Women take centrestage in violence-hit Manipur

Of the 47 CSOs that met Union home minister Amit Shah during his four-day visit are several women-run bodies

A group of people from Manipur's Meitei community stage a demonstration in Delhi (photo: Getty Images)
A group of people from Manipur's Meitei community stage a demonstration in Delhi (photo: Getty Images)

NH Digital

Women in Manipur have always been at the centre stage, and there is no exception when it comes to playing a role in restoring peace and normalcy amidst the ongoing ethnic violence in the north-eastern state, where over 100 people have been killed and more than 320 others injured since the strife broke out on May 3.

Around 4,000 vendors of the world's largest all-women-run market, Ima Keithal or the 'Mother's Market' in Imphal, began a three-day sit-in-demonstration on Tuesday, 6 June, demanding the restoration of peace and normalcy in Manipur.

The agitating women vendors also demanded the implementation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the identification and pushback of infiltrators from Myanmar, Nepal and Bangladesh.

"The vendors in the Ima Market, which has a history of over 500 years, are known as ima or mother, and the majority of the sellers are between the ages of 50 and 70 years," Manipuri intellectual and writer Rajkumar Kalyanjit Singh said, adding that in 1891, the British introduced stringent political and economic reforms, leading to an adverse impact on the market.

"Several measures, including high taxation were imposed that eventually troubled the socio-economic fabric of the state in general and Manipuri society in particular. All these led to the formation of the Nupi Lana (Women's War) movement in 1939 to revolt against the atrocities of the British. Protest rallies, mass gatherings and campaigns were held to denounce the British policies and measures. The Britishers, to thwart the agitation, tried to sell the market's buildings to external buyers and foreigners, but the women of Manipur stood against them and defended their market aggressively," said Singh, who is also the editor of Manipuri newspaper Marup.

Of the 47 civil society organisations (CSOs) that met Union home minister Amit Shah during his four-day visit (May 29 to June 1) to the violence-torn state, a large number are women-run bodies.

At the same time, there were several celebrity sportswomen from Manipur who urged the home minister to take stern action against Kuki militants. Arjuna award-winner weightlifter Kunjarani Devi, former Indian women's football team captain Oinam Bem Bem Devi, boxer L. Sarita Devi, Dhyanchand awardee Anita Chanu, Olympian judoka Likmabam Shushila Devi, Olympic medallist Mirabai Chanu, and Dronacharya awardee (boxing) L. Ibomcha Singh were among 13 sportspersons, many of them women, 'threatened' to return their awards and medals if peace and harmony are not restored at the earliest.

Padma Shri awardee (2007) and prominent theatre artiste Sabitri Heisnam was also one of those who petitioned the home minister.

The Kuki and several other tribes, of course, have a different story to tell regarding Meitei exploitation and oppression, sidelining of the smaller tribes in a space (and thus government) that the Meitei dominate by sheer strength of numbers. The tribes' also have concerns around the grabbing of lands that the indigenous people see as their ancestral legacy.

The communal friction is not new; in fact, it has been centuries in the making. The eruption into violence, at this particular juncture, therefore has led many to ask why things came to such a head.

One of the areas Manipur's women have been particularly active of late is in inveighing against the liquor trade—which seems to have gotten a nod from the present BJP-led dispensation in the state.

The women in Manipur, besides various other social evils, have also been fighting against alcoholism since the 1970s, forcing the government in 1991—then led by R.K. Ranbir Singh of the Manipur People's Party—to pass the Manipur Liquor Prohibition Act.

In 1991, Manipur officially became a dry state with an exemption for people belonging to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribe communities to brew liquor for traditional purposes only.

The law is still in place. However, despite the prohibition, liquor consumption could not be successfully controlled and alcohol remained widely available, leading to agitations in different parts of the state against liquor-related menaces.

The present Manipur government headed by Chief Minister N. Biren Singh last year decided to partially lift the prohibition, as the government is expecting to earn a revenue of Rs 600 crore annually. As per the government decision, the sale of liquor would be confined to district headquarters and some other identified locations, such as tourist spots, resorts, security camps and hotels having at least 20 beds.

Several women activists and organisations, including the Coalition Against Drugs and Alcohol (CADA), reiterated that they would never accept the government's decision since it would harm future generations.

These organisations anticipated that if the government implements its decision, it would be the death knell for a large section of the population, especially the younger generations.

Senior Congress leaders, mostly women MLAs, were critical of the BJP government's policy.

To curb crimes against women, female citizens formed the All Manipur Women's Social Reformation and Development Samaj, or Nupi Samaj, in the late 1970s.

The meira paibis (women torchbearers) would patrol villages at night and detain drunkards and bootleggers, even meting out punishments. The punishments were often quite innovative, with the accused being asked to do a frog march wearing garlands of empty bottles, while shouting out, "I am a drunkard, I am a bootlegger".

Since the British Raj, women in the erstwhile princely state have been playing a prominent role in society. From economic activities to mass agitations, domestic affairs to sports and cultural activities, and yes, societal awareness to fight against the drug menace and militancy, women have been in a dominating role.

However, in a simultaneously patriarchal framework, they still rarely become lawmakers or ministers. Rarely is a woman seen in a commanding administrative position.

Manipur's well-known human rights activist Irom Chanu Sharmila was on a hunger strike for 16 years from November 4 in 2000 to August 2016, demanding repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Power) Act 1958 before forming the People's Resurgence and Justice Alliance ahead of the 2017 Manipur Assembly elections.

Chanu recently urged Manipur's women, irrespective of their ethnic identity to act in concert to bring peace in the state. She also requested Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Shah to visit Manipur "to understand the problem" and "resolve them".

With IANS inputs

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