A Seat at the Table: Women in Manipur Strive for Peace in a Militarized State
by Rucha Chitnis - vikalpsangam.org | Published: Thursday, December 15, 2016
Written specially for Vikalp Sangam
An interview with Binalakshmi Nepram on how women in Manipur are
building peace and advocating to end militarization in a state awash
with guns and drugs.
Mumtaz Begum had pinned her hope on the Supreme Court of India to
deliver justice. “I feel optimistic,” she said. “Those who killed my
husband should be brought to justice. This is the only way we can stop
other innocent people from losing their lives.” On March 7, 2009, Azad
Khan, a respected lecturer, was killed in an encounter in Manipur. “I
lost my sanity. Those were dark days for me and my five children,”
In her grief, Mumtaz connected with Manipur Women Gun Survivor Network,
an advocacy group that serves women widowed and bereaved by gun
violence from state and non-state actors. She found community with other
mothers, wives and sisters, who had lost their male relatives to such
encounters with the army and police. Mumtaz also connected with
Extrajudicial Execution Victim Families Association (EEVFAM), which
filed a petition in the Supreme Court of India to investigate 1,528
cases of alleged fake encounters in Manipur.
“The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) is a failure of India’s
policy in the northeast,” said Binalakhsmi Nepram, founder of Manipur
Women Gun Survivor Network (MWGSN). “Since AFSPA, the number of
militant groups has increased, not decreased in Manipur and the number
of casualties has soared.” Human rights advocates have deemed AFSPA as a
draconian act that gives special powers to Indian armed forces in
places deemed as disturbed.
Nepram is a prominent disarmament and peace activist from Manipur.
“There are nearly 20,000 gun widows in Manipur,” she said. This
staggering number of widows and ongoing violence faced by women and
girls in the state led her to found the Manipur Women Gun Survivors
Network in 2004. The network offers livelihood opportunities for women,
who are survivors of gun violence and connects them with psychosocial
support and counseling. Mumtaz is now an integral part of the core team
and supports their outreach activities for women who are traumatized by
the violence of militarization.
In August 2016, Nepram joined women advocates from northeastern
states at Northeast India Women Peace Congregation in Guwahati. Their manifesto
underscored the role of women in northeastern states as peace builders
and called for their inclusion as decision makers in peace negotiations.
Nepram also founded Control Arms Foundation of India,
an advocacy group that addresses the proliferation of small and light
arms and its disproportionate impact on women and children. “We
discovered weapons from 13 countries in Manipur. We must understand this
reality in India, where 12 Indians are shot everyday by gun violence.”
Nepram’s activism connects the dots between the proliferation of guns,
drugs and trafficking of women in the northeast and the continuum of
conflict, which has besieged the lives of millions of civilians in the
northeast since India’s independence.
Question: How do you contextualize today’s conflict in the
historic events of how statehood evolved in
Nepram: Manipur has 3,000 years of recorded history. We were
our own nation state with a rich history, script and traditions. We were
a multi-cultural and multi-religious state. The British divide and rule
policy was continued in Manipur by New Delhi. These divisions of
ethnicities have come up in the past 30 years in post independent India.
It’s an attempt to create ethnic fissures as part of new body politic,
and New Delhi has to be blamed for that. Earlier, we had 4-5 armed
groups. Today, we have 72 armed groups in Manipur alone, created by the
political class and intelligence agencies. And women are fed up of this.
We don’t want to live in this future for the next 50 years.
Question: Women in Manipur have a long legacy of resistance
fighting British imperialism and continuing to advocate for peace and
human rights post independence. How has this history converged into
actions taking place in Manipur today?
Nepram: We have to give credit to mothers, who stripped to
protest the rape and killing of Thangjam Manorama (by the Indian army
personnel) in 2004. At our women’s peace congregation in Guwahati, we
looked at the issues of drugs, guns and trafficking of women in the
northeast. They are deeply interlinked. We will have peace in the region
when stakeholders genuinely focus on good governance and not continue
to arm us. Our region is flooded with guns and drugs. The peace
congregation appealed to groups, state and non-state, to lay down their
arms. We called for a complete disarmament.
Question: How does the proliferation of small arms and weapons
affect the lives of everyday lives of citizens, particularly women, in
Manipur and the northeast?
Nepram:We have more than 100,000 troops in Manipur. Manipur
has become a conduit for weapons going to Southeast Asia. We continue to
have human rights violations by state and non-state actors. For us,
it’s about the insecurity this brings to women’s lives. After the United
States, India has the highest possession of small arms by civilians. At
the peace congregation, we adopted a resolution that women in the
northeast will lead war on rape in India. The new government that came
in 2014 reduced rape crisis centers in the country from 600 to 18. It’s a
shame. We have requested government of India to have a rape crisis
center in every district in the northeast.
Question: What would a shift in policy look like in the
context of conflict, increased climate vulnerability and women’s rights
Nepram: A shift in policy is when you begin to include women
in all aspects of decision making. When women are allowed to own land
and become property owners, we can truly fight climate change. We need
to take charge of our lives and become integral parts of all
decision-making processes. We have also developed a manifesto for a
women’s political party, in which climate change, peace building and
good governance is prioritized. We know our Earth is being destroyed by
human greed. In Manipur, in so many ways, there is still a question of
Question: What are the environmental impacts of militarism and conflict in Manipur?
Nepram: Militarization destroys the environment. In Manipur,
our hilltops are militarized. Many army camps and insurgency camps are
mined. Mining destroys the environment. Besides, we have drug
trafficking in the area and poppy is growing in the golden triangle,
where chemicals are added to make heroine. These chemicals are coming
from Chennai, Gujarat and other places. Conflict deeply affects the
environment and destroys tracts of land.
Question: You have criticized mainstream Indian educational
syllabus and history curriculum for excluding the history of Manipur and
the northeast. What needs to happen to bridge this chasm of
Nepram: Manipuri women’s history is powerful, and is not
reflected in the school textbooks or university curriculum. We are
advocating to change this. After the death of a 19-year-old youth from
Arunachal Pradesh in Delhi, we felt it was important to address this. If
we don’t inform children about the history of northeast India, people
will continue to think we are savages with no culture or that our women
are morally lose. Northeast India is home to 272 ethnic communities, and
there’s not a single chapter of 45 million Indians living in
northeastern region in the textbooks of our country. Noticing this major
lacunae, a joint team of Manipur Women Gun Survivor Network and
Northeast India Women Initiative for Peace, two women-led civil society
movements in the northeast region joined hands with the Indian Council
of Historical Research and in coordination organized a conference
"Documenting History - Written and Oral Histories of Manipur", at
Imphal, Manipur in 2012. Many eminent personalities including
historians, scholars, activists, media people and representatives from
women's organizations attended the meet.The meeting concluded with a
historic resolution in which we called upon Indian Council of Historical
Research to start work on documenting history, both written and oral of