Viral Manipur video: How misinformation ignites violence against women

Viral Manipur video: How misinformation ignites violence against women

By: anurag baruah&
July 21 2023

Share Article: facebook logo twitter logo linkedin logo
Viral Manipur video: How misinformation ignites violence against women

Image source: Twitter/@satishssharma85

(Trigger Warning: This story contains descriptions of distressing visuals, and mentions of sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.)

A shocking video of a mob parading two naked women from the Kuki-Zomi community and sexually assaulting them exploded onto social media on Wednesday, July 19, in India. The video shows an incident from May 4 in Manipur state's Thoubal district, a day after a wave of ethnic violence between the Meitei and Kuki tribes gripped the state in India's northeast.

However, the alleged trigger for this incident appears to be a desire for revenge fuelled by misinformation.

On June 1, NewsClick reported how fake information on Meitei women being sexually assaulted was used by perpetrators to justify atrocities as acts of vengeance. The Print spoke to one of the survivors seen in the video, who alleged that the men committing the sexual atrocities said it was "revenge for the Churachandpur case" and, "we will do to you what your men did to our women." The report also quoted the survivor saying the attack happened because of fake news.

The mob was reportedly referring to a viral photo, later found to be misinformation, of a young woman's body wrapped in plastic that was shared falsely claiming a Meitei nursing student was raped and killed in Manipur's Churachandpur district.

In response, a mob forced a 21-year-old woman and a 42-year-old woman from the hill district of Kangpokpi to walk naked on the road before dragging them towards a field while groping them. A police complaint filed on May 18 and reviewed by Logically Facts says that the younger of the two women was gang-raped and that her father and younger brother were murdered on the spot. 

According to the complaint, the 42-year-old woman and another woman in her 50s, who were both "snatched" from police protection with three others and forced to strip naked, were not raped. 

Purportedly, the same photo led to an attack in Manipur's capital Imphal on a 22-year-old Kuki nursing student. According to the report by ThePrint, the survivor heard a woman screaming and instigating a mob to rape, kill and burn her for "what her people did to our (their) women," seemingly referring to Churachandpur.

Was there a 'Churachandpur case'? 

One of the prominent rumors involving violence against women in early May were allegations that Meitei women had been raped in Churachandpur by the Kuki-Zomi tribe. 

The photo of the young woman's body wrapped in plastic went particularly viral. Several fact-checking organizations, including Logically Facts, debunked it, revealing that the image was from November 2022 and showed the body of Ayushi Yadav, a 21-year-old student who was killed by her family in Delhi, with no connection to the Manipur ethnic clashes.  

A Churachandpur-based journalist who declined to be named told Logically Facts that there were queries about the well-being of the Meitei nursing students at the newly opened Churachandpur Medical College around the time the incident occurred. "They (members of the Meitei community) were expressing concern that the phones, etc., were snatched and Meitei nursing students were being attacked, following which I confirmed with the authorities and let them know that no such thing had happened. But yes, rumors were floating around, and concerns were there," he said. 

The growing misinformation caused then Manipur Director General of Police P Doungel to release a statement on May 5 saying that Meitei women had not been sexually assaulted in Churachandpur. However, the clarification seems to have gone unheeded.

The fallout of fake news

Multiple social media posts claiming to show such "Meitei victims" were circulating at the time. Another such claim was that "37 bodies of Meitei rape victims" were lying in a morgue in Imphal's Shija Hospital, supposedly proved by post-mortems. However, this was denied by the hospital, which also stated that they did not conduct post-mortems.

Unrelated photos showing a domestic abuse survivor in Arunachal Pradesh were also displayed on placards claiming to show "Meitei women raped and killed by Kuki illegal immigrants" were seen during a protest staged by Meitei organizations at New Delhi's Jantar Mantar on May 5. 

