Is the Meira Paibi Movement Facing Extinction?

Women torch bearers for long have shouldered the responsibility of defending human rights in Manipur. The use of Meira as a weapon symbolizes the declaration of a just war. The use of fire- a sacred symbol of the Meiteis adds sanctity to the movement. But the ever increasing number of organizations in the name of women, and mostly funded NGOs, seemed to have stolen away from them not only the sanctity but also the very human resources from the Meira Paibis. Money has been inadvertently used by the mushrooming NGOs to lure away the women-folk, in most cases through the promise of capacity building and teaching them alternative means of livelihood, such as soap making, manure making and others. The once organic people (sic. women), who could spontaneously come out on the streets at the sound of clanging of the metal post has today become fragmented with the inroads made by the NGOs. This is precisely because each NGO rears cadre-like-paid members, which is not the case with the traditionally established Meira Paibis. In such a scenario, recently, questions have been expressed if existence of Meira Paibis is under jeopardy. At this juncture, we feel that it is appropriate to revisit the Meira Paibi movement in Manipur.

Meitei Women’ Movement: Historical Context

There is a Manipuri saying: “The fruit of knowledge is from our fathers and grandfathers and the reserved wealth from our mothers and grandmothers” Further, “Husband bring in firewood; wife brings all the other goodies”.

The above proverbs show the basic concept of division of labour and interdependence between man and woman in Manipur. There is not any form of discrimination at any level. The status and role of women is remarkably evident in the mythologies, legends and folklores. The predominant image of the female principle is therefore of the woman- victorious, free, happy, fulfilled and triumphant. It is not perceived as enough for a woman to be strong in the face of oppression nor is endurance confused with transformation. The Meitei woman strives to win on all counts. Powerful female bonding practices with the traditional institutions of female authority and autonomy have created a unique environment for collective political action.

Community based organizations in Manipur have a distinct history and character. Women of all communities in Manipur have a long history of forming consensual groups and forums which fulfill a wide range of economic, and social needs of the community. Feminist movements all over the world have always had a singular mandate: to uplift women from their subjugated roles in their respective societies. The genesis of Meira Paibi however may be traced from a totally different perspective. The traditional concept of division of labour between the sexes in the indigenous society of the Meiteis was clearly perceived and there was an intrinsic interdependence but not discriminatory at any level.

But there has been a gradual and ongoing process of erosion of the role and status of women by both external and internal influences. The transition of governance from feudal institutions to the ‘yoke of democracy’ completely dismantled the indigenous structures and the massive power bases of the Meitei women. The western concept of development has contributed immensely to an increase in economic and gender inequity. However, the roots of Meira Paibi may be traced to the two Nupi-lan or women’s war against the British in 1904 and 1939. The Nupi-lan which started as an agitation against the economic policies of the Maharaja and the Marwari monopolists, later on changed its character to become a movement for constitutional and administrative reforms in Manipur. The original demand of the women was confined to the banning of rice exports, but later included changes in the Durbar and the administrative set-up. The uniqueness of this lan lies in the fact that in the emergence of a new Manipur after the end of the Second World war, it was the women of Manipur who were in the vanguard of change. It also showed that political consciousness has grown in Manipur and the popular vigour which was heightened by the “Women war” or “Nupi Lan” began from 12th December 1939 and it threw up the question of introducing reforms in Manipur. Some businessmen, in order to make a good profit by raising price, had begun to board rice to monopolize the trade. The effect was felt very soon. So, women rose against it. The women’s war was gradually taken over by the Maharaja and it used the Women’s War as the tool for fermenting agitation on Congress line. The situation was soon completely out of control and State police could not prevent a large meeting held in the police Bazar on 14th January 1940. The Maharaja, therefore took up the issue with Governor for Assam for establishment of Legislative Assembly, Chief Court and other reforms. Churachand Maharaja abdicated the throne of Manipur in favor of his son Budhachandra in the month of September 1941. On May 10 1942, tentacles of the Second World War reached Manipur and it completely devastated the ancient kingdom but the war gave the golden opportunity to the people to contact people of other Indian states. Thus a current of Indian political movements started flowing into Manipur. After the end of the War, many organizations renewed demands for a responsible Government. So, while a movement for constitutional reforms has been initiated in 1938, it was the nupi lan that brought the matter to a head and focused on the inadequacies in both the economic and administrative policies of the Manipur State.

