“While bullets, bombs, and blades make the headlines, women’s bodies remain invisible battlefields.”
–Margot Wallström, U.N. Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict
Thangjam Manorama was taken into custody, after midnight, in the name of routine inquiry by the 17th Assam Rifles. A few hours later, the 32-year-old Manipuri woman was found dead, with multiple injuries and bullet wounds. Indications of brutal torture and rape were writ large. Yet, the perpetrators presented it as an ‘encounter killing’ that ‘had to be staged to foil the escape of a suspected militant’ and almost got away with it. It was years before a systematic judicial inquiry established that Thangjam Manorama’s killing was a clear case of custodial rape and murder.
The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act or the AFSPA is enforced in regions declared disturbed either by the central or the state government. An act originally drafted and launched by the British (in 1942) it essentially sanctions extraordinary powers to the Indian Armed Forces to carry out operations and powers to arrest, search premises to foil militancy and/or insurgency maintain peace, law and order. In 1980, the AFSPA was imposed on the state of Manipur, and the Assam Rifles had their headquarters set up at the Kangla Palace in Imphal.
The immunity granted through AFSPA became a bolster for the battalions as they began committing excesses replete with extrajudicial detentions, brutalities, and violence against commoners in the state.
In a classic case of noxious patriarchy interleaved with militarization, a culture of violence rooted in misogyny had manifested itself in the form of sexual crimes perpetrated against the women of this frontier state.
Manipur is a state where women drive the economy for real, engage in assertive social and political participation. The state’s percentage of women participating in household decision making is double the national average.
Historically, Manipuri women have been active influencers of administrative and political decision-making. Lawyer and human rights activist Leitanthem Umakanta Meitei in her paper, ‘Voyages of Women in Manipur’ explains that sexism was non-existent in pre-Hindu Manipur. Her paper expounds that in ancient times, “women of Manipur were treated as equal, interdependent, and undeniable parts of the traditional society. In their histories, women of Manipur (had) relentlessly participated in every social sphere, and therefore they occupied high social positions.”
Prevalent practices such as the Lallup-Kaba, which mandated every man to spend a considerable amount of time away from home in service of the king, provided a structural and practical framework for women to participate actively in the absence of the men, across domains, from agriculture to commerce.
Imphal is world renown as the seat of the iconic Nupi Keithel, an exclusive, sprawling 500-year-old trading center run solely by women since the time, which by some accounts is also the largest such in Asia.
In the past, Manipuri women had fought wars against the British in what is now famously known as the Nupi Lan (which translates to ‘Women’s War).
It was in this state that Thangjam Manorama was picked up a little after midnight by a group of Assam Rifles personnel on July 11, 2004, dragged out of her house against her will even as her mother and brothers were assaulted for resisting. She was taken into custody at around 3 AM and found dead two hours later. (Source: Mother, Where’s My Country by Anubha Bhosle).
The army claimed that they had to open fire at her legs as she attempted to flee, of which she died. What went unexplained by the army version were a deep cut on her right thigh, sixteen bullet wounds in her private parts, besides traces of semen. Her legs bore no bullet wounds.
The Mothers of Manipur: Call for Justice
Even as the shock of Manorama’s brutal death reverberated across the state, on July 15, 2004, twelve mothers bravely gathered to stand in protest outside the gates of the army headquarters at Kangla fort, Manipur.
The women were part of the Meira Paibi, or the “Torch Bearers,” also known as the Mother’s Front. Meira Paibi started as a support group dedicated to raising awareness against substance abuse, alcoholism, AIDS awareness, corruption, and human rights violations in Manipur. They organized night patrols, whence they walked the streets bearing torches, standing up for the safety and rights of a populace stifled under the vice-like grip of the armed forces.
That day, twelve common women of the Mother’s Front, all of them from ordinary families, driven by maternal grief, took a direct aim at the AFSPA and the impunity granted by the act to the perpetrators of the violence against Manorama and many others.
The twelve Imas* stood stark naked, arraying their bodies as instruments of dissent, armed with banners and chants that said, “Indian Army Rape Us” and “Indian Army Take Our Flesh.” “We are all Manorama’s mothers,” they cried. In that one simple act that stunned people across the nation, the mothers turned their bodies into tools that called for attention and meaningful action.
In an interview, Soibom Momon Leima, one of the 12 women who staged the protest, states: “They had their weapons, we only had our body... Together the mothers gave a war cry.”
The mothers recall having left their homes like any other day, careful to leave no room for suspicion or anticipation of any kind. They then assembled in front of the Kangla fort, clad in nothing but their sarongs, which they threw aside, jolting the Indian army and the rest of the world to sit up and take notice. “We are the mothers of Manorama,” they cried.
The nationwide uproar that followed the brave protest of the mothers left little room for inaction. The then ruling government of Manipur stepped up to constitute an inquiry commission led by retired district judge C. Upendra Singh to probe into Manorama’s violent death. The commission was expected to submit a conclusive report in a month. The deadline, however, was extended thrice in the face of imminent delay and lack of cooperation from the Assam Rifles in producing witnesses and affidavits.
The Assam Rifles filed a writ petition before the Gauhati High Court claiming that no army personnel was obligated to appear before an inquiry commission instituted by the Manipur state government, which held no authority to probe into the conduct of the federal armed forces.
Eventually, the commission presented its confidential report to the state government in November 2004. After retaining the report for about a decade, the state government finally handed it to the Supreme Court in November 2014. The report asserts that there remains no record of her arrest with police or civilian establishments.
The Upendra Commission report is said to have cited Manorama’s killing as “one of the worst crimes in a civilized society governed by the rule of law.” It has pronounced nine personnel of 17 Assam Rifles to have contributed directly or indirectly to the torment and murder of Manorama.
Whence the Imas who participated in the naked protests were jailed for three months, the actual perpetrators themselves remain unreprimanded to date.
The collective, robust cry for the repeal of AFSPA has been only marginally successful, considering the removal of the 17 Assam Rifles from Imphal. The paramilitary force still holds its place, as ordained by the act, in the rest of the state. To date, the Mothers of Manipur unrelentingly continue to mobilize the people of Manipur, and anyone who would care, to unify, resist and raise their voice against the atrocious act of violence committed against Manorama.
Women in Manipur remain active influencers of social and political standing in the state. Besides voicing their dissent towards AFSPA, they have stood up in resistance against drug abuse, corruption, and in recent times, the Citizenship Bill.