Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 1, December 25, 2010 (Annual 2010)
Meira Paibis: Women Torch-bearers on the March in Manipur
Friday 31 December 2010
by Shruti Mukherji
One can trace back the history of today’s Miera Paibis to the days of the Nupi Lan or women’s war in 1904 and 1939. Beginning as a protest against price rise, the demand extended over to administrative reforms against the oppressive economic and administrative policies ruled by the Manipur Maharaja and the Political Agent—Mr Gimson—of the British Government. Women’s role in public sphere is not new to Manipur. Meitei women have enjoyed a significant space outside household spheres. Traces of this can be found from the existence of certain institutions or systems that have pushed the women to take part in family economy and one such institution was Lallup-Kaba. This is some kind of forced labour which prevailed in Manipur in the 1800s. This institution has a very ancient origin in Manipur. The general system of Lallup was based on the assumption that every male between the age of 17 and 60 must place his services at the disposal of the state, without remuneration, for a certain number of days. The male of the family remained out of the house for a long period and women were compelled to get into buying and selling for maintenance of the family. Consequently, a section of the trade came under the hands of women in the form of Women’s Market today known as Ima Keithel or Ima Market.
The British administered the state of Manipur directly from 1891 till 1907 after they defeated Manipur in 1891 (Lokendra 1998). The Maharaja signed the Merger Agreement with India on September 21, 1949. Even today the circumstances under which the former princely state merged into India are contentious. (S. S. Hanjabam, 2007) Since the merger of Manipur, there have been numerous democratic movements in Manipur wherein the Meitei women have been a significant part. Historically speaking, the Meira Paibis were preceded by the Nisha Bandis who came into force in the 1970s. During that time, Manipur was flooded with drugs, narcotics, alcohol as a result of which young boys and men succumbed to addiction. This gave rise to numerous crimes, public disorder, wife-beating and other forms of gendered violence. Traditionally having a role in controlling the social ills of the society, Meitei women took upon themselves the responsibility to control the rising disorder in the society. Ordinary women started forming groups and doing night vigils/ patrols in their respective leikais (locality) to prevent the drunken men from creating menace. If found drunk, the man would be beaten by a mob of women and publicly humiliated. Consequently, these women’s groups started seizing locally brewed liquor from the distributors and doing mass scale destruction publicly. They were thus called the “Nisha Bandis”. The efforts of the Nisha Bandis resulted in Manipur being declared a dry State.
But the reality is that even after a long struggle to prohibit alcohol which found resonance in Morarji Desai’s interest in the 1970s, alcohol is still very much a part of Manipuri society.
Moving on further, in the third week of May 1980, two CRPF jawans were killed in their camp on a hillock by the PREPAK soldiers in Langjing (a village in west Imphal with 1000-2000 population). In retaliation, the CRPF jawans came down to the village and started a combing operation. People were pulled out from their houses and search was conducted to nab down the PREPAK soldiers. Men were made to stand with their hands up for the whole day and in the scuffle a woman was killed. The AFSPA was unknown to the people of valley. In order to tackle the situation, Manipur was declared a disturbed area and the Armed Forces [Special Powers] Act (AFSPA) 1958, was imposed in September 1980 which legitimised full-scale military operations, permitting even a non- commissioned officer to kill anyone on mere suspicion with guaranteed immunity. In December 1980 Ibom Shah from Hairangoithong Maibam Leikai was captured by the Army as a suspected insurgent. The Nisha Bandis at night used firewood on bamboo sticks as torches to march to the police station and get Ibom Shah released. This march of the Nisha Bandis with torches turned them into the Meira Paibis or Women Torch-bearers. The group of women, who fought for the release of Ibom Shah, formed an organisation called the All Manipur Women’s Reformation and Development Samaj in 1980 led by Ima Chobi.
Another incident occurred in 1980 simul-taneously where a group of protestors against the AFSPA were put into a police truck and taken away. A pregnant woman fell from the truck and died. A women’s group protesting against this with bamboo torches formed an organisation called the Poirei Leimaro led by Ima Konbi.
