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The Transcendental Role Of Women In Manipur History

Dr. M. C. Arunkumar & Irengbam Arun

11. From Social Guardian to State Defender

As part of the rapid decolonization, Manipur, along with mainland India, became independent from the British colonial yoke on 15th August 1947. After a democratic election in 1948 based on adult franchise and a written constitution, Manipur became a constitutional monarchy with a duly elected council of ministers. But when the King of Manipur signed the instrument of Merger Agreement on 21 September 1949 Manipur officially became a part of Indian Union on 15 October 1949. Initially Manipur was granted the status of 'Part C' State in the Indian Constitution and was centrally administered. This historical turn of events had a mixed response in the Manipuri mind. A group of people took it as a 'historical necessity', while another group saw it as an 'extension of Indian colonialism' arguing on the basis of their erstwhile political attainments, including experience of having a duly elected Manipur State Assembly and Council of Ministers under a written Constitutions framed immediately after Independence.

These opposing views on the merger of Manipur apparently polarized into two opposite poles and ultimately reached the point of armed conflict in late 1970's. The United National Liberation Front, Manipur was established in 1964, whereby the demand for secession gained momentum. Yet other groups such as People's Liberation Army, Kangleipak Communist Party, People's Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak, Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup and many other ethnic-based militant groups also moved into the fray both in the valley and hills. Meanwhile in the seventies, Manipur was facing serious problems such as rampant intoxication, drug abuse and associated crimes. Somehow a group of urban womenfolk perhaps took a fancy for such a social venture and started a prohibition movement, whose modus operandi and immediate success proved quite a healing balm to an otherwise ailing society. The success of the movement spread like wildfire; and in a swift process of emulation it replicated into clones for each and every leikai in the State, almost overnight.

For one thing, the success of this movement gave out a clarion call to the government to order immediate prohibition in the state. Manipur has not perhaps seen any such autonomous social awakening, short of a social reform. And at different leikais, women formed these bodies for no other purpose but putting a stop at all rampant male indulgences. All these associations were euphemistically called Nisha Band, probably preempting their fancy for a brand name even in such social reform measures. And such a generic name has come the catchword of every Manipuri household of late. Lokendra Arambam lucidly traces the growth and dynamics of this movement, showing the distinct trajectory of gender empowerment, as also its inter-linkage to not only socioeconomic moorings but also to recent degradations:

"The harshness of the economy and lack of avenue of reasonable employment opportunities led many poor families in extended households to resort to sale of liquor (local made) and night life in the suburban and rural areas were witness to scenes of domestic crisis, of disquiet, arrests, fights, along with slow individual degeneration and death. The government, in need of revenue, had opened (Indian-Made-Foreign-Liquor) IMFL liqour shops and bonded warehouses, and the social effects of the economic move were devastating. The growth of the illicit international economy where Manipur was one of the transit routes to heroin, drugs, gems and other contraband goods led to major sections of the youth succumbing to temptation, and craze for drugs even led to killings of minors etc. Loosening of sexual morality, increasing departures from family mores of the young, and influences of mainstream visual media and other such features of 'national progress' undermined traditional disciplines and parents were losing authority. The movement of women restarted with a new phase... when nocturnal vigilante groups roamed the streets and leikais." 18

The movement got a spontaneous momentum like a wild fire and thus sought to sensitize every Manipuri Leikai. But in the absence of empirical studies, it would be difficult to assess the extent of its real benefit in terms of public and family welfare. These organizations are too informal voluntary organizations as to keep regular track through monitoring-cum-evaluation effort. The nature of the movement was to discourage use and sale of liquor through mass awakening; the violators of the prohibition were served penalties by the Leikai-based Nisha Band. The legal assumptions of the Nisha Band can be discerned as follows:

a) Use of intoxicants is a social evil;

b) Intoxication is prohibited by the group; and

c) Wrong doers should be prohibitively punished.

While translating the idea of an intoxication-free society into action, the Nisha Band would target the liquor vendors as much as the vendees or the consumers. They would destroy all seized liquors and impose penalties ranging from a fine of Rs.50/100 and/or Khongoinaba. The penalty of Khongoinaba would run in terms of parading the culprit in public often with shaven head. The culprit would also be made to shout their offence as public information for all to hear. Khongoinaba in feudal Manipur used to be the highest form of penalty given to women. The Nisha Band, on the basis of public opinion of the group, would generally resort to such easy-to-administer form of punishment. The movement, however, lacks the other more integral part of educating the people with the need and goal of movement. Rather, it follows the line of deterrent thinking: that examples would best educate the onlookers.

Out of such an unprecedented large-scale social movement, two outcomes became quite obvious: first, that the Manipuri women had carved out a new sociopolitical space for their interaction outside the (historically accessed) market place; second that a new crop of committed (literate) woman-leaders had emerged who could command a large number of women and the society (in a limited sphere). There is thus an uncontroverted view that the Manipuri society had since witnessed a new phase of gender empowerment emanating from social complexities reacting with historical factors. By a strange coincidence, this was the juncture when the secessionist militants started their urban guerrilla warfare in and around Imphal, whereafter the state government had to call in the Army to protect the interests of the state. The actual timing of Imphal becoming such a cockpit of conflicts could be discerned in the late 1970's.

