On March 22, an angry crowd descended on a farmhouse in Utlou in Manipur’s Bishnupur district. The farmhouse was hosting a party for Yaosang, a spring festival which combines Holi rituals with local traditions. Organised by Kai, a local event management company, the “invitation only” party had 80 guests, mostly from the local elite.

The mob that stormed the farmhouse consisted mainly of Meira Paibis, or women torchbearers, who represent a powerful social movement in the state. They were joined by people from nearby leikai, or residential colonies. Guests at the party, mostly women, were abused and assaulted by the mob, which also tried to strip some of them.

The ostensible reason for the attack: consumption of liquor and alleged violation of Meitei culture. “We had to take steps to correct them from such immorality on time,” declared Borkeina of Machai Leima, one of the oldest Meira Paibi groups. “Otherwise, what will happen to our future?”

Two days after the attack, the women’s Ningol Club of Heirok in Thoubal district held a meeting, along with the Coalition Against Drugs and Alcohol, where they resolved not to permit such events in the future and urged the police to keep a strict watch on the consumption of alcohol.

At a press conference the next evening, the owners of the event management company issued a formal apology to the women’s groups as well as the guests, promising such a party would not be repeated.

“While the apology is fine, nobody has condemned the way we were harassed and defamed online,” said one of the victims. “There are videos on YouTube calling the party a ‘sex racket’. I really don’t know how I will face anyone.”

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Violence on video

Over the past few days, videos that appear to be of the raid have circulated on local WhatsApp groups. They show alcohol bottles at the party being smashed and Meira Paibis castigating guests for wearing “skimpy clothes”. One clip shows a young girl being slapped and heckled, her skirt being tugged at. Another woman who tries to shield her is also roughed up.

“The videos were taken without our permission as they were shaming the girls for wearing short dresses,” one guest said. “Yet they assaulted even a pregnant woman and tore off her husband’s shirt.”

It all started with a group of Meira Paibis gathering at the gate of the farmhouse and banging on the street lamp, the guests recalled. “Around 3 pm-4 pm, these women landed up demanding to know what was happening,” said the guest. “We let them in to show them that there was nothing wrong going in.” Seizing the opportunity, a mob of about 100 people from the nearby leikais stormed in, the guest added.

Most of the guests were women but there were families with children as well. They pleaded for forgiveness but to no avail, the guests recalled, adding that Meira Paibis even tried to attack the police trucks that came to the rescue of the party-goers. “Two girls fainted in the truck from suffocation,” the guest said. “I saw a girl pick up one of them – she had twisted her leg – and drag her to the side to sprinkle water on her face. Paibis continued to abuse them. When she protested, she was kicked in her back.”

After news of the attack spread, the police sent trucks to take out the guests. Videos that appear to be from the incident show women at the party, surrounded by Meira Paibis, being hauled into the trucks.

Asked about the incident, Hopson Sapam, superintendent of police in Bishnupur, said, “We got information that there was a tussle between the guests and the locals. But we didn’t see anyone being assaulted.”

One of the women rescued by the police said their names were recorded at the local police station. “On our way to the station, we told the police truck driver how angry we were,” she added. “He sympathised with us but told us if we say anything against Meira Paibis, they will kill us.”

‘Guardians of civil society’

Meira Paibis, often called the “guardian of civil society”, constitute a social movement which traces its origins to early 20th century. It has become a traditional institution in Manipur, with a branch in each neighbourhood. Over the decades, they have agitated over various social and political causes. In the 1970s, they became known for their war on drug addiction, alcoholism and sexual violence. As militancy spread in the state, they protested against human rights violations.

It was partly on the insistence of Meira Paibis that the Manipur Liquor Prohibition Act was passed in 1991. Though the alcohol ban was lifted from five hill districts in 2002, civil society groups opposed government attempts to extend the relief to the entire state.

Partly, Meira Paibis’ activism is intended to enforce traditional social norms and they are known to harangue youth in cafes and restaurants, monitor their activities during religious festivals. “On this event of Yaoshan, all these girls are wearing skimpy dresses and coming to this party,” said a Meira Paibi at the press conference on March 22. “And they are all dancing closely to each other. We saw them and we realised that something was morally wrong so we stepped in to stop the party.”

But local rumours suggest the attack may also have been targeted at the wife of a Bharatiya Janata Party legislator. At the press conference, Meira Paibis specifically mentioned that she was one of the revellers. Some of the video clips also show her being attacked.

While none of the guests filed a complaint, Sapam said a case has been registered, though he did not know which sections of the law were applied.

Invoking the ‘anti-lynching’ law?

Manipur passed the “anti-mob violence Bill” last year, making it the first state in India to have an anti-lynching law. Women at the party said they would consider filing a case under this law. “We have to start now,” one of them said. “If we don’t, Meira Paibis from other localities are going to think they are above the law and do worse things.”

Many women in Manipur have been protesting against the incident on social media, using the hashtag #endmobviolence.

The women guests also held a meeting to decide on the future course of action, although there was no consensus on what should be done and they left it to the organisers to decide.

“It is not like we are going against them but they have made an issue out of women drinking and because of that our moral characters are being judged,” said Rinika, a guest. “Men, on the other hand, have a free pass.”

But another guest said she had little hope of institutional or family support. “My parents don’t know about it yet but my face is all over those videos,” she said. “Once they come to know, they will blame me for it. Even if they believe my side of the story, they will not be able to defend me in front of society.”

With inputs from Jeijei Newme

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Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of the story incorrectly stated the mob attack happened on March 21.