Pradip Phanjoubam, the editor of Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and senior journalist based in Manipur, said that rumors can be dangerous given tensions in the state. Phanjoubam told Logically Facts, "People in Manipur today are extremely insecure and sensitive, even to the extent of being paranoid. Fake news and rumors can inflame passions easily, and that is the danger."

Meitei women being raped was not the only narrative circulating on social media at the time. For instance, multiple social media posts had gone viral falsely claiming to show a Kuki girl was beaten to death in Manipur, making inciting remarks including allegations that the "government has given a free hand to majority society to eliminate Christians!." Logically Facts found that the video is from Myanmar and unrelated to the Manipur situation.

"When there are these mass conflicts or ethnic conflicts, there are always these rumors that fuel them. In this case, also, there are definitely rumors fueling this conflict," Senior Supreme Court Advocate Upamanyu Hazarika told Logically Facts. 

"It is not fake news alone, but government apathy is another reason, so fake news has to be seen in this entire context. The government just sat there and did nothing, leading to an anarchic situation," he said. "This is a setback for democracy, and we have gone back to earlier days, even pre-colonial for that matter."

Internet blackout and an information vacuum

When the ethnic violence broke out on May 3, mobile internet was officially suspended on the same day, followed by the broadband suspension on May 5, to tackle the worsening law and order situation. However, the internet was available till May 4 for many, and rumors involving unverified photos and videos of violence circulated till before mobile internet suspension was fully operational in the state. For over two months, Manipur has been witness to continuing internet suspensions.

The sudden blackout led to an information vacuum which may have fueled numerous clashes. The lack of internet access impedes the ability to fact-check and counter the spread of mis-and disinformation. Research shows internet shutdowns can be counter-productive as they are often blamed for creating information silos and amplifying misinformation and rumor-mongering rather than controlling them. 

Prateek Waghre, policy director at the Internet Freedom Foundation, India, told Logically Facts that internet shutdowns imposed on the grounds of preventing the spread of "fake news," "misinformation," or "rumor-mongering" don't necessarily achieve their intended aims.

"What this incident brings to light is that it not only fails at suppressing misinformation but also prevents useful and important information we need to hold the state accountable," Waghre said. "Malicious actors are likely to evolve methods to spread certain information during internet shutdowns but those who suffer are the common people."

Experts also argue that the government or the authority often uses internet shutdowns as a measure to spread state propaganda or establish itself as the sole authority of information which can often deviate to disinformation.

Technologist and researcher Rohini Lakshané told Logically Facts, "There is no evidence that intentional internet shutdowns stop the spread of mis/disinformation. On the contrary, some studies show that shutdowns do not stop the circulation of fake news, but they enable the state's version of (dis/mis)information and propaganda to spread, curb dissent and protests."

For Waghre, while some leeway can be allowed for shutdowns, it should not be a first resort but a last resort. "You cannot justify that for 70-plus days to cover up for a lack of state capacity in terms of law and order," he said. 

Backlash against the video

Amid huge outrage over the video, 77 days after the incident, Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh on Thursday, July 20, announced that one of the accused had been arrested. Three more arrests were confirmed by the police later in the day, taking the total arrests so far to four. Meanwhile, the Thoubal Superintendent of Police Sachidananda denied the allegation that the victims were snatched from the police, insisting that cops were not present at the site. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday reacted to the incident saying, "The incident of Manipur which has come to the fore is shameful for any civilization. The country is shamed…" However, Modi's statement, his first since the ethnic clashes broke out in May, drew flak from the opposition with Congress general secretary for communications Jairam Ramesh demanding that he and Home Minister Amit Shah step down.

Reports on Thursday said that the Centre has asked Twitter and other social media platforms to take down the video and that some accounts sharing the video have been withheld in India. 

Logically Facts is monitoring the situation in Manipur and will update this article with further developments in the case. 

Would you like to submit a claim to fact-check or contact our editorial team?

Global Fact-Checks Completed

We rely on information to make meaningful decisions that affect our lives, but the nature of the internet means that misinformation reaches more people faster than ever before