In both late 1970's and early 1980's, Greater Imphalb experienced widespread combing operations by security forces frequently under the cover of the dreaded Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958. Cordon, search and house-to-house combing were conducted regularly to fish out the militants. But in the process, many innocent civilians were harassed, tortured and even decimated. Suspected persons were picked up at random for interrogation by police, Army and paramilitary personnel. Above all, terror was writ large in the mind of the people. It thus brought about new dimensions in human sufferings ranging from human rights violation to political rape.

Initially, the womenfolk would proceed to a particular police station or army camp where a picked-up civilian youth was detained. They would claim the innocence of the arrested youth and pleaded with them to release him. Of course this had a precedence in the traditional Manipuri society. For in feudal times, it used to be rather normal for women in groups to go and pray before the King for mercy on some proven criminals. Whenever so pleaded, the King would reconsider his own decree. This historical precedent motivated the women to ask the Security Forces to show mercy and release innocent civilians. Often they would fail in their mission and several civilians would also become victims of human rights abuse and other forms of state repression.

But the tradition of mercy-seeking could no longer satisfy the women after the incident of Langjing operation in 1980. Langjing, a village only six kilometers away from the state capital towards the west along the National Highway 53, became the ghastly epicentre on 26 April 1980, when some militants gunned down two paramilitary personnel on the highway near the village, Langjing. They also snatched away two assault rifles. Immediately thereafter, the village was cordoned off by Central paramilitary forces and a combing operation followed. All the men were called out and ordered to gather in a nearby open field for identification and questioning while the womenfolk was asked to remain indoors. Many persons were brutally beaten up and kicked mercilessly.

In the heat of such unprecedented action of the Central paramilitary forces by initially calling out all males at a central place for interrogation and verification, leaving behind only females in their respective households a panicky situation prevailed. Some women reportedly ran out of their houses half-naked and completely traumatized. In the incident, one pregnant woman and three men were shot dead then and there. Altogether fortyfour civilians were injured.

During the early hours of the operation, even the state Police personnel were denied entry in the village. The Langjing incident sparked off a series of agitations. The agitation attracted the attention of women vigilantes throughout the state. Rallies, public meetings and curfew became a normal feature in Imphal. The agitation reached its climax when a rallyist, one Priya of Oinam village, was to be detained along with some others by the State Police but fell down from a police truck and died on 27 May 1980. 19

In tune with such ruthless counter-insurgency operation to sanitize the civilian population, midnight cordoning of suspected civilian house or houses and pick-up of suspects went on unabated, thereby pitching up the already activated mindset of the entire Manipuri womanhood. So much so, it seemed as if, the greater the effort of the Security Forces to sanitize the civilian population, the more sensitive the womanfolk had become. As a precautionary measure against night swoops of military upon the civilian population, women in all the leikais would come out holding bamboo-torches known as the Meira vigilant throughout the night in village-corners or market places guarding their respective leikais. They would also take out night processions in and around their leikai. This became a normal routine or the modus operandi of the Meira Paibis in every leikai. Significantly enough, these women would now stoop before none. For they had deviated from their erstwhile trajectory of mercy-seekers towards that of social reformers.

The emergence of Meira Paibi in the early 1980's proved to be a new landmark in the history of women's movement. Some historians and social scientists would deem Meira Paibi as a group of mothers and elderly women who could not bear to see the sufferings of their wards and had come out to protect them from the clutches of the Army. But the Meira Paibi did emerge as a new political force that would even challenge the state and all its apparatuses in the name of curtailing human freedom and dignity as well as for encroaching upon individual liberty. The Meira Paibi gradually gained strength and started speaking out against repressive state actions, army atrocities and all forms of human rights abuse. They also started taking collective action against atrocities and inhuman treatment of the civilians. On many occasions, the Meira Paibi confronted the strong police and army personnel when the latter committed excesses under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958, which would provide immunity to the army and paramilitary in judicial and state enquiry and also empower them to kill persons on mere suspicion.

The subsequent counter-insurgency campaign brought about a fundamental change to the nature of state repression and it ushered in tortures ranging from psychological to third degree method of treatment; from involuntary disappearances to custodial deaths; from rape by state force (generally termed as political rape) to fake encounters; etc. Claims and counterclaims of the state and civil societies on these incidents created a state of confusion in the political domain. The state of confusion automatically expanded their scope and they were brought forth in the forefront of the human rights movement.They became the self-appointed vigilantes of society.

The peculiar characteristics of the Meira Paibi could be discerned in terms of: (a) their existence as informal network; (b) all women, irrespective of occupation, marital status and class, would operate as members: rather, all womanhood becoming potential members; (c) their leaders would not be formally elected or selected; rather they become one by dint of their ability in a given situation (situational leadership, allowing meteoric rise for the really dedicated, self-sacrificing and strategically capable); (d) people would therefore adore them and remain obliged to them; hence, wives and daughters are also allowed to join the vigil at night; and (e) they remain apolitical bodies with scant linkage with political parties.

But, the Meira Paibis could assert their own unique personality in the complex and conflicting political dimension by rendering their own brand of proactive prop. Moreover, the powerful but informal association of Meira Paibi would demand committed leaders who could coordinate all the units in their network at the regional and State level. They could so wield enough political space, as long as they remain above politics or distance themselves from political parties.


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