Manipur molestation went viral on social media, most TV channels had hardly ever debated what was happening in the state. (I no longer watch news TV, so I cannot personally vouch for this but it seems to be the consensus view.) This had to change once the video was out but even then, the anchors took a bogus listen-to-both-sides attitude by allowing proponents of whataboutery to shift the focus away from Manipur and the rapes.


   Did any of this happen during the UPA rule in and after the 2012 incident? In those days, I not only watched but also appeared on news TV and I cannot imagine any anchor allowing a party spokesperson to get away with deflecting the issue by saying something like, “but rapes happen in West Bengal also.”


   There are many reasons why criticism of the Modi government does not ever reach mammoth proportions. The attitude of the electronic media is one. (Newspapers can be better but are not always). The other is— for want of a better term—the government’s stamina when it comes to living through a crisis. It hardly ever admits it has done anything wrong, usually ignores all demands for resignations or sackings, and treats dissent as impertinence. (As we saw, the UPA followed the opposite path; there were knee-jerk reactions to all criticism.) Prime Minister Modi has learned that if you keep the media in check and sit out a crisis, then, sooner or later, the problem seems to go away.


   That leaves only one place where dissent can find expression: in Parliament. The UPA did not have the kind of majority that the BJP commands, and the presiding officers in both Houses were old-fashioned, let’s-be-fair-to-each-party types.


   Now, the BJP and its allies have a brute majority and the presiding officers are more direct in their approach. In the UPA era, the BJP liked disrupting Parliament because, as Arun Jaitley memorably stated, this was a perfectly legitimate form of protest. Now, Parliament is a quieter place. The opposition says it rarely gets a chance to speak freely or to make the government answer its questions; opposition MPs who cause a stir are promptly suspended, and there are very few memorable debates of any consequence.


   So, how then can dissent be expressed? How can the government’s opponents get their point of view across? How can simmering disaffection find expression, let alone full-fledged anger?


   The answer: it can’t happen.


   And so, no matter what happens in places like Manipur, there will never be a 2012 type movement in these times. It helps, I imagine, that Prime Minister Modi remains popular and surveys show that a majority of voters trust him.


   Even when people are horrified, as they were with the Manipur video, they do not demand accountability; even if they want to, there are fewer forums where they can demand it. Unlike the UPA, which invited criticism, the BJP has learned how to control, manage and ignore it.


   The government’s critics say that there is a lot of suppressed anger within voters that will emerge at election-time. Perhaps there is. But frankly, I don’t see it. Narendra Modi has figured out how to keep the institutions of India’s democratic system going without letting dissent unsettle or perturb him unduly.



Posted On: 27 Jul 2023 10:30 AM
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