The recent economic blockade in Manipur saw women play key role in keeping families afloat even as they attempt to forge peace. Individual activists along with a number of women organisations took active part in resolving the conflict and ensuring normalcy in the valley.
Imphal: The picturesque northeastern state of Manipur known for living with violence and unrest was once again in the news these last few months. The proposed visit of the Naga nationalist leader Thuingaleng Muivah to his home in Ukhrul district of Manipur after four decades in early May this year was strongly opposed by the state government.
It came in the wake of the Indo-Naga peace process between the Naga leaders of the NSCN (IM) and the government of India.
Life came to a standstill because of the economic blockade of the National Highways Nos 39 and 53 enforced by Naga student groups and Naga civil society in boycott of the Manipur government’s decision to hold district elections in the hill areas under the Manipur (Hill Areas) District Councils (3rd Amendment) Act 2008.
But it was further magnified in protest against the government’s move to ban the Naga leader’s entry into the state and the state government’s retaliation with military force on the peaceful rally taken out to welcome Muivah at Mao Gate (bordering Manipur and Nagaland) in the Senapati district of Manipur.
While the economic blockade of the two lifelines of the state stretched on for 68 days, the police firing at Mao Gate took two young lives, leaving many injured. But in all these upheavals and recurring crisis, it's the women from both sides of the divide, who have been playing key roles in keeping families afloat even as they attempt to forge peace.
Right from the initial stages of the crisis, women have made their presence felt. When large crowds came to greet Muivah at Mao Gate - even as protests against the government's decision to prevent him from coming went on apace – ordinary women and Naga Women leaders were at the forefront. Subsequently as the police personnel reportedly fired tear gas shells and mock bombs, two students were killed and over 70 injured, a majority of whom were women.
Simultaneously, in the valley areas of the state, women – largely Meiteis - led marches in favour of the ban on the Naga leader visiting the state. They came out in large numbers, raising banners and slogans to register their opposition.
In the aftermath of the Mao Gate incident, once again the feisty hill women came together to help families in the hills displaced by the violence. And during the two-month-long economic blockade it was the valley women who scurried through the streets of Imphal for food supplies and raw materials to keep their homes running. This involvement of ordinary women from both the hills and the valley in ensuring a semblance of normalcy under extraordinary circumstance is nothing short of courageous.
Renu Takhellambam Hangzo, a woman activist associated with the valley-based Extrajudicial Execution Victims Association and Manipur Women Gun Survival Network says, "During the economic blockade, we cut down the menu and tried to make as much as possible within a short time period to save food and fire (gas cylinder). We stood in queues for two to three hours waiting for the supply of the essential items to come. There were families who only had one meal a day during those days."“During the economic blockade, we cut down the menu and tried to make as much as possible within a short time period to save food and fire (gas cylinder). There were families who only had one meal a day during those days.”
Speaking about the conflict and her views on the recent crisis that arose over Muivah’s visit, she shares, “There should be a dialogue with all the groups together on one table. It should not be like the Centre talking to various different groups at different places – Naga groups there, the state government here or the Meitei groups there.”
Activist Aram Pamei, who has a long association with the Naga women in Manipur and had been involved in many peace initiatives including the recent one where the delegates of the United Naga Council went to Senapati to speak with students groups who had called for the economic blockade, says, “There are differences, there is conflict and these differences should be sorted out by peaceful means. Conflicting parties should be brought together to negotiate and speak to each other, sharing desires, wants and feelings. Listen to each other and try to chart a way out together.” On the Mao gate incident, she says, “It is very unfortunate. Violence begets violence.
Incidentally, Pamei is also an active member of the ongoing peace initiative by the All Manipur Christian Organisation, as part of which various meetings and dialogue with different communities is in progress.
In Manipur, women have always been at the forefront of peace initiatives. Women from all strata of society have participated in mass action. Women’s groups have widespread support and are greatly respected. No one, for instance, can overlook the role played by the remarkable Meira Peibis, the torch bearers of women's activism. At a different level is the unique Eema Keithel, perhaps the only market in the world that is run and controlled by women. Here 3,000 women congregate to sell local produce, handicrafts and household utensils to support their families.
Similarly, the contribution of the Naga Mothers' Association, the Naga Women's Union Manipur and the Kuki Women's Association, has been well documented in gender studies. Admirably, during the Naga-Kuki conflict in the 1990s, women's groups on both sides - The Naga Mothers' Association and the Kuki Women's Association - were said to have been engaged with their respective "boys" to stop violence.
As Dr Vijayalakshmi Brara of the Centre for Manipur Studies, Manipur University, observes in her article, 'Women's Role In Human Rights And Peace In North East'(PUCL Bulletin, February 2002)): 'These women's groups (Naga Mothers and Kuki women’s groups) went long stretches, walking for three to four days in the hills, to meet their respective underground outfits to stop them...'.
Brara also notes that in the Manipur valley, the Meira Paibis have boldly faced both state and non-state actors. She writes that these powerful women were the only ones who dared to face the "underground" elements head on when "everyone is cautious of them". In fact, the nude protest staged by the Meira Paibis in 2004, against the alleged rape and killing of a woman by the Assam Rifles, shook the conscience of a passive civil society at the national level.
In his work, 'Naga Women On Peace Mission' (Manipur Online, 2004), journalist Oken Jeet Sandham documents the contributions of various Naga women's groups in peace building. They have participated in consultations and meetings with local and national leaders held within and outside India, and were pro-actively engaged in the Naga reconciliation movement since its inception in 2001. Sandham characterises this engagement of Naga women with their leaders as very "encouraging".
Another scholar and writer, (Late) U.A. Shimrey of the Institute For Social and Economic Change, Bangalore, has pointed out how women organisations have representation from the village-level to the apex Naga Mothers' Association. In other words, this is a participatory movement that has helped to strengthen local democracy.
Women in Manipur make up half its population and if peace is to become a reality, their involvement is crucial. Besides these groups, Manipur in any case has always been known for its strong, charismatic women leaders, whether it was Rani Gaidinliu of an earlier generation or Irom Sharmila today.
If the troubled Northeast is to have a future marked by justice and peace, clearly women in the region will have to continue playing a central role.
courtesy - women's feature service