Enemies of freedom can strike in many ways. One common tactic is to appropriate the role of cultural guardian and to impose codes of conduct on the people. The militants in Manipur, who have imposed a dress code on Meitei women, are the latest in a line of small-time despots revelling in their quixotic fancies. It would have been easy to dismiss them as members of a lunatic fringe but for the sinister implications of their sartorial diktat. What is at stake here is the people’s fundamental freedom to choose their own way of life. The dresses that women — or for that matter, men — in Manipur choose to wear are part of this indisputable freedom. The extremists’ firman is as absurd as their justification of it. The traditional dress is alleged to preserve the women’s ethnic identity which the outlandish sari or the trousers would presumably destroy. This is an obviously laughable attempt at preserving ethnic identity. There have been other occasions in Manipur when some group or the other has tried to impose its idea of ethnic purity on the people. In the Eighties, there was a vain attempt to rid the language of the Imphal valley of supposedly foreign influences and change the script, as if one can direct the development of a language by a fiat.
The problem is that all these attempts at forcing codes of conduct on the people have thinly-veiled political overtones. The cultural manipulations are aimed at exploiting ethnic sentiments and thereby strengthening the militants’ secessionist appeal. The hope, of course, is that culture-policing fails everywhere. It failed when a dim-witted Marxist college principal in Calcutta wanted to ban the salwar-kameez for his female students and ordered them to wear saris on the campus. In Jammu and Kashmir, a militant outfit’s diktat to women to cover their faces was treated largely with the disdain it deserved. It is safe to assume that Manipuri women will not tolerate this affront to their freedom and dignity. Women in Imphal have a history of leading movements in major social and health issues, apart from those on the political front. But men in Manipur too should see this dressing down of their women for what it is — a threat to everybody’s freedom — and rise in protest. One way to dismiss the fiat could be to ignore it and carry on with the clothes and culture of the people’s own choice. It is not simply a question of women or their dress; it is a matter of basic individual rights without which political or other rights may not mean much. Women in Manipur may like to wear their traditional dresses rather than something else; but it has to remain their own free choice.