By Makepeace Sitlhou
In the midst of the wreckage, gunshots and deaths in Manipur at the moment, the high political participation of women from different tribal communities has become more visible.
On 31 August this year, violent clashes broke out between protesters and police in Churachandpur, a tribal-dominated hill district in Manipur, after three tribal legislators’ residences were burnt down. The arson was a result of the anger and sense of betrayal that the Thadou-Kuki, Naga and Chin Zomi tribal communities felt towards their voted representatives for allowing the passage of three bills that day in the State Assembly – the Protection of Manipur People Bill, the Manipur Shops and Establishments (Second Amendment) Bill and the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (Seventh Amendment) Bill. The death of three protesters that night, two from live ammunition fired by the police allegedly without warning, further agitated the protesters. Soon Churachandpur became the epicentre of the tribal agitation, demanding a separate administration from the Manipur state government. The tribals in the state believe there are loopholes in the bills which threaten their indigenous status and claim over the constitutionally protected hill districts. In the days that followed, peaceful demonstrations quickly turned violent as hundreds of protesters vandalized and burned down residences of state representatives along with government offices. In all the chaos that ensued, nine men died in the short span of a week, six from excessive police force, including a ten-year-old boy.
The women were initially on the sidelines of the movement. Their concerted efforts at taming tempers were hardly noticed, even as they went about raising the decibel level of their demands for peaceful rallies. Just days after protesters burnt down the gates of a police station, thousands from the tribal communities showed up at the first meeting on 3 September, called by the Joint Action Committee (JAC) formed by different tribal groups to negotiate their policy demands with the state. Esther Mate, a local from Tuibuang village in Churachandpur district who was present at the meeting, said that the women’s role in holding the movement together first gained prominence in this meeting, that was held in a public playground: “There were men who were getting violent in their reactions and were again heading towards the police station. About 1,000 women assembled in a line outside the station and kept them from getting inside.” Had it not been for the women that day, more lives would have surely been lost.
The protests, that began more than three weeks ago, have seen a less than adequate response, and little effort at dialogue by the government. Frustrations have reached a boiling point and the dead, declared martyrs of the movement are still lying in the morgue. Women have been working in shifts, participating in night-and-day dharnas to voice their protest against the three bills. However, their strength is not just in numbers but also in their capacity for binding non-tribal communities together, not to mention ensuring their safety. In her locality, Esther said that a few non-tribal women from Bihar also participated in a few dharnas, and Meitei women, mostly shopkeepers, provided refreshments like water or juice to the protesters. “This has turned into a women’s movement now. Even the JAC are depending on the tribal women because if all the men assemble, there would likely be violence. Everything is peaceful since the women have taken up the movement,” she said. However, the participation of non-tribals cannot necessarily be seen as a sign of solidarity or agreement with tribal demands. While Esther said that outsiders like Biharis joined in the protests since the bills affect them too, Mary Beth Sanate, a human rights defender who has been working in Manipur for the last 10 years, thinks they’re just honoring tribal customs. “In tribal society, it’s customary to make a contribution as part of their condolence when someone dies. Shopkeepers have been coming sometimes because that’s a social practice, anyway,” she said. As a part of this practice, people from different communities pooled money and built a memorial for the tribal martyrs.
On 19 September, a cloudy Saturday, around 10,000 women from various tribes took to the highway to form a 12km human chain from Kangvai district (on the border between Churachandpur and the valley district of Bishnupur) to the district hospital in Churachandpur town. Dressed in black, these women broke all records of peaceful demonstrations, never witnessed before on such a scale in Manipur. Seen in the human chain were many young women wearing t-shirts printed with messages of solidarity, and nupis (older women) as old as 70 years, walking 24km in the erratic weather shifting between scorching heat and rain. A few non-tribal women also voluntarily joined the human chain, said Mary Beth. She told me that the women were divided about letting non-tribal women join these demonstrations, feeling that these protests were related to protecting tribal culture and resources, while others were okay with their participation, so long as it wasn’t at the forefront of policy making decisions. She clarifies to say, “This is not a communal issue but an agitation directed at the Manipur government.”
