At 10am on 15 July 2004, 12 angry women—some of them over 60—stood in front of the Kangla Fort in Imphal, stripped off their clothes and, shaking the gates, shouted: “Indian Army Rape Us. Eat our Flesh.” It was a protest unheard of before (or even after) anywhere in India and, certainly, in conservative Manipur. But the Meira Paibis, or women torchbearers of Manipur, had reason to be angry, so angry that they wanted to jolt the system. Another hunger strike or silent march was not good enough. They were responding to a new level of depravity of the army and wanted a new language of resistance.
The mothers of Manipur were using their bodies to protest against the sight of another body, that of 32-year-old Thangjam Manorama, a weaver, who had been found on 11 July, not far from her home where she had been picked up the previous night by troops of the 17th Assam Rifles, then stationed at the Kangla Fort.
Manorama’s tortured, raped and mutilated body—her vagina riddled with bullets—lay on a slab at the morgue at the Regional Institute of Medical Sciences. Some of the mothers had seen it and were horrified. Even in a state where the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (Afspa), in place since 1980, gave the army the power to shoot, arrest and search without a warrant in the name of “aiding civil power”, it was simply too much.
Who were these 12 women? What drove their rage? What led to this drastic step? And how do they view it now, nearly 13 years later, when Afspa remains in force in the state, despite the 2005 Jeevan Reddy committee’s recommendation that it be repealed? Award-winning journalist Teresa Rehman tells us the extraordinary story of otherwise ordinary women. Through meticulous reporting, she brings into focus a hitherto blurred, pixelated picture of collective action.
There’s Ima (mother) Ibemhal, a shopkeeper at Ima Keithel or Mothers’ Market. Ima Ramani grew up during World War II and, like Ima Taruni, remembers the tranquil Manipur of her childhood.
Science graduate Ima Nganbi is the one who shouted in English: “We are the mothers of Manorama. Come and rape us.” Some like Ima Ibetombi were aware that they might be killed during the protest. But, says Ima Jibanmala, “After I saw the body (of Manorama), it was not all that difficult for me to strip.”
If Ima Momon, the betel-nut-chewing mother of a revolutionary songwriter, had already been active in the movement against alcoholism, then the fashionable Ima Mema had been a crusader against drug use.
The youngest, Ima Tombi, decided to join because “if these elderly women can make such a sacrifice, why not me?” Ima Gyaneswari remains scared for all the daughters of Manipur. But with the exception of Ima Sarojini. whose husband is bitter, all the families are proud of what the mothers did.
The women despair when they think about the futility of their protest. But, says Ima Jamini: “We did the protest to ensure that such incidents are not recast in the future.” But, she adds, “Such a protest too should not be repeated.”
In this, ostensibly a story about 12 women, Rehman introduces the reader to Manipuri society and the remarkable resilience of its women, including Irom Sharmila, who, like the mothers, used her body as the site of resistance, fasting for 16 years to protest Afspa.
Through Rehman’s stories, a “hazy geo-political riddle in a remote corner” of India comes alive. We learn of its protest songwriters and poets. The Meira Paibis who keep vigil against social evils and human rights violations. The activism around HIV/AIDS.
And, yes, we learn also of the importance of the phanek (or skirt) that belongs to the mothers and grandmothers. It is believed that wearing a piece of it, say, in an amulet, brings good luck and prosperity. But to touch it when it’s worn by a woman is to go against the grain of Manipuri society.
“We will challenge your guns with a phanek,” the women shouted at the soldiers at Kangla Fort. For one hour on that day in 2004, the guns fell silent before the might of the mothers.