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When Manipur is burning, men don't seem bothered, women are the only hope

By Dr Mansee Bal Bhargava* 
The two images from the present Manipur pogrom (yes, a pogrom!), one from Indian Express and the other from The Print both published on May 25th, hits hard a clear thought. The role of gender in the state of a society! Whenever there is a crowd raising swords and torches of fire (mashaal), it is predominantly represented by men; whereas whenever there is a crowd raising placards of peace, it is often the women who dominate and lead.
The events in both the images are from May 24th from the same Bishnupur district, one is of the buildings burning and crowd sloganeering at Thamnapokpi foothills and another is of the hundreds of women from Meitei villages blocking the entry of central armed forces to the Kwakta region.
This observation is not to further drive a gender-based wedge in an already divided society on the lines of caste, class, belief, religion, legal status, land holding, etc. Instead, the purpose is to highlight how women need to be heard better as they bring an alternate governance approach in a complex society -- an approach of peace and dialogue hand in hand with a peaceful protest.
Thoughts that hit harder are, why men choose the path of aggression, be it protest or defence? Why men pushing for armed gangs and partisan state? Where are the peace efforts (budget?)?
Just when one was pondering with ‘patriarchy’ as a simplified answer to the complex questions, this message came from a close friend from Manipur placed somewhere on the higher echelons of the government system. The message was a veritable vindication of the one-word answer, patriarchy. The message is quoted as received with due permission, but with person’s name withheld for security reasons:
“Things have become worst from bad. It’s out of control now. It’s gonna be too bloody. The woes n cries are going to reach every household. Too complicated and too out of control. There’s no administration, there are some misusing the situation and there are many who does nothing to pacify. The greatest harm will be done on nrm. The consequences next year will be bloody hell.
“Now is 100% curfew but I came with my son, we came to office and using internet. The city has a scary look with only armies … all deserted.
“I don’t think this will end soon, it’s all intricate and the only thing we pray is it doesn’t become a communal riot between meitei and tribal. Now the conflict is just between meitei and one tribal group which is a conglomerate of about 7-8 tribes out of 34, rest are in neutral ground. But due to their looks it’s hard to differentiate one from the other and chances are very high to get carried away and do the unthinkable. The Meitei’s are pretty much hurt and angry with both the government n also the army due to trust deficit.
“Peace, peace and only peace! I pray for peace and I have only prayers in my heart for all communities.”
This deep concern and cry of helplessness extend the feelings here especially as they add to the reflection of the country’s braided social, economic, political and even defence fabric are compromised in the recent years. 
There is an anguish about the rising unrests on several spheres of home affairs which otherwise could be resolved like, the wrestlers, the CAA-NRC, the Farmers Bill, and now the Manipur Burning. Ironically, in these times of the New India, raising questions and writing comments on such issues are getting challenging as they either go to the deaf ears of the system or become subject to being anti-national.

