Meira Paibis : Manipuri women caught between violence and narratives

Melody Kshetrimayum *

 Mass Rally against Chin-Kuki Narco-Terrorism at THAU to Hapta Kangjeibung :: 29th July 2023
Mass Rally against Chin-Kuki Narco-Terrorism at THAU to Hapta Kangjeibung in July 2023 :: Pix - Khaba Kh

Conflict shapes women's everyday lives and their sense of security. Prolonged exposure to armed conflict and damaged social fabric threatens women's sense of trust on established institutions. The ongoing Manipur violence has claimed 175 lives, displaced around 70,000 people and damaged 5000 houses.

Meira Paibi, an umbrella term for all meira paibi women groups of different localities in Manipur, have not only been guarding their localities but also engaging in peace building process during the ongoing Manipur violence.

Committed to carry on the legacy to fight for justice, these women use their voices seeking peace and normalcy in the State. However, Meira Paibis are caught between violence and newly emerging narratives, both academic and journalistic, lately. Is this something to do with the increased attention by a few but key scholarships that examine Manipur violence from their learnt worldview that is not constructed from conflict zones ?

Women's War against the Colonial Regime

More often than not, women who navigate policies and intervene power structures were distressed by the existing dynamics of the social, cultural and political scenarios. Women of Manipur have been leading the fight against exploitative policies and human rights violation since their first protest in 1904.

The history of Meitei women as political history narrates protests against the colonial rule, human rights violations, sexual violence, substance use, and territorial threats. Women with their courage and powerful force, brought political transformations in the past.

The first Nupi Lan (Women's War) of Meitei women broke out in 1904 when British authorities unleased multiple policies that included ordering men to extract teak-woods from the Kabaw valley, practicing unpaid labour (lallup system), monopolization of trades, and fine collections among many others in the aftermath of the fire that gutted Assistant Political Agent's bungalow.

The British initiated these policies to reconstruct the bungalow using unpaid labour and unjust taxes to compensate the loss. Around 5000 women protested against the forced unpaid labour. The slogan, 'let every home volunteer one woman to join the movement' led the movement. Women held protests, shut down the market, and disobeyed the British orders. The forceful protests made the British to finally withdraw the unpaid labour. This incident marked the spirit and voice of Meitei women who disrupted exploitative structures.

The second Nupi Lan broke out in 1939 when women protested free export of rice by wily traders that brought famine in the State and uprooted traditional rice trade. Around 4000 women vendors protested in front of the Manipur State Durbar Office and demanded immediate ban on rice export and shutdown of rice mills run by Marwaris.

A group of Assam Rifles personnel arrived to control the demonstration and wounded many women. This anguished the women but the women didn't disperse. The protests continued for several days and months. When the protest gained momentum, the women requested social and political activist, Hijam Irabot to lead the movement.

The women boycotted the Khwairamband Keithel that hugely affected the trade and economy of the State. With Irabot's support, the movement became more organised and civil disobedience was launched towards non-payment of taxes and feudal dues. The movement that started as a protest against export of rice became a movement against unjust administration, economic policies and malpractices.

These two women's war brought political and economic transformations in Manipur. Meitei women interrupted the colonial politics of power, a male dominated space, using their voices and solidarity. They laid a strong legacy for future Meitei women to challenge exploitative authorities, while redefining the patriarchy with hierarchy of multiple layers of that time.

Fast forward to 1970s, there were extensive substance abuse by men resulting in assaults and violence within families and society at large. Young men addicted to drugs and liquor either became menaces or died due to overdoses, threatening institutions of closed knit family and community. Meitei women emerged in groups, known as Nisha Bandh to curb the menaces by banning liquor manufacturing, selling, and consumption.

In 1980s, Meitei women groups became more prominent as Meira Paibis (torch bearers) when they protested against violation of human rights and atrocities by multiple security forces under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), 1958. Introduced by the British to tackle Quit India Movement, the AFSPA has the license to kill with impunity in insurgency prone areas. It was imposed in the entire Manipur in 1980.

Since then, there were many reports of assault, encounter and killings in Manipur. Meira Paibis protested against the encounters and extra judicial killings by security forces. Meitei women, in these movements, not only resisted oppressive structures but also called for justice and social order.

Mothers of Manorama- The Naked Protest

Many feminists consider the naked protest of the Meira Paibis as an epistemic space for feminist discussions on women's agency. Many supported and others contested the protest for using body as weapon and sites of protests. In both types of the literature, what was missing is a discussion of the naked protest as an embedded incident of the continuous terrorisation of the public by the security forces and insurgents.

In the wee hours of 11th July 2004, Thangjam Manorama was arrested in suspicion, from her house by personnel of the 17th Assam Rifles (AR). Later in the day, she was found dead with wounds, scratch marks, and multiple gunshot wounds in the genitals. The forensic results suggested sexual assault and torture.

It enraged the people of Manipur who had already witnessed multiple encounters and extra judicial killings since 1980s. On 15th July, twelve Meira Paibis, who kept their decision to protest naked secret from their families, disrobed themselves in front of the Kangla Gate where AR was posted.

The twelve women, all taking on the symbolic role of mothers of Manorama, shouted at the AR personnel to rape them and eat their flesh. The naked protest started at around 10 am and went on for 45 minutes while the public looked on in shock.

