The Women’s Movement in Manipur 
As Reflected in the Text ‘Meira Paibee.’

Malem Ningthouja

The resistance movement in Manipur, which is aimed at protecting the democratic rights of the Manipuris, is distinguished by Manipuri women voluntarily grouping themselves into Meira Paibees. The Meira Paibee movement reveals the present state of the political structure in Manipur which perpetuates undemocratic rule through the use of military force by the state.

What is the Meira Paibee movement?

Literally meira paibee means woman torchbearer. The term meira is also occasionally used to connote initiative, progress and achievement or to signify a mechanical means for enlightening darkness. Therefore, a meira paibee, as an activist, is sometime defined as the repository of enlightenment whose utmost obligation is to defend and save society. Such an embellishment of the term meira paibee reveals a new development of the legend of Meira Paibee movement as an integral part of the national movement in Manipur.

A book entitled as ‘Meira Paibee’ was published and edited in the Manipuri language in 1999 by the National Research Centre, (Imphal, Manipur, 91 pages, Rs. 35/-). The text is an analysis of the ‘historical juncture (of Manipur) and the causes for the evolution of meira paibee and various changes its movement implants in society.’ The book helps us gain an understanding of the Meira Paibee movement.

The book represents an attempt to illustrate the present state of the national question in Manipur and suggests that it has to be understood and analyzed by integrating regional peculiarities within the parameter of changes and events occurring in different parts of the world which have repercussions on these regional peculiarities. It defines the meira paibee within a political context. Meira paibee is no longer treated as a mere congregation of women who bear torches on their evening marches. They are no longer carefree women who would spend their nights in shanglen (the huts where they congregate).

The attempt to redefine the term meira paibee for a specific political purpose is clear enough just by looking at the dedication of the text itself. The book is dedicated to those (women) ‘who stand against torture and subjection’. In its attempt to identify and justify the meira paibee movement as an integral part of the national movement the genealogy of women as revolutionaries and defenders of the society at crucial historical junctures is traced back in time. Along with such an attempt, references from international sources are directly quoted so as to support the text’s central arguments against imperialism and colonialism. Documents are selectively reproduced, analyzed and compared, so that the theory of the ‘subjection of Manipur by India’ may be publicly formulated without any restriction by the state.

Legends glorify women as an important component of society and as the equal partner to men in politics, society, economy, and cultural and ritual practices. There is an attempt in the book to revive the fading legacy of mythology as an historical fact. It says ‘in order to successfully complete the creation of Malem Leikoi Pung (the earth) Kuru Sidaba (the creator) commissioned Mitlu Leima (a goddess) to incarnate in the form of love and passion; kept Konjil Tuthokpa (who attempted to destroy the creation) arrested (by her beauty and charm), thus the creation was completed.’ Mythology may be instrumental in nation-making; it could be helpful in establishing the primordial tie between the land and the people by arousing sentiments and emotions on the basis of what people observe. The book calls Manipuri women to attention by interpreting history in such a way as to eulogize their achievements: ‘whenever the community’s women built a firm solidarity and took up all necessary and important responsibilities, in each and every historical juncture, they brought big revolutions.’

Effeminizing the ‘nation’ as the mother and the ‘country’ as the motherland acts as an emotional wake up call that surpasses historical realities and portrays women as identified with the community as victim of ‘colonial torture and subjection.’ A woman is a mother who gives birth to the present and future generations; and so it is she who would nourish revolution. She is a sister to be respected and defended. Prestige, honour and chastity are her qualities that would fix the standard of the society. Any damage done to her would correspondingly affect ‘national identity’ or vice versa. On the other hand she is equally held responsible to defend her father, brother, husband and children from an ‘unjust war’ by the colonial power. She is no longer to be confined within the four walls of the traditional world requiring protection from domestic violence. She is open to enter into the public arena to redirect the future course of this nation towards ultimate freedom. Therefore, the text is interested in illustrating the confrontation between two groups: the Government security personnel, especially the army and paramilitary forces representing the ruling nation and women human rights’ defenders representing the oppressed nation. It is totally silent on the class and gender attitude of the meira-paibee movement.