Why Manipur Burning? Again? is not a good sign for NE and for democracy

The major communal conflict registered earlier was in 1993, when Hindu Meiteis clashed with Pangals (Muslims) in violence which also negatively impacted the tribal Nagas and Kukis. The intercommunal conflicts of Manipur over the lands and demographics seem to have graduated from over the decades of clashes to the more institutionalised carcass in the recent time of the New India with manifestation over the last 2 months.
I am not an expert of the subject, however, a layperson thought says that the fresh round of conflicts leading to violence may have been immolated by the current system in the preparation for the 2024 Lok Sabha election or the larger agenda of Hindutva.
The largely Hindu Meitei population making up around 50% of the state population of around 40 lakhs while enjoying the political dominance, are prohibited from settling in the hilly regions of the state as per the Land Reform Act of Manipur (which limits them to reside in the Imphal Valley which is around 10% of the state's land).
The tribal population predominantly making up around 40% belonging to Christian Kukis and the Nagas reside in the reserved and protected hilly regions consisting of the rest of the 90% of the state and have option of also settling in the valley regions. Important to note here that the pristine landscape of the reserved and protected regions is conserved because of their inhabitancy and centuries of community forest management.
Now the New India is on a Development Train. So, cut to the Manipur State Elections in 2017, the BJP managed to form the government despite having just 21 seats compared to Congress's 28 by joining hands with two local parties, National People's Party and the Naga People's Front. In 2022, with Congress losing badly made things easier for the BJP to bring the double engine manifesto. The latter’s manifesto had an agenda of reclaiming the hills by any means.
The social-political dynamics is hugely impacted with state machinery supported by the centre (the ‘double-engine’ formula) getting the required impetus to push for the agenda in the state. The number of visits by the central ministers pre and post 2022 elections, if those result in such conflict situation routed strategically through the judiciary and the defence, it is a clear pattern of institutionalised efforts as stated in the start of this section.
Right after 2022, the state government began efforts to remove the tribal population from the hills and forests in the pretext of ’so called’ illegal immigrants which is not only against the Land Reform Act of Manipur, it is also seen as anti-tribal. Later into the process, some Churches were razed by the government claiming them to be illegal construction on government land. Add to this the Vikas-Train. Unfortunately, Manipur is falling into the trap of Nationalism and Development with the double engine manifesto.
Ironically (not surprisingly) the judiciary and the defence acting into the hands of the politics is at the core of the rising tension and more importantly for the loss of faith in the institutions of democracy.
The initial nail on the coffin (current mess) came with the Manipur High Court order followed by the security forces Marching into the state. 
As appeal from some Meiti community, the Manipur High Court, April 20th, directed the state government to "consider inclusion of Meitei community in the Scheduled Tribes (ST) list which obviously would mean to allow them to purchase land in the prohibited hilly areas and forests. Somewhere, the educated elites combined with the political powers playing in the hands of capitalism seems to intend ripping the rich natural resources to extract business out of the hills and forests which have been protected by the tribals for centuries.
The All-Tribal Student Union Manipur (ATSUM) through the ‘Tribal Solidarity March’ called for a state wide protest opposing the decision of the Manipur High Court. On the May 3rd the Tribal Solidarity March was joined by over 60,000 young and middle-aged protesters across the state. It is during the oppression of the protests that violence started and continues as of today.
The next nail came with the tons of fighter jets landing in the state’s runways followed by deployment and march past left, right and centre across the conflict region. The security forces, including the Army and Assam Rifles, CAPF, BSF, State Police, and Sections of MR have been instructed by the state government’s security advisor to permanently occupy vulnerable areas.
It seems there is a strategic plan to implant security forces in the hills for time eternity in the pretext of deploying them in the vulnerable areas to control the situation. It necessarily looks going to the plains where the tribal people inhabit besides reclaiming the hills and forest.
The presence of security forces all over the public realm is indeed not a great sigh and sign of a safe society let alone a democracy. A strong reminder that besides law and order in the state, withdrawing of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, AFSPA has been a long-standing demand by the Manipuris, including the country's longest fast by Irom Sharmila.
However, since the demand has been around for long, despite its importance, it has become normalised. This is emerging strong again in the region as can be witnessed from the marches that tribals have taken out. For example, the several women took out to the keep the security forces at bay from their villages.
An anecdote of a woman saying to security force personnel reflects the strained relationship between the army and the civilians, “You broke our trust. We let you in for our protection”. The fact that the special forces use the force to suppress peoples’ voices itself is unconstitutional undemocratic. The special forces are created to create wars and defend wars. Why do we use them to suppress the civilians who they are supposed to support, save and secure?
The worst nail came with the Manipur government suspending mobile internet (keeping broadband working to almost dysfunctional mode) across the state and clamping curfew under Section 144 IPC in various districts just like post revoking of the Article 370 in JnK in 2019. The use of the state machinery to supress the protest using all kinds of techniques from tear gas to water cannons to even shoot-at-sight as was imposed in Manipur for some time, stand not only unconstitutional but unfortunately unchallenged.
To add to the apathy, the government calling the protesters as ‘suspected militants’ is absolutely uncalled for in democracy. To add further to the apathy, for long time since the Manipur violence broke, there were barely any mention or statements by the Prime Minister, Home Minister and all Central ministers since they were busy in the Karnataka election, then the inauguration of the New Parliament, and the obvious regular tasks these days of institutional toying, trolling and torturing the opposition parties.
When a state is burning, how can Ministers alias peoples’ representative not consider that as urgent? There should not be anything more urgent in the country at this moment than the Manipur Burning. This is definitely a failure of the Home Ministry of the state and the centre and they must take moral responsibility and resign. But alas! Resignation of ministers on moral grounds is now a past/gone thing. Morality in most of the politics is shrinking as the shrinking protests. So, a huge loss of democratic values both ways.
Anyway, if the list of worsts weren’t enough, the Supreme Court despite making strong remarks on the High Court's direction to the State Government to consider the inclusion of Meitei community in the Scheduled Tribes List as factually wrong, the Apex Court did not take that extra step to put a stay on the decision. The Apex Court, being aware of the mishandling and mishappening in this entire Manipur pogrom, should have stepped in to stop this massacre.
The last worst is the way India’s mainstream media is (mis)handling the Manipur matters which has anyway lost its credibility in the recent years. Immediately after Manipur violence broke, while the Wikipedia created a page on 2023 Manipur violence, the mainstream media were shying away from being critical of the situation and holding those accountable for the unrest and the poor governance.
The entire media were busy in government appraisals, visits, and ofcourse bashing the opposition parties, for example, for opposing the New Parliament Building inauguration. And if time permits them, then they are busy showing the current event-fever ongoing pan India of the G-20s, for example, the Jammu visit of the international dignitaries.
A latest ga-ga from them being the Sengol installation in the new Parliament. Seriously, celebrating Parliament Building according to them seems more important than ensuring democratic functioning of the parliament.
With the government promising New Manipur after winning in 2022 and the way they are manipulating the judiciary and then deploying the army at strategic locations, it almost asserts a plan to operationalise their election agenda.
Otherwise, the state’s inability to negotiate with the protestors, suppressing the process of the protest resulting in violence, then state’s call for deployment of the security forces in the pretext of controlling violence, and deploying harsh rules are good enough reasons to call for the suspension of the Manipur State Government and the imposition of President's Rule in the state.
Instead, ironically when the security forces are deployed on the ground with barely enough statements from the head of the security forces, the Honourable President, it seems the political infestation is deep into the prestigious institutions.

