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Book excerpt: The courage and fury that led to a nude protest

In her new book The Mothers of Manipur, journalist Teresa Rehman tells the stories of the 12 elderly women who protested the custodial rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama by stripping outside the headquarters of the Assam Rifles in Imphal.

books Updated: Jul 20, 2017 11:50 IST
Teresa Rehman
The protest by 12 elderly women in Imphal on July 15, 2004 outside the headquarters of the Assam Rifles paramilitary force. The women were protesting against the killing of Thangjam Manorama.
The protest by 12 elderly women in Imphal on July 15, 2004 outside the headquarters of the Assam Rifles paramilitary force. The women were protesting against the killing of Thangjam Manorama.(AFP)

In her new book The Mothers of Manipur, journalist Teresa Rehman tells the stories of the 12 elderly women who protested the custodial rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama by stripping outside the headquarters of the Assam Rifles in Imphal.

The Manorama incident provoked many bottled-up emotions. Nganbi recalls it as repugnant. The security forces had vilified and raped so many women before –either openly or secretly. It was getting intolerable for the people of Manipur, especially women. She had seen pictures of Manorama’s defaced body and read about her mutilated private parts in the newspapers.

When she was invited for the all-important meeting at the Macha Leima office on 14 July, curfew had been imposed in Imphal and there were no buses plying.

She coaxed an auto-driver to take her to Imphal. The auto-driver charged an exorbitant sum of a thousand rupees though it usually only takes around Rs 400 for the 28 km stretch from Bishenpur to Imphal. But the determined woman was ready to fish out the amount as, no matter what, she had to reach Imphal. She could not afford to miss the meeting. After getting down from the auto-rickshaw, she slowly trudged to the Macha Leima office, but the meeting was almost over by then and many women had left . She was startled when she came to know of the decision the mothers had taken. She thought about it for a while as she sipped some water, and then she said she too would like to join in. But she knew also that if she had to participate in the protest the next morning, she had to stay back in Imphal that night.

It was difficult to go back home and come back again early the next morning. So she decided to stay back in another protestor, Tombi’s house. ‘My family members are used to my absences from home. They do not worry when I do not return for two or three days,’ she smiles.

It was long night. There was a feeling of both restlessness and apprehension. Many felt a sense of impending doom, as if anything could happen at any moment. Lying on the bed next to Tombi, she had a long discussion with her. Tombi, 46, agreed to participate but only to collect their clothes. But Ima Nganbi tried to persuade her to join in the act of stripping as well. They talked for three long hours – from 7 pm to 10 pm.

Nganbi finally managed to convince Tombi that it was her duty too, to protect their dignity of women and to fight for the truth. Tombi agreed and then, exhausted, she dozed off . Nganbi slept only for half an hour that night and woke up early. She brushed her teeth, had a cup of tea and some biscuits. Both of them took an auto rickshaw and went to the Macha Leima offi ce.

With a silent prayer in their hearts, they geared up for the protest and took off their inner clothes and jewellery.

Ima was anxious and also felt a strange sort of numbness. She was murmuring a prayer and hoping that the protest would be successful. A few of them were shaky. One was constantly biting her nails. Nganbi gave them a little talking to, saying they should not be anxious as they were simply doing their duty.

Then the moment was there and they got into two vans. A few women came from the Macha Leima offi ce to Kangla which is located at a distance of 3 kilometres.

They reached Kangla at around 9 am and stood separately in different places, so that nobody would suspect anything. There could be no false starts.

Teresa Rahman’s book isn’t just a collection of the biographies of these women. It is an attempt at understanding the problem in Manipur. (Anis Ul Haque)

They assembled near the Kangla gate and the security guards thought that they were coming to see the Kangla Fort. Nganbi had the two banners held securely under her enaphi. They were somewhat fearful of what lay ahead; no one had really wanted to carry the banners, but she now had them. When they neared the gate, the guard, who was a Meitei man, asked them to stop, saying, ‘Wait, wait.’ As one of the Imas gave the agreed signal, they began to strip and unfurled the banner.

While the protest was on, she could see the Commanding Officer (CO) of Assam Rifles. He came forward and bowed before the nude mothers with a Namaste and went back. All the soldiers were completely dumbstruck. When some of the security guards warned them to leave, the mothers yelled at them, ‘You are also Manipuri. Don’t you know what the army is doing? Why are you threatening us? We want to beat you, come here. You are a mere servant of the security forces.’