Movements are classified and grouped into trends. The assumption is that a trend occurs in space and time within the parameters of an over-arching state structure. These factors would, on the other hand, determine both the causes and the nature of those movements. Since 1904 there have been three trends of in the movement. Trends might overlap, complement or counteract. However, the criteria for classification and comparison under which a movement is to be fitted within a ‘trend’ would suggest that the movement must invoke the ‘national question’. Therefore, movements involving the national question are primarily focused upon by the book.

The first trend of the Manipur women’s organized movement was witnessed during British rule, which lasted from 1891 to 1947. The reconstruction of the legend of the Women’s Wars (in 1904 and 1938) against British colonialism is framed by the ‘nationalist’ project to recall the importance of the war of liberation. These two historical events are eulogized as climaxes of the women’s desire for liberation. The legend glorifies women as potential revolutionaries whose direct action would ultimately lead towards national victory. Women are said to have involved themselves in war at crucial historical junctures when the men were totally paralyzed and had succumbed to colonial suppression. The book observes the First Women War that broke out in 1904: ‘Manipuri women could not remain silent and tolerate the excessive torture and subjection of the Manipuri men by the British authorities. They launched a strong movement against the colonial authority in order to save their brothers, children-grandchildren and husbands… the colonial order was totally paralyzed and Manipuri men were saved from enervation due to forced labour.’ During the Second Women’s War in 1939 women were responsible for the closing down of rice mills. It observes, ‘When the price of rice did not fall even after the closing down of the mills, the mothers-grandmothers planned a new strategy to stop rice exports.’ Remembering the bloodshed it says, ‘there was physical confrontation between the women and the army when the Assam Rifles posted in front of the Telegraph Office suddenly attacked the women with guns and bayonets.’ The legend praises the valour of women as the saviours of the nation. Their courage, rational approach, collective might, sacrificing spirit, organizational skill and tactics are elaborately illustrated as the means for arousing ‘revolutionary propaganda’ and making an emotional, sentimental and psychological appeal to the people. The Britishers are charged and condemned for the crime of inflicting torture and killing unarmed women agitators who had taken to the street for just causes. Later on, Indian Rule is characterized at par with British rule; both are condemned as expansionist and colonialist.

The second trend of the Manipuri women’s organized movement began after ‘Manipur was annexed by India.’ The text says that this trend continues even today though the third trend would overshadow it from the late seventies onwards. The second trend was formed when women organized themselves into voluntary groups and launched ‘social sterilization campaigns’ against intoxication and social crimes. The All Manipur Women Social Reformation and Development Society called a Manipur bundh (shut-down) on Friday, 4th April 1980 and intensified the campaign against intoxication. Their demands from the Government included: immediate implementation of the prohibitory orders against intoxication; the immediate ban of movie shows in the morning; immediate halt to price rise on basic staple commodities; peaceful negotiation between the Government and the insurgents. They held meetings, organized processions, circulated pamphlets, submitted memorandums to end alcoholism, drug addiction, sexual harassment, and so on. They at times were physically involved in disbanding gamblers, raiding wine vendors, punishing drunkards and boycotting criminals.

The third trend, which continues till today, became dominant when women organized themselves as human rights defenders against state terrorism. Women condemned human rights violations by the state and launched action against undemocratic repressive acts. The text reveals the sexual harassment, destruction of life and property, massacres, tortures and atrocities perpetrated by the army and paramilitary forces.

The chapter on Meira Paibee Movement Against Torture and Atrocities notes:

‘Thockchom Lokendro (of Singjamei Wangma Pebiya Pandit Leikai in Imphal District) and Kangujam Loken (of Khongman Okram Chuthek, Canchipur in Imphal District) disappeared forever after they were arrested at Canchipur on 27th September 1980. Many organizations including the Meira Paibees put intense pressure on the authorities for their release. The Meira Paibee groups in the state showed their resentment against the extra-judicial arrests and a strong agitation was launched to release them.

