TODAY -

Meitei Women in Collectives: Gender, Roles and Potentials
- Part 2 -

Ningthoujam Irina Devi *

Women Market (Ima Keithel).
The 2nd Nupi Lal 1939 (Women agitation against British).
Warning: These images CANNOT be reproduced in any form or size without written permission from the RKCS Gallery



The women in the kin group or sharing same space in one leikai will bear the responsibilities of helping (which may or may not be reciprocal) following the custom of potyeng (monetary help) and potpang (help in kind/object of use)during rites of passage. Even physical/labour services required for the organization of any religious ceremonies of a leikai members like Ushop (community feasts), Shwasti Puja (birth ritual), Shradh (death ritual), etc are provided by different age group of female members in a leikai.

The women in a leikai form and engage themselves in Marup(literally means friendship), which also denotes an association of familiar individuals or friends or community members which function for mutual help and benefit guided by norms of solidarity. The concepts of social capital itself underlines that each has knowledge and perceive each other as someone to be trusted.

Therefore, individuals join the marup assocation assuming that members will perform their responsibilities without any written rules but on shared understanding and consensus. Anthropologist Manjusri Chaki-Sircar says in Manipur "feminism does not entail a subculture or anti-male attitude but exists as a moral support to the male, an integral part of the social system". This view has given more emphasis on the dynamics and potential of the collective as the social capital.

The everyday engagement in "teamwork", "working together", "support for each other", "co-operation between everyone", etc gradually help in accumulating social capital among the Meitei women. This social capital is accumulated through 'contacts and group memberships which, through the accumulation of exchanges, obligations and shared identities, provide actual or potential support and access to valued resources. While Michael Fukuyama says virtually all forms of traditional culture-social groups like tribes, clans, village associations, religious sects, etc. are based on shared norms and uses these norms to achieve cooperative ends.

Changing socio-political landscape in Manipur with the advent of British administration and its end in 1947 had a profound influence on the subsequence course of women's networks based on solidarity. May it be the historic Nupi Lal (women's agitations) of 1904 and 1939, running of the Ima Keithel (mothers'/women's market), activities of the Meira Paibi (torch bearing women activists since the 1980s), or the organization of Nupi Marup (women's credit rotary group), etc. they are all the resultant impact of the social capital Meitei women have acquired in Manipur's history.

Now, the nature of solidarity networks extends beyond the leikai. The women had to venture out of their domestic spheres not only for sustaining their families but also to extend solidarity based on the traditional network system mentioned earlier.

The Lallup Kaba or the system of forced labour was introduced by the Metei monarch. Under this system, every male member aged between sixteen and sixty were forced to work for ten days in every forty days without remuneration. It the first Nupi Lal in 1904, women came out in large numbers to protest against the order of the British administration that Meitei men should rebuild colonial offices destroyed during an attack.

The women reacted by saying that it was nothing less than the imposition of forced labour. The agitation against the colonial order was successful and the British were forced to abandon the Lallup Kaba system. In the second Nupi Lal in 1939, women in the valley again launched another movement against colonial system of exporting rice as it led to food shortage.

The immediate response of the women was a demand to halt the transportation of rice to be stored for export in godowns. Around four thousand women marched to the British administration office and demanded that the export of rice, which was the staple food of the Manipuris, be banned. The next day, thousands of women stormed the British political office and threatened to destroy the rice mills. The king and the colonial administration had to concede to the demands of the women.

During both the agitations mentioned above launched by Meitei women, the Ima Keithel (mothers'/women's market) in the heart of Manipur's capital Imphal which is one of the biggest markets in Asia controlled and run exclusively by women, became the centre of not only economic activities but site for organisation and resistance. The two women's movements provide an excellent example of the collective force of women in Manipur. It gave them a voice over the issues of the society and captured its own political space in public domain.

In a way, "the radius of trust" increased from domestic level network to the market level. All groups embodying social capital have a certain radius of trust, that is, the circle of people among whom co-operative norms are operative. If a group's social capital produces positive externalities, the radius of trust can be larger than the group itself.

Such group norms and behaviour got past through generations. Within an overall patrilineal framework, women were able to develop a power base. This has helped them also to possess a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition. The network inculcates a willingness to remain in the group and builds their individual capacities. Social capital was, therefore generated through all these cooperative behaviour manifested at different levels on many occasions.

Women, Conflict and Issues

The Government of India promulgated the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958 (AFSPA) in Manipur. This act is a legacy of colonial administration. Since 1980s, with the rise of armed-conflicts, Manipur witnessed the emergence of Meira Paibi (torch bearing women activists). This is a collective response against a draconian law like the AFSPA which allows the armed forces to detain an individual without warrant and shoot on suspicion.

The effort has been aimed at protecting individuals from harassments, torture, rapes and killings. Over the years, the Act has become the symbol of oppression, an object of hate and an instrument of discrimination and highhandedness. The Act, which was meant to put an end to armed insurrection, has not served its purpose. From few insurgent groups operating in Manipur when the Act was imposed, now there are more than a dozen insurgent group operating in this small state.

With 408 deaths in the year 2007, Manipur remains the second most conflict ridden State in the Northeast, behind Assam with 437 fatalities. The nude protest staged by women in front of Kangla fort, Imphal in 2004 was the testimony against the atrocities and the blatant misuse of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act by security personnel. It questioned the legitimacy of the security forces, local administration, and the Government of India over their existence and the rule of law in Manipur.

The Jeevan Reddy Committee in 2005 recommended the repeal of the Act. There are highly committed and motivated Meira Paibi activists maintaining midnight vigils in most leikai so that no members of the locality are harmed. Based on day-to-day experience, they have even innovated ways of emergency communication in times of trouble to pass the information to every members of the leikai.

Whenever an untoward incident occur, the Meira Paibi activists would sound an alarm by clanging stones on metal electric power lines/telephone wire posts. All these activities are voluntary and work on the solidarity norms of a community. Every family in a generally leikai has a women Meira Paibi representative.

Armed conflict in the region demand political negotiation and resolution. This means capacity building of the individual members of the society, particularly women, is of paramount importance. With the increased rate of violence and death in the state, women come out spontaneously, stage sit-in protests in every leikai and condemn acts of brutality.

To be continued,.....


* Ningthoujam Irina Devi wrote this article for Imphal Times
This article was webcasted on October 07, 2016.



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