Opposition parties have walked out of the Indian parliament in protest at the refusal of the prime minister, Narendra Modi, to address ethnic violence in the state of Manipur – a situation that has been described as being close to civil war.
The opposition had tabled a no-confidence vote in Modi largely to force him to appear and speak about the three-month-long crisis, about which he had refused to say more than a few words.
Modi raised the conflict in Manipur state about 90 minutes into his speech in response to the no-confidence motion – and only as opposition lawmakers staged a walkout in frustration.
“The central and the state governments are working towards peace. I assure people of Manipur that peace will be restored soon,” the Indian PM said. “The country is with you. We will sit together and find a solution to the current challenge to restore peace and put Manipur on the path of development.”
About an hour into Modi’s speech, opposition MPs began to protest that he had not yet mentioned the ethnic violence in the north-eastern state governed by his party, and began chanting “Manipur, Manipur, Manipur”. Modi ignored the chants, instead continuing his attack on the opposition, particularly the Congress party led by Rahul Gandhi.
He accused the opposition of having no faith in India, in choosing to believe those who derided the country, and of being characterised by arrogance and incompetence. “The more they attack me, the more I succeed,” he said.
Only after the opposition had walked out did Modi make a few, brief remarks about Manipur.
After accusing the opposition of not having the “patience” to listen, he said: “I want to tell the mothers and sisters of Manipur that the country and the parliament are with you.”
The current session of parliament, which began on 20 July, has been dominated by the opposition’s anger at Modi’s refusal to talk about the violence that has engulfed Manipur.
A small state in the country’s far east, Manipur has been convulsed by violent clashes between the Meitei and Kuki communities. More than 180 people have been killed, hundreds more wounded and thousands reduced to living in camps since the violence erupted in May.
Last month, after a video surfaced showing an assault on two women being paraded naked and groped in the state, Modi condemned the incident but held back from addressing the overall conflict.
In his speech, Modi said the violence in Manipur was saddening. “Crimes against women are unacceptable and the central government as well as the state government will work to ensure the guilty are punished,” he added.
The debate on the no-confidence motion began on Tuesday and has been marked by fiery and acrimonious exchanges, violent gesturing and finger-wagging.
The debate was a rare appearance in parliament from Modi. During the debate, the Congress MP Gaurav Gogoi told the house: “I have seen many parliaments. I have never seen a man like him who, as prime minister, does not reply to a single question. He does not believe in parliamentary democracy.”
Gandhi spoke on Wednesday, when Modi was not present, accusing the PM of dividing Indians and calling him “Ravana” – the chief villain of the Hindu epic the Ramayana.
“You have divided Manipur, you have broken it up. You have sprinkled kerosene all over the country. You sprinkled kerosene on Manipur and then lit the spark,” he said. One newspaper editorial described his speech as “a missed opportunity”.
The home minister, Amit Shah, retaliated angrily during his two-hour speech in reply. “The violence in Manipur is shameful. But what is more shameful is doing politics over it,” he said.
Shah gave a detailed account of how the crisis had built up and the measures the government had taken to bring the situation under control. He said the incidence of violence was on the decline.
The no-confidence motion was defeated, as expected. The Modi government has a huge majority, with 336 seats to the opposition’s 143.
Neerja Chowdhury, a political analyst, said the opposition had failed to put the government on the spot. “Instead it became a chance for the prime minister to turn the tables on the opposition and attack it while praising his own achievements,” she told NDTV news channel.
Modi’s speech continued for well over two hours. To enthusiastic cheering by his MPs, he expressed his confidence in winning a third term. “In our third term I guarantee that India will be the world’s third-largest economy,” he said.
But by staging a collective walkout, the opposition parties, which recently formed a new alliance called INDIA, were able to display their unity. The alliance hopes to put up a strong challenge to Modi in next year’s general election.