Patriarchy has been a dominant part of all cultures and India’s North East is no different. Patriarchy manifests itself even in the behavior, thinking, worldview, and responses of women to different situations. Before people in this region first heard of the word gender sensitization they were already enculturated in a subtle form of patriarchy that made them believe they controlled their families and in matrilineal societies even the lineage.
But that’s a perception that soon gets dismantled when we look at the gender division of labor which places a great burden on women and in other cultural behaviors where women’s bodies are the carriers of culture right from their clothes to their modesty. And all this is reinforced by our education system, religion, and tradition.
Meitei women in Manipur have traditionally gathered to oppose foreign authority and have been socialized to defend and protect their men from external aggressors. Meira Paibis are a group of Meitei ladies from all across the country. They have been known to fight social evils such as drug addiction and alcoholism and to patrol their neighborhoods at night when social evils are most visible.
When insurgency seized Manipur in the 1990s and the state was placed under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), the security forces stationed there used the AFSPA to cope with the situation. Under normal circumstances, the AFSPA allows impunity for any action committed by security forces that could be considered repressive. Under the AFSPA the security forces would search homes where suspects are taking cover. When notified that no militants are sheltering there, the army would get tough, and rapes of female army members are prevalent.
One such rape and murder of a suspected militant, Manorama Devi, sparked a massive conflagration between security forces and Manipur’s people, led by the Meira Paibis. The Meira Paibi ladies marched naked in front of the famed Kangla fort on July 15, 2004, demanding justice for Manorama Devi. Needless to say, the court martial and subsequent investigations prompted by the AFSPA have yielded little fruit.
With the fall in militant activity, the AFSPA has been withdrawn from major portions of the Imphal Valley, but it remains in the hills, where a number of Kuki-Zo militant groupings have signed a cease-fire agreement with the Government of India. Ironically, the nearly three dozen Meitei militant outfits in the Imphal valley of Manipur have signed no such treaty for cessation of terror while talks are ongoing.
The conflict in Manipur broke out on May 3, last when the All Tribal Students Union of Manipur (ATSUM) comprising the Kuki-Zo and Naga people took out a peaceful rally in Churachandpur to protest against the possibility of Meiteis who have for centuries been Hindus, having converted to Vaishnavism and lived as non-tribes, being granted tribal status on the direction of the Manipur High Court. The protest is because of the fear that Meiteis who are already more educated and progressive would corner all the benefits as far as employment and access to other resources are concerned.
From the manner in which the conflict has escalated and is now into its 80th day, it would seem that the Meiteis were prepared for it because the very next day thousands of arms were looted from the police armory in Imphal with the police doing nothing to stop the riotous mob. At least two extremist outfits have been trained to be in a state of preparedness for the attacks on tribals. What followed was mayhem with tribal homes and churches in the Imphal Valley going up in flames.
It was no less than a state of war and yet the Union Minister deigned to come to Manipur only 29 days after the conflict and violence erupted even while he was in the state for three days. The Union Government sent a senior official from the Intelligence Bureau Ashutosh Sinha, to oversee the security situation but with the Meira Paibis now obstructing every effort of the security forces and the state police overtly communal and tilting towards the Meiteis the operation seems to have become a non-starter, although the level of violence has come down.
The role of the Meira Paibis, therefore, requires greater analysis. There are videos surfacing now that show Meira Paibis obstructing the security forces to facilitate the movement of rioters into the hills; obstructing security forces from formerly arresting members of a terror outfit that was nabbed while in the act of violence and there are also videos of Meira Paibis egging on the rioters to violate the dignity of Kuki women.
How did women who are supposed to naturally be empathetic towards other women lose their moral conscience and allow their sons and brothers to molest and rape the Kuki women? Are they acting out a patriarchal agenda? Are the Meira Paibis allowed to choose what they do? Or are they like guided missiles that can be used by agent provocateurs?
I recall visiting Manipur numerous times in the past and asking women if all the women in a village are obligated to participate in the Meira Paibi. Educated women stated they had their own businesses and couldn’t spare time to go out every evening to patrol their neighborhoods and yell at electric poles to let people know they were there and watching.
When applied to the current acts and reactions of the Meira Paibis, feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir‘s concept that ‘a woman is not born but produced’ appears appropriate. Patriarchy defines women as only being ‘good’ if they are educated and employed. However, women raising their voices, questioning and reacting to anything that interferes with their individual choices are described as characteristics of a ‘bad’ woman. These are perceptions that are also ingrained in our collective consciousness.
In the case of the Meira Paibis, they are home-bound women who desire to show their ‘goodness’ by policing their society and reducing instances of social evils. But unguided minds can be used in conflict situations and be told that they need to be in the forefront to defend their men against the enemy – in this case, the Kukis. So the ‘good’ Meira Paibis who were preventing their men from being arrested and also provoking them to assault and rape the Kuki women believe they have done a service to their society. This happens out of ignorance of the law. Perhaps the construct of an enemy also dulls the moral conscience of women.
Now whether this aspect of the Meira Paibis will become a subject of research is debatable. And whether the Meira Paibis will acknowledge their wrongdoings is also fraught because their men will not allow them to be repentant lest they cannot be used for future assaults on other constructed enemies.
This conflict does not look as if it is ending any time soon because the fault lines that have been etched in people’s psyche on both sides of the divide are not easy to resolve. Now the Kukis have dug in their heels to demand for a separate administration and will not rest until that demand is granted. The State Government meanwhile is unwilling to grant that separate status. As of now, it looks like a fight to the finish unless the Centre steps in and appoints some kind of an interlocutor to pacify the two ethnicities.
Mukhim is a senior journalist and activist.