The State government and the Centre have both allowed the Manipur scenario to fester for such a long time that today the big question facing the country is whether a healing process can begin and what form it should take. So much venom and hatred have been allowed to be spewed that unless accountability is fixed, not on individuals but on the systems that are expected to provide security and protection to citizens , the loss of faith and trust that has ripped apart two communities will be difficult to restore. We need not reiterate what has happened in Manipur since the middle of April this year; a lot has been written. It is, however, important to understand that what has happened needs to be seen beyond and outside the boundaries of religious and ethnic divides.
The exercise of going back to the histories of tribes and ethnic groups and their cultural and nationalistic identities becomes infructuous if the issue of the developmental policies envisaged, and also implemented to some extent, are not given centre stage. In fact, as early as the first decade of this century, scholars from Manipur had raised concerns about the lopsided and top-down developmental agenda that was adopted for the State. In a research paper published in 2012 in Economic and Political Weekly, Hanjabam Isworchandra Sharma showed how the development model of the State is not in keeping with the choices, aspirations, and needs of the people. A disturbing phenomenon, he wrote, was the recruitment of large numbers of youngsters from Manipur into the armed forces as a source of employment as well as the failure of the government in focussing more on infrastructure than on production. Added to this was the demon of the narco-mafia. Together, these have brought the State to the current situation and they also point to the fact that the factors responsible for Manipur burning have to be sought far deeper than in the political realities of the State.
The central concern of this article, however, is to understand the immediate nature of the sexual violence against women that has shaken the conscience of all right-thinking people. Only the most heartless and self-centred can remain silent or indifferent. The most disturbing aspect of the emerging narratives around the sexual attacks are those that detail the role played by sections of women in the attacks. The name of the Meira Paibis has been maligned for their alleged role in the sexual attacks on women, particularly in the clashes that took place between a Meitei mob and Kukis in the Nongpok Sekmai incident on May 4. Whether its women were bystanders or participants in the atrocities, it is difficult to absolve this legendary women’s organisation of its responsibility. This is an issue the Meira Paibis will have to engage with, not right now perhaps, but when the situation cools down, and do their own serious post-mortem on their actions, which will remain a blot on all Meitei women for a long time.
From the available information at the moment, there appear to have been 11 incidents of sexual attacks on Kuki-Zo women by Meitei men, which the Chief Justice of India has taken note of. There is no clear picture yet of similar cases against Meitei women. It has been reported that one of the leaders of the Meira Paibis has upheld these sexual attacks as justified in a situation of war. This comes from a tweet by @bliss_Singson, whose account has since been withheld in response to a legal demand. There is, therefore, confusion, obscurity, and an insensitive and complex situation that is difficult to understand from a gender perspective.
Just as no social structure is homogenous, women too are not a homogenous entity in any society. Their actions have to be assessed and understood in the context of the intersections of the various realities in which they exist. The women in Manipur, particularly the Meitei women at this specific point of time, have to be seen from this perspective. It would not be correct to assume that all Meitei women have the same world view as the Meira Paibis who are in the spotlight today. Their reported insensitiveness to their fellow women creates a huge problem for anyone who has closely studied the history of Meitei women in Manipuri society and their brave struggles to remove or change policies and practices considered detrimental to the interests of their society, not only in the British colonial state but also later, when Manipur was integrated into the Indian Union.
Nupi Lan movement
Meitei women cannot be conceptualised without referring back to the Nupi Lal/Nupi Lan (women’s uprising) demonstrations of 1904 and 1939, and the Nisha Bandis of the1970s, which finally led to the Meira Paibis in the 1980s. The first Nupi Lan movement came about when the British government tried to reimpose Lalup, a system of forced labour, and more than 5,000 women rose up in protest and forced the British to withdraw the order. In 1939, when Marwari businessmen tried to export rice from Manipur, leading to severe shortage of the grain within the State, the women rose up again. The Nisha Bandis were bands of women who vehemently opposed the increasing alcoholism and drug addiction in Manipuri society in the 1970s. They would hold torches and undertake night marches, setting fire to hooch shops and chasing the drinkers home.
In all these movements, a section of Meitei women took upon themselves the responsibility of fighting state laws and policies considered detrimental to the interests of Manipur or against alcohol and drugs that were destroying men and young boys. These movements led to the emergence of the Meira Paibi as the women began to play a more active role in protecting their people from the excesses of the security forces acting under the protection of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA).
Against this stellar background of activism, one asks today: why did the Meira Paibis turn against the Kuki-Zo women? Could they not have protected the sisters with whom they have coexisted for so long? Even in the worst-case scenarios of violent wars across the world, women have been known to try to protect other women, even those of the enemy. Women alone can understand the real pain of a raped and violated woman. Why then did the Meira Paibis lose that feminine compassion? To gain some understanding of this, it is necessary to look into the nature and milieu of the larger society in Manipur.
To begin with, the Meira Peibis have no centralised institutional organisation; they are loosely organised at the State, district, and the leikai or neighbourhood level. This hierarchy is loosely structured, although there are presidents, secretaries, and treasurers at the State level. Usually, the Meira Paibis function most actively at the leikai level, handling various family and social issues brought to them. They also protect their leikais from army search operations whenever they find out about them. During a crisis, the various levels come together.
