Impact of Women’s Protests

Public opinion in Manipur, and outside, has responded positively to the women’s protests. By their extraordinary modes of protest, Manipuri women have brought human rights abuse, and the context in which it is taking place with impunity, to world attention. As civil society actors, they have opened up closed spaces, and invited dialogue with all concerned. They have pushed the state on the defensive, by challenging its abuses in public. The media highlights their cause from time to time, no doubt partly because of the dramatic nature of the actions.

Popular support for withdrawal of AFSPA has made state and central governments promise, time and again, to review the feasibility of repealing AFSPA. After the Meira Paibis’ July 2004 protest, the government agreed to a form a high-level commission on AFSPA – and actually did set up the Justice Reddy Commission for this purpose (in 2004). The Committee report clearly states that AFSPA “has become a symbol of oppression, an object of hate and an instrument of discrimination and high-handedness,” and should be withdrawn. However, the government has ignored the recommendations of the committee.

The state did grant another critical, long-standing demand. This is not so well known outside Manipur, but to Manipuris, it is of overwhelming importance. This is the `liberation’ of Kangla -- occupied since decades by the 17th Assam Rifles. People have long been demanding removal of the armed forces from Kangla, and its restoration as a public site. This demand was granted on 20th November 2004, when Kangla was opened up to the public for the first time since 1891. Kangla was the site of the royal palace since millennia. Its extensive compounds had many places of worship, open to the public since time immemorial. The British occupied Kangla after defeating Manipur in the Anglo- Manipur War of 1891B. The palace and other buildings were razed to the ground, and the place occupied by British forces. This was a symbol of the utmost humiliation of the Manipuri people. After the British vacated the site, the Indian state occupied it, posting the 17th Assam Rifles inside Kangla. The liberation of Kangla has been high on the list of citizens’ demands over the years. It is associated with their autonomy and basic self-respect.

The liberation is Kangla injected new enthusiasm into civil society, including common people and the activists. People are well aware that the state liberated Kangla as a conciliatory measure, responding to the pressure created by the women’s protests. Thus, the Indian state acceded to a demand which it had refused, for decades, to heed.

During the past decades, the status of women has been deteriorating in Manipur. The sex ratio, livelihoods and health status has been declining, along with increased trafficking, rape, dowry and crimes against women. There is an overall growing atmosphere of violence, and fear. People are demanding support for agriculture and livelihoods like weaving. Strong protests have built up against environmental destruction by big dams like the Tipaimukh dam, with women as leading participants in the anti-dam movements.

Women’s response to the escalating violence is a determined non-violent protest as well as constructive action. One of the determined initiatives by women is the Manipur Gun Survivors Network, founded by human rights activist Binalakshmi Nepram. She says, “Over 20,000 people were killed in the five-decade long armed conflict in Manipur, where more than 30 armed groups operate and 40 security battalions are deployed. About 300 women were made widows every year by the conflict.”

Mumtaz, 36, was widowed when her husband Azad Khan of Thoubal was allegedly killed in a fake encounter by security forces in 2009. Mumtaz survives and brings up her two children by weaving. Edina Devi’s husband Ningthoujam Anand was similarly killed in 2009 and she is struggling to feed her two children by running a small shop. They Manipur Gun Survivors Network is demanding an end to encounter killings, and attention and support for the hundreds of women widowed due to the ongoing conflict.

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