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Excerpt: She Goes To War by Rashmi Saksena

In She Goes to War, Rashmi Saksena presents the lives of women who have been crucial operators in insurgencies in Assam, Manipur, Nagaland, Chhattisgarh and Kashmir. This excerpt is about the Manipuri faith healer Purnima, who was once a dreaded killer

books Updated: May 19, 2018 08:56 IST
Hindustan Times
Manipur,insurgency,AFSPA
Women guards at the venue of a council meeting of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN) in May 1999.(Prakash Singh/HT Photo)
205pp, Rs 499; Speaking Tiger

Women ultras are common in Manipur. PREPAK (People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak), formed in October 1977, was the first to recruit women for its cadre. PREPAK’s founder leader RK Tulachandra, kept women guards, right from day one. The women were recruited from the remote areas of Manipur where they found no employment despite being educated. PREPAK initially used them as auxillary medical staff, for movement of arms and couriers of missives. Manipur’s PLA (People’s Liberation Army formed in 1978) too had women in their cadre since the 1980s. Gun-toting PLA women in uniform were photographed while undergoing training. In early 1981, eleven girls from Manipur travelled with twenty-seven people to Kachin in upper Myanmar to set up a new camp after PLA’s (Eastern Region) Choro camp was destroyed by the Home Guards in October 1980.

Another batch of 100 PLA militants which set out for Saitang camp on their way to Kachin later in October 1982 included freshly recruited girls. They travelled for three months through thick wildlife-infested jungle to reach their destination. Rough dangerous terrain and a taxing training schedule to match that for men were not the only challenges women had to face in their life as a guerrilla. While they interacted with their male comrades and lived in close proximity with them, the PLA women cadres had to adhere to a strict code of conduct.

In 1984, a Miss Lee alias Kamala Devi was beaten up by three of her comrades for having ‘illicit relations’ with leader Soibam Temba. The group of seventeen, of whom ten were women, were on their way to Kotlun village in the Eastern Naga hills. Temba decided to avenge the beating of his lady love. Some months later (January 1985) he ordered the shooting down of those who had thrashed Miss Lee. Five months later the romance between the two insurgents led to marriage at a camp of the Burmese rebel group, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). Temba’s act was seen as indiscipline and he was overthrown in a coup by his angry men. This incident notwithstanding, PLA women were obviously taking part in combat by the 1990s. This was confirmed when two PLA women militants were shot dead in an army ambush in the Chandel district of Manipur in the late 1990s. They were on patrol duty.

Women are in the ranks of all of the several extremist groups operating in Manipur in the northeast, which touches the state of Nagaland to its north, Mizoram to the south, Assam to the west and Myanmar to its east. This state has earned the dubious distinction of today cradling the largest number of insurgent groups in India (a conservative estimate being seventeen). Most of them have split into several factions. Extortion is the main source of funding for most of them.

While Manipur has a large number of women ultras, they refuse to be written about. I did manage to meet a couple and they seemed happy to speak about their lives underground but were adamant that I would not write about them or identify them. The reason Leela (name changed), who for a couple of years was the personal bodyguard of the leader of her organization, gave for this reticence was that her leader would not like her to make the nature of her work as a militant public. Grace (name changed), who left her outfit three years ago after being a member of its ‘fund collecting team’, told me that her leader had denied her permission to give an interview. The same was the case with Meiranpi (name changed), who did patrol duty for two years and was in the ambush party. Why do they have to listen to their leaders now that they are no longer members of militant groups? I ask. They inform me that they are still watched by them and men from the ‘gang’ and cannot dare do anything against their wishes. Else they may be suspected of turning police informers. They are told that it is best to remain under the cover of anonymity for their own safety too.

It was in 1982 that Mercha (name changed) left the militant outfit she was with for twelve years. She is married to a person who was a senior leader in the organization and is now a teacher. Coming from a poor family, she was in need of money to care for her sick father and two younger sisters. She was first approached in 1978 by ‘men who said they would pay me to write slogans on posters’. She had finished her matriculation and was unable to find any work. She had to go underground when the police swooped down on her village looking for insurgents. She was told by her unit leader to go with men from another group, the Mizoram National Front, to their camp in Bangladesh. In 1980 she married one of the men at the camp who was also from Manipur. In 1990, she returned with her husband and three children to Manipur and surrendered so she could ‘bring up my children in my own country without fear of getting caught’. She wants to remain unidentified because she is afraid that her past, if known, may jeopardize her son’s career with a government defence establishment. Do your children not know that you have been a militant? I ask. ‘They may know, but I haven’t asked them and they have never mentioned it,’ is her answer.

Purnima

Unlike Leela, Grace and Mercha, Purnima knows no fear. She never has.

