Meira Paibis may be part of problem, not solution

The common denominator of ethnic hate has become all pervasive in Manipur and the protesting women are an integral part of it.
Last Updated : 18 August 2023, 05:45 IST
Last Updated : 18 August 2023, 05:45 IST

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The Meitei women of Manipur, once celebrated for their activism as human rights defenders or Meira Paibis (women torchbearers), have lost their iconic status in the ongoing violence in the state. They seem to have become active facilitators of ethnic hatred, and insensitive to gender violence.

Women in Manipur have had a long tradition of social activism. Apocryphal stories claim that when their men went to fight Naga raiders, the Meitei women guarded their families and children holding night-long torchlight vigils. More recently, the Meira Paibis gained public attention in the 1970s protesting human rights violations by the paramilitary forces, and campaigning for the removal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).

They took out night marches, organised public meetings, called for shutdowns and organised peaceful protests and dharnas. The 2004 protest by 12 Meira Paibis who stripped in front of the army encampment at Kangla Fort, holding a banner ‘Indian Army, Rape us!’ brought them global attention. They were protesting the brutal rape and killing of 32-year-old Thangjam Manorama, allegedly by 17th Assam Rifles, after she was detained on suspicion of being a militant.

In taking to the frontlines once again, they seem to be following in the footsteps of Meitei women before them who led social movements against British rule and later against alcoholism and drugs. They were held up as icons of women’s leadership and social activism. However, the movement that goes by their name is unrecognisable today as a force for peace and justice.

During the recent ethnic clashes in Manipur, these women’s groups have essentially fashioned themselves into the frontline shield of Meitei chauvinists, arsonists, and rioters. They take advantage of the reluctance of the security forces to use extreme force against civilian citizens, especially women. Anyone who has witnessed them blocking army and paramilitary forces trucks will know that they are not open to any reasonable argument. They have actively facilitated cutting off the Kuki areas from the Valley, by blockading transport of foodgrain, medicines and other essential commodities from the Valley to Kuki-dominated districts like Churachandpur. All essential supplies now come through a 400 km route from adjoining Mizoram.

They have been blocking the operations of the security forces, checking ID-cards of Assam Rifles personnel in a bid to hunt for Kukis among them, helping dig up roads using JCBs to prevent the movement of security personnel, travelling with armed Meitei militants to sites of violence to shield them from security forces, and are known to have even incited young Meitei men to attack Kuki women.

On June 26, the Spear Corps of the Indian Army released a 2.12 minute video showing that Meitei women helped rioters flee, obstructed their operations, accompanied armed civilians in vehicles ostensibly going on violent raids, forced the release of known insurgents from the custody of the security forces, and dug up the access road to an Assam Rifles camp. Publicly available video evidence points to Meitei women urging rioting Meitei youngsters to rape targeted Kuki women, although it is unclear whether this was acted upon. The central security forces deployed in Manipur have reportedly also sent videos to the Centre, of the Meira Paibis indulging in stone throwing and clashing with them trying to cross over the ‘buffer zones’ created between the areas inhabited by the two communities, to attack Kuki villages.

One could argue, as liberal Meiteis do, that not every group of women involved in the present conflict can be described as Meira Paibis. There is no evidence of a centralised structure co-ordinating the protesting Meitei women. Their protests are distributed and local, which confers some amount of autonomy as well as local initiative to the women’s groups. But it is unclear whether the women organise themselves voluntarily, or do so under social pressure.

In every leikei (locality), a call for protest is given by the oldest women of the locality. Some security officials suggest that in the highly patriarchal Meitei society it is quite likely that it is the men who prompt the call for the public gathering of women perhaps because they need to use them as a shield when attacking the Kukis. Once the call is given, however, every family in the locality must send its women out in the street to join others. Those who do not listen to the social diktat are liable to pay cash fines or face social boycott. Although difficult to confirm, the officials of the security establishment claim that groups of women protestors are also bussed to critical protest sites and paid for the day.

There is tremendous social and insurgent pressure on these women to be seen and counted in the protests. Their mere presence in large numbers means that they take over the narrative of the ethnic clash while the militant elements take cover behind them. That far from being sympathetic to their gender, ethnic hatred seems to have taken over these Meira Paibis’ persona to such an extent that in one instance they demanded to see the identity papers of women officers of the Assam Rifles travelling to their duty stations in an official vehicle. They claimed that the Assam Rifles was ‘smuggling’ young Kuki women to safety by dressing them up in uniform!

The common denominator of ethnic hate has become all pervasive in Manipur and the protesting women are an integral part of it. This is evident from the fact that the Manipur Police (some would claim, now largely Meitei Police in the Valley) has not yet registered an FIR against the so-called Meira Paibis despite them visibly inciting violence at almost every scene of arson and looting.

The Meira Paibis of Manipur today are not a civil society organisation seeking justice for ordinary citizens. They have become part of the machinery of hatred and violence against the Kukis by joining hands with Meitei chauvinists, radicals, and even armed insurgents. They are a part of the problem in Manipur and cannot contribute to a process of reconciliation and peace.

(Bharat Bhushan is a Delhi-based journalist.)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

Published 18 August 2023, 05:45 IST

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