Not just mute spectators
Meira Paibi Day every December 29 highlights the formidable presence women vigilante groups have in Manipuri society
This December 29, women vigilantes in Manipur and the diaspore of Manipuri women elsewhere will come together to mark the Meira Paibi (women vigilantes) day.
It was on this day in 1980 that a set of intrepid womenfolk of the State threw the gauntlet at the Indian army and rescued an innocent man who was being taken away from his home at Maibam Leikai near Heirangoithong. An army column had arrested Ibomcha Lourembam on the charge of being a militant. Had it not been for the women vigilantes, Ibomcha, leaving behind his wife and little children, might have been a mere statistic like over 1500 persons alleged to be victims of extra-judicial killings in the insurgency-afflicted State.
Following continued confrontations and exposes by the women vigilantes, the Gauhati High Court intervened to spell out the powers and functions of the army under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958, (AFSPA) -- clamped on the State to counter militancy, so that innocents like Ibomcha could be saved from meeting injustice.
The Supreme Court too intervened on the issue. The apex court is examining all the cases of alleged extra- judicial killings in the State after foul play was established in six cases it randomly selected for examination.
One such horrendous case was that of Azad Khan, a 12-year-old student. One morning, he was reading a newspaper before going to school. A combined team of police commandos and security personnel descended on his house for a raid and frogmarched him to a nearby paddy field. His distraught parents along with some family members followed them and pleaded with the police to set him free since he was innocent. But he was shot dead point blank and a hand gun was thrown near the body to establish that he was a terrorist. While picking up this case for further inquiry, the SC wanted to know from the army how a 12-year- old could be a terrorist.
There have also been allegations on army personnel of other horrific crimes such as rape. In spite of many rape charges, only two victims have so far got justice with their perpetrators convicted.
All these crimes on the people of the State in the name of restoring peace, and justice being perennially denied to the victims, led to formation of women vigilante groups. To invoke a bit of history here to give an idea about the activism of women in the State, the British,who once used Assam Rifles personnel to bayonet unarmed Manipuri women protesting against jacking up of the price of rice, had to capitulate to them finally. Both the people and the State Government observe Women’s War day every December 12 to mark that activism by Manipuri women.
Now the people of the State has yet another day to mark the power of their women. Every Maira Paibi Day, one woman from each house has to come out for nocturnal vigil and demand release of arrested youths if there is no evidence against them or they have not been handed over to the nearest police station in case of finding evidence against them as per AFSPA.
In some such night vigils, the besieged army personnel had resorted to baton charges on women for breaking the barricades. Following increased stand-offs between the army and the women vigilantes, the Gauhati HC had spelt out parameters for the army to function as per AFSPA. It ruled that all arrested persons in the State would have to be handed over to the nearest police station in the least possible time. It underlined that the army had no power to interrogate an arrested person to establish his/her guilt. Guilt should precede arrest and not vice versa.
All Manipur Social Development and Reformation Samaj was the first women vigilante group in the State whose initial concern was to put a check on the sale and consumption of liquor. Later, they trained their guns at the alleged army atrocities.
It began with the infamous Manorama case. Thangjam Manorama, a village girl, was arrested on July 11, 2004, by some personnel of the 17 Assam Rifles on the charge of being an insurgent leader. Her bullet-ridden body was found near a hill the next morning. Allegation went rife that she was gangraped before her custodial death.
A terse official explanation from the Assam Rifles said she volunteered to take a team to a place where firearms and explosives were cached. On the way, the team stopped as she wanted to relieve herself. Despite warning she tried to escape and the personnel had to open fire. It was, however, contradictory to the usual practice of blindfolding and handcuffing insurgents by the security forces in the State. Also, the forces couldn’t explain why the most grievous wounds were mostly in her private parts. The bullet injuries on her body were also alleged to be inflicted from close quarters.
To oppose the horrific killing of Manorama, 12 women activists of the State silently materialised near the gate of 17 Assam Rifles in Imphal on July 14, 2004. They scripted world history by stripping themselves naked and screaming at the stunned personnel to rape and kill them also. Later one girl, Memita, was gunned down. An activist, Pebam Chittaranjan, also committed self-immolation at the site.
Unfortunately, New Delhi has not yet given an acceptable explanation to the people of the State on the Manorama case and has not yet punished the guilty since the AFSPA gives blanket immunity to security personnel.
To mollify the agitated people, the Central Government, however, lifted AFSPA from seven Assembly segments ofImphal on August 12, 2004. Some unidentified extremists replied to the incident by blasting hand grenades at the ISKCON temple, killing six persons including a child and injuring many others. Though AFSPA is still not operational in these segments, no difference is seen in army’s counter-insurgency operations there.
Sensing the influence women vigilantes have on the people of the State, the army launched Operation Charm. Army officials interacted with women vigilantes and doled out liberal financial assistance to them for construction of their offices, buying furniture, etc. Sensing “closeness” between the army and women vigilante groups, an insurgent outfit warned them to stay away from the army for their own safety since the personnel could be attacked any time.
However, women vigilantes have been engaging actively in various aspects affecting the State. Whenever a person is wrongfully arrested or killed in a suspicious encounter, it is them who rush to the streets to demand a proper inquiry. During the recent agitation for Inner Line Permit in the State, they were in the forefront too.
Interestingly, several politicians and political parties have tried to woo the women vigilantes for their political gains. However, the women have been steadfast on their goal of delivering justice to innocents caught in the fight between the State and the insurgents.
( The writer is a senior journalist based in Imphal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)