The feel of an icy hand in a cemetery in the dead of night would make most people jump out of their skins. Not twenty year-old Purnima. Instead she leapt to her feet, her flick knife open and ready to boldly take on any threat. Through the darkness the whisper cajoled: ‘Come with me.’ She recognized the voice immediately. He had made this offer to her many times before when she was living with her brother in Imphal’s west district. Why had this man followed her to the cemetery where she had taken refuge for the night after walking out of her stepbrother’s house? Was he trying to take advantage of her now that she was alone with no place to go to? It will not be the first time for me, she thought. This was a familiar script in the life of Purnima, born to a mother gone insane and an unknown father.

If her life has been like a kaleidoscope where the slightest twist changes the entire pattern, the night in the cemetery was one such turn. Homeless Purnima was recruited by the rebel group Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP), an offshoot of PREPAK, floated in April 1980. Both the extremist organizations were proscribed in October 1981. When the man asked Purnima to join the militant underground outfit, it did not sound an absurd proposal to either.

In fact Manipur, which has a matriarchial society, has not only had women enlist for various insurgent organizations fighting a war with the Indian State for liberation, but they have on their own strength conceived and fuelled protest movements of historical significance. In the early 1980s they formed the Manipur Nupi Kanglup (Manipur Women’s Organization). On 23 May 1980 as many as 10,000 of its members marched in procession for three days through Imphal to protest against deployment of security forces in the state. They also came out to oppose the promulgation of AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act 1958), in September 1980. Women protested too against combing operations by security forces to flush out insurgents.

It was the bold protest by naked women in July 2004 that showed the world to what extent women of Manipur are willing to go for a fight dear to them. As hundreds of women came out to demonstrate against the alleged rape and murder of a 32-year-old woman by men of the Assam Rifles, about forty of them shed their clothes and held up banners at the Assam Rifles base and headquarters in Imphal.

Soldiers of Nagaland’s NSCN guarding a council meeting on 4 May 1999. (Prakash Singh/HT Photo)

Way back in 1904, the women of Manipur had stood up against the British when their men were ordered to fetch timber from a huge distance to rebuild houses of the officers destroyed in a fire. The historical Nupi Lal (Women’s War) movement of 1939 is well recorded. The Manipur women, traditionally responsible for the production, selling and marketing of food grain, started Nupi Lal to prevent the export of rice when they faced a shortage of it. Even today, Imphal has the world’s only women’s bazaar in which they sell handlooms and grain. Ideological conviction and safeguarding their interests have always been the driving factor for women activists even if it means resorting to aggressive means.

Purnima too was driven by her own pressing needs. Joining a rebel group meant shelter, food and, above all, security against exploitation. With a gun and uniform she would be able to intimidate people instead of being intimidated by them. No one had ever been good or kind to her. She did not want to be at the receiving end anymore. Besides life as an underground activist could not be worse than what she had lived. ‘From the age of nine when my mother went mad, I scrounged for food in dustbins, picked up discarded old clothes left on streets and slept on pavements. I did odd jobs in homes till I found my way to my stepbrother. By then I was eleven and totally unwelcome in his home.’

At sixteen, she was married off to 25-year-old Thanjam Premji, a farmer in Sanjenbam village. He left her four years later with two children and a third on the way. Purnima had no option but to return to her brother’s house. She worked as a daily wage labourer, sold vegetables and sat at the loom to weave to support herself and her children. But the money was never enough. Her brother ‘wanted to get rid of me and tried to marry me off again’. Purnima was done with marital life so she decided to leave her brother’s place. She left her children with her husband and set out for nowhere. ‘I needed a place to sleep where no one would chase me away or question me. I decided that the cemetery in Imphal would be the best for me.’ Were you not afraid? I ask her. ‘I did not care if I lived or died. I had seen so much in life that I was scared of nothing,’ she replies.

Over a period of seven years, being fearless and without a care for her life made Purnima a much in demand KCP assassin and extortionist by her camp commanders. Purnima, now known as Nalini with a KCP registration number, soon carried a reward of Rs 50,000 on her head. Will this disclosure not get you in trouble? I ask as she talks about her work for the rebel outfit. ‘There is no visual record of Nalini,’ she answers calmly. In any case it would be difficult to connect the present-day Purnima with the KCP militant, assassin and extortionist Nalini.

Today she is known as the benign faith healer of Bethel House Healing Centre at Sanakeithel, a desolate spot in Imphal’s Langol Games Village locality. Purnima has discarded the phenak (handwoven wrap-around skirt) and innaphi (shawl) worn by women in Manipur. Instead she wears only track pants and T-shirts. Her long straight hair has been replaced by a close-cropped cut. ‘I have done this because all my problems arose because of my being a woman. I don’t want to look like one anymore,’ she says with quiet determination.

