‘Why I screamed, rape
us, take our flesh’
was among the twelve Manipuri mothers who stripped themselves four years
ago to shame the Indian Army. TERESA REHMAN
meets the iconic protestor
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.”
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
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.” •