For over half a century, the Manipuri people have lived a life marked by lawlessness and violence. People are yearning for change, and there are several examples of peace initiatives carried out in the region. There is a need to highlight these peace initiatives as they are rarely presented in the national media. Not all peace initiatives have led to concrete solutions in Manipur. Nevertheless, peace initiatives made by courageous people inspire others to hope and also indicate alternative methods to the use of violence.
Background to the conflict
No other region in India or in South Asia has been subjected to such a prolonged violent struggle as in the Northeast, which consists of a total of eight states, with Manipur being one of them.
This conflict can be traced back to 1949 when Manipur became a member of the Indian Union. The integration with India met great resistance. The Northeast region was populated by diverse ethnic, linguistic and religious groups, and the majority felt weak ethnic affinity with the bulk of the Indian population. Separatist rebel movements emerged, and this marked the beginning of a long and violent struggle dominating everyday life in Manipur.
Since the State government was unable to deal with the situation of insurgency, they enacted the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in 1958. Manipur was soon to fall under its ambit. The AFSPA enables certain special powers to be conferred upon the members of the armed forces in disturbed areas, as in the case of Manipur. The Indian military and the para-military forces have unfettered power and guaranteed immunity from prosecution, upon arresting and shooting suspected insurgents found in areas where the law applies. Many of the security forces have taken the law into their own hands, which has resulted in gross human rights violations and deprived many innocent people of their lives.
Lawlessness and violence permeates the entire society, but the people in Manipur have campaigned for a long time to repeal the AFSPA. Therefore, we aim to focus on a few examples of peace initiatives in Manipur.
The Women Torch Bearers
In northeastern India, there has been a long tradition where women have played a major role in peace and social movements and where the concept of solidarity is very strong.
The Meira Paibis, or the Women Torch Bearers, is a unique and respected non-violent organisation, which consists of hundreds of thousands of members who are active in every locality in Manipur. They have become the most active and important group to protest against human rights violations in Manipur. They also intervene in family and marital disputes, and they have played a vital role in the protection of their community’s rights over the issues of territorial integrity.
The group can be traced back to the 1970s, when a group of women started out as a source of support to tackle the social issues that appeared in Manipur. They called themselves Nisha Bandis.
Furthermore, in September 1980 Manipur was declared as a disturbed area since the Government could not manage the situation there. The AFSPA were introduced, and this was the beginning of numerous killings and gross human rights violations throughout Manipur.
In December 1980, a young man named Lourembam Ibomcha was taken away by the Army on mere charges of having planted a bomb. He was subjected to cruel torture, and it was later revealed that the charges were false. The Nisha Bandis marched with torches and protested until he was released. This group of women were later called the Meira Paibis, the word “Meira” means “Burning Light” and “Paibis” means “The hand that holds the burning light”.
The Meira Paibis obtained a real achievement in 2004. A young woman Thangjam Manorama was accused of being a dangerous member of the Separatist People’s Liberation Army. The charges against her never resulted in any judicial review of whether she was guilty or not. Instead, she was raped and killed by the Indian armed forces. Wild protests spread all over Manipur by various activist groups who wanted justice. Powerful protests took place by members of the Meira Paibis, who stripped naked behind a banner that said, “Indian Army rape us”. This action forced the state government to respond. The Indian Prime Minister came to Manipur and moved the base of the armed forces camp from a place called Kangla to another area. He also selected a committee to review the AFSPA and the atrocities that took place. The Committee submitted its report in June 2005. Although the report was never formerly published, it ended up on the Internet for everyone to read. The Committee’s recommendations were clear – the AFSPA was inadequate and had become a symbol of oppression and hatred and needed to be repealed.
There have been attempts to divide the group, but the Meira Paibis are still going strong in Manipur. However, the absence and exclusion of women from decision making is a major problem in Manipur. For example, the Northeast Indian Women Initiative for Peace was created to get women from villages to the negotiating table (see further information about this group on their website HYPERLINK “http://neiwip.blogspot.com/p/reports.html”http://neiwip.blogspot.com/p/reports.html).
A controversial hunger strike
Very few Indian citizens, especially outside of the North East, may have heard about the unique story of Irom Sharmila Chanu who has been on a hunger strike since the 2nd of November 2000. Sharmila is a civil rights activist who uses her body in a non-violent manner as a protest against the widespread violence in Manipur. The escalating violence caused her to do something more meaningful than just arranging a peace rally.
Since Sharmila started her protest, she has been kept in an almost continuous detention in Imphal, in the northeastern part of Manipur, on charges of “attempted suicide”, which is an offence under Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code. She has been force-fed everyday, through a rubber tube going through her nose in order to keep her alive. In an interview given in 2008 she said, “until and unless they remove that very Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958, I shall never stop my fasting”.
Sharmila has been an important figure for the repeal of the AFSPA, and many in India have supported her cause. There are also people who think that this is not the right way to address the conflict. The Government has not yet met any of Sharmila’s demands. Some people say that if this method is not working, one must start looking for other multiple ways of dealing with the major issues in Manipur.
The right to life
On the 4th September 2011, a new movement called “The Right to Life” started, and currently there is an ongoing campaign throughout Manipur. The movement has grown rapidly and after only two weeks, they had more than 2000 supporters. The Right to Life movement refers to the Indian Constitution Article 21 which states that: “No one person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law”. This procedure must be fair and just for the people in all of India, which is a future challenge for the movement to deal with. Binalakshmi Nepram, who is a writer-activist and also one of the founders of the movement, was inspired by Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner of 2003. During a meeting between the two, Shirin said that if a movement is controversial, the movement could not win. Shirin referred to her own work in Iran, where she had to speak in terms of women’s and children’s rights instead of human rights. She also pointed out that a good peace initiative should have a vision and provide guidance to the people,. The Right to Life movement is currently working with several issues, not only with the repeal of the AFSPA. They are also working with specific views held by the society. Manipur is characterised by a patriarchal structure where men and their words and their policies are held to a high esteem. It is a society where people still celebrate if the newborn child is a boy, and where many newborn girls die. It is also men who are responsible for the violence and bloodshed, taking place in the state. Understanding this reality, “Youth Networks” have been formed, which is a women led initiative for peace that aims to highlight the views of the society. The network consists of young men who are made sensitive to the issues of peace.