Last month, a group of about 30 Meitei MLAs came to Delhi to meet Union Ministers Rajnath Singh and Nirmala Sitharaman, stressing the demand to maintain the ‘territorial integrity’ of Manipur. On the same day, a group of nearly 100 Meira Paibis under the aegis of the Apunba Meira Paibi Lup (AMPL) of Manipur organised a protest in Delhi on the ‘silence’ of the Central government on Manipur.
The demands of the women’s group went along the lines of ‘illegal immigration’, militancy, and territorial integrity of the state, reciprocating those made by the delegation of Meitei ministers. What was surprising, however, was the denial of the conflict as an inter-communal one and the involvement of ‘external factors’ in instigating the conflict.
The current violence in Manipur has explicitly shown the undeniable intersection of gender, class, ethnicity, and political inclinations in the perpetuation of violence in the region.
‘Guardians of Civil Society’?
As the conversation around the current violence in Manipur continues unabated, the role of women as important ‘civil society' actors has often been left out of the general conversation. In Manipur, the first name that comes to mind when one talks of women groups, is the celebrated ‘Meira Paibi’.
They were first formed in 1977 in the Kakching district of Manipur in the context of the widespread militancy and counter-insurgent environment of the time. Taking its inspiration from the Nupi Lan (Women’s War) of 1904 and 1939, Meira Paibis' mobilisations have often been explicitly political in nature.
They shot to fame on 15 July 2004 when 12 ‘imas’ (Meitei mothers) disrobed in front of the Assam Rifles HQ in Imphal to protest against the rape and killing of a Meitei woman. The women protestors who went about protesting with banners that read “Indian Army rape us” and “Indian Army take our flesh” were successful in removing the army camp from that location.
Fake News and Instigations
This heroic role seems to have, however, been completely reversed in the case of the current crisis. What is so shocking about the current violence in Manipur is the testimonials shared by Zo (Kuki-Zomi-Hmar) survivors of the active role played by the Meira Paibis in instigating the Meitei mobs.
Around the first week of the violence, a video surfaced that showed two Kuki ladies surrounded by a mob of Meitei men and women. The video showed the women shouting at the two victims and telling their men to rape them for what was allegedly being done to Meitei women in the hill districts.
It was later confirmed that these two ladies were residents of Khopibung village in Kangpokpi district, located only about 2 kilometers from Porompat, Imphal. They had allegedly been raped and murdered on the evening of 5 May. Their parents were informed of their deaths when their dead bodies arrived at the morgue at Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Science, Imphal.
With the protraction of the conflict, survivors who escaped Imphal and were interviewed by various media agencies have narrated how the Meira Paibis had blocked the path of tribal families running for safety to the nearby army camps while the marauding mobs caught up to them.
However, when the violence first broke out, several claims of rape of Meitei women by tribal mobs in the hill districts were spread like wildfire. Some of these claims which have now been debunked include the following:
The claim that a Meitei nurse working in Churachandpur was raped by tribal mobs on 3 May. This was debunked when her father clarified on Impact TV, a valley-based news channel, that no such thing happened and that she was fine and well
The claim that post-mortem results showed the rape of 37 Meitei women early into the conflict. This was debunked when Shija Hospital, from which the post-mortem results supposedly came out, announced that the hospital did not conduct any such examinations
Pictures of a Meitei woman supposedly raped in the hill districts went viral and were even used by Meitei protestors in Delhi. It was later found that the woman shown in the posters was actually taken from an old Facebook post of the domestic abuse of an Arunachali woman
Although these claims were found to be false within a few days, their respective damages had been done, and several Zo women were made victims of supposed ‘revenge rapes’. The shocking revelation of the involvement of the Meira Paibis in not only encouraging their men to rape tribal women but also in physically beating and torturing them has shattered the perception of their role as ‘guardians of civil society’.
From Guardians to Perpetrators of Violence
The clash between two ethnic groups has seemingly transformed the Meira Paibis into perpetrators of violence against tribal women. Such incidents are not only disheartening when they come from the acclaimed ‘guardians of civil society’, but also underline their implicit and active role within an already ethnicised schema of majoritarian politics in the region.
Historically, the Meira Paibi have been rather silent about the atrocities conducted by valley-based insurgent groups in the hill districts.
One important case in point is the horrific 2006 incident in Parbung village when Meitei militants belonging to the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) and the Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP) raped and molested 21 Hmar women, of which, 10 were minors. It was the intervention of the Assam Rifles that eventually drove the valley-based insurgents from the Zo ethnic tribal areas.
On the other hand, the protraction of the current conflict has witnessed Meira Paibis blocking an army convoy carrying four arrested United National Liberation Front (UNLF) cadres, a valley-based proscribed outfit on 20 June, after they were caught the previous day possessing 51mm mortars. On 24 June, a similar incident took place in Imphal East District when about 1,200 Meira Paibis blocked an Indian Army convoy carrying 12 Kanglei Yawol Kanba Lup (KYKL) cadres, on the suspected instigations of the local MLA. In both incidents, the Indian Army was forced to let go of the arrested outfit cadres by the women's mobs.
What About Accountability?
Women civil society groups in Manipur form an important voice in the state but it is important for the ‘guardians of civil society’ to acknowledge that they are not immune from communal and violent mobilisations. On 4 May, when the Assam Rifles were escorting the Meiteis stranded in Churachandpur, the Zomi womenfolk formed a human chain in order to protect them against the advances of ragtag mobs.
Such instances of humanity have also come out among the survivors of the initial violence in Imphal, who have mentioned the role of the Nagas and Pangals in sheltering them or that of individual Meiteis who took great pains to help some of the victims' escape.
Without the intervention of such individuals, who did not lose their humanity to the mob, the number of tribal victims would have been far larger than the 70 or so who died in the initial days of violence itself. These deaths were not caused by conflicts between warring parties as is taking place now in the foothills, but by mobs who massacred escaping families.
As the violence continues unabated and calls for peace are made, it is of utmost importance to address the intersectionality of oppression and suffering of the tribal womenfolk. Civil society groups, including the Meira Paibi, must acknowledge their own ethnic and political inclinations in the perpetuation of violence against tribal women. The recent high voltage drama on 1 July, when Manipur Chief Minister Biren Singh’s supposed resignation letter was ‘snatched’ and torn by a Meitei woman only makes their role explicit in the political drama of the current violence.
(Hlingbiakhoih is PG Diploma Student at IIMC Delhi. Chinggelniang is a PhD Scholar at IIT Delhi. Tawna Valte is a PhD Scholar at the University of Hyderabad. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)