On 29th December 1980 Lourembam Ibomcha (of Liwa Lambee Maibam Leikai, Bokul Makhong in Imphal) was sweeping (with a broom) at the time when he was arrested from his house by the Jammu & Kashmir Army who were combing the area on the charge of planting three bombs at a place called Tomal Makhong, not far away from their camp. Some local women leaders of the area immediately mobilized people and grouped themselves. Leaders of the popular organization like Momon Devi, Chaobi Devi, and Rani Devi of the All Manipur Women Social Reformation and Development Society (AMWSRADS), who were active in the anti-intoxication movement were informed. They immediately came to Ibomcha’s house. Along with O. Joy, the then Member of the Legislative Assembly from Langthabal constituency the women went to the Jammu & Kashmir Army camp at Canchipur. They pleaded Ibomcha’s innocence and demanded his immediate release. Ibomcha, who was a victim of the army’s torture, was finally released. He was brought back to his house in an army van on the same evening. Since that incident took place 29th December has been regarded as the day women began to launch the movement to save innocent ‘sons’ from the hands of the brutal army. The AMWSRADS observes 29th December as ‘Paari Kanba Numeet’ (Son Saving Day).

‘Chandam Chaoba was arrested by the CPRF on 20th January 1981 and disappeared. On 1st May,1981 the Manipur Rifles brutally shot dead four dramatists who were returning from a rehearsal at Thoudabhabok Leikai. They were: Pebem Jugindro (54), Ingudam Mangi (23), Moirangthem Ingobi (28, a teacher at Usha Bhavan Hinhschool) and Nameirakpam Imo (23, engine operator of the Manipur Electricity Department). Hawaibam Kumar of Khongman Okram Chuthek was shot dead by the J&K Army on 22th January 1982. Paonam Basantakumar of Pisum Ningom Leirak, a student of the D.M. College was shot dead by J&K Army on 23rd January 1982 when he was returning home from a tuition class. The killings of Kumar and Basantakumar led to the resentment of the mothers-grandmothers. They organized a strong protest movement by blocking various roads and bridges. They blocked the road of the Imphal secretariat and stormed into the Imphal Police Station.

‘Khaidem Budha from Pungdongbam was shot dead in a very dreadful manner by the army on 8th November 1983. On 18th March 1984 a huge crowd of about three thousand people who were watching a volleyball match at Heirangoi Thong ground were indiscriminately fired upon by the CRPF. The death toll of the massacre was 13 and 39 others were seriously injured. The incident was one of the most disastrous acts of crime in the history of Manipur committed by the Indian security forces against the innocent civilians. The Manipur Students’ Association, Delhi organized a protest rally in Delhi.

‘At 7.50 a.m. on 25th August 1993, Memcha Devi, Khumbongyum Ajou, Mutum Ajit, Pukhrambam Bihari and Nongthombam Dhakeshor were killed. That incident led to the formation of a combined front of the women and the youth known as the Joint Action Committee (JAC). They organized a strong protest movement against torture and atrocities.

‘On 28th February Thokchom Netaji, son of Th. Manglem of Thongju Part two, a student of Johnstone High School, who was standing at a bus stand waiting for the bus to his school was shot dead by the Rapid Action Police force led by assistant sub-inspector Rajen. Manipuri people in general, meira paibees and students in particular refused to cremate the dead body. The protest movement that followed was one of the longest protest movements in the history of Manipur. On 5th April 1996 O. Amina Devi (25) of Naorem Mayai Leikai was killed at her parental house and her one-year-old daughter Bebi Abem was seriously injured by personnel of the 127th Battalion of the CRPF led by inspector Rameshor. In response to the incident the meira paibees and people of the area formed a JAC. The JAC refused to cremate Amina. The protest movement called for a Manipur bundh on 30th April.

‘On 3rd May 1996 Ksh. Pravabani Devi of Kwakeithel Haorakchambi Soibam Leikai, a lower division clerk of the Registration Department, Manipur Government was killed at her house and her seven-year-old daughter Priyalakshmi was seriously injured by personnel of the 30th Battalion of the Assam Rifles. The following day, i.e. 4th May 1996, Meira paibees and Manipuri people carried out a road blockage between 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. They launched a strong protest movement against army excesses. The Army charged lathis and burst tear gas shells to suppress the movement.

