Meitei women group’s actions under lens amid Manipur strife | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

Meitei women group’s actions under lens amid Manipur strife

Aug 13, 2023 05:49 AM IST

Hundreds of Meira Paibis (collective of Meitei women) in Manipur, India, allegedly looted a truck carrying food supplies and vegetables for troops.

On the afternoon of July 16, when an Assam Rifles truck carrying food supplies and vegetables for troops reached Kakching in Manipur, hundreds of Meira Paibis (collective of Meitei women) allegedly forced the truck to halt, refused to let it go further, and looted the food. The FIR filed by the Assam Rifles said the women threatened to burn the truck and later fled with around 4000 kg food items meant for its soldiers. Manipur Police have registered a case against the group. HT has seen a copy of the FIR.

Ethnic clashes between Kuki and Meities have killed at least 152 in Manipur. (Lal Singh)
Ethnic clashes between Kuki and Meities have killed at least 152 in Manipur. (Lal Singh)

In Manipur, where ethnic clashes between Kuki and Meities have led to at least 152 deaths and a fragile law and order situation persists with occasional shootouts being reported between the two communities (and also between security forces and armed militia from both sides), security officials on the ground say Meira Paibis are not making things easy -- breaking the law with impunity, and aiding militia.

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In response, the Meira Paibis have accused security forces, especially Assam Rifles of bias (in favour of Kukis) and not doing enough to prevent violence in Meitei villages. In different parts of Imphal East and West, the women are on a sit-in protest demanding the removal of Assam Rifles. At public meetings and media interactions, the Meira Paibis have accused Assam Rifles of using excessive forces against women protesters, even helping armed Kuki militia, allegations that have been denied by the force.

On August 7, in the backdrop of the protests by the women groups, Assam Rifles (ARs) personnel were replaced with civil police and CRPF at a check post in Moirang between Bishnupur and Kangvai in Manipur. The order, which pertained to only one checkpoint, was issued by the additional director general of police (law and order) and did not cite any reason for the same. AR and paramilitary forces remain posted across the state to restore normalcy.

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After reports of the police’s order was widely circulated, the Army issued a statement that “inimical forces were making desperate, repeated and failed attempts to question the role of the Assam Rifles.” In a statement on X (formerly Twitter), the Army said that the force was working relentlessly towards saving lives and restoration of peace.

Meira Paibis are groups of Meitei women present in every village across the state. In the late 1970s, women groups called Meira Paibis (Women with Torches) started forming at several places to carry out non-violent protests against illicit-liquor, use of drugs and more specifically the imposition of Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which gives unbridled powers to army and security forces to arrest, detain, even shoot suspected insurgents. They have participated in many notable protests in the state over the years. Every colony in the valley district is informally represented by local women residents, known as the Meira Paibis of that colony.

But over the last two months, the groups have been called out by the security forces for allegedly interfering with their operations and aiding rioters. On June 26, the Spear Corps of India army put out a 2 minute 12 second-long video that collated visuals from a number of operations in Manipur and levelled four serious allegations. That the women were: helping rioters flee, interfering in operations, preventing movement of men and material, and digging up the entry to the Assam Rifles camp to cause delays.

One security official, who asked not to be named said: ”Manipur police has registered a case against Assam Rifles personnel for allegedly stopping a police team from crossing the buffer zone while chasing militants on Saturday. But how many FIRs have been registered against Meira Paibis for blocking roads and stopping security forces from going to places where shootouts between groups were reported and deaths could have been prevent by timely intervention. In crucial operations in June and July where lives were lost, the women stopped the forces from intervening.”

Another security official cited last week’s incident in which the CRPF’s Rapid Action Force (RAF) had to use tear gas shells after Meira Paibis pelted stones at the force in Bishnupur. The crackdown started when women in Phougakchao and Kangvai insisted on crossing over the buffer zone and reaching the Kuki villages. That afternoon nearly 12 women were injured.

“There are viral videos of the women pelting stones. The forces, sent from the Centre and not the state government, are on the ground to ensure that clashes do not break out. Militia are using women as shield and fanning the violence here,” said the second officer.

The officials cited multiple cases of Meira Paibis breaking the law over the past few weeks. Manipur police have also filed a case against unidentified men and women over the attempted loot of the armoury at the 3rd battalion of the Indian Reserve Battalion in Thoubal on July 4. A man died in the police firing that ensued. To be sure, the FIR does not mention the name of the group and only mentions a mob of men and women.

Ningombam Shreema, assistant professor, Nambol L Sanoi College, Manipur, who has interacted extensively with Meira Paibis said, “Our state has a long history of human rights abuse by armed forces. In 2004, we had the nude protest by 12 Meira Paibis. In the last three months, RAF has destroyed shops and vandalised parked vehicles without any reason. When houses were burnt and people were being shot in two waves -- May 3rd and May 27(just) before the home minister’s visit, the security forces were silent spectators. If one group pelted stones, they do not represent all Meira Paibis. Our women are protesting because the security forces have failed to protect lives.”

Since May 3, the northeastern state has been gripped by ethnic clashes – primarily between the tribal Kukis, who reside mostly in the hill districts, and the majority Meiteis, the dominant community in Imphal valley – in which at least 152 people have died and over 50,000 have been displaced. Clashes first broke out on May 3 in Churachandpur town after Kuki groups called for protests against a proposed tweak to the state’s reservation matrix, granting scheduled tribe (ST) status to the Meitei community. Violence quickly engulfed the state where ethnic fault lines run deep, displacing tens of thousands of people who fled burning homes and neighbourhoods into jungles, often across state borders.

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    Prawesh Lama covers crime, policing, and issues of security in Delhi. Raised in Darjeeling, educated in Mumbai, he also looks at special features on social welfare in the National Capital.

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