The anguish and pain of the women who lost their daughter to the inhuman Act stood unparallel to any other trauma on that day. Few of them fainted and had to be taken to hospital. The women, belonging to a society whose ethos put forward women's dignity as the highest regard, disrobed in front of the public to show their anger. The women 'surrendered their bodies' to the perpetrators.

The protest showed women's vulnerability in custodial sexual assaults as well as strength to challenge the perpetrators. They demanded to produce the personnel who were involved in the assault and murder of Manorama. The protest was followed by a curfew in Greater Imphal areas.

The 'powerless and exploited' agency turned into a 'powerful' agency to protest against decades of armed conflict, sexual violence, violation of rights, and oppression by the institutions under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958. Meira Paibis used their agency for justice and against violation of rights.

Caught between Violence and Narratives

Women living in the site of violence perceive 'peace building' differently from women who are observing 'women living with violence' from the comfort of their houses. Analysts have criticised Meira Paibis during the ongoing Manipur violence for not being 'peaceful' and 'nurturing' during conflict. While this critique is problematic in itself for defining women's passive position, it also overlooks the differences in life differences.

This critique falls into the gender discourses that often deny ethnic and contextual life differences. Meira Paibis have used many forms of peace building towards justice and restoration of peace.

During the ongoing Manipur violence, they had formed human chains, staged peace demonstrations, and organised peace rallies seeking restoration of normalcy in the State. Four months into the violence, the Government and non-Government institutions have failed to protect the people of Manipur and provide safety to their families. Women have lost trust and faith in the institutions and authorities.

Peace building for these women may mean constructing something new, blocking destruction, or transforming what is already present. Meira Paibis strengthened their voices over the course of violence and have used various forms to restore peace. They slept on the streets in the night to guard their localities, checked vehicles for unidentified persons, protected the sacred places, organised sit-in protests in the capital city, and public meetings.

These women, who have witnessed destructions and killings for more than four months despite the presence of security forces, developed their own peace building methods. The key slogans of all the protests focused on protecting the integrity and unity of Manipur.

In the light of many unwanted incidents, multiple narratives have been developed and called out on Meira Paibis using terms such as 'naked nature', and 'anti-National' forces for blocking security forces.

All seemed well when Meira Paibis protested against the British and their exploitative administration. During the ongoing violence, the narrative of Meira Paibis has been changed by few scholarships that chose to be the saviour of the community with special protection. Meira Paibis, belonging to the 'majority' community, suddenly became 'anti-tribal' due to the increase in scholarships that chose one community over the other.

It is noteworthy to mention that the social relationship between the Meiteis and other tribal groups is not the same as Hindus and Adivasis of mainland India. There have been instances of sexual assaults in the initial days of the violence. Rather than seeing the assaults as violence against women during conflict, few feminists' scholarships conveyed the incident as majority minority/tribal-non tribal affairs.

Besides, calls for justice by those few feminists presented powerful rhetoric theoretically but lacked an understanding of the current situation and local socio-political relationship between the communities. The endorsements and calls for justice fell into the trap of misleading tribal- non-tribal, majority-minority, and religion dichotomies.

They often used sweeping statements within these frameworks by portraying the incident as a treatment meted out by the majority to the marginalised community. While the two communities, belonging to the same Tibeto-Burman family and speaking Tibeto-Burman languages could be treated as different people is a different discussion altogether, the recent discourse on sexual violence remained a linear and polished way of looking at power relationships.

The scholarships completely ignored the local historical and social ethos with respect to women in these communities. The feminists' scholarships often examined violent incidents, including sexual violence from either majority- minority or Hindu-Christian lens dismissing the complicated socio-political realities between communities that both have their respective grievances.

As Paromita Chakravarti rightly said, Indian feminists have not engaged actively enough with the systematic terrorisation of women by both the Indian Army and militant groups in the so called 'disturbed' States of the Indian Nation.

Meira Paibis helped the assaulted women to escape from the angry mob. When culprits were identified two months later due to a viral video, they vandalised one of the culprit's houses. It is important to note that the culprit belongs to the same community as the Meira Paibis.

It would be difficult to find women from other communities who would vandalise assaulter's house (belonging to their own community) during a communal riot. While the vandalisation of one's private property is not justified, what the few scholarships failed to examine was that the incident as well as the vandalization happened during the conflict when Meira Paibis themselves were struggling to protect their families from the armed conflict.

Scholarships questioned Meira Paibis' stance on not stepping up in solidarity with the victims' family and loss of loved ones. The response to sexual violence could have been different if it did not happen during an armed conflict and if Meira Paibis were not living in fear for their own lives. The scholarships also failed to examine the incident as an embedded incident within a conflict or war.

The assault was only one of the many horrible incidents that happened during the Manipur violence. People are struggling to fulfil their physiological and safety needs during the conflict. The scholarships denied the gravity of the impacts that both communities were experiencing by speaking loudly for only one community.

The pressing need is to understand that two communities are still in conflict,and equally affected. The Government, policy makers, academicians, practitioners, CSOs, journalists, and feminists need to accept that both communities, irrespective of their statuses or religion, need support and seek normalcy.

* Melody Kshetrimayum wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is at FLAME University, Pune
This article was webcasted on November 03 2023.

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