‘The meira paibee movement is particularly aimed at defending the human rights of the people against the background of gross human rights violations committed by the Indian security forces. In all the movements against torture and atrocities, in the movement to save the people of Manipur, the meira paibee has been playing an important role without a break.’

The women’s concern for honour, prestige, chastity, peace, national identity, and democratic rights inspired them to be politically active.

On 27th May 1980 the Apunba Manipur Nupee Kanglup (All Manipur Women’s Organization) circulated a pamphlet entitled ‘Eikhoigee Wakat’ (Our Complaint)’.

‘Of all the changes in the administrative strategy and policies amidst enduring political complications in Kangleipak (Manipur), the most endangering one is the challenge that is directed against the lives of the Manipur women from army rule . The consequence of army rule in Manipur is the victimization of Manipuri women through unending sexual harassment by the foreign army. In order to enable us to live with full dignity and preserve our honour along the line of our tradition and culture, our fight against crimes and atrocities committed by the army, which are occurring in front of everybody’s eyes, is going on without a break from 14th May 1980 onwards.

‘We understand that the community which cannot protect the dignity of life and respect the honour of its women will become extinct from amongst the communities on earth. It is, therefore, natural that we resolve to live as Meetei women and as daughters of Kangleipak forever. Therefore, the legislators must consider how will the daughters of Kangleipak be esteemed as respectful mothers by other communities when the barbarous and animal-like behaviour that dominates society does not show any respect to the women of this land. We are merely prophesizing to you the future lives of your mothers, sisters and daughters. For all these reasons we are forced to come forward against the legislators who are administrating the assembly as they wish without any consideration for the people of our motherland. Manipuri daughters were victimized many times in many excessive military incidents before the administration of this land was entrusted to the army, even before Manipur was declared a disturbed area.

'By subverting the rights of our motherland’s police force, including the Inspector-General of Police and the Superintendent of Police, by stampeding over their power beyond all means recognized by the law, many women of the Langjing village were mercilessly tortured and dehumanized. Many ladies were raped in front of their helpless village men who were handcuffed and seriously beaten up till they become speechless. Many ladies escaped without clothes through the back door of their houses and ran helplessly to save their lives in jungle. A pregnant women (Bino) was shot, pierced by bayonet and killed in front of everyone. Manipuri women are aware of this inhuman and heart-grieving incident. We are asking this question; what is the fault of those ladies who were living a simple and innocent village life that the CRPF should deride their honour and dehumanize them in public. Why is the legislature not giving an answer to this question? Since you never give response to many such questions shouldn’t the people feel worried when the Armed Forces Special Power Act (1958) is enforced in Manipur? Armies are posted everywhere in hills and valleys. However, the legislators pretend not to hear of all the crimes and tortures committed by them. Even today most of you are still in the habit of mobilizing watchdogs and bribing the people with money in the same way as you did during election campaigns. Monetary compensation will not restore the lives of those who were killed. It will not bring total rehabilitation to those who are still suffering due to army torture. Moreover, the attempt to evaluate the honour of women in terms of money is never acceptable to any women’s community on earth. Even if the legislators will successfully cover up the convicts who are responsible for the public unrest the future of this land will one day avenge the crime.

‘For all these reasons, it is inevitable for the Nupee Kanglup (Women’s Organisation) to play a role at this crucial juncture of the community. From 14th May onwards groups of people of various villages from different parts of Manipur are putting pressure on the Chief Minister, R.K. Dorendro. On 16th May more than four thousand of us, mostly hailing from Imphal, took out a procession demanding the withdrawal of AFSPA (1958) from Manipur. We raised many slogans against the declaration of Manipur as disturbed area. On the same day various groups of people from various villages in Manipur also came to meet the Chief Minister for the same demand. Finally all were assembled at the residence of Dorendro. Dorendro gave an answer quite contrary to our demand: if your sons-grandsons are involved in rebellion then discipline them; we will provide them with jobs, tell them to surrender their weapons; the armies who will be deployed in Manipur this time are unlike the untrained CRPFs, they are well trained central armies; by declaring disturbed area operations will be carried out with the presence of civil officials like the District Commissioner so that women and children are not touched; don’t listen to those who are spreading rumours to destabilize the government and so on.

