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India: Manipur women rise against ethnic violence

Murali Krishnan in New Delhi
July 10, 2023

Women are challenging the government and security forces in India's Manipur as deadly unrest sweeps across the state. The army accuses them of aiding the rioters.

A chain of women protesters holding torches at a protest in Manipur
The military accused the women's groups of trying to aid Meitei rebelsImage: Prabhakar Mani Tewari/DW

As ethnic conflict rages on in Manipur, women groups are organizing protests amid the violence between the majority Meitei and tribal Kuki communities that has claimed more than 130 lives since it first broke out in May.

Clashes in the northeast Indian state grew deadly after the Meitei community, which accounts for more than 50% of the state's 3.5 million residents, demanded that it be recognized as a "scheduled tribe." Under India's constitution, this status unlocks new economic benefits, political powers, and quotas in government jobs and education.

The move enraged members of the predominately Christian Kuki and Naga tribes who argue that the Meitei are already the dominant community in Manipur. Both Kuki and Naga currently enjoy the "scheduled tribe" status.

Hundreds of family homes, shops, churches, and other buildings have been burned by angry mobs in the ensuing violence, leaving thousands homeless. The government has deployed thousands of additional armed forces but they have so far not been able to impose calm in the northeastern state.

Amid the turmoil, women groups have staged demonstrations, foiled search operations by the army and also blocked key roads with trucks carrying essential supplies to the state.

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Army says women activists disrupt their efforts

Locals say women groups have been active in various parts of Manipur, staging flash mobs and forming human chains to condemn the violence.

"For instance, last month, women from the Meitei community held torch marches and formed a human chain on the streets of (state capital) Imphal and the hill districts," student Elam Indra told DW. She praised the protesters' "immense courage."

But others claim such protests are helping the rioters. State and federal security forces have reportedly complained that resistance by women groups has hampered their movements and searches across Manipur.

Last week, the army released a video compiling images from a number of their operations and alleging that women activists were helping rioters flee. They also accused them of interfering in operations and logistics and digging up the roads to their camps to cause delays.

Going into 'the midst of battle'

Lourembam Nganbi is an experienced activist and member of the women's group All-Manipur Kanba Ima Lup. Talking to DW, she dismissed the army's claims that Meitei women groups have been harassing paramilitary forces and helping the safe passage of Meitei armed rebels.

"Anyone can say anything about us. They can try calling us names or portray us in whatever way they want to. The only truth is we are women and mothers who will not think twice about going in the midst of battle," Nganbi said.

She added that she was disappointed by the actions of government-sanctioned paramilitaries who have been tasked with restoring security.

"We thought the paramilitary forces would step in for civilians when violence broke out. Rather, there have been cases where houses have been set on fire after they made their entry into Meitei areas," Nganbi said.

This is not the first time Nganbi is taking a stand against security forces. In 2004, she was one of the 12 women who disrobed in a historic protest at the gate of the historic Kangla fort in Imphal in protest against the alleged gangrape and murder of a local woman, Thangjam Manorama, by paramilitary troops.

The activist told DW that she now decries a "collective loss of trust" and said the army had a "long history of staged encounters." She added that "women will obviously safeguard those who might fall into harm.”

Over a century of women's resistance

The current push for peace is only the latest in the long history of Manipur women fighting for political goals.

In the past, groups knowns as Meira Paibis (Women Torchbearers) or Imas (Mothers of Manipur) staged non-violent protests against illicit liquor, use of drugs, and most notably against legislation that granted special powers to troops and paramilitaries in "disturbed areas.”

Women of Manipur have also participated in two major mass movements —called "Nupi Lan" or women's war, against British rulers in the early 1900s.

This tradition has turned into a driving force for political mobilization in modern-day Manipur.

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"Northeast India has a rich history of women's resistance movements that have played a significant role in fighting for the rights of their communities," Chitra Ahanthem, an independent journalist from Manipur, told DW.

"These movements have been born out of a necessity to address the issues of violence, conflict, and human rights abuses that have plagued the region for decades," she added.

Peace has yet to return to Manipur, and nearly two months of increasingly violent ethnic clashes have put the state on edge. Women activists say they will continue to step in to curb the violence.

"We will continue to safeguard and protect our people not by using guns or slandering other people but by intervening as mothers," activist Lourembam Nganbi told DW.

Edited by: Darko Janjevic

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