The Art of Defiance

Breaking the body; resurrecting the spirit

Thingnam Anjulika Samom
Seated in her sparse living room, eyes closed in an effort to recall every detail, her small hands move agitatedly in the air as though searching for the right words. Fifty-three- year old Zamthingla Ruivah-Shimray narrates a story that is nearly three decades old. On January 24, 1986, Zamthingla, then twenty-four, had just graduated from Maharaja Bodhachandra College in Imphal. She had come home to Ngainga village, about 10 kilometres from the district headquarters in Manipur’s Ukhrul hills. Her neighbor, eighteen year old Luingamla Muinao, was weaving inside her home situated a little away from the other buildings surrounding the Chief’s house. Most of the villagers were in neighbouring Halang (now known as Huining), where the Tangkhul Katamnao Long (TKL), the apex student’s body of the Tangkhul community, was holding its general body meeting.

‘Luingamla did not go to the students’ meeting. She was leaving for Imphal in a few days to enroll in Class Nine. The village school had classes only up to Class Eight. She needed new shoes. Her mother said, “Let’s weave together to earn enough money for your shoes.” So, she didn’t go to the meeting; recalls Zamthingla.

Zamthingla works in a government department in Imphal and stays in Lamphel area of the valley. ‘I usually come home very late from work; she explains apologetically over the phone when asked for an appointment. A few hours later, the Langol hills are already wrapped in darkness. Barely a kilometer away, the commercial area of Imphal city, dominated by high-rise buildings, glows orange under rows and rows of glaring street lights. Here in Lamphel, the rows of non-functioning street lamps stand in silent testimony to government apathy. Only the odd bulb at private gates and the yellowed light peeping out someone’s curtained window or doorway illumine the heavily potholed road.

The small side-lane to Zamthingla’s house runs opposite the local ground where young boys play football or just sit around to watch the comings and goings. At one end of the ground is the Imphal Meitei Church, one of the many churches of all denominations. Zamthingla continues her tale in her soft, hesitant voice. Luingamla’s parents had gone to help a friend construct a house. Her younger sister Tharawon was outside, working in the kitchen garden. Suddenly, there was a shout, a cry for help, followed by two gunshots. When the neighbours rushed into the house, they found Luingamla, her mouth stuffed with cloth, lying in a pool of blood. Capt Mandhir Singh of the 25 Madras Regiment was standing nearby, trying to wash the blood off his trousers. With him was 2nd Lt Sanjeev Dubey of the Mahar Regiment.

Seeing the villagers, the two army men ran out, shouting that the underground people had killed Luingamla. They called their colleagues from the army camp situated near the village school campus and announced a curfew. All the villagers were herded into the village ground to ‘hunt for the killers.’

Zamthingla gives a half-smile, ‘They killed her because she did not allow them to do their dirty deed. She died protecting her chastity. Yet the siphai [soldiers] were again torturing the villagers.’

The 25 Mahar Regiment and Madras Regiment were among the numerous army battalions posted in Manipur as part of counter- insurgency measures against multiple armed nationalist movements by the Naga, Meitei and Kuki communities. In 1980 Manipur was declared ‘ disturbed’ and the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), an emergency law first enacted in 1958 to provide extraordinary powers to the Indian armed forces to quell the Naga insurgency, was imposed on the whole state.

‘Those days, there used to be a lot of harassment from the army. The army soldiers would come and beat up the men. Luingamla used to come often, carrying a child on her back, perhaps a nephew or niece, and say to me, “They are back. I don’t like the sight of them. They frighten me. They will beat up my father again and throw our things around. Let me stay here for a while until they are gone,” Zamthingla recalls, describing the army patrols and frequent operations.

The Silencing
Luingamla’s fear was not unfounded. No doubt she had witnessed the brutality of the Indian army against the men in her village. Perhaps she had also heard stories of the way these ‘outsider’ men in uniform had harassed the women of the region in unspeakable ways. Perhaps she had heard about how many women were sexually assaulted in Mao Songsong town and Shajaoba village in July 1971, and in Huining and Nungbi Khullen in 1981-82. More likely, she had heard about nineteen-year-old Rose Machui Ningshen of Ngaprum (now Kumram) village whose rape by two Border Security Force (BSF) officers and subsequent suicide in March 1974 had galvanized the formation of a collective of Tangkhul women.

Sexual violence including rape, forced prostitution, stripping, genital mutilation and forced marriage during wartime of armed conflict is not new. Evolving definitions and understandings of rape and other sexual crimes over the years have opened up the notion of sexual violence as a war crime in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the wake of the 1992-95 ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia and the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

Feminist scholars from the region (Saigol 2008) have pointed out that viewing women and their sexuality as symbols of culture, tradition and the nation has meant that in times of conflict, women are violated in a sexually-specific way. ‘It is clear that wherever identity and self are threatened by an “Other”, an outsider defined as an enemy, women’s bodies become the arena of the most violent forms of conflict,’ she writes.

In both the hills and valley of Manipur, the instances of sexual assault, including rape, on indigenous women by the ‘outsider’ army were most likely to be silenced by existing patriarchal nations of honour and morality. While a few instances came to light, it is quite probable that many remained silent due to fear of the army and the disrepute that such a revelation might bring. Cutting across communities, women in Manipur are caught in the twin image of the model women within the bounds of a patriarchal set-up and the defiant savior of society. This is best explained by anthropologist MC Arun kumar and journalist Irengbam Arun as ‘a dichotomy of two traditional Meitei female deities — the aging “patri-oriented model of an ideal womanhood” Imoinu and the youthful Panthoib… juxtaposed models of female blisshood (domesticity) on the one hand; and of the forthcoming and independent feminism breaking down the shackles of the rigid patriarchal Manipur society’ (Arunkumar and Arun 2009).

This contradiction also exists in Naga Society. Tangkhul women for instance enjoyed a high degree of freedom to participate in socio-cultural activities; however they were considered subordinate to men and confined to domestic work. This image of the ever-toiling woman in the jhum fields and domestic sphere, deprived of a place in the traditional village administration, is juxtaposed with the strong peacemaker, the Pukreila capable of stopping bloody battles mid-fight. Among the Tangkhuls, a Pukreila is a woman who marries into another village. When there is war between her natal village and her marital village, she has the right to step in and say that the war must end. Her decision in this matter becomes the final authority and the war has to cease at any cost. A Pukreila woman thus becomes ‘a mediator, negotiator and security in times of war’ (Shimray 2000).

Back in 1974, Rose Machui Ningshen was to be married but she committed suicide after she was raped. ‘Traditionally and culturally, rape was taboo in Naga society, inviting capital punishment. But Naga Society too has a patriarchal structure and a lot emphasis is placed on the moral standards of women. She (Rose) could not bear the stigma that she was raped,’ says Grace Shatshang, advisor of the Naga Women Union, Manipur (NWUM).

‘There were rapes in many of the army operations — be it at Patsoi or at Oinam. But the problem was that these women refused to speak up, or be identified as they feared the stigma,’ says senior journalist and former chairperson of the Manipur Human Rights Commission, Yambem Laba.

Edited by Laxmi Murthy and Mitu Varma
Speaking Tiger, Pg 272, Rs 499


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