‘Such an irrelevant response was quite contrary to our demand. Being disheartened we retreated from the Chief Minister’s residence and assembled at Mapal Kangjeibung (The Polo Ground). A meeting was immediately held and we resolve to continue our fight under the banner of a united front known as ‘All Manipur Nupee Kanglup’ – All Manipur Women’s Organization. Following that, about five to six thousand of us (women) paraded in a silent procession against the army operation on 19th May. A memorandum was submitted to the Chief Minister. On that day too Dorendro made the same humiliating statement. Since demands and processions yielded no positive result, Meetei women decided to pursue matters through their non-retreating temperament. Therefore, on 21th May, Manipuri women once again took part in the history of Manipur. This time spearheaded by the valour of Meetei – womanhood that can never be suppressed, about ten thousand of us raised many slogans against the army operation and marched to the Chief Minister’s residence. Bearing the heat of the summer sun we waited till 4.30 p.m. to meet the Chief Minister. From 7 a.m. in the morning, the crestfallen Meetei women, totally unaware of appetite for food and drink, fully engrossed in desolation, marched around the Khwai Keithel (Imphal Market) and finally assembled near the Chief Minister’s gate at around noon. We really understood the disrespect shown to thousands of women; the oblivious character trying to divert us from our demand, the uncouth response that the minister was out of station and the swaggering in front of our eyes. The fact was that he (the Chief Minister) was hiding in the Manipur Rifles’ camp. His hiding was a direct challenge to the people; it was heedless behaviour against the women community. Therefore, we broke down the barricade (gate) of the Chief Minister and surrounded the bungalow till he found it impossible to hide inside. Finally he came out of hiding and presented himself before the crowd. He miscalculated that the women were totally ignorant about the meaning and implication of the AFSPA (1958). We were really disappointed when he used the best of his rhetoric skill and misinterpreted the AFSPA so that the act would be willingly accepted by us like a pack of sweet cakes. We knew that the Act would totally suppress the liberty of human beings. We also knew that in a democratic country the Act would demean democratic rights and all the natural respects ascribed to humanity would be brutally derided. Once the Act is enforced even the minister would become voiceless when the army did as they liked. It is worthwhile for you to reconsider that we – the All Manipur Nupee Kanglup – are taking ourselves to the street since we know the limitless brutality and the parameters of this Act.

‘It will be better if you (legislators) do not test again, by provoking a Third Women’s War, the courage and temperament of the Meetei women who had made Women’s Wars as respectable episodes in the history of the world by valiantly fighting with cloths tied around their waists as their only weapon against the guns and bayonets of the British.

‘Meetei women are the mothers of the children who can sacrifice their lives for the sake of the motherland. Aren’t the legislators the legitimate children of the Meetei women? Patriotism does not cause harm to another country – if that creates problem then there is an intention to extinguish a small land like ours from this earth. Therefore, the legislators in order to peacefully rule the land and not to heighten mass hysteria, must not declare Manipur a disturbed area. To avoid another Langjing incident from reoccurring again the army must not be entrusted to rule the land.

‘The Nupee Kanglup (women’s organization), therefore, will fully continue the unretreating valour and temperament of the Manipuri women community by organizing a procession on 28th May 1980 against the army operation.

‘All sons and daughters of the motherland are requested to fully support the cause of the Manipuri Nupee Kanglup. You must take part in making good the turbulent and complicated administration of this land. It is time that all women’s groups and all other organizations in this society forget their differences and take equal responsibilities in all events pertaining to our land and plead our demands to the legislators and children of this land.

Communication group
Manipur Nupee Kanglup
Kangleipak (Manipur)
Imphal: Dated 27/5/1980.’