The livid mothers started banging at the gates of the Kangla fort. The security guards ran towards them. Then the women cautioned them, throwing patriarchy back at them. ‘Don’t come near us. Don’t you dare touch us. If this phanek touches any man, he will be accursed all his life and will be under the control of the women.’ The armed men were afraid to come forward.

The phanek, Ima Nganbi tells me, is not a garment to be trifled with in Meitei society. ‘According to ancient lore, if a man wears a dress made from the used phanek (women’s skirt, belonging to the Meitei mothers and grandmothers), it ushers in prosperity. It also leads to victories in hunting expeditions and battles. There is a conviction that amulets made from a piece of a mother’s phanek can protect one from the evil eye.’ It is said that Manipur’s freedom fighter Paona Brajabashi put a piece of his mother’s phanek in an amulet. Only when he removed it did he die.

Elders do not touch a phanek as a mark of respect. The women screamed at the soldiers, ‘If you touch our phanek, we will beat you with it instead of a stick. We will challenge your guns with a phanek.’ And every Meitei man knows what this can mean.

As the women screamed and protested for nearly an hour, the security forces stood stunned and helpless in front of the incensed mothers. After a while, the women’s helpers picked up their phaneks and gave them back to the women who put them on again. With the phanek, Ima said she seemed to come back to normal life. By this time some of the women had fainted and had to be taken to the nearby J.N. hospital. Nganbi was asked by the policewomen to get into the police jeep, but she refused. She trudged her way to the office of Macha Leima. ‘I felt so drained. And I could feel a sense of shame and I fainted.’

The nude protest led to chaos. Immediately, curfew was announced and schools, colleges and offices shut down and people ran for their lives. Ima Nganbi knew that she had to return home that day, no matter how she did it. She walked from the Macha Leima office to the bus junction at Keisamphat at around 2 pm. She boarded a bus. After all that anxiety, now that the deed had been done, she felt like she was floating on air. She looked around the bus, wondering if any of the passengers had seen her protesting. Nobody asked her anything and she consoled herself that nobody had seen her. Somehow she had to reach home.

On their arrival at the bus stand, she met a friend who insisted they go to a wayside eatery for tea and snacks at Bishenpur Bazar. It was nearly 4 in the evening and she was weary and hungry so she agreed. When they found a small eatery, a young boy looked at her and said, laughingly, ‘The Meira Paibis are really robust and healthy.’ And then, he suddenly looked at her more carefully and said, ‘Aren’t you the protestor who screamed in English? I saw you on the local channel at 3 pm today.’

Nganbi was at a loss for words. Almost spontaneously, she started denying that she’d been in Imphal for the protest. But the boy laughed and said, ‘I know you can speak in English.’ Nganbi was relieved that her friend sitting with her did not understand anything.

She asked her friend to hurry up and walked home with her. She closed the door behind her, hoping nobody had seen her. Just then some children came for tuitions and they were chattering, ‘Grandmother spoke in English at the Kangla.’ Her children got to know and asked her if what they were hearing was true. She then told them everything. Gradually, when it got dark, the shame started to set in and she became quite flustered.

But she tried not to think. The television channels had been blacked out by 3 pm, so not many people knew about the protest. She went off to sleep and, exhausted, slept soundly.

Early in the morning when the raucous calls of the crows rang out in the locality, she continued to lie in bed, her eyes shut, praying that morning would never come and she would not have to face the world. When the newspaper man brought the paper, her son quickly picked it up and hid it. The mothers’ protest had hit the local headlines. There was no hiding things any more.

Curious neighbours and other Meira Paibis came and asked her for details. Ima Nganbi told me, ‘It’s still all a blur in my head. For a few days, I did not go anywhere. Not many came to meet me either.’

She did not look at the newspapers herself as she felt she had done what she had to do. ‘I did not feel the need to see the newspaper,’ she says.

In her heart she still carries the same dreams: the repeal of AFSPA and Irom Sharmila’s return to a normal life [this latter has since happened. Sharmila gave up her fast in 2016]. She speaks of the moment of protest with pride, and with anger at some of the reactions the Imas got.

‘We did it for the people of Manipur,’ she says, ‘we are not prostitutes.’ The scene at the Kangla fort haunts her, she comes from a very conservative community and it took considerable courage to do what she and her companions did that day. I tell her this and thank her for her courage as I leave.

Excerpted with permission from The Mothers of Manipur: Twelve Women Who Made History, Teresa Rehman, Zubaan