How Manipuri women are becoming complicit in the carnage

They fought tyranny and oppression; now they are at the vanguard of ethnic violence

18-Women-blocking-security-forces-in-Imphal No way forward: Women blocking security forces in Imphal | courtesy indian Army

Renu Takhellambam’s husband was killed in a “fake encounter” around 15 years ago. She is president of the Extrajudicial Execution Victim Families Association Manipur. Through massive protests involving women, the organisation has forced the Union government to act against more than 100 extra judicial killings dating back to the 1980s, and put pressure on it to withdraw the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act.

The Army is not our enemy. But, they are helping Kuki terrorists. So, God has asked us to checkmate the Army. - Laisram Kumba Devi, one of the women blocking security forces
A serving brigadier says that a powerful group that always acted in the best interests of society is now being misused to attack villages of another community.

But, now, the same people who supported Renu after her husband’s killing have become her tormentors. “They set my house on fire, all documents of the illegal executions burnt down, a scooter and a car also set ablaze. Just because I belong to a Paite community house in Imphal,” says Renu, struggling to control her emotions. The Paite are part of the Kuki community. Renu is a Meitei, who married into a Kuki family. Renu, who had taken Manipuri women’s issues to the United Nations, is overwhelmed by the fact that her attackers were her friends, till recently.

Did the mob have women, too? “The people who torched our house were primarily men,” she says. “But, there were women as well [in the group].” After being forced to take shelter at a relative’s house, Renu is planning to move to Delhi with her 17-year-old son.

Hundreds of women, from 65-year-olds to 17-year-old girls, are on the streets of Imphal and the adjoining Meitei-dominated valley to obstruct security forces. Such protests were last seen in 1990s and the early 2000s―a backlash against the alleged atrocities faced by women under AFSPA. Their courage had then been widely praised, including outside India. But, today, many Manipuri Hindus think their stance is “irresponsible”.

“I think the women’s brigade should re-examine their policies,” says Dwijen Kshetrimayum, a prominent businessman. Dwijen understands that protests against security forces were needed as they failed to stop the mob of Kukis in the hills who “burnt houses and temples of Meiteis and raped their women mercilessly”. He says, “we can teach the Kukis a lesson”, but asks what harm did the forces do this time.

He has fled to Mumbai with his wife and daughter and says he does not know when he can return. “I do not think the trust deficit will be bridged soon,” he says. “Our state is marching back to what it used to be. India is progressing, but Manipur is not.” Dwijen spoke to THE WEEK for around 15 minutes. The entire time, his wife was weeping, standing behind him. He showed me a video of the “Meitei’s black army” (which Kukis allege is patronised by the state government) taking an oath to finish off the Kuki community. He also had footage of destruction of Meitei houses. He personally believes that a peaceful resolution would be better than taking revenge.

The Army and the Assam Rifles, along with the Central Reserve Police Force, were asked to take control of the situation on May 3. The forces were underprepared as there had been scaling down of the troops deployed under AFSPA in most areas of Manipur. “Getting them back to position took time, but we did that on a war footing and the Army and the Assam Rifles marched on Churachandpur where the first incidents were reported,” says an officer from the Kumaon Regiment.

PTI05_30_2023_000108B Long way to go: Union Home Minister Amit Shah meeting a delegation of Manipuri women | PTI

Though the Army’s Eastern Command―which supervises the operation of the Assam Rifles―sought reinforcements, the defence ministry, acting on information from the state government, was initially slow to appreciate the gravity of the problem. The information war fought by the Meiteis and Kukis was far ahead of the information war rooms and public information wing of the Army. Perhaps, Manipur was an eye opener for the Army―it changed two lieutenant generals, one in the information war room and the other in public information.

By the time 156 columns of the Army and the Assam Rifles took position at the riot hotspots, massacres had already taken place, as per sources in the security forces. The state police are said to have been in “mute mode”, with many officers applying for and being granted leave. “When incidents at Churachandpur happened, we were not there,” says an officer with the office of the Inspector General, Assam Rifles (South), which oversees operations in Manipur. “But, when we were called in, the Kuki religious minorities were being attacked. So, our responsibility was to save them.”

That antagonised the Meiteis. They held “peace meetings”, but those were really to chart out a plan against the forces, says the officer. When a church in Keithelmanbi was set on fire, reinforcements from Imphal West were rushing to the spot, but they were blocked at Imphal town by 100 women lying on the road. “Stooges of Kukis, go back, go back,” shouted a woman in her 50s. When a major tried to speak to them in Hindi, the woman shouted, “no Hindi, only English”. The contingent had a Manipuri soldier, but he did not attempt to speak as he would then be targeted for serving in the forces.

“Instances are being reported from across Manipur over the past few days of women being employed in close coordination with mobs of youth,” says the senior officer of IGAR (South). “A frontline of armed personnel/militia lead the charge and drive away any armed resistance within the target villages. Once that is achieved, a mob of more than 500 youth sets upon pillaging the village. It is well known by now that the victims would immediately alert the nearest Army and Assam Rifles columns through helplines or contacts in other towns and villages.” Once the message is received, columns immediately leave for the target villages. “But, the masterminds anticipate the route and decide on the best spots where groups of women can form a blockade,” says the officer.

Not many of these women were willing to reveal their identity. But, one middle-aged woman, Laisram Kumba Devi, calls herself a “foot soldier” sent by God to finish the Kukis. “The Army is not our enemy,” she says. “But, they are helping Kuki terrorists. So, God has asked us to checkmate the Army.” It is tough to believe, but when a group of Meiteis attacked villages near Keithelmanbi in early May, female college students were part of it. They have since been accommodated at relief camps in Imphal to protect them from Kukis.

The Army says the modus operandi across the state is common, suggesting there is central coordination. The Kukis also have groups of women. “Women groups from the warring communities, who were absent at such scale until May 28, now uniformly use the same delaying tactics on columns of security forces―demand to see identity cards of all soldiers, check vehicles to see if members of the opposite community are being transported and whether relief material is being ferried for them,” says an Army officer of the III Corps, Dimapur.

We are trained to kill and use lethal weapons and hence are woefully disadvantaged against a mob of unarmed, elderly women at such close quarters. In one instance, an Army column requisitioned a local soldier on leave to negotiate on its behalf, but he was humiliated and branded a traitor by the women.”

A report on the role of the women has been sent to the Army headquarters and the Union home ministry by the Assam Rifles. An officer, quoting the contents of the report, says: “The activities of women groups in Manipur over the past days have cast a dark cloud over their proud historical legacy.” In 1904 and 1939, the women of Manipur stood against tyrannical British policies. In recent decades, they have led successful drives against alcohol, drugs and domestic abuse, and have stood against wrongdoings by state and non-state actors.

A serving brigadier says that a powerful group that always acted in the best interests of society is now being misused to attack villages of another community. “By employing their women as an instrument of these nefarious actions, the potential role of mothers in bridging the divide between communities is being foreclosed,” he says.