What do most people like about Manipur

How women in Manipur defend themselves against state power

In Manipur in northeast India, the security forces are suspected of serious crimes. The perpetrators are only hesitantly pursued. Women defend themselves.

Soibam Momon Leima has the kind smile of a grandmother. The gray hair is tied in a bun, a bindi, a red dot, is painted on the forehead. Like almost all women in Manipur, she wears a phanek, a wrap skirt made of cotton, and a matching scarf over her shoulders. The hair may have been darker back then and the skin on the face a bit smoother, but you can easily imagine that Leima also appeared as an inconspicuous, friendly person fourteen years ago.

"The soldiers had no idea what we were up to when we made our way past them on July 15, 2004 to their headquarters at Kangla Fort," says the elderly lady. "We took them completely by surprise." Leima and her eleven colleagues unrolled a poster that read: "Indian Army, rape us!" And in order to emphasize the protest, they stripped themselves naked. Twelve honorable women who publicly denounced the violence of Indian soldiers with bare breasts - an unheard of occurrence!

Hated special law

The brutal murder of a young woman was the decisive factor in this sensational protest. Soldiers of the paramilitary "Assam Rifles" arrested Thangjam Manorama during one of their numerous nightly searches for underground fighters, beat them and took them away from their family home. In Manipur, as in many parts of India's northeast, several rebel groups are fighting against the Indian state. Manorama was suspected of working as a messenger for a group and was charged with revealing information about gun stashes.

A few hours after her arrest, the young woman was dead. The official statement was that she had been shot while trying to escape. However, Manorama mainly had gunshot wounds in the genital area. The woman was tortured, raped, and then brutally murdered. The perpetrators have not been brought to justice to this day.

A largely unknown piece of India

pab. The Indian Northeast is an anthropologist's paradise, but an administrator's nightmare. The bon mot has a real core. The region in the north and east of Bangladesh, which belongs to India, is extremely heterogeneous in terms of language, religion and culture. And rebel organizations are active in each of the seven member states, fighting the Indian central power and often against each other to varying degrees. The security problems are greatest in Assam, Nagaland and Manipur. Arunachal Pradesh is also claimed by Beijing as Chinese territory. The presence of Indian security forces is correspondingly high in these areas.

Since the division of India and Pakistan, to which Bangladesh belonged until 1971, the north-east has only been connected to the heartland by a narrow land bridge, the so-called chicken neck, and for that reason only plays a special role. There is also the ethnic-cultural gap. The population has a Southeast Asian appearance and stands out due to its customs and eating habits, even in the already heterogeneous India. Being different is often the reason for all kinds of discrimination, which almost every one of the numerous internal migrants from the structurally weak region is familiar with.

This is one of the reasons why the relationship to the Indian nation state is ambivalent for many people from the northeast. For many Indians from the heartland, on the other hand, the region is largely unknown country that belongs to India as a territory but not as a cultural area.

In Manipur, as in other unrest areas of India, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act applies. The law, known for short as AFSPA, gives security forces special powers and their relatives extensive immunity. The Emergency Act is heavily criticized by human rights groups because it encourages abuses. It has been in force in Manipur since 1958, and the people hate the law. "The murder of Manorama brought the barrel to overflow," explains Leima, referring to her protest. "We all felt like the young woman's mothers."

The action sparked a great response, not only in Manipur's capital Imphal, but also in Delhi. The protests against Manorama's murder resulted in the AFSPA in Imphal being overturned, but in the hilly hinterland of Manipur it is still in force today. In retrospect, the protest by Leima and her fellow campaigners is also referred to as the third Nupi Lan, the war of women.

Three "women's wars"

It was not the first time that Manipur's women had successfully defied state power. In 1904, thousands of unarmed demonstrators obtained the repeal of an ordinance by the British colonial power that obliged men to do compulsory labor. And in 1939 the women in the second Nupi Lan achieved a cut in rice exports, which threatened to cause famine. Four years later, millions of people died of starvation in neighboring Bengal because the British confiscated large parts of agricultural production for the war effort. Not in Manipur.

A matriarchal social order like the Khasi in Meghalaya, another member state in northeast India, does not exist in Manipur. Nevertheless, in comparison to the rest of India, the strong female presence in public life is striking, especially in civil society engagement. One explanation for this is the warlike past of the former kingdom, in which there was an early draft and the men often lived as soldiers away from their families. In fact, women also play a far more important role in traditional economic life than in other parts of the country. Manipur's markets are firmly in the hands of women.