TODAY, the Meira Paibis are much more organised than before. The Meira Paibis can be divided into three groups at the State level, district level and leikai level. Every leikai in Imphal, Thoubal and Bishnupur districts has a women’s collective called the Meira Paibis. A formal body exists comprising of a president, secretary, treasurer and advisor. Every woman who is a Meitei is a Meira Paibi in a crisis situation. Communication and mobilisation is well developed among the Meira Paibis. During combing operations, when any one Meira Paibi got to know that the army is coming to their leikai, she used to beat the electric post with a stone. On listening to the sound, all women would come out of their houses and form a human shield not letting the Army get into their house for search. The Army, after implementation of the AFSPA in 1980 in the Manipur valley, assumed extraordinary powers to suppress the basic civil rights of the people. Young men were randomly picked up, women were raped and numerous people were killed on suspicion of being insurgents. The cases of Manorama, Sanjeet and Rabina are still fresh in everybody’s mind.
Currently there are four State level Meira Paibi organisations. There is a debate about which is the oldest one, but most people consider the All Manipur Women’s Reformation and Development Samaj (also known as Nupi Samaj) as the oldest State level Meira Paibi group followed by the Poirei Leimaro. Recently two more State level groups have emerged, namely the Kanglamei founded by Ima Leirik and the Meekhol founded by Ima Janaki. Ideologically, the Nupi Samaj is supported by UCM (United Committee of Manipur) and the Poirei Leimaro by the AMUCO (All Manipur United Clubs Organisation). The President of each State level group is selected by an understanding and consensus. Usually the President is a woman who is strong, brave, experienced in politics, a seasoned activist and has no fear. The structure of the Meira Paibis is loose and strong at the same time. They don’t have any fixed office in every leikai nor do they meet to discuss issues every day. Only when there is a crises situation do these women gather as Meira Paibis. The issues taken up at leikai level range from neighborhood fights, theft, threat from UG for extortion, elopement, extra-marital affair, desertion of women to combing operations done by the Army. The leikai level groups also join the State level groups (whoever they are affiliated to) in order to carry out a protest rally or a dharna. Interestingly the leikai level organisation did not happen on its own but was initiated by the State level Meira Paibi organisations. There are many Meira Paibi groups which are not registered and function on their own.
Politically the women at the forefront of the Meira Paibis today have clear notions about who they are. Conversations with Ima Taruni, Ima Gyneshwari, Ima Nagabi and many more revealed that they all stand for the territorial integrity of Manipur in the wake of the current political tension over the ADC elections in May-June 2010 and Th Muivah’s (leader of the NSCN-IM) visit to his home village Somdal in Ukhrul district of Manipur. Imphal city was flooded with dharnas, rallies by the Meira Paibi groups asking Muivah to not enter Manipur. The tension escalated when the Central Government gave permission to Muviah to visit his home town and the Manipur Government opposed this decision as they anticipated ethnic clashes. The Manipur Government saw Muivah’s visit with a hidden agenda of mobilising the Nagas of the State on the demand of ‘Greater Nagaland’, which is a threat to the integrity of Manipur.
Every other day I was able to witness women sitting in groups of 50 to 500 sitting in the middle of the Bazaar and protesting against Muivah. These women wore pinkish orange Sarong with a white drape and squatted under the vegetable shed from 10 am to 5 pm. On the day of the dharna the women would not sell anything. The Meira Paibis from each leikai would engage in dharna at least once either alone or along with nearby leikais.
APART from joining protests, the Meira Paibis played other roles also. From April 11, 2010 Manipur’s national highway 39 was blocked by the Naga groups, All Naga Students Association, Manipur (ANSAM) and United Naga Council (UNC), protesting against the Autonomous District Council elections conducted by the Manipur Government after 20 years. The 1971 ADC Act was amended in 2008; according to this the traditional powers of the tribal chief would be transferred to the elected district council of tribal leaders. The bone of contention was over section 29 (i), section 29(xiv), section 29(2) (a), section 2 (b) of the amended Act which take away and threaten the tribal community’s rights over ownership of resources and land. The economic blockade, thus called to protest against the elections, led to escalation of prices of essential commodities like rice, medicines and petrol. The pinch of this was felt both by the valley and hill people which increased when the national highway 53 was blocked by the Zeliangrong Students’ Union (ZSU) in order to intensify the protest.