A pamphlet circulated on 29th May1980 came out with the title: ‘Reckless Homicidal Government of Dorendro’. The pamphlet reads:

"On 28th May 1980 our friend Sinam Piyari, a pregnant lady from Yumnam Khunou Village was arrested and killed by throwing her out from a government vehicle. Another friend was seriously injured. She was killed because we pleaded with them as they were not to allowing those dying in the battle to survive. That the Dorendro Government arrested women and killed many of them when they requested an end to the army operations in Manipur is a challenge to the women on earth. It is a serious defiance of the cultural tradition of India. In the same manner as the CRPF killed a pregnant women on 26th April 1980 at Langjing Village, in the same manner as the killing of an old market women on the next day at Khwairambal Keithel, there is reckless killing of those who requested for not to be killed. Dorendro had also declared that Rs. 10,000 each would be paid as compensation for those killed. As if Manipuri women are easily auctioned for money, the disrespect shown to us is a clear indication that the land is under colonial rule.

Our deceased friend Piyari had to be thrown bare on the police ground the whole night since the Government had the women deported to a far off place and curfew was imposed without time limit. As the only means to express our disgust against the government we spent the whole night at Lamlong High School and shared the grief for our deceased friend Piyari. The help rendered to us by the people of Khurai Lamlong with whatever they possessed irrespective of age was a permanent proof that we all are the children-grandchildren of Manipuri women.

Legislators, you are the representatives of the people. You are elected through the people’s consent. The desire of the people must be your desire. You are enemies of the people if you act according to your own wishes without any consideration for the people. Manipur has not become a disturbed area. You cannot enforce army operation at all. Unless the citizens’ rights coded in the constitution are erased you should listen to the people. Does democracy means killing women? Will you totally extinguish the Manipuri women community? The Manipuri women community will live long.

Communication group;
Manipuri Nupee Kanglup
Imphal: Dated 29/5/1980'

Circumstances created the inevitability of involvement and made it compulsory for each woman to represent her respective family. Victims of torture and trauma became hard-core activists and went to the ‘bamboo torch’ as a demonstration of collective strength. They spent their precious nights in Shanglen (the huts where they congregate) and defended their honour and pride from the reign of terror.

By integrating the meira paibee movement to the national question the book brands those governments (the British government that lasted till 1947 and the Indian government today) under whose state systems the women’s movement developed, as purely colonial governments. According to the text, during British rule Manipuri women fought against humiliation to their honour and identity, forced labour, the forced conscription of Manipuris to fight for imperial wars, social injustice, illegitimate taxation, economic exploitation, political subjection and brutal repressions.

The book looks upon India as a ‘multi-national set up.’ It regards India as the brainchild of capitalist enterprise supporting expansion and the subjugation of weaker states. Manipur is ‘directly controlled and ruled by India’s occupation army.’ Manipur is falsely represented to India by ‘Indian puppets through bribery and corruption.’ The anti-intoxication campaign is shown as an indirect attack against colonialism. The lethargic attitude of the Manipuris in general and their men in particular, their addiction to alcoholism and various forms of intoxication, domestic violence, gambling and depression are the result of the distorted nature of economic development that keeps Manipuris in utter backwardness. Manipur is perceived as an arrested market thwarted from progress and development by India. The demoralized people, having few facilities for earning and recreation. are prone to unpleasant feelings and intoxication. In retaliation, women organized the ‘social sterilization campaign’ to defend society from total destruction.

The reproduction of documents related to the birth of the meira paibee movement illustrates the shift in the motives of women from the earlier reform movements. This development is an ‘immediate response to the military threat by the state.’ Here again, India is shown as an undemocratic military establishment whose physical presence and ‘extra judicial repression’ is bitterly felt by Manipuris. The text summarizes this in the following way, ‘in the same spirit as colonial governance, India’s politics empowers its army with a licence to kill.’ It further cites the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) which ‘marks a new historical period by respecting basic human rights and ending the subjugation of smaller and weaker states by bigger and powerful states.’ It justifies the ‘liberation movement in Manipur’ on the basis of the Vienna Declaration (1993) and observes that, ‘conferences and agreements on safeguarding political rights are considered as the most important by Manipuri people.’ On the ongoing military situation in Manipur it says, ‘even after Manipur is besieged with a huge army at the rate of one army person per ten Manipuri heads, there is continuing unrestrained extra-judicial beating and abuse, killings, custodial deaths, disappearances, sexual harassment, massacring and various forms of atrocities.’ Terrorism is redefined and the state is placed on top of the list. India is shown as an expansionist colonial state which incorporates and adopts many of the administrative policies of British colonialism.

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