Manipur was a kingdom before it joined the Indian Union in 1949. The royal family had a long history, which I learnt of, and the culture of the Meiteis, from Maharaj Kumari Binodini.
It was Binodini, the daughter of the Manipur Kingdom’s king, Sir Maharaj Churachand Singh, who told me of the pre-Hindu Sanamahi religion and even took me to a famous Maibi, a woman priestess, to ask her how long my legal case would last. I had been fighting a case on behalf of Naga villagers who had suffered unspeakable crimes during a counter-insurgency operation in 1988.
I met Binodini at a meeting and when she heard of my surname she was surprised and asked me to visit her in her home.
She told me that a tall man called Haksar used to visit her husband. He was working in Churachandpur, among the Kukis and would come for medicines. I made enquiries about this mysterious ancestor of mine who had been in Manipur. All I discovered was that he had settled in the hills and never returned.
The last time I met Binodini she was in bed. She insisted I hear the story she wrote about this Haksar and she got her son to translate it line by line. It turned out to be a love story of sorts.
Binodini died in 2011 at the age of 88.
She was the first woman graduate of Manipur. Binodini had studied at Rabindranath Tagore’s Shantiniketan and was influenced by communist ideas about which she would tell me with a twinkle in her eye. She was a people’s princess and married an ordinary citizen, Dr Laifungbam Nandalal Roy, with whom she had two sons.
I have been thinking of Binodini ever since violence erupted in Manipur. I wonder what she would have thought of the Meira Paibis, the women torch-bearers, searching every vehicle to see that it was not carrying relief material for the Kukis. They used to search for drugs and alcohol to confiscate. Now, they are blocking humanitarian aid.
When the media reported that the Meira Paibis had compelled the armed forces to release 12 insurgents, I remembered the time they would patrol the streets all night and rescue young men from the clutches of the Assam Rifles.
This was when the Imphal Valley was declared disturbed under the repressive Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and the Assam Rifles would arrest anyone on mere suspicion of being a militant. The man would be brutally tortured and not handed over to the police for days despite the law stating that the armed forces had to hand over the person to the police immediately.
The fissure between the Assam Rifles and the Manipur police today dates back to those times. The Assam Rifles were the “mayang”, or outsiders, the Indians, versus the police who represented the people. The people were alienated from the armed forces because of the long history of human rights violations.
What would Binodini have thought if she learnt that the Manipur police had actually handed over two Kuki women to a mob and allowed the women to be stripped, paraded naked and one of the later raped.
This is but one of several cases in which the police were complicit in the crimes being committed by Meitei mobs. The women lodged a first information report but no action was taken until a horrifying video of the incident was circulated widely, sparking national and international outrage.
Around 6,000 FIRs have been lodged but the Kukis cannot expect any justice from the criminal justice system when the police are complicit in these crimes.
Binodini would have definitely reached out to Jayenta Loukrakpam, better known as Tapta, a popular singer with a fan following that cut across communities but who was now singing songs calling for Kukis to be killed. All his talent being channelised to instigate more violence.
I know Binodini opposed any talk of breaking up Manipur. She herself joined the agitation for the recognition of the Manipuri (Meitei-lon) language into the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution. But then she spoke of her Manipur being a place where the people of the Hills (Ching) and of the Valley (Tam) could live in harmony. Being a royal descendent, there was an element of a patronising attitude to the “simple” tribal people.
It seemed to me that the Meiteis were doing what they have blamed mainstream Indians of doing: trying to terrorise the Kukis into accepting their dominance. If the Meiteis wanted the Kuki-Zo tribes to remain in Manipur and feel a sense of belonging, then surely it was not wise to burn down their homes in Imphal, rape their women and behead their men.
Details of the murder and beheading of David Thiek, a Kuki man whose head was casually carried around by a man carrying a machette in the other hand, was a reminder of a far grislier past. According to one news report, the man who beheaded Thiek was the security guard of a Bharatiya Janata Party legislator.
The behaviour of the Meira Paibis has also shocked several people, with many asking why they have taken to violence. But there has been little of the same reaction about the National Commission for Women receiving a complaint about the parading of the Kuki women but not acting till the video was widely circulated.
When Swati Maliwal, chairperson of the Delhi Women’s Commission, wanted to go to Imphal, the BJP government tried to stop her from travelling to Manipur. Maliwal, however, was able to make it to Manipur on Sunday.
What explains the silence of women MPs and the National Women’s Commission? It is obvious that women from dominant communities or women in power do not consider the rape of minorities to be an important cause for intervention. Merely being a woman does not mean that she feels solidarity with other women across community or class lines.
The rape of a woman is not an act of lust but an assertion of power of one community over another. Upper caste men have used rape to assert their dominance over Dalit and Adivasi women. Rape has also been used by the state machinery to terrorise a community into submission; that is why there is custodial rape.
The other side of this is that when people are organised an ethnic identity and are involved in identity politics then everyone else is the “other” and fair game for torture, murder and rape.
The Meira Paibis are victims of identity politics, which is backed by Meitei nationalist groups. They are talking of a Meitei identity and not a Manipuri identity. This has led the mothers to protect an identity with the ferociousness with which they guarded Manipur from drugs and alcohol. Now, they uphold a narrow identity based on an imagined glorious past.
Some journalists have tried to be “objective” by giving two sides of the story. They have argued that Meiteis too have suffered and they are languishing in camps for displaced people. True, but it is worth considering the two sides.
The Meiteis are supported by the police, the state machinery and a chief minister, who has made no statement condemning the violence, backed by the prime minister.
The 5,000 weapons taken by the Meitei groups from the police are in addition to the armed Meitei insurgents who are well-trained. Then there are the two vigilante groups, Arambai Tenggol and Meitei Leepun, which have been identified as the two groups behind the violence.
On the other hand, the Kukis, in self-defence and perhaps retaliation, have also attacked the Meiteis and their property. It is said they have been supported by insurgents and, on occasion, by armed militants from across the border. They have denied this, but even if it is true, it is in self-defence and their position is nowhere equal to the dominant Meitei community.
The Meiteis have called the Kuki insurgents “terrorists” and have blamed them for “narco-terrorism”. But the poppy cultivation is not controlled by the Kukis. To call Kukis “outsiders” goes against the Constitution. All those who have been living in Manipur and have become a part of the Indian Union are Indian citizens with equal rights to belong to India and to Manipur.
There is no way the Kukis were going to be terrorised into submission and accepting Meitei dominance. Just as India must find a way to make every community within the North East feel they belong to India, the Meiteis have to find a way to make all communities living within Manipur’s borders feel like they belong and have access to political power, economic and cultural resources.
The Kukis will not be beaten into submission and they will be justified in their demand for a separate administration. The Nagas have been silent. They have refused to be provoked even though several Naga women have been attacked. On July 15, Lucy Marem, was bludgeoned to death despite her identifying herself as a Naga.
There is no one left who has the courage to speak out against this deadly politics. It is the responsibility of the dominant community to speak out against this distortion of their future. In the end, the Meiteis will find themselves isolated and demonised, left with memories of their past and no future.
Because I care about Manipur, I invoke the memory of MK Binodini and wish that there was someone from the Meitei community who could condemn the violence, demand that the chief minister resign, and sing songs of peace through a process of truth and reconciliation.
But before the process of reconciliation begins, the Kukis have a right to legal and political justice.
In the end, the people of Manipur must realise that identity politics will only lead to more violence. The future is one where all of us belong to one planet earth, and not one village, one community or one identity.
Nandita Haksar is a human rights lawyer and award-winning author.