Jan 12, 2022
A book written by Teresa Rehman , a renowned journalist from Assam made me cry, reflect and lose myself walking down the memory lane of my adolescent years spent growing up in Imphal during the heat of insurgency and experiencing a kind of fear I had never dreamt of, and engage in an altogether fresh new discussion on what some of us set aside all these years to find normalcy but now we must look again to understand the impact that conflict has left on Manipuri society in particularly, the women.
The \"Mothers of Manipur\" brings us the story of twelve fearless women who staged a nude protest in front of the Assam Rifles headquarters cantonment gate at Kangla Fort in the heart of Imphal on 15 July, 2004 in response to the ruthless killing and rape of a young Manipuri woman by the security force while in custody, Thangjam Manorama. These women whose names are etched in the history of Manipur are Mutum Ibemhal, Ngaithem Ningol Thokchom Ongbi Ramani Devi, Soibam Momon, Yumlembam Mema, Lourembam Nganbi, Loitam Ibetombi, Haobam Ongbi Tombi Devi, Chungkham Ongbi Jamini Devi, Keisham Ongbi Taruni Devi, Angom Jibanmala, Laishram Gyaneshwari and Ningthoujam Sarojini.
These women were not reacting to only one case of human rights violation but a culmination of decades long atrocities on innocent people of Manipur. Stripping was their last resort to grab the attention of the security forces, the government of India at different levels and the global community, and highlight the vulnerability of girls and women in the state and innocent people who find themselves sandwiched between the armed forces and insurgents.
In trying to understand the profile and personality of the twelve courageous women who did the unthinkable, what had never been done before in Manipur or India for that matter, in order to make a powerful statement, I found some interesting facts in the book. The decision to execute the nude protest was of around 150 women but only 12 of them turned up on the D-day!
Many of these women fainted after staging the nude protest that lasted close to thirty minutes out of stress and anxiety. All of these women kept their plan a total secret even from their own families to ensure that the security forces or authorities do not stop them. None of them could sleep the night before so they were exhausted, tensed and stressed. Few of them were apprehensive they would be shot at and expected to be killed and were mentally prepared for any consequence. The impact of this historic women- led protest was evacuation of the Assam Rifles battalion from Kangla Fort which was handed over to the people of Manipur and AFSPA was lifted from seven assembly constituencies of Imphal municipal area. But almost all of these women carry a sense of disappointment to see that the protest did not bring about the change they had expected- revoking of Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) or a modification to the law. Inspite of this none of them regret doing what they did and say it was for the people of Manipur especially girls and women. Most of them refuse to see the protest video footages, and feel somewhat embarrassed. Most of these women protestors have a background of social work, activism or are a meirapaibi and have families with whom they reside.
The biggest strength of Mothers of Manipur is the people’s perspective on insurgency and violence in Manipur carrying their sentiments, concerns and demands of the twelve women protestors, meirapaibi and the larger civil society of Manipur who believe that AFSPA has been giving a blanket protection to miscreants within the army and paramilitary with zero accountability. One of them suggests that the law be lifted for a set period during which if the violence doesn’t decline, the government of India may put it in place once again but the people of Manipur deserve a dialogue and a chance to negotiate for peace and security. While the book describes the courage of the women protestors, it delves deeper into what their thoughts, hesitations and apprehensions had been before and after the protest. Interestingly, majority of the women protestors have little faith on politicians in the state that they can or have the will to bring any change with respect to revoking AFSPA from Manipur and consequently, lack inspiration to cast their vote.
I wish there had been pictures of the iconic women (the picture used here has been sourced from Hindustan Times and is not from the book), of Thangjam Manaroma and her mother which could have left a deeper impression. The reader may be left wondering if the armed forces instituted any internal systems and mechanism after this case to curb, detect and punish offenders within the organization.
In a recent interview Major General G.D Bakshi (retired) while discussing another matter regarding the chopper crash which killed the Chief of Defence Staff in Tamil Nadu made a statement that the Indian Army had been projected as rapists by the media while its history of valour and contribution to national security were not given enough acknowledgement. Senior army officials appear touchy about the reputation they have earned from violating human rights of innocent people in particularly that of girls and women. Whether they are doing something to change that image is something to think about.
If a person wants to understand and feel the soul of Manipur and the people who have lived (or died) through WWII and the battle of Imphal (and Shangshak), annexation to India by coercion, decades long insurgency, contemporary people and their ideologies, and the women torch bearers meirapaibis I recommend \"The Mothers of Manipur\".
(The author is an alumni of World Pulse Voices of the Future (VOF) program which is now called the Advanced Digital Empowerment Training.)
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Ps: This article was originally published in the editorial of one of the leading Englsih newspapers of Manipur (in India) on 10th January 2022.