Meira Paibi: A Brief Story of the Women Torch Bearers from Manipur

A group of Meira Paibi in a rally against drug trafficking in Manipur
Photo: E-pao/Deepak Oinam
In a world of sexual objectification and gender discrimination, the phenomenon of ‘Meira Paibi’ is remarkable on many counts. It literally means a woman torch bearer, who belongs particularly to the deeply conservative Meitei society of Manipur where the issues relating to objectification are out of the question. Yet discrimination and violence, those exist though we claim to be a relatively free society for women. In fact, we are a patriarchal society in which the men only have to understand—but not listen to—the matters concerning women and children, or those of nupi-angaang like we have in our lexicon.

Meira Paibi is a kind of social movement. It is a sort of traditional institution or an informal group in each locality, which emerged on the scene to fight against the social ills of alcoholism, drug addiction and sexual violence in the Manipur valley. That was in the 1970s. However, some observers assert that historically the foundation of Meira Paibi movement can be traced back to the two Women’s Wars that are locally known as the Nupi Laan of 1904 and 1939; while some others go all the way back to centuries earlier.

The erstwhile kingdom had a Lallup system or a scheme of forced male labour that had its origin during the reign of the first recorded king, Nongda Lairen Pakhangba (33–154AD). Under this system, all males between the age of 17 and 60 were required to work voluntarily for the state/king for a certain number of days without any wage or payment each year. The system was abolished with the onset of the British rule beginning in 1891AD. However, an attempt to revive the Lallup system was one of the causes of the First Nupi Laan.

When the men were out for work, as in a terrible fictional story, the women had to take care of the family and obviously they started looking after the business as well. This phenomenon also explains the growth of the world-famous Ima Keithel, or a mothers’ market, located in the heart of Imphal. The Meitei women have been taking an active part in the personal and political spheres for quite a long time even if their status is still determined comparatively to their male counterparts.

In our childhood days we saw the Meira Paibis, then more popularly known as a nisaband (loosely, someone who prevents intoxicants), for the first time when they publicly shamed and paraded alcoholics and substance abusers every other evening. The offenders were forced to wear garlands made of sandals and shoes and to howl that they drink or use drugs, that they are parasites but they will stop taking the intoxicants and things like that. It was much to the delight of onlookers who would rush out of their homes to watch such a spectacle.

Around the same time in the valley, we also saw the construction of shang (sʌŋ) or bamboo-and-cane shelters in full swing in every neighbourhood where the Meira Paibi members of each locality gather every evening—sitting on the ubiquitous reed-grass mats in the ‘shang’ or patrolling the street with each one of them carrying a two- to three-foot long bamboo torches, their trademark meira. Back then we used to have a playground, which was more of a commons that we knew as Lai Lampak, though it has been converted to a community hall now. Our locality’s shang was constructed on the opposite side of this old playground.

Before we knew it, the objectives of these groups had changed tremendously in those days. From organising campaigns against addiction and gender violence, their new responsibility had been revolutionised to safeguarding human rights and airing political grievances. Some years later, we found that the transformation had started in the early 1980s when incidents related to insurgency and counter-insurgency operations reached their climax—and it has never waned in the last three and half decades.

The main perpetrators were the state and its security agencies. Still are. Indeed, the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act was imposed in 1980, empowering the security personnel to kill people on mere suspicion with impunity. Yes, we are talking about a province in the largest democracy of the world. Over the decades the only thing that has changed is that the rebels, like the state, have become a nuisance to the general public. In any case, the fundamental nature of a state—the existing as well as the one aspired by its present antagonists—is its organised violence. And in our today’s life the only result that heavy militarisation has produced is the loss of our sanity.