The Manipur Government saw the blockade and timing of Th Muivah’s entry as part of a bigger game-plan and decided to block his entry at Mao gate of Senapati district in Manipur from May 3, 2010. Heavy battalions of Assam Rifles, Manipur Commandos, Manipur Police were deployed blocking the highway 39 on the Manipur side which connects Manipur with Nagaland. The Nagas of Mao gate started non-violent welcome rallies to welcome their leaders and protesting the heavy deployment of the Army. The situation turned violent when two students were shot by the Manipur Police; they were part of the rally on June 6, 2010.
In all of this the Meira Paibis have played a very crucial role to protect their community’s rights over the issue of territorial integrity. Instances from Bishnupur district revealed that the Meira Paibis used to go to the market and convince the shop owners not to inflate the prices of essential commodities. They would also not let tribes coming from the nearby mountains of Tamenglong take huge quantities of rice and oil with them.
The Meira Paibis are also part of the apex bodies of the United Committee of Manipur (UCM) and All Manipur United Clubs Organi-sation (AMUCO) which are the apex bodies of the Meities and therefore cannot be identified as mere neutral groups of women who have no political agenda. When I speak of politics here, I am not restricting myself to merely electoral politics but to the strategies and actions under-taken by the Meira Paibis to determine the political economy of the Manipur State along with other socio-political groups. I see them playing a very interesting role at various times. Being flexible and not having a rigid structure they are able to take up any issue which pertains to the community. This also makes the Meira Paibis not a group confined to agitating on strictly women’s issues.
A closer look at the kind of issues the Meira Paibis have actively fought for shows that those are the ones having adverse effect on the larger Meitei community. The Meira Paibis have hardly taken up the gender issue per se. But they do intervene in marital and family disputes which many a time are not favourable to the woman. Beginning from the 1980s, when the Nisha Bandis transformed into Meira Paibis, one can see a huge shift in their mode of engagement in the public sphere. They are increasingly seen in the forefront of political mobilisation and have been visible in all public spaces expressing their stand effectively. The Meira Paibis, who have been known to stand for non-violence, have in the current political turmoil of the Manipur State found themselves with Meitei groups and the Ibobi Government justifying the heavy deployment of armed forces in Mao gate region to crush the Naga supporters welcoming Th Muviah.
One can thus see the evolution the Meira Paibis have undergone. They have very successfully created a space for women to come out in public. The Meira Paibis are also becoming more and more organised and not merely voicing their spontaneous reaction to injustice. Currently the Meira Paibis are hands in glove with the government and Meitei civil society to re-inforce the hegemony the Meiteis have been enjoying over the political space in Manipur over the smaller communities. It is particularly painful to observe that despite having the potential to defuse the tension emanating from the violence meted out to the Naga communities in Senapati and Ukhrul districts, the Meira Paibis remained silent. Thus has surfaced the need to introspect the important political space the Meira Paibis have created through their selfless struggle and collective action; this is getting captured by the forces of Meitei chauvinism to direct the future of Manipur’s political economy.
1. Parratt, Saroj N. Arambam and Parratt John, “The Second ‘Women’s War’ and the Emergence of Democratic Government in Manipur”, Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 35, No. 4 (October 2001).
2. Phanjoubam, Pradip, “The Homeland and the State: The Meiteis and the Nagas in Manipur”, Economic & Political Weekly, June 26, 2010, vol xlv, nos 26 and 27.
3. Thockchom Nandini, Meira Paibi: Women’s Movement in Meitei Society.
7. Field notes collected during data collection between April 28, 2010 and June
The author is a Post-Graduate student at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. As part of her MA course, she is doing research on ’Women’s Movement in Manipur: A Comparative Study of Meira Paibi and Tanghkul Shanao Long’.