NEW DELHI — Prime Minister Narendra Modi broke more than two months of public silence over deadly ethnic clashes in India’s northeast, saying Thursday that the assaults of two women as they were being paraded naked by a mob in Manipur state were unforgivable.
A video showing the assaults drew massive outrage and was widely shared on social media late Wednesday despite the internet being largely blocked and journalists being locked out in the remote state. It shows two naked women surrounded by scores of young men who grope their genitals and drag them to a field.
“The guilty will not be spared. What has happened to the daughters of Manipur can never be forgiven,” Modi told reporters before a parliamentary session as he made his first public comments related to the Manipur conflict.
Without referring to the violence directly, Modi urged heads of state governments to ensure the safety of 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 the near-civil war in Manipur, where mobs rampaged through villages and torched houses, leaving more than 130 people dead since May.
The conflict was set off by an affirmative action controversy in which Christian Kukis protested a demand from the mostly Hindu Meiteis for a special status that would let them 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 army’s presence in Manipur, a state of 3.7 million people tucked in the mountains on India’s border with Myanmar that is now divided in two ethnic zones. The warring factions have also formed armed militias, and isolated villages are still raked with gunfire. More than 60,000 people have fled to packed relief camps.
Police said the assault on the two women happened May 4, a day after the violence started in the state. According to a police complaint filed 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 miscreants.”
The state police have made a first arrest in the case, Manipur Chief Minister Biren Singh said on Twitter, without specifying the number of people who were apprehended.
“A thorough investigation is currently underway and we will ensure strict action is taken against all the perpetrators, including considering the possibility of capital punishment. 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 assault and asked the government to inform the court about the steps it has taken to catch those responsible.
“In a constitutional democracy, it is unacceptable. If the government does not act, we will,” Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud said.
The victims are from the Kuki-Zo community, according to the Indigenous Tribal Leaders’ Forum, 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 earlier torched their village.
“They forced us to remove our clothes and said we will be killed if we don’t do as told. Then they made us walk naked. They abused us. They touched us everywhere … on our breasts, our genitals,” she said over the phone from Manipur.
The woman said the duo was then led into 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 “condemnable and downright inhuman.” She said Thursday that investigations were underway and that “no effort will be spared to bring perpetrators to justice.”
India’s main opposition Congress party president Mallikarjun Kharge, however, accused the ruling Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party of “turning democracy and the rule of law into mobocracy.”
Kharge said Modi should speak about Manipur in Parliament, a demand 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 adopted a resolution calling on 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.