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‘Why I screamed, rape us, take our flesh’

IT’S EARLY HOURS on Imphal’s Nagamapal Road. Fateh Chand Jain, proprietor of the Indo-Myanmar Furniture Shop, is unlocking its wooden shutters. He deflects enquiries about his wife, Ima Laishram Gyaneswari, with a self-effacing wave: “You put your questions to her. I don’t interfere in her matters.”

But press him a little more and he speaks with pride of how this 56-year-old Meitei homemaker joined a dozen Manipuri imas, mothers, on July 15, 2004, to lay storm to the Assam Rifles headquarters at Kangla Fort. Stripping naked, they thronged the gates, screaming their outrage at the rape and alleged custodial murder of Thangjam Manorama, a 32-year-old suspected member of the banned People’s Liberation Army. Jain recalls how he didn’t even know what his wife had left the house for that day; it was only in the afternoon that he got to know of the imas’ unprecedented act of protest. “I had an inkling my wife might be involved. She had touched my feet before she left the house, something she usually does when she leaves for something important. But this time she didn’t tell me where she was going.”

“I’m very proud of her. Not everyone can be so brave, isn’t it?” he adds.

Gyaneswari joins us at this point, walking in fresh from prayers at the small temple in the courtyard. A science graduate from Ghana Priya Women’s College, Imphal, she had been an ardent political activist as a student, something she set aside after her marriage when bringing up four children took priority. Yet she remained an active member of the local chapter of the Meira Paibi, the mass-based Meitei women’s human rights movement.

Of enduring anguish was the incendiary Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA). “Back in 1960,” Gyaneswari recounts, “some J&K Rifles personnel raped a girl named Chanu Rose; she committed suicide afterwards. Ever since then, there have been several incidents of molestation, rape and torture by army men; even pregnant women were not spared. All these pained me deeply.” Then there were the many young people taken away by army personnel, never to be seen again. “I know of many mothers who have gone insane after their sons and daughters disappeared.”

Thangjam Manorama was one of those taken into the security forces’ custody, never to return. She was arrested on July 11, 2004. Her body was found the next day, dumped near her home, branded with marks of rape and torture. “Our Meira Paibi members saw her body being brought to the Regional Institute of Medical Science for the post-mortem, and they spread word of the incident. I was heart-broken when I heard. If this is what lies ahead for the young girls of Manipur, what will become of our community? We had to rise up to protect our girls,” says Gyaneswari.

On July 12, 2004, 32 local organisations came together in a conglomeration called Apunba Lup, to launch a movement to demand the AFSPA be repealed. But Gyaneswari and her associates felt this was not enough. Gathering for a closed-door meeting on July 13, they debated alternative ways of confronting the situation. “What emerged in our discussion was the feeling that we, the women of Manipur, were virtually naked — we were always insecure, forever at risk of molestation by the security forces. Why then should we not walk in the streets naked, what clearer protest could we make to teach a lesson not just to the security forces here but to the whole world?”

One hundred women were to congregate at Kangla Fort. Gyaneswari left home at 6 in the morning. “I touched my husband’s feet before I left,” she says. “In my mind, I
Outrage: The July 15,2004, protest outside the Assam Rifles headquarters

asked him to forgive me because I was going to do something very crucial and I couldn’t possibly tell him about it.” By the time she reached the gates of Kangla Fort, 30 women had assembled there; 10 more trickled by a little later. While these were nowhere near the numbers that had been hoped for, time was getting on. “We felt that if we delayed, the security forces might get suspicious and impose a curfew,” explains Gyaneswari. Steeling themselves to make a rush on the gate, the protestors did not realise that there were finally only 12 of them. “I did not count the number of women then. I had no awareness of anything. I was in my own world, shouting slogans, screaming at the Indian Army to rape us, take our flesh. All that filled my mind was the image of Manorama’s corpse,” she recalls.

The imas met the men of the Assam Rifles unit with fire in their hearts, Gyaneswari says. “It was the culmination of the rage and agony we had harboured for years. We challenged them to come out and rape us before everyone. We demanded they tell us what they were stationed here for: to protect our people or to rape our women.”

Returning home that day, Gyaneswari says she was apprehensive of how her family would react. “I was scared,” she smiles as she cuddles her grandchild, “I had not sought my husband’s permission. But he told me that I had done the right thing as whatever I had done was for the women of Manipur.” Her mother, Laishram Gambhini, and her four children all felt stirred by her courage. Says her elder daughter Girija, “My mother has inspired us to do something for our women. My mother’s willpower is very strong. I have never seen her weak or breaking down. She can face anything alone.”

FOUR YEARS later, does Ima Gyaneswari feel any change after that day of radical protest? “I do feel the armed forces are more cautious while dealing with women now. The acts of molestation, rape and torture have come down. But the inhuman crimes committed under the AFSPA’S cover persist. Anybody can still be arrested or killed without explanation.”

She is also surprised at the apathy of both the Central and the state governments to the Manipuri mothers’ courageous protest. “The indifference of the government is really distressing. They are behaving as if they had neither seen nor heard a thing. Nobody ever came to meet us, not even to ask why 12 mothers of Manipur had to stage such a demonstration.”

But it cannot be this way forever, she feels. She speaks of Irom Sharmila Chanu, who has been on a hunger strike since November 2000, demanding that AFSPA be repealed. “Irom was awarded the Gwangju Prize for Human Rights 2007 by the Gwangju Asian Human Rights Folk School of South Korea. We have activists worldwide talking about the repeal of the Act. The government will have to listen to us sooner or later,” she says

Some preliminary steps have already been taken to phase out the Act. A review committee was formed and its recommendations have been submitted to the Centre. But will peace return once the Act is repealed? There are still 20 militant outfits active in Manipur, and bordering Myanmar is a safe haven for rebel groups.

Gyaneswari points out that the AFSPA was imposed to control the insurgency in Manipur, but it has actually inflamed the rebels. “The Act is harming the very social fabric of Manipur. Common people are suffering as this Act has led to more intense conflict between the insurgent groups and the armed forces. The Act has to go.” •

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 21, Dated May 31, 2008