In addition, in the heavily militarized region, non-violent protests by women are less likely to escalate. “You use force against demonstrating men. In view of us old, naked women, the soldiers were completely at a loss, ”says Leima, amused. It is undisputed among sociologists and historians that the Nupi-Lan uprisings had a lasting impact on society and thus contributed to the emergence of new forms of protest.

The best known are the night marches of the Meira Paibi (torchbearers), with which women protest against sexual violence in Manipur, but also against alcoholism and drug use. Alcohol has been prohibited locally in Manipur since 1991. But the fight against the consequences of the conflict and especially against the AFSPA remains central. Dozens of organizations stand up for the victims, the relatives of those killed and disappeared - for people like Idina Yaikhom.

Idina Yaikhom is the mother of two children and runs a small shop on the outskirts of Imphal. «I used to be a teacher. But when I was suddenly alone, the wages were no longer enough, and with the help of my brother I opened this business. " One evening her husband hadn't come home from work. The security forces told her that he was killed in an exchange of fire while belonging to a rebel group. “We didn't see the body for four days. He was tortured and then shot. He had never had anything to do with the rebels. "

Sixteen years of hunger strike

There are many such stories in Manipur. "We documented 1,528 executions of civilians between 1979 and 2012," explains Babloo Loitongbam, chairman of Human Rights Alert, a human rights organization in Imphal. The pattern is often a similar one. A person is picked up and the body appears a few days later, the injuries often contradicting the official causes of death. Something similar is known from other regions with so-called “low-intensity conflicts”, internal unrest: for example from Kashmir, but also from the Russian North Caucasus.

Human Rights Alert has won the Indian Supreme Court to address the issue. The judges have ordered the federal police to investigate 95 particularly drastic cases. “The political resistance is great. The police have only opened 12 investigations so far. and this, according to the Supreme Court, with insufficient thoroughness, ”says Loitongbam. The army chief also complained to the prime minister that his soldiers could not do their work if they were under general suspicion.

“Still, our lawsuit has already made a difference. In the last few years hardly any people have suddenly disappeared. However, we will not have achieved our goal until the AFSPA has been repealed in all of Manipur. " And despite the serious issue, the human rights activist closes the conversation on a light note: “As a man, of course, I don't fit into your story very well. But without my wife and her good job that supports the family, I could never afford this voluntary commitment. "

By far the best-known face in the fight against the AFSPA is a female one anyway. For an unimaginable sixteen years, Irom Sharmila was on hunger strike to demonstrate against human rights violations in Manipur. Her emaciated face and the plastic tube in her nostrils for artificial feeding became a nationally acclaimed image of the prosecution. Each year she was sentenced to an additional 12 months in detention because the hunger strike was considered a suicide attempt. Until 2015 it was a criminal offense in India.

However, popularity did not help her with her political ambitions. In 2016, Sharmila surprisingly announced that he would end the hunger strike and run for election in the next regional elections. The election turned out to be a disaster. She was elected in the constituency of the powerful head of government Ibobi Singh and received only 90 votes. Many companions, including Loitongbam, advised against breaking off the hunger strike, her greatest political asset, before the election. The rupture occurred and Sharmila is now living in seclusion in southern India. «Irom made big tactical mistakes. But their lifetime achievement remains undiminished, »says Loitongbam.

First boxing school for girls

A sports boarding school in the west of Imphal is influenced by a completely different but equally impressive lifetime achievement. In three rows, two dozen young girls move in prancing steps across the courtyard. When the trainer calls, they let their fists snap forward in a quick succession of strokes. In the background, older teenagers practice on the punching bag or with a sparring partner. Mary Kom, India's most successful female boxer of all time, who recently won gold again at the Commonwealth Games in Australia, has opened the country's first boxing boarding school here in her home country, which also accepts girls.

Mary Kom, she likes to tell, had to fight for her right to boxing lessons against the opposition of her family. Today women boxing is socially accepted in Manipur. For the 43 students at the Mary Kom Boxing Academy - and many of the 42 students as well - it is clear who their greatest role model is: Mary Kom. "She shows us that you can achieve anything if you fight hard enough", explains about 17-year-old Tingueilhing, who like all the students at the boarding school has been on her feet since half past four in the morning. Because before lessons start at eight o'clock, two hours of training are on the program every day.

Outside of Manipur, too, the boxer, who was immortalized in a Bollywood film and who is the representative of her state in the upper house of the Indian parliament, has overtaken activist Irom Sharmila as Manipur's most famous face. That should not change the defensive strength of Manipur's women.