She exchanged her phenak for green combat attire when she began her maiden journey to the KCP camp in the ‘hill district’. The man who had persuaded her to join the militant group had introduced her to another girl who was her escort during the two-day trek to the camp. ‘We lived in a village. The training centre was just outside the village. This was my first contact with the hill people. They were scantily dressed and had no access to medical aid. They would carry their sick to get medical assistance on stretchers made of bamboo.’ Much as she wanted to do something about it, Purnima had a tough training programme to go through. ‘There were about fifty of us undergoing training. Fifteen were girls.’

Purnima learnt how to use AK-47 and AK-56 rifles, fire a 9 mm pistol (‘they were of Chinese and Japanese make’), put together RDX bombs and secure an area with mines. Besides arms training she was given lessons in disguise, how to melt into a crowd, how to ensure safety of civilians while taking shelter in their home, finance, organizational work and ‘Communist political ideology’. With every passing day, Purnima began to appreciate not only the ‘discipline of the Red Army’ but also their cause. ‘I began to see the right of it. The Red Army wanted to bring about a distribution of wealth amongst the people, preserve our culture and teach us how to look after our land. I felt the struggle would bring peace for our troubled people.’

At the end of six months the trainees had to sit for an examination. ‘I have never been to school but I topped in this,’ she says with pride. Purnima was given a registration number and turned into Junior Private Nalini. From that moment ‘I decided that I would do assignments to near perfection’. As the years went by, the assignments became tougher and tougher. In 2005 she was sent to the Assam Rifle camp near village Henglep in Manipur’s Churachandpur district as a member of an ambush party of 250 made up of the KCP and another rebel group. ‘My task was to give cover to the men who carried out the ambush. I was armed with a gun and Lethode bombs. I used them for self-defence. Between fifteen and twenty of the cadre died.’ Her next assignment was a one-hour encounter with the army near Keimai in Manipur’s district of Imphal West. ‘This was nothing compared to the two-month journey we had to make to the camp in Jiribam,’ she says. It was a ‘non-stop walk over forested hills’ to Jiribam which is on the western border of Manipur adjoining Cachar district of Assam. ‘We walked in silence in a single column keeping a gap of about fifteen metres, carrying guns and survival kits. We stopped only at night to eat. I have never experienced such a tough trek,’ she recounts.

The real challenge for Purnima was yet to come. She was ordered to accompany a sergeant major, cross the border into Myanmar and open a KCP camp there. After almost three years of living in jungle fatigues, Purnima changed into a phenak and draped an innaphi across her shoulders. ‘I hated it but had to do it to disguise myself,’ she says. From Jiribam town she and her companion took a bus for an eight-hour drive to Imphal. ‘We pretended to be a couple going to Imphal.’ The pretending was easy for her comrade ‘because he wanted to marry me. But I was going to do no such thing. If there is anything I am scared of it is marriage’.

From Imphal they drove to Moreh, a trading town located on the India–Myanmar border in Manipur’s Chandel district. Moreh has for long been a crossover point for rebels from India’s northeastern states to Myanmar. Besides the legal import of betel nuts, turmeric, dry ginger and red kidney beans, there is a flourishing clandestine import of drugs and arms. It is a big bazaar for insurgents as well as the folks from surrounding villages. The border town of Tamu on the Myanmar side is about a two-hour walk. Purnima and the other KCP soldier did not choose to walk across. Their destination lay deeper into the forests of Myanmar.

‘We hired a tonga and travelled for five days to set up our camp in Myanmar,’ says Purnima. But before it could be done, Purnima’s ability to negotiate and handle large sums of money was put to test. ‘I worked out a deal with the Burmese soldiers by paying them five lakhs. Then I talked to two other rebel groups to allow me to open a camp.’ She requisitioned tarpaulin sheets and soon set up a mobile camp. Purnima was made camp commander. This brought on responsibilities she did not have earlier. The camp had about fifty recruits being trained for patrol work and taking part in a daily drill of physical exercise.

Purnima had little choice but to go back to the dress she loathed. ‘I had to cross the Moreh post a number of times to recruit people, procure food and medicine and most importantly to arrange for money to run my camp. I pretended to be a petty trader to get past the checkpost.’ The disguise part was easier compared to arranging finances. ‘I would go to people doing government projects and demand a certain percentage in lieu of KCP protection.’ Even while intimidating people, extorting money and while recruiting, Purnima followed a simple rule. ‘I never raised my voice and always communicated in a direct straightforward manner. That is why they took me seriously when I told them of the consequences if they did not meet my demand.’ She speaks in the same calm manner when she tells me that ‘I have never been scared or tired or told a lie’ under any situation.