The Nupi Laan Complex in Imphal

The Women’s Society

Incidentally, it was around 1980 when forced disappearance, mass murder and arbitrary killings by the security forces started as a routine. The Human Rights Alert (HRA), the Families of Involuntarily Disappeared Association Manipur (FIDAM), the Extra-judicial Execution Victim Families’ Association, Manipur (EEVFAM) and several rights groups have recorded more than 1,500 cases of forced disappearances and fake encounters in the last three decades. The matter has now reached the Supreme Court but the confidence level of the people is still low because the existing legal mechanism has been utterly unable to guarantee remedial measures relating to gross violations of rights and dignity by the armed personnel or due to state terrorism, to be precise.

The Supreme Court asked the Manipur government how long the Army should be deployed in the state and enjoys unaccountable power under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and whether 35 years of the Army's presence had improved the law and order situation.
SC: Is AFSPA in Manipur Eternal? By Dhananjay Mahapatra
15 January 2016, The Times of India

The Meira Paibis guarded the streets and alleys particularly when it was dark and if not they’d be playing ‘ludo’ board game in their shang. Their nocturnal action is also closely related to their weapon: the kerosene-dipped meira, which is again a symbol of light and hope. As far as I can remember, every women were supposed to join the team in each locality but I don’t think those belonging to well-to-do families were ever present, except when there was a crisis. Out of my nine aunts, I remember only one of them and my mother—the two literal poor characters—who took turns or often both of them together, going out to the evening gathering.

One of the first consolidated groups formed by the Meira Paibi members was the All Manipur Women Social Reformation and Development Society, also shortly known as the Nupi Samaj or the Women’s Society. Some of its earliest demands included banning intoxicants, prohibition of movie shows in the morning, controlling price rise and negotiation of the government with the armed groups. Their action plan comprised street demonstrations, pamphleteering, rounding up gamblers and criminals, raiding drinking dens and so on. On record, the first public agenda was a general strike declared on 4 April 1980 with regard to these issues.

Sometimes the kind of working on the unwritten principles of solidarity and common welfare makes it difficult to understand this movement. I would not be surprise if this is also the same reason why at times there are no clear-cut objectives during times of consolidation or when relentless issues and crises erupt that we are so familiar with. However, I would assume that this informality is the reason behind its weaknesses, despite the proactive roles they have been taking in fighting against social and political issues.

One common thing does exist for any of the Meira Paibi groups. When there is any untoward incident in a locality, someone would toll a street lamp post with a stone and just as the crowd that would come out to watch the mockery of drinkers and drug users in the past, people of all age and sex will rush out.

This phenomenon is most visible in our annual crisis—there is nothing like such an expression but in Manipur, we are always in one artificial calamity or another and this ‘annual crisis’ would pertain to the biggest one in that particular year. (In 2015, it was the four-month shutdowns and clashes in the valley in protest for the enforcement of Inner Line Permit System and against the enforcement, in some parts of the hills).

Despite the lack of codes and coordination, it is still amazing that the Meira Paibi has always been at the forefront to contain the crises in our conflict-ridden society. Some critics have gone to the extent of saying that the province is under the whims of old women’s groups and students’ organisations.

In 2013, the Meira Paibi was co-awarded the ‘Social Impact Awards: Lifetime Contribution’ along with the Naga Mothers’ Association by the Times of India. A few firebrand leaders of the movement, Thokchom Ramani, Akoijam Janaki Leima, Longjam Memchoubi, Yumnam Leirik Leima and Maibam Purnimashi Leima, received the reward on behalf of the Meira Paibi. Most of these leaders also front several women-led civil society organisations in the valley.

The movement reached a new high when 12 Meira Paibi members disrobed in front of the Kangla in the aftermath of Thangjam Manorama rape and murder case in 2004. The victim was allegedly a member of People’s Liberation Army but it did not mean that the Assam Rifles personnel can rape and shoot her in the vagina apparently to destroy the evidence and completely rob us of our dignity.

Twelve Meira Paibi members staged a nude protest against the rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama in Imphal, 2004.
[Note: Long before the cowboy foot soldier, Akoijam Jhalajit popularised the expression Touthokkhro, or finish it off, the former DGP Yumnam Joykumar Mammakaaba remarked that these fellows, referring to the rebels, must be eliminated, in an interview to the members of the Human Rights Watch in 2008. The HRW had used that expression as a title of its report mentioned above and which was published in the same year of the interview.]

