The disrobing and sexual assault of two Kuki tribe women in Manipur has triggered an outrage across India. The incident took place on May 4 and came to light on July 18 and continues to roil Indian politics. The horrific incident has sparked an outrage and roiled Indian politics and parliamentary proceedings with the opposition trying to corner the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
What makes the May 4 incident particularly disconcerting is that it came in a state where women have often been in the forefront of street protests against forced labour of Manipuri youth in the form of Nupi Lan movement in the 1930s during the British rule and for civil rights in the 1970s and the 80s as Meira Paibi movement during the decades of insurgency. In one sensational protest in 2004, 12 Manipuri women, stripped and stood in protest at the Kangla Fort in Imphal, in the wake of the alleged rape of a woman by a paramilitary trooper. The Meira Paibi movement has been a flexible platform as it also fought against the menace of drug and alcohol abuses.
Women also came to the fore since the ethnic violence between majority Meitis, who are Hindus, and minority Kukis, most of them Christians, broke out in Manipur on May 3 this year. A short video released by the Indian army in June shows how an estimated 1,500 women protesters turned up during a combing operation to obstruct the arrest of a dozen local militants in Manipur state capital Imphal's East district. The security forces had to ultimately let the militants go off the hook because any action against women protesters would have been catastrophic.
The army video alleged women protesters were "helping rioters flee" and accompanying them in vehicles and ambulances. They were also "coming in the way" of security operations and movement of logistics, and digging up a route to a paramilitary base to "cause delay", it added. The video ended with an appeal to residents to cooperate with security forces who were "working day and night to bring peace and stability".
Manipur has always known civil rights group Meira Paibis belonging to the Metei community waging movements against extra-judicial killings, drug and alcohol abuse in the society.
The iconic face of women’s movement for civil rights in Manipur is of course that of Irom Chanu Sharmila, known as the “iron lady,” who led a 16-year hunger strike from the year 2,000 demanding the tough Armed Forces Special Powers Act that gives the security forces sweeping powers in anti-insurgency operations. The abiding image of Sharmila in a hospital with drip tubes tied to her nose has become an abiding image
Though not a matrilineal society, women take part in a fairly large number in economic activities. Imphal’s biggest street market is an all-women show and women in Manipur outshine men in sports—whether in boxing or weightlifting, by garnering honours in international events like the Olympics and Asian competitions.
But when it comes to politics women remain grossly under-represented in Manipur even though women have outnumbered men in the voters’ list in the state for long. Women’s representation in the 60-member Manipur legislative assembly is very low. In 2017, only 10 women had contested the assembly poll and just two of them won. In 2022, there were only seven women out of the total of 265 candidates and only five of them tasted success. Of the five four were wives of powerful politicians and another’s husband heads an armed insurgents’ outfit, which is said to have played a key role in her win. For all her prominent status in the struggle against Armed Forces Special Powers Act, Irom Sharmila suffered a humiliating defeat managing to bag just 90 votes in 2017 assembly elections. She never returned to the poll arena since then. Clearly, political connection and money power play a role in Manipur politics like in many parts of the rest of India.
Another important issue raised by the May 4 incident is the sheer cynicism in the use of women as an instrument in a sensitive situation with sharp ethnic and communal underpinnings like in Manipur. This use is absolutely unethical, to say the least. We have seen this reprehensible tactic being used by insurgent groups and terror outfits which at times also used children as an instrument. It is one thing for women to take part or be involved in peaceful civil rights movements but completely another to push them upfront as a shield or as an instrument in a conflict situation.
The writer is a veteran Indian journalist