The Meira Paibis are generally composed of married women in the age group of 35 to 60, who have studied at least up to the secondary level. A small percentage of the women are illiterate. There are a few professionals such as lawyers, but most of the women are traders, connected with the Ima Keithel or Women’s/Mothers’ market. The Meira Paibis have taken responsibility to defend human rights and also try and maintain peace in the difficult situations that Manipur has faced. From the many studies, one thing is clear: the Meira Paibis managed to a large extent to bridge the physical gaps between the private and public spaces for women. The same women who are mothers, home makers, and wives also occupied the public sphere as wage-earners and as remarkably strident fighters in social causes. The larger question, however, is this: was the ideological gap between the two spaces bridged?
Manipur, like most States in the north-eastern region and elsewhere in the country, is a highly patriarchal society with dominant patriarchal values and norms ruling all social institutions. Despite Manipuri women’s significant contribution to trade and economy, their social status was compromised by the restrictive paradigms of male superiority and the strict adherence to tradition.
Even when we look back into the history of the Nupi Lals, we find that during the second Nupi Lal of 1939, once Irabot Singh and his Nikhil Manipuri Mahasabha come into the picture, the women’s struggle gets marginalised, with the all-male organisation not even taking it into account. The situation did not change after 1947 or in the 1970s and 1980s, so much so that Meena Longjam, a filmmaker, told East Mojo in an interview that women have been given no decision-making roles in Manipuri society and have been used mainly as a shield for men. This may or may not be true in all cases, but there is enough evidence to show that most Meitei women have no decision-making roles either in the private or the public sphere.
A survey of members of the Manipur Legislative Assembly shows a dismal picture. Women are almost totally absent, both from the hills and the valley, with the largest number being five in the election held last year. Even a woman like Irom Sharmila, who was on a fast for 16 years to free Manipur from the stranglehold of AFSPA, received only 85 votes when she decided to contest the election. This bears out what an academic from Manipur University said in an interview, “The electorate told us that no matter what you do, or how much you sacrifice, we cannot trust you enough to run a state or make policy-related decisions. Run a market, but do not try to run a government….” (East Mojo). So, despite all that the Meitei women have done in the public space in Manipur, they have never been decision-makers. All decisions are taken under the aegis of the men. So, the women bridged the gap between the private and the public sphere only physically. Ideologically, they merely brought out from within the private space the dominant patriarchal values and merged them with the existing patriarchal norms of the public space.
The only decisions the Meira Paibis took were minor ones at the leikai level, regarding actions to be taken against someone who had crossed the limits in mundane affairs. This action could range from counselling to violent punishment. There have been instances when they took the law into their own hands before going to the police. With this history behind them, it becomes quite possible to see that they could be violent in mob action when egged on by men.
- The name of the Meira Paibis has been maligned for their alleged role in the sexual attacks on women in Manipur, particularly in the clashes that took place between a Meitei mob and Kukis in the Nongpok Sekmai incident on May 4.
- An understanding of Manipur’s deeply ingrained patriarchal norms and their influence on women’s action will shed light on their behaviour. They have totally internalised the patriarchal domination and its values and norms.
- The issue extends beyond Meira Paibis, reflecting wider societal problems. It is not just the Meitei but all Indians who need to be educated about the lasting harm that a raging patriarchy inflicts on society at large, on both its women and its men.
Without condoning the insensitivity and cruelty of the Meira Paibis in the mob violence in Manipur, we need to factor in the oppressive and dominating patriarchal norms within which the Meira Paibis live and operate. Without the facility of being exposed to newer ideas of feminism and gender sensitisation, they have totally internalised the patriarchal domination and its values and norms. Even their maternal instincts, which have been lauded, can be patriarchal. They will, therefore, justify their actions as being right just as most men would under similar circumstances. Such internalisation of the patriarchy by women is seen not only in Manipur but in all places of uncritiqued patriarchy. It allows women to be weaponised by men during times of strife and war.
To those disturbed by the question of why women acted against women in Manipur, the answer is that it is the curse of patriarchy. The Meira Paibis acted as they did because they have always been used as a front to implement male decisions. As the author N. Vijaylakshmi Brara writes, theirs may have been a women’s movement but it has perhaps not been a movement for women. (Brara, 2002)
It is all Meitei women and not just the Meira Paibis who need to introspect and think from the perspective of delivering justice to the violated and traumatised Kuki-Zo women. And it is not just the Meitei but all Indians who need to be educated about the lasting harm that a raging patriarchy inflicts on society at large, on both its women and its men.
Manorama Sharma was a professor and head of the Department of History in the North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong, until 2015. She is currently involved with the training of journalists in the Assam Institute of Mass Communication and Media Research in Guwahati.
- Potsangbam, Koni, “A Study On The Social Movements By The Women Civil Society Organizations (Meira Paibis) In Manipur State”, http://hdl.handle.net/10603/173790
- N. Vijaylakshmi Brara, Politics, Society and Cosmology in India’s North East (OUP, 2002)
- Singh, Laishram Jitendrajit, “Understanding Women’s Activism of Manipur: The Meira Paibis Movement”, https://www.krishisanskriti.org/vol_image/29Nov20191111502.
- Sharma, Hanjabam Isworchandra, “Understanding Underdevelopment in Manipur: A Critical Survey,” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 47, No. 46 (November 17, 2012), pp. 71-77.
- Yumnam, Ratika, “Women’s Protest mobilisation in Manipur: A View through a Feminist Lens”, https://www.academia.edu/27629019/