First Past the Post

Nowadays, 29 December is celebrated as the Foundation Day and 28 May as the Meira Paibi Day. If we look back into its history we can clearly see how the hardest of circumstances had compelled to start the movement. Earlier it was just an uncoordinated social campaign, under the aegis of nisaband and then it turned to the present Meira Paibi as marked by these two days. 

On 29 December 1980, security personnel of the J&K Rifles from a camp set up inside the campus of Manipur University nabbed one Lourembam Ibomcha, a resident of Liwa Lambi, and brutally assaulted him after falsely implicating him in a bomb explosion case in Heirangoithong, a locality that flanks the university. He was innocent but the culprits got away under the protection of AFSPA that was imposed hardly four months before the incident.  Thokchom Ramani, who was a part of the campaigners, attributes the Ibomcha case as the beginning of the Meira Paibi movement. (Footnote: And yes, we can proudly claim that in the entire universe, ours is the only university with an army camp inside the campus.)

The Meira Paibi Day on May 28 is a remembrance of the Patsoi–Langjing incident on 26 April 1980. Gross violation of rights and atrocities committed by the CRPF personnel posted at the Langjing camp prompted the women to take out a street demonstration in which a protestor, Sinam Pyari, lost her life accidentally. It is alleged that S Pyari was killed when she was thrown out of a government vehicle.

The CRPF defended that two of its personnel were killed by the rebels of the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak and so in retaliation they killed four unarmed civilians including a pregnant woman. Quite a perfect crime.

Some of the incidents that have been etched into our collective memory are mentioned below. This list of massacres exclude fake and stage encounters:

•    Oinam Leikai 21 November 1980: Four civilians shot dead
•    Heirangoithong 14 March 1984: 13 civilians shot dead by CRPF
•    Oinam (Oename) Hill 11 July 1987: An entire village burnt down, 15 people killed (Read about the Operation Bluestar)
•    Sagolband Tera Keithel 25 March 1993: Assam Rifles shot dead five civilians
•    Makui  28 July 1994: Four people killed by Assam Rifles
•    Nungkao 25 September 1994: Sikh Light Infantry killed four people
•    RIMS Lamphel 7 January 1995: CRPF shot dead nine people; one of the victims was our school auto-driver
•    Bashikhong 19 February 1995: CRPF killed three people
•    Ukhrul 9 May 9, 1995: AR troops killed three people
•    Tabokpikhong 12 August 1997: Assam Rifles killed five people
•    Nungleiban 15 October 1997: Army killed nine people
•    Tonsen Lamkhai 23 September 2000: 10 people killed
•    Churachandpur 21 July 1999: CRPF killed five people
•    Malom 2 November 2000: 10 people gunned down by Assam Rifles; and Irom Sharmila began her fasting

So now all we have is a bloody figure.

One thing that the critics have been peevish is that the Meira Paibi always selectively lambasts the atrocities committed by security personnel but never those by the rebels. At one level, it is meaningless because the rebels are already outlawed while the state commits the crime with full legitimacy; leave alone the protection its personnel enjoy from several black laws* that have been imposed on the people as if we are living in a war zone; though in a sense we are. If this is insufficient, people take side in politics and by politics it does not imply the electoral politics that we usually equate the word to. As Charles de Gaulle says, politics is too serious a matter to be left to the politicians. 

[*Some of these black laws include the Prevention of Seditious Meetings Act, 1911; the Punjab Security Act, 1953; Foreigners’ Protected Areas Order, 1958; the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967; the National Security Act, 1980; and the Code of Criminal Procedure (Manipur Amendment) Act, 1983. Sometimes it confuses us whether this is 2016 or we are living in some parts of mainland India of 1916 when the British used to tease and mistreat the Indian slaves.]

On another level, the security personnel are doing a job and getting a salary from the union. The wage-master is notorious for its high-handedness from the very moment the erstwhile kingdom was about to be annexed to India. On certain occasions the people are also frightened about the mindless forms of vengeance committed by all types of gunmen that we have in loads in our vicinity.      

