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Manipuri Women's Dramatic protest

By Kalpana Sharma

25 July, 2004
The Hindu

The photograph was riveting. Manipuri women holding up a banner that read: "Indian Army: Rape us". The women, all middle-aged, were naked, masking their state of undress behind the banner. Altogether there were 40 women, with 12 of them using this dramatic gesture to protest the action of the Assam Rifles in killing Thanglam Manorama, a woman in her early thirties who the army claims was a member of the banned People's Liberation Army (PLA) and the women insist was innocent.

Till that photograph appeared, many in India would not have known that there was trouble brewing in this northeastern state bordering Burma. The press largely ignores developments in India's northeast unless there is a natural disaster, or there are large-scale protests. In fact, Manipur has been a troubled State for decades. And for all those years, the Indian Army and security forces have been given extraordinary powers under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958 to search, seize, arrest and even kill anyone suspected of being an insurgent in order to "maintain the public order". No inquiry can be held against any action the army takes unless specifically sanctioned by the Central government. So while in the northwest of the country, in Kashmir, similar powers operate to apprehend "terrorists" or "militants", depending on what term you prefer, in the northeast, the powers are used to "maintain order".

Far from maintaining any kind of order, the Act has triggered resentment, alienation and agitations. For decades, human rights groups have documented violations of people's basic rights under this Act but to no avail. Despite these exposes, the violations continue and despite the demand for its withdrawal, no government will consider the proposition. As a result, the extent of alienation all over the northeast has to be seen to be believed. Not many people from the rest of the country visit the Northeast as tourists. If they did, they would be startled to find people asking them if they had come from "India" or "the mainland". You are constantly told how people in other parts of India are unaware of the many different cultures that inhabit this region, the fact that people here have distinct languages and that they do not look like most Indians in "the mainland". As a result Manipuris, Nagas and Mizos are often asked if they are Chinese, Japanese or from some other Southeast Asian country.

People in India do not know because they are uninformed. The media rarely reports on the region. Some mainstream newspapers have special pages with news from the Northeast but these are read only in that area and not in the rest of the country. As a result, most of us would not have been aware of the build up to the demonstration by the Manipuri women on July 15. We would not have got the news about the shooting down of Manorama in an "encounter" killing. Even the women's protest would have gone unreported had it not been so dramatic. Perhaps that is why they were forced to resort to this unique form of protest despite their fairly conservative society. It suggests that they were truly pushed to the end of their tolerance.

Women in Manipur, in fact, have been at the forefront of the movement for human rights and have led many social movements in the history of this State that was once ruled by a king. Manipur has a long history of struggle for its identity and its independence. The women's movement in the State can be traced back to 1939 when the Nupi Lan, which means women's war in Manipuri, was launched against the oppressive policies of the then Maharaja and his British agent. Even before this, Manipuri women had protested against forced labour and the increase in the water tax by the British political agent. (After the Anglo-Manipuri War in 1891, the State was placed under British Administration.) The British were compelled to stop their use of forced labour in 1904 in response to this agitation.

In 1939, the women campaigned against economic policies that permitted rice to be exported out of the kingdom at the cost of the ability of its own people to access food. The women, who controlled the marketing of produce in this largely agrarian economy, came out in protest. They surrounded the State Durbar Office and faced the same Assam Rifles against whom they are agitating today. And for many months, the women who run the main bazaar in Imphal, Manipur's capital, the Khwairamband Bazaar, refused to operate their stalls. Despite threats and the arrest of some of their members, they held out. Their boycott only ended when, during World War II, it appeared as if the Japanese, who were already in Burma, would enter Imphal forcing most civilians to leave the city.

Even today, women continue to operate the market. It is supposed to be the biggest women's market in Southeast Asia. These women have continued their involvement in the issues concerning Manipuri society. Today, the dominant groups are the Meira Paibi (torch-bearing women) and the Nupi Marup (Women's Association).

Their concerns centre on two issues: human rights violations by the armed forces and the increasing use of drugs and subsequently the emergence of HIV/AIDS amongst the youth of Manipur. Anytime they hear of a rape, torture, or a death or disappearance of a person, they gather in their hundreds and sometimes keep vigil all night. They cannot be easily deterred, as the government and the army have realised.

The women in Manipur should be saluted for their courage. The violation of even one person's rights is a violation of all our rights. We may be ignorant, but we cannot afford to be indifferent. Their struggle illustrates that if ordinary people do not question and do not speak out, they are in effect endorsing such violations of human rights.

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