Video Credit: Freddy Simte
The violence in protests and policing has mostly been confined to Churachandpur, yet tribal communities in other hill districts like Moreh, Kangpokpi, Senapati, Ukhrul and Chandel have also carried out big rallies to show their solidarity to the movement. Valley Rose, a Tangkhul woman who runs The Aja Daily newspaper from Imphal, said that the demand for justice for the dead is very strong and that the tribal communities won’t just let go of this issue. “For the loss of one boy’s life in the plains, the government has agreed to their demands, given large compensation and built a memorial on a hillock. The government has not shown anything to the tribals, who feel they must get the respect and justice due to them.”
Women in Manipur (both the valley and the hills) have often been praised for enforcing peaceful means in protests and demonstrations. Yet they must not be seen as ‘Bambis’ in the midst of these protests, given the strong reactions they’ve displayed when pushed into a corner. Angered by the restorative work started on Health Minister Phungzathang Tonsing’s house while their martyrs’ bodies still lay in the morgue, women protesters in Churachandpur torched his residence for the third time on 18 September. More recently, a mob of women protesters torched the residence of Thanlianpau Guite, Zomi Revolution Organization leader, on 26 September for allegedly preventing the hill area MLAs from resigning, as demanded by the tribal protesters. JL Sawmi, a woman spokesperson of the JAC, explains that women have kept the men away from loitering on the streets, or participating in any agitation, for fear of losing more lives. “The womenfolk were angry at the ZRO President as they believe him to be colluding with the state government, whereas their demand is for a separate administration,” she said.
In 2004, outraged by the injustice in the investigation of the rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama Devi, allegedly by Assam Rifles security forces personnel, Manipuri women made a statement by protesting naked with banners, screaming “Indian army rape us” outside the Assam Rifles headquarters in Imphal.
In Churachandpur district, tribal women’s groups like the Zomi Mothers, Hmar Women Association and Kuki Women Union are structurally organized with strong units at village levels. Working on a voluntary basis, women leaders in these groups are elected on a rotational basis and work on issues related to violence against women, alcoholism and administrative problems of water and electricity supply. Mary Beth says these women’s groups have jumped in and intervened in conflicts in the town in the past, even when there’s been armed conflict between the Indian military and local militant groups. But has their level of participation been affected when conflicts have occurred between tribal groups? In the 90s, ethnic clashes broke out between the Kuki, Paite and Naga tribes across the hill districts, with Churachandpur being one of the worst affected districts. Mary Beth said, “Tribal women groups, who normally work with each other, were swept away by the current of inter-tribal conflicts, and for a while they did not talk to each other. However, when it subsided, they were the first to start the restorative work, helping those affected with basic necessities like food and clothing. The Kuki Women Union gathered all the orphans from the war and started an orphanage with their own resources.”
While their visibility at Ground Zero has been instrumental to the protests, women have not been involved at the level of decision-making. Very few women were participating at that level for almost a week into the protests, said Mary, who was recently appointed a JAC member. She said, “Women have jumped in and questioned the menfolk about the pitiful representation of women in these committees, even though they constitute about 90 percent of the agitation. Women are playing multiple roles in this movement – they are protesting, controlling the violence, negotiating with police not to open fire, safeguarding government institutions and organizing curfews.” After much deliberation, the JAC still has only 11 women among its 112 members and not a single woman on the core committee working on drafting proposals and negotiating policy demands with the state.
Despite their mobility and doggedness, Mary feels that there is a need for women’s collectives to take a strategic stand in the midst of violence and state repression, given the high risk of being swayed by vested interests. She said, “Their daily peace and security is at high risk. They lack legal knowledge. They lost their daily incomes and left home the whole day to be in the streets.” Still, men are more or less exclusively at the helm of both planning and decision making in the movement, with most women on the ground often not being well-informed enough about the progress of the movement or the next plan of action. “We usually take their feedback and report it back to the JAC. But for all our work, the society or the government still does not recognize women’s groups and there are no provisions for us to support this work,” said Mary Beth. As the movement rallies for equal representation of the hill district people’s interests in state matters, it is high time the leaders take cognizance of issues of representation in the movement itself.
Makepeace Sitlhou is Bangalore ki vaasi and Manipur ki adivasi. She writes on minority issues and tweets at@