Manipur violence threatens status of women’s football

Manipur has long dominated women's football in India, but that success has been jeopardised by violent outbreaks. It remains to be seen if women's football can get back on track

A group of young female football players with their female coach (Photo: DW)
A group of young female football players with their female coach (Photo: DW)


Warning: This article contains descriptions of sexual violence

Manipur has long been famous in India as a sporting powerhouse and the driving force behind women’s football on the subcontinent, but in recent months the north-eastern state that borders Myanmar has made international headlines for very different reasons.

Ethnic tensions spilled over into violence in May, when the Kuki tribal group, who reside mostly on the hills, clashed with the majority Meiteis, resident largely of the Imphal Valley, on the question of land resources and political representation. Around 160 people were killed and it was estimated that between 40,000 to 60,000 had been forced to flee their homes.

The situation in the state that is home to three million people subsequently quietened, but violence flared again on August 29. According to local reports, 18 people were killed in these latest clashes between the Kukis and Meiteis.

There are concerns that Manipur's status as a sporting powerhouse, especially for women’s football could be negatively affected in the long-term.

Football history

With a strong female sporting culture, Manipur's women won the National Women's Football Championship in June for the 21st time out of 26 editions and have consistently kept the national team supplied with talent.

"Football is the number one sport in Manipur and men and women have been equal across sports. Physical fitness among women is encouraged and they match the men," Ngangom Bala Devi, a Manipur native and star forward of the India Women's team who recently left Scottish club Rangers, told DW. "This is now spreading elsewhere in India but has traditionally been true in Manipur in a number of sports and not just football."

Manipur resident and local news editor Debanish Achom also highlighted the traditionally egalitarian culture in the state and the natural sporting advantage it has. "Everyone, men or women, take up some sports, and football happens to be one of them."

"And since Manipur women are relatively empowered to go out and be independent, they get the time and confidence to play. Manipur's weather is also favourable for football, as it's colder than mainland India, where the summer temperature is very high."

Negative effects

The egalitarian culture did not match the image broadcast around the world in July when a video surfaced of two naked Kuki women being publicly paraded by a group of Meitei men. It has been alleged that they were gang-raped. India Prime Minister Narenda Modi said the incident had shamed the country and promised that those guilty would face justice.

"This video was shared widely on social media, which sparked outrage across India," said Achom. "These visuals of the ethnic clashes in Manipur have contributed to the deteriorating image of the state as a place that is unsafe for women."

It also makes it harder for girls and women to play football especially as whole areas of the country are shut down while security forces seek to take control of the situation. "There are two different regions, the plains and hills," Bala Devi said. "Those who live in the the hills can’t travel to the plains and those in the plains can’t go to the hills."

The players at the top levels are still in action for clubs around the country and in national team training camps. "It is lower down the levels where it may be a problem. It is a concern at the grassroots level and for younger girls who have had their lives disrupted," Devi continued.

Such concerns could be costly for the future of the state as a sporting superpower. "Training grounds won't be maintained due to lack of funds as the government is busy spending on relief and rehabilitation and practice sessions will be disrupted by frequent public shut-downs amid the intermittent violence," said Achom.

"Players who live in the hills of Manipur won't be able to come to the state capital Imphal, where sports infrastructure is available, due to road blockades and ethnic tensions. This is even before the psychological impact of the violence with players and their families as possible victims."

The role of football

Yet while football and sports have taken a back seat during the recent troubles, there is a hope that the beautiful game can show the way forward. "I have played for my state and country for years and all of us — Meiteis, Kukis or anyone else — have played for India and it has never been an issue for us," said Bala Devi.

"We play and train together, football is a unifying force and there are no differences between us. The people in Manipur have been divided by violence but football can bring them together," she added.

If Manipur can find peace and get back to playing football then the future is bright for India’s women especially as the expansion of the World Cup from 24 to 32 has opened up the tournament to new nations. At the recent 2023 tournament, a number of smaller football nations performed well.

"If the Philippines can qualify, then so can we, as they were ranked behind India at the time," said Bala Devi. "Morocco, Jamaica and Haiti have come up and we can do it too." It all comes back to time on the pitch and support. "The main concern is that we don't get regular football and the leagues are scattered in different states with a national league that lasts only a month or a month and a half and we need seven to nine months."

An Indian Super League for women could be a game-changer. "The men's league is quite good now and if we have the same support as the men, then we can qualify. I want to play at the World Cup before I retire and I will be 37 next time and it would be great for India." And for Manipur.

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Published: 05 Sep 2023, 8:47 AM