Binalakshmi Nepram, founder-leader of the Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network (MWGSN) blames successive Indian central governments since 1949 for the current ethnic violence in Manipur which has so far claimed more than 100 lives and displaced more than 50,000 people.

In an article Binalakshmi Nepram wrote with Brigitta W. Schuchert for the United States Institute of Peace on June 22, she says that since independence, successive governments in New Delhi have weaponized ethnic issues in Manipur and other parts of India’s North East region and that this is at the root of the perennial violence witnessed in Manipur and the North East.

“ The state (Manipur) government’s response has largely echoed the strategies India has previously employed during unrest in the Northeast or Jammu and Kashmir. This has included issuing military curfews, suspending internet services and deploying approximately 17,000 troops and paramilitary forces with shoot-on-site orders in extreme cases,” Nepram and Schuchert say.

Further: “While the violence in Manipur is some of the worst witnessed in the state in decades, it is not an unfamiliar occurrence in India’s Northeast, where the identities of different ethnic communities have repeatedly been weaponized to serve the interests of a powerful few.”

“Any moves toward peace-building in the medium- to long-term will have to reckon with what has long been a weaponization of colonial fault lines — as even decades after India’s independence, very little has been done to foster understanding between different communities regarding one another’s history, culture and traditions.”

Opposition to the manner in which Manipur was merged with India in 1949 laid the groundwork for the separatist movements that appeared over the years, Nepram and Schuchert say.

“To quell this resistance, the Indian government imposed the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act in 1958. The act provides broad-based powers for the military and paramilitary groups to “maintain public order,” in “disturbed areas,” such as the North East and Jammu and Kashmir.

AFSPA was first promulgated on August 15, 1942, by the most illiberal of all British viceroys and governors-general, Lord Linlithgow, as the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Ordinance, under Section 72 of the Government of India Act, 1935. Its aim was “to confer special powers upon certain officers of the armed forces”.

According to Nepram and Schuchert, the imposition of AFSPA on the people of Manipur and the Northeast has led to at least 20,000 being killed besides numerous incidences of rape, arrests, torture and extrajudicial executions. Under the Act, the armed forces are given complete immunity.

The act has been criticized by rights groups and has contributed to a deep trust deficit between the State and central government. The central government argues that AFSPA is necessary for maintaining order in areas with a history of insurgency. It also emphasizes the threat of foreign support for separatist movements, from China and East Pakistan earlier and now from rebel groups in Myanmar.

The central government, with the State governments in tow ( the latter have no option but to toe the Centre’s line), have been looking at the social/ethnic issues of Manipur and the North East through the security lens only, paying scant attention to humanitarian and social issues. This has led to unusual forms of protest, in which women have led the way.

Unusual Forms Women-led Protests    

According to media reports, on July 15, 2004, dramatic scenes were witnessed at the Kangla Fort in the Imphal valley. Twelve Manipuri women stripped naked in front of the Kangla fort and held a banner that said ‘Indian Army Rape Us’. Standing outside the fort with their bare body and hair let loose, the women held placards that read “Indian Army rape us…we all are Manorama’s mothers” and “Kill us. Rape us. Flesh us.”

The nude protest by the “Mothers of Manipur” was against the brutal rape and murder of 32-year-old Thangjam Manorama by the 17th Assam Rifles. Manorama was picked up from her home on the pretext of interrogation under AFSPA on suspicion that she was a militant. Her body was found the next day with 16 bullets, her genitals destroyed and several marks in her thigh, media reports said.

Both the security forces and the militant groups tortured women as they were soft targets. The Kangla Fort incident forced Assam Rifles to vacate the Fort. But the draconian AFSPA continues to be applicable in Manipur as there is a firm belief in the Indian security Establishment that insurgency cannot be contained without it.

Irom Sharmila, also known as the Iron Lady, was on a seven-year hunger strike seeking the abolition of  AFSPA in Manipur. Sharmila started her hunger strike on November 5, 2000, and continued it till August 9, 2016.  She was arrested and charged with an “attempt to commit suicide”. She was also force-fed on many occasions to keep her alive. But she maintained that she would call off the strike only if the act was unreservedly removed from the state.

Women in the Lead Always

Media reports recall that women’s agitations called “Nupi Lan” have a long history in Manipur. There were significant women’s agitations in 1904 and 1939. Rani Gaidinliu played a significant role in fighting the British. In 1925 and 1932, the women led a water tax movement against the King of Manipur. In 1969, when the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was addressing a rally in Imphal, the women staged a black-flag vigil demanding Statehood. Manipuri women have consistently defied patriarchal norms to fight for the rights of the people of Manipur.

Role of Militant Groups

There are at least four Imphal valley-based Meitei armed groups, several Naga groups and nearly 30 Kuki armed groups, 60 in total, according to Nepram and Schuster. The influx of refugees from Myanmar following the 2021 military coup in that country has further complicated the problem. Those refugees have strong ties with the Kukis which have aggravated the sense of insecurity among the Meiteis.

Nexus With Politicians

Those closely connected with political power have taken advantage of the situation, though these armed groups are into gun-running and narco- and human trafficking. Armed groups frequently back candidates in state elections. Nepram and Schuchert say that in 2022, two Kuki insurgent groups issued statements in support of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), and in 2019, images on social media reportedly showed a letter written by armed groups to Indian Home Minister Amit Shah asking for a party ticket to be given to a candidate of their choice.

“Northeast politicians have reported intimidation by opposing armed groups. Civil society organizations in Manipur emphasized that the 2022 elections were overshadowed by open intimidation from militant groups and violence across polling stations. This has led to democracy at gunpoint in this fragile region.”

Nepram told a New Delhi-based Youtube channel recently that Central agencies had been creating armed groups as a counter-measure for decades. But these had become Frankenstein’s monsters, uncontrollable in the course of time. They feed on chaos and the extortion that chaos allows. Governments have found themselves at their wit’s end. And left with no option, they resort to kinetic action including unleashing AFSPA on innocent civilians.

Nepram said that the crying need of the hour is a State-backed, women-led movement for peace. She was totally opposed to the vivisection of Manipur into a Meitei majority Imphal Valley and Kuki-dominated Hill areas.

Reasons? Firstly, vivisection would violate the 1949 merger agreement between Maharajah of Manipur and the government of India. Secondly, it would violate the historically united Manipur. According to Nepram, the 36 ethnic groups in Manipur have lived in harmony for millennia and there is no reason why they cannot now.

In the above-mentioned Youtube program, Nepram strongly criticized Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s stony silence on the horrendous happenings in Manipur and demanded his resignation. She also demanded the formation of a representative Peace Committee based on wide consultation. She felt that there was every chance of peace being restored because the women of Manipur and indeed the entire North East yearn for peace, irrespective of ethnic differences.