Evolution of Meira Paibi and Changing Role

Meira Paibi, as the name stands today, originated as a movement to prevent and control public disorder due to alcohol abuse in the late 1970s. When narcotics abuse, primarily heroin abuse and consequently public disorder and crimes dramatically increased a few years later, Meira Paibi took up this problem as well. At the superficial level of analysis, these problems were and are generally perceived even by Meira Paibi, as largely social evils, requiring measures of social control, traditionally exercised by women. However seen in the light of the extent of social control in a small population and in the larger political context of Manipur and its numerous proscribed armed opposition groups struggling against the Government of the Republic of India, the tacitly recognized and factually proven role of the Indian armed forces as a source of alcohol supply in a prohibition state as well as couriers of narcotic drugs over the Indo Myanmar border and into continental India, the movement takes on a completely different hue.

In the early 1980s massive security operations were launched in the valley, ostensibly to destroy camps and hideouts of the armed opposition groups. The Meira Paibi responded instantly with protest demonstrations. Later with continuing stepping up of the activities, political as well as military, of the armed opposition groups in Manipur, yet another valley wide crackdown was launched by combined security forces-Operation Sunny vale. No sooner was the crackdown launched, incidents of assault and molestations of civilians were reported, and the Meira Paibi took to patrolling the streets at night. Women of every leikai or ward of every town and village in the valley participated in the daily patrolling, bearing no weapons but only the Meira- the bamboo and rag kerosene torches. The moral force and no doubt the votes represented by this massive turnout soon tuned the routine house-to-house, indiscriminate searches into a desultory and occasional exercise. However, a stepping up of offensives by the militant underground and the Indian security forces against them resulted in frequent violations of civil rights, from rape and murders, assaults, disappearances and public shootings.

This evoked the next level of response from Meira Paibi: public meetings, demonstrations, road closures and public bandhs or shut down of all essential services, hunger strikes and mass rallies. Tens of thousands of women have been actively involved in these protests over the period of almost a year: even hundreds of thousands, all told.

Lessons for Women’s Role

Immense faith is entrusted upon the leadership on such a scale that it offers opportunities for manipulation which, even if not exploited, offers no guarantee that the trust will not be breached. One of the major tasks of the evolving leadership must be the development of check mechanisms. The vulnerability of the Meira Paibi will be and, in fact, is already particularly evident in long-term campaigns and in confrontation with rigidly organized State apparatus. Without effective strategy planning, the best of efforts tend to fizzle out in the face of determined opposition from the government. These in turn lead to disenchantment, loss of morale at ground level, vulnerability into welfare activities and general lack of cohesiveness and coherence.

The sharply increasing polarization of the political climate in Manipur will bring the Meira Paibi into sharper focus. At this point, the role of the passive section, the educated, the middle class woman, will become critical. As yet, her participation is nominal. Her lack of participation is evidenced by the image of Meira Paibi outside Manipur as anti-alcoholism, anti narcotics abuse agitation by women of the lower classes. This has resulted unfortunately, in the isolation of this movement from support that would be readily available from women’s organization and networks at the national and global levels. It has also been the loss to women’s organizations and the feminist movement.

The women’s movement has a lot to learn from women who have never, historically experienced the kind of repression taken for granted by women elsewhere in the world. Meira Paibi could very well show the way in many dark areas facing the local form of governance in general and the global feminist movement in particular. This tradition needs to be respected or otherwise safeguarded by the mushrooming NGOs in Manipur. Ultimately, they need to realize that women are beyond projects. Their contributions for the welfare of Manipur are nevertheless acknowledged. But at the same time, through the lure of money and others, they should not hijack the political responsibility shouldered by the Meira Paibis.

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