Utlou incident and the culture of Nupi Khongoinaba

Lukhoi Meitei *

The attempt here is to probe what happened in Utlou that day. I try to gain clarity on what transpired in Utlou that day by casting away false arguments and debates which have muddied the horrible incident. The incident, I argue, should be seen as a case of violence against women. It is the regressive feudal practice of nupi khongoinaba which entailed the mob attack. I appeal that we must collectively apologise to women who were attacked that day in Utlou.

1. Laan ba-Laan da ba debate and the clash of cultures

Is the attack made to preserve the Meitei culture? There is a general perception that Meitei men were not abused or beaten in the mob attack. And, men are half the population, half the culture. Why were not men attacked? It implies that there is more to the attack than just preserving culture.

There is no denying that there is a cultural difference between the people who attended the party and the people of Utlou. Yes, such a yausang party, where men and women drink and dance wearing clothes which men and women of Utlou do not wear, is not the culture of Meitei peasantry. And, it might be that only men drink in Utlou and not women.

Therefore, the party might have offended the sensibilities of the people of Utlou. And, there is a clash. It might be a clash between two cultures, as people have presented in the mainstream media. Yes, many of us might not endorse such a culture but it does not mean that one culture is right and another is wrong.

Chatna ba- chatna daba is very different from laan ba - laan da ba. Culture is about chatnabi. It is not about who is right and who is wrong. It is quite odd to say that one culture is wrong and another is right. A culture can be decadent, regressive or progressive. That's all we can say. So, the matter of laan ba and laan daba or right and wrong when it comes to culture does not arise. Therefore, it does not make any sense to raise the question that those women at the party were right or wrong.

2. Manipur, a dry and patriarchal state

Women organisations ban the sale and consumption of alcohol in most parts of the valley. The government banned the sale of alcohol in Manipur since 1991. However, people brew and consume local alcohol in Chakpa villages and tribal khun-s in the Imphal valley. Therefore, the state is not that dry. One logic behind the ban is that men drink alcohol and beat their wives and ruin their families.

The ban reduces violence against women. The ban is justified to that extent, as it offers a temporary respite to women, especially to the women of the working class and peasantry. Not that alcohol is the reason for men beating their wives. Since the ban on alcohol is to reduce violence against women, it should not further propagate violence against women.

The mob, we must remember, attacked women at the party. Most importantly, the ban is not because women drink alcohol. There might be few cases of alcoholic women who need help in the Imphal Valley. The ban is primarily against men drinking alcohol. If an anti-alcohol raid happens, who needs to be dealt with first.

The apparent answer is men who were drinking and not women who were drinking. It is men who are in grave danger. Many of them have become alcoholics, and they perpetrate abuses. Now, should the incident of Utlou qualify as a well-thought-out raid in a private party for consuming alcohol? It seems not. It was a raid which ended up abusing women. Not only men, but even the state machinery seems exonerated, except the women in the party.

3. Utlou Incident, the feudal practice of nupi khongoinaba and not an expression of class struggle

We have seen that the attack seems to qualify neither as an attempt to preserve one's culture nor a well-thought-out anti-alcohol raid. Now, I examine an understanding of the incident which is worth settling. The narrative argues that the incident is an expression of class antagonism. Yes, there is a stark class difference between the people of Utlou and those who attended the party.

Since there is a class difference, there is class antagonism. The people of Utlou might have been offended by the class arrogance of those at the party. However, what transpired in Utlou that day is not an expression of class antagonism or hatred towards the class arrogance of the Imphal elites at the party.

If it were that, it would have also attacked the state machinery which was guarding them in the party. It would have also attacked the compound where the party was going on. Moreover, the general perception is that the mob which attacked the party did not physically assault Meitei men who were there.

It means the crowd knew where to strike. The women at the party were the targets. How can class antagonism be selectively expressed towards women? It means there is something more to it.

Khwairakpam Renuka in her 2011 paper on the pre-vaishnavite culture of Manipur mentions khongoinaba as a punishment awarded to women for committing crimes such as the murder of husband, abortion or stealing children. The feudal punishment finds it mentions in the Chietharon Kumpapa, in a late 16th-century entry in the royal chronicle.

Colonial ethnographer James Johnstone also describes the punishment in his book, Manipur and the Naga Hills. He says the convicted woman is stripped to the waist, her breast painted red (most probably lime and turmeric mixture) and tied with a rope on the waist and paraded in the market with people shouting, "come and look at this naughty woman!"

This sort of public shaming specific to women is a feudal practice. What transpired in Utlou that day and afterwards in the social media is a case of nupi khongoinaba, where women were specifically targeted for violating the feudal norm that women cannot drink but men can drink.

The attackers did not bother the men who were drinking. So, it is not about banning alcohol per se for reducing violence against women. It is about enforcing the norm that women cannot drink but men can through perpetrating more violence toward women. Hence, there was nothing progressive about the Utlou incident.

Furthermore, leikai gi wayen, which is an old and effective means to resolve disputes at the local level, should become progressive than the state's rule of law which often protects the rich and powerful.

And, leikai gi wayen should abandon the feudal practice of nupi khongoinaba. Our society in the name of the culture should not carry this practice forward, just like we do not endorse the feudal punishment of cutting off limbs for stealing royal garments anymore or the practice of amang-aseng.

4. Achit Akom Yengba Pamba and Social Media on Utlou Incident

Women, at the party, were attacked publicly. The attackers tried tearing clothes of the women; they beat up women and filmed them forcefully. Nupi khongoinaba, a wrong thing, happened in Utlou that day. To compound the wrong more, the videos of the incident made rounds in social media.

And, the people watched and circulated videos of women, who were violated that day, all over the internet. "Come watch this naughty women," the words of Johnstone describing the practice of khongoinaba, we see it in the social media in many ways this time. It was a blatant display of achit akom yengba pamba and sadism. It warrants strong condemnation.

When it comes to the role of Manipur's mainstream media, ISTV's discussion on the matter is worth mentioning. The title of the discussion was "Orgy Like Parties During Festivals." The title suggests that the party was not an orgy. It was orgy-like. But, what exactly are "orgy-like parties ?" Women wearing shorts, drinking and dancing with men is neither an orgy nor orgy-like, if there is such a thing as orgy-like.

Therefore, the only meaning we can infer from the title of the said program in ISTV is that it wanted to use the word, orgy, anyhow. The matter is serious, and it should not be spiced up. We should not be following the mainland Indian media and avoid sensationalising such a thing. There is nothing happy and exciting about this incident.

Lastly, our struggle for social and material equality and national identity is not just against the rich and powerful who oppress us. Our struggle is not just against mayang oppressors. It is also against our past, the feudal practices we inherit.

This regressive feudal practice came to our face when Utlou incident happened followed by a blatant display of sadism and achit akom yengba in the social media.

The only redemption is a collective apology. We must collectively apologise to women victims of the Utlou incident for redemption as we are the ones who have carried forward the feudal practice of nupi khongoinaba till now unchallenged for centuries.

* Lukhoi Meitei wrote this article for Imphal Times
This article was webcasted on March 30, 2019.

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