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She stoops to conquer

Nupi Lal, Meira Paibi, Nisha Bandh — ‘Women’s War’, ‘Torch Bearers,’ ‘No To Alcohol’ — these are the milestones of Thokchom Ramani’s life. You could say, even, that the 75-year-old Manipuri woman, who is popularly known today as ‘Ima (Mother)’, is a sum of those many parts.

She was a child when she witnessed her first Nupi Lal when the women of the region revolted against the repressive measures of British rule in 1939, but the history of females taking the lead — in matters concerning the economy, politics as well as the defence of their motherland — goes back even further, to the endless depredations over the centuries by their ancient Burmese neighbours. Each time, it was women like Ramani who led from the front.

No wonder that the life of the now greying, dignified matriarch has been punctuated by rebellion. But if the lore of the land is what inspired her to emulate her age-old sisters, it was certainly not her education — she studied only upto class II and was married off at the age of 17.

But at 35, she was in the forefront of a hunger march undertaken by the people of Manipur in 1965 protesting against the non-availability of food. Carrying her one-year-old child on her back, Ramani fought along with scores of protesters with the government force at the Imphal Raj Bhavan. Four died in the firing that followed. She then took an active part in the continuing fight against social evils such as alcoholism which she blames for breaking up families, crimes against women and the ruining of domestic economy. “We decided to fight it and hence formed Nisha Bandh groups,” the secretary of the All Manipur Social Reformation and Development Samaj, recalls. The movement, begun in 1975, very slowly — but surely — bore fruit in 1991 when the whole of Manipur was declared dry.

And then, this year, came the morning of July 15, at Imphal’s Kangla Fort, the ancient seat of the Manipuri kingdom, where a dozen women stripped down to protest in front of the gate of the 17 Assam Rifles Battalion.This time the Meira Paibi leader and her colleagues were drawing attention — the only way they knew how — to the excesses committed by security forces in the state on the populace.

The trouble had actually been brewing since the 1980s when the army was called out in Manipur to curb the increasingly threatening insurgent movement in the state. The central forces brought their own problems with the coercive measures they adopted against the locals. The women of the region, spurred once again by Ramani, took to wielding flaming torches and keeping nightlong vigils to protect their men from being picked up at random for questioning. Today, the Meira Paibis are struggling against the 1958 Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) which they have branded the “black law”. It had initially been enforced in the Manipur hills to contain the Naga insurgency movement. The Act was extended throughout Manipur state in 1980, following stepped up armed propaganda by insurgents in the valley as well. The Act gives personnel of the security forces the right to pick up (or even kill, say the Meira Paibis) anyone on mere suspicion alone. The state government is on record saying that the security forces (sent by the Centre) have been abusing the provisions of the Act, arresting, torturing and faking fatal encounters.

And raping. “The naked anger expressed at the gate of the Assam Rifles Battalion by a dozen women was the bursting of the bottled-up anger and hurt sentiment caused by a series of atrocities on Manipuri women by security forces, armed with the AFSPA,” says Ramani fiercely. “Our anger shed our inhibition on that day. If necessary we will die — commit self-immolation to save our innocent sons and daughters.” The immediate provocation, Ramani explains, was the gunning down of 32-year-old Thangjam Manorama by troops of the 17th Assam Rifles after she was picked up from her Imphal East residence in the wee hours of July 11. She had been accused of being an “explosive device expert” of the banned Peoples Liberation Army (PLA), one of several militant groups active in Manipur. The Meira Paibis charged that Manorama was raped before she was killed. “Indian Army, come and rape us all,” the 12 naked women shouted at the Kangla gate. The charge of rape was vehemently denied by the army authority. They maintained that the woman was killed when she tried to escape from their custody.

Charges of sexual abuse by the armed forces are not without basis, says an agitated Ramani, enumerating the cases over the years. “But not all were brought to book. As in the case of Sanjita Devi, the 15-year-old girl from Jiribam of Imphal East who committed suicide after she was raped by army personnel in October last year. The army conducted a court of inquiry into the case. But nothing came of it.”

She dismisses as “utter rubbish” charges by the security forces that the Meira Paibis are themselves acting at the behest of militant organisations. “We have nothing to do with the underground (militant) organisations. Our struggle is to protect the people caught in the crossfire between militants and security forces. We are neither protecting militants nor fighting the security forces. Our only concern is the safety of our children. Our fight is to protect human rights which are being misused under the AFSPA,” Ramani says. “I have no militant son or daughter. Neither do the other women who stripped. We have no other way than to strip to protect our daughters and sons. Our repeated pleas and protests failed to move the authorities.” Ramani, in fact, has three daughters and three sons (the eldest of whom is an employee of the state agriculture department and the main breadwinner of the family).

Many say Ramani’s insistence — that the sons of Manipur were as much at risk as the daughters — is archetypal of Manipuri women. “The Metiei women of Meira Paibi are little concerned with women’s rights by themselves, and believe that they must get general civil rights implemented first,” says L. Anna Pinto, a member of the Imphal-based NGO, Centre for for Organisation, Research and Education (CORE). “The tendency to dismiss women’s rights is also likely due to the Meitei culture, which prides itself on the traditionally high status and prominent role of its women in society.”

Not that the men are always grateful (even though Ramani says her sons totally support her commitment to the protection of human rights). Some recalcitrant husbands have resented, in particular, the anti-alcohol movement largely spearheaded by their women. “Men are not happy with our drive,” reports a glum Ibechaobi Devi, secretary of a Meira Paibi group in Imphal West.

“Manipuri women have always been in the forefront in fighting for their rights and also in defending their husbands and sons,” says Binodini Devi, noted writer and a member of Manipur’s erstwhile royal family. “It is always women,” she reflects, referring to the momentous decision of the protestors on July 15. “Barring a few no men came forward, they insisted they were sending out their women. The naked parade was compelled by government inaction. Had the political leadership taken prompt action and acted accordingly — sensing the sentiments of the people — the incident could not have taken place.”

But, traumatic as it must have been, it notched up another victory — of a kind — for Ramani. The women’s struggle has shaken the army authorities as well as the state government. Two top-ranking army officials rushed to Imphal following the nude protest. And the Ibobi Singh government has now promised to take a final decision before August 15 on either total withdrawal or partial lifting of the Act. Perhaps Ramani and her people will not feel so naked then.

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