NEW DELHI (AP) — India’s Narendra Modi appealed for peace during a Parliament debate Thursday, after opposition lawmakers had called for a no-confidence vote, accusing the prime minister of staying silent as a northeastern state governed by his party convulsed in months of ethnic violence.
Modi raised the conflict in Manipur state some 90 minutes into his speech in response to the no-confidence motion — and only as opposition lawmakers staged a walk-out in frustration.
It was Modi’s first statement about the violence in Manipur, where clashes since early May between two dominant ethnic groups have killed over 150 people and displaced more than 50,000. The opposition has slammed Modi’s silence and moved the no-confidence motion to force him to address the conflict from the Parliament floor.
For an hour and a half, Modi did not mention the crisis but made repeated digs at the opposition. Many opposition lawmakers stood up and chanted “Manipur! Manipur!” before walking out in protest.
“The central and the state governments are working towards peace. I assure people of Manipur that peace will be restored soon,” Modi 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.”
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.
After the opposition walkout, Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies easily defeated the no-confidence motion — an expected development as they control more than 360 seats in the 545-member Lok Sabha, the powerful lower house.
The opposition argued that the motion was meant to force Modi to address the Manipur violence in Parliament, which has been locked in an intense impasse for weeks over the crisis.
“We succeeded in ending Modi’s silence and made him speak in Parliament,” Gaurav Gogoi, a lawmaker from the opposition Congress Party, told reporters outside Parliament.
“Modi is running away from his responsibility to provide justice to the people of Manipur,” he added. “He should visit the state.”
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.
During three days of debate, opposition leaders accused Modi and his party of failing to quell the bloodshed for months despite a heavy army presence in Manipur and demanded he fire the state’s top elected official, who is from Modi’s party.
The conflict in Manipur erupted after the minority Christian Kukis protested a demand by 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.
Armed mobs torched homes and buildings, killed scores of civilians, looted weapons from police armories and drove tens of thousands from their homes.
On Wednesday, opposition leader Rahul Gandhi accused Modi’s government of silencing people’s voices and creating a civil war-like situation.
In response, Home Minister Amit Shah defended the government’s handling of Manipur and said they were deeply concerned about the violence.
The government was working with both ethnic communities to bring peace, Shah said, but critics say it has shared little about plans on how to resolve the crisis.