Manipur is also known for its tryst with various military operations of the army and paramilitary forces: Operation Sunnyvale, Operation Bluebird, Operation Summer Storm, Operation Good Samaritan, Operation Dragnet and others that are either a part of counter-insurgency ops or an activity of their oxymoronic military civic-action programmes or a formula for sheer retribution—at times on the civilians because of their impotency, despite the legal armour and protection, to find their real enemies. There was also an Operation Charm as reported by The Hindu.

The army which had tried to use influence of the women vigilantes to decimate the insurgents by launching ‘Operation Charm’ has... distanced itself... The women were given TV sets, furniture and other materials for their numerous offices. Cash was also given to help construct offices wherever necessary. There were also frequent interaction programmes. However, insurgents put a full stop by warning the women vigilantes to stay away from the personnel who are constant targets.
Women Vigilantes of Manipur By Iboyaima Laithangbam
4 November 2014, The Hindu

Strangely funny, but who could have imagined that an Operation Charm could turn so ugly? There have been apprehensions in the past too that the ‘charm’ of money and incentives, not necessarily from the military, would appropriate the larger movement. On many occasions, the government has capitalised on this charm—everybody knows it. However, the adversaries, real or imagined, are the non-governmental organisations that have been allegedly moving the Meira Paibi members from their original ‘shang’ to ‘self-help’ workplaces while taking away the very purpose of their existence. Apparently, the ‘paid’ NGOs function in direct contrast to the traditional, voluntary operation of the Meira Paibi that is inclined more towards social and political issues.

The Nupi Laan Complex

Down to the Last Detail

However, is this women-based movement similar to those feminist and gender-related groups elsewhere across the world? In most cases, for instance, the feminist movement is one track: its sole objective is the emancipation of women. However, the Meira Paibi is, entirely on a different footing, or in another sense, it is independent of gender. While one works against the oppression of women, the other works against that of the society. That is the main difference.  

Some researchers tend to associate the role of Meira Paibi to that of feminism in a traditional society but we can leave that deliberation for another time. For now, we can refer to a place like the Ima Keithel as a hub of economic activities as well as the heart of social and political gathering as evident from the Women’s Wars. Yet how much is she empowered when she reaches home?

We can see that the Meira Paibi is no longer a group of women who would gather in a street corner as vigilantes. It has occupied a political space that can question the state, or particularly the infringement of the state in the name of safety and security; and as luck would have it these are the elements which are acutely missing in our lives. In the glorification, one might overlook the caveat of putting an organised civil group on a pedestal. This is truer if we consider the order of the day. It is an open secret how the concept of legitimacy in the region is paradoxically so distant from the rule of law.

To put it another way, in a typical Manipuri style and unlike other women-based movements, the members’ sense of gender is still lopsided, ironically in favour of men. This is not even a generalisation. In our town, for instance, it is socially acceptable for a man to bring in a second wife but for a woman, anything outside the highly restricted norm is a sign of promiscuity, a symbol of rebellion that needs to be crushed. In many a case the role of Meira Paibi and its interference in literal domestic issues are obnoxious to say the least.  Meira Paibi is also one of the causes behind mobocracy. It defies all sense and sensibility and has been quite a trend in our neighbourhoods.

What is more dangerous than the legitimisation of mobocracy, though, is the power vacuum that has left the people on their own devices. Besides, we know how the worms of legal security establishment and its antagonists are eating into the public brains while the government is blissfully closing its eyes to all the negativities. We can also say that the Meira Paibi movement is also not necessarily against the army or AFSPA. It is rather a resistance against the mass oppression in which the lead protagonist is the state.   

From sociological perspectives a social movement cannot go on forever. However, considering the large extra-institutional space that the present social and political set-up has offered, the Meira Paibi is hardly going to put down its torch anytime soon. It has redefined social and political movements but evidently it still has a long way to walk.

- Concluded.



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