She refused to tell a lie when she went to the house of a KCP renegade on orders from her senior. ‘When I called him outside his wife asked me what I wanted. I told her I had orders to kill him because he had betrayed the organization.’ The man was frightened out of his wits. He meekly stepped outside and started to walk with Purnima to a dark field. His weeping wife followed, pleading with Purnima to spare his life. When they reached the field ‘she flung herself in front to cover him. She told me to shoot her instead. My men tried to pull her away from him so that I could shoot him. In the scuffle her phenak came undone. Her innaphi tore. She was naked but she did not care or even realize it. All she wanted was to save her husband. It struck me then how women want to save lives and here I am, a woman, killing people without a thought.’

As the woman wept and pleaded, the mobile phone in Purnima’s pocket rang. ‘My commander wanted to know if I was done with the assassination.’ Purnima had changed in that one moment. She told a lie. ‘I fired in the air and told my senior that I had shot the man.’ She then told the man she had been sent to kill to run away with his wife and never be seen again in the area. She told her own men that if they ever sneaked on her, she knew how to deal with them. ‘As I turned to leave I saw the man take off his sarong and cover his wife. She looked up at him with tearful eyes and said apologetically that she had not realized she was naked. For the first time I understood what love is and what wonders it can do.’

Sitting in the tin shack that serves as her living quarters, dispensary and office she gestures to the adjacent shack from where comes a constant humming sound. More than seventy men and women are singing or rather chanting in the language of the Kuki and Meitei people of Manipur. ‘I cure them with love. I tell them if they love god they will be cured. We sing hymns and pray five times a day. It is all about faith and love,’ she explains to me. In 2011, she claims she got the powers to heal people. In 2013, Purnima established the healing centre where she charges Rs 250 to treat a person. ‘Some have cancer, some have kidney failure as well as other diseases. They come when they have no hope anywhere else.’ According to her, they stay with her for a couple of weeks and are cured. Do you give them these medicines, I ask, pointing to the many bottles of tonics advertised as medicine to gain ‘vigour and vitality’ and cure cough and pain. ‘The cure is revealed to me in my dream. I am told by a godly apparition in white who comes in my dream what medicine to give a particular patient.’

From the night Purnima spared the life of the man she was assigned to assassinate she felt revulsion for the work she had been carrying out. ‘I felt that extortion, killing and even recruiting people for militant groups was not good. Violence was not the answer. Love was.’ But she also knew that leaving the organization or fleeing was not an easy option. ‘Once you are given a registration number, you cannot leave without permission of the leaders. Those who escape are hunted down and killed.’ She started to distance herself from her work. ‘I told my leaders that I now felt tired and less confident. They thought I wanted to leave and start another faction. I convinced them that was not the case.’ Her lack of interest in jobs she routinely took on earlier was soon evident. ‘They realized I was no longer the lethal disciplined killer and may slip up while on an assignment. They let me go.’ The year was 2008.

But things did not go the way she thought they would. As she was crossing the Moreh checkpost to return to Imphal she was apprehended by some KCP men. ‘They thought I was running away without permission.’ Purnima was charged with twelve cases. ‘I was tortured and hung from the ceiling. They wanted me to confess. They did not believe that I had had enough and God was calling me.’ As luck would have it she was spotted by members of the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), another insurgent group. They had shared the camp with KCP in Henglep and ‘recognized me. I was well known in the camp’. After they rescued her, they put her through intense interrogation and were convinced ‘I was innocent and leaving only because of a calling from God’.

Author Rashmi Saksena (Courtesy Speaking Tiger)

On her return to Imphal, Purnima tried to find work. ‘I knew how to embroider so a garment manufacturer employed me for his unit in Tamil Nadu,’ she says. Another twist in her life was waiting for her. She ran into trouble with the police and was jailed on charges of child trafficking. She could prove her innocence only after spending twelve days in prison. While there she converted to the Baptist faith. ‘Then I started to see a godly figure in my dreams telling me to go out and take care of the sick and spread love.’

Read more: Woman Maoist killed, two anti-insurgency force personnel injured in Odisha

After a day of one of my long conversations with her, she asks me to return to her shack late evening. As I walk into her shack, I see her lying motionless in her bed which is veiled by a green net. She is surrounded by the inmates of her centre who are crying uncontrollably. Some are praying. One of her assistants is bent over her, massaging her hands. Another is massaging her legs. She is very ill, they inform me. She cannot talk now, they say. What has happened? I inquire. To my surprise I am told that Purnima goes through this whenever she is overcome by ‘negativity’ when she absorbs the pain of a sick person. Did she treat a very ill person today? I ask. ‘No, it is the pain of her days of violence which you made her relive that has made her ill,’ her daughter tells me. It is not an accusation, just an explanation for Purnima taking to her bed and shutting herself off from interaction with anyone. She will be fine in a day or so, her daughter assures me. I turn to leave with the thought that a journey from a destitute to a dreaded militant to a faith healer leaves its scars. Purnima obviously has found a way to come to terms with it.

First Published: May 18, 2018 21:48 IST