Why men?

When one looks through all of the above arguments and the affiliated institutions, one finds a serious Boys Club out there, by the men, of the men, for the men. There is a reason to argue that men (of the state and the country) are to be blamed for most of the present and past mishaps in Manipur (and rest of the country). History also tells that all wars and violence are initiated by men. Defence preparation is also a masculine concept.
In Manipur, the violence, the decisions at the state and (no) decisions at the centre, the judiciary, and the march past of the security forces, one only sees Men in the decisions and action, i.e., a group of men creating violence and another group of men claiming to control them, both using force/ aggression.
The latter is equally dangerous as former as reasoned above. An important reason to also ponder is the apathy of a country/society where citizens feel more scared seeing the ‘said army men who are meant to protect the country’ walking on the everyday streets. Same goes with the police men that we feel more scared than safe seeing them. Citizens feel scared to go to police station, court, and avoid municipal, tehsil, and all government offices.
Why is it like this in our country? We need to remind ourselves about the special forces and polices’ inability in restoring peace be it at, Jammu and Kashmir, the North-East itself, and even in protests like Farmers protests and CAA-NRC protests. Besides, a soft reminder to all of us about the deployment of special forces/police is their brutality with the local people including misconduct with the local women.
We do find women personnels and police in the public realm but their role is more or less ornamental like many top positions in the country especially during before and after such tensed situations. Ironically, citizens too are indifferent to the presence of women in the public realm. However, this is not always true in case of Manipur, as somethings are different here.

Why hope from Manipuri women?

In the present Manipur saga, are there enough efforts made towards dialogue and peace by the system? The peace planned through pressure is indeed a masculine approach tried ever since in this patriarchal society. Manipur can do something different with its extraordinary women.
Manipur is renowned as a matriarchal society in India however, the patriarchy continues to run deep here. This Meitei proverb clearly states the gender role of the society there, 'A man who does not go to Loishang (institution of learning) and a woman who does not go to the market are worthless'.
Women have been traditionally seen as a collective force in Manipur, giving the impression that Manipuri women are more empowered and liberated than those in other states. Over the time, with active role in shaping the history of the state, women in Manipur enjoy a special status in the society as progressive, liberal and forward thinking which is often considered as stemming from the Nupi Lan (meaning Women’s War) movements.
A tribute to the Manipuri women who have run/led many movements for the welfare of the common masses. The state has pioneered campaigns solely waged by women and sown seeds of economic empowerment for women that is unique to this place. Culturally, Manipuri women are seen as bread earners which explains their high visibility in the public realm and high participation in the labour force.
For example, the world-renowned Mothers' Market namely, Ima Keithel, and more such markets where women vendors belonging to all age groups and backgrounds sit together and sell vegetables, fruits, clothes, and things of everyday life. The vibrancy and legacy associated with the market and the socio-economic status of women can be witnessed across the state.
In the patrilineal society, Manipuri women hold substantial powers in dictating the course of the society. With traditionally staying out of politics, the recent win of the five women MLAs for the 60-member 12th Manipur Legislative Assembly during 2022 Election now also shows women into mainstream public activities. Making Adhikarimayum Sharda Devi as the BJP State President says that politics is realising the role of women both in the leadership and in the vote bank.
In the land of Mary Kom and Iron Lady Sharmila, it is the Manipur’s women who have to take charge to bring peace to the burning state of affairs. The duo has appealed all communities to unite and end violence besides requesting the Centre/Delhi to take necessary peace-building steps. The association, Women of Northeast India have appealed for ending the violence, “Restore the Peace and Start the Process of Healing & Reconciliation in Manipur”, - 07th May 2023.

Way forward

In the New India, where the room for right to protest is shrinking, violence of any form in the protests are further reducing the possibilities of future protests. While the Manipur protest is on land and demographics where women are appealing for peace, the wrestlers protest in Delhi is on dignity of labour where women are appealing for justice. In both the cases, men are the wrong doers and imposers whose impacts are suffered by women (youth and children) without their much involvement, just like in the wars.
At the core of the conflicts in Manipur and otherwise in the northeast region is the centuries of colonization, marginalization, neglect, discrimination, lack of good governance, militarization, weaponization and misuse of the region as a route for transnational organized crimes, which includes guns, drugs and human trafficking. Besides, not including the history of the region in the education curriculum has led to huge gaps in understanding amongst the different indigenous communities and between the people of rest of India and the northeast.
For many like me, the unadulterated India is in the northeast that is home to several indigenous communities who are speaking several dialects, living together for centuries, and practicing different cultures, faiths, including indigenous religious traditions, and ways of life.
Much of the ‘manned’ intervention from Centre/ Delhi have often deteriorated the peace building process of the region because those sitting in Centre/ Delhi have never really tried to understand the northeast or never really tried genuinely to resolve the issues. A long-term approach to address the conflicts is through a process of truth telling, learning histories, stories and struggle besides
Well, while Centre/ Delhi is busy with the detainment of the protesting wrestlers and simultaneous inauguration of the new Parliament Building, it seems men there are yet to take the Manipur Burning seriously.
It also seems that the long-standing battle of the imposed patriarchy by the system run from the Centre/Delhi is here to stay, but for Manipuri women it is worth a struggle to try for peace and harmony. It is time to remember the powerful leadership that women of Manipur and Northeast India have played historically in anti-colonial struggles.
It is thus crucial to follow the lead of indigenous women and begin the processes of truth telling, healing and reconciliation. It is also crucial to include women in the peace talks and decision-making processes relating to resolving the conflicts in Manipur (and North-East and in India) and restoring lasting peace. Choosing a path of dialogue is definitely women thing as compared to a destructive path often chosen by the men.
On behalf of my friend, it is an earnest request to the Honourable President, the Prime Minister, Home Minister, and the State Government to make genuine public statements and visit the state urgently to take a cognizance of the situation. Otherwise, it will continue to signal that for those sitting far in Centre/Delhi and the rest of India, the Northeast matters are (still) out of sight and out of subject. Saying ‘All iss Well’ by the mainstream media is also not appreciated. The Northeast should not be side-lined and atleast not be only exploited as electioneered attention. Northeast is as much an integral part of the country as is the attention on Delhi, Gujarat, UP, etc. and Manipur is the Jewel of the region. So please do something, get on a dialogue mode than on army mode!
---
*Entrepreneur, researcher, educator, speaker, mentor, political observer; Environmental Design Consultants, Ahmedabad and WforW Foundation ww.mansee.in www.edc/org/in, www.wforw.in

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