INDIA: Mother’s Quest for Justice

Anjuman Ara Begum *

The culture of women’s movement often set it root in motherhood as symbol or a weapon to create space. The notion of motherhood proved instrumental for women struggle for justice world wide. Patriarchal values existing in the society portrays women as inferior, however, this portrayal raises their presence and accessibility in public life as evident in various armed conflict situation. One of the rare positive impacts of armed conflict is increased women’s leadership through a change in gender roles though often not the gender relations.

Photo by: Sri Dasarath Deka

Meira Paibis, (meaning torch bearers) is a popular women’s group in Manipur active over a century to address the issues of rights affecting women’s life. Changing socio-political landscape in Manipur with the advent of British administration in the late 19th century and its end in 1947 had a profound influence on the subsequent course of women’s networks like that of the Meira Paibis which is based on solidarity. The historic Nupi Lal(women’s agitations) of 1904 and 1939, running of the Ima Keithel (mothers’/women’s market), the organization of Nupi Marup (women’s revolving credit group) etc are few examples. It was this solidarity among women led to withdrawal of the use of forced labour in 1904. The Nupi Lan or the Women’s war that started in 1939 was against the oppressive economic and administrative policies ruled by the Manipur Maharaja under the supervision of the then political agent Mr.Gimson (1933-45) in Manipur, which evolved later into a movement for a series of constitutional and administrative reform in the Kingdom.

Meira Paibi movement is rooted in the Ima Keithals of Imphal city in Manipur. Ima Keithal is the world largest all women’s market where seller are women and selling daily essential items. Presently there are 34 women’s solidarity groups in the Ima Keithal.

Of late in 1980s, the Meira Paibis became a household name for being instrumental in curbing alcoholism and with the deployment of armed forces in the state of Manipur; the Meira Paibis wore a different role by being in the fore front of protests against excessive use of force by armed forces and non-state armed groups. They came forward in public grouping themselves as ‘mothers’ since the maternal platform provides the adequate space required for women to raise their voices. The mobilization for such movement started in between March 1975 and June 1976. They were initially called as the Nishabandi due to their activities against alcoholism. As changes in the socio-political and economic occur, the women’s movement also reflects the nature of the societal structure. Hence since last two decades Meira Paibis are mostly seen active against atrocities by the armed forces and the armed opposition groups. They received world wide attention for their bold protest against the killing of a female after custodial death and sexual violence in 2004.

To cite an example of deviation from this trend, it would be worth to mention the mammoth hunger protest staged by single woman. The killing of ten persons by paramilitary forces at Malom, Manipur on November 2, 2000 followed by brutal combat operation left Irom Sharmila shocked at the anarchical act of the state agencies. She decided to begin a fast unto death demanding the repeal of the Act responsible for such brutality on the part of the state, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958. Thus began the fight of Irom Sharmila, the Iron Lady from Manipur whose fast completed 13 years recently. Though Sharmila began her marathon fast in protest, the investigation into the Malom massacre has still not yet been completed even after 13 years. It’s only in January 7, 2010, a team of the judicial officials led byTh. Surbala, the District and Session’s Judge, Manipur East, conducted a spot inquiry at Malom. However, the victims are yet to get justice. Since November 2, 2000, Sharmila continued to be arrested under section 309 of IPC for her attempted suicide each year.

Another glorious example of women’s movement in North East India that used motherhood as platform, is the Naga Mothers Association (NMA). Formed on 14th February, 1984 as a voluntary organization, the mothers committed to fight social evil which they continued till today. In 1970s and 1980s, they initiated resistance against alcoholism and drug addiction. However, challenges emerged as counter insurgency operations intensified in the state resulting enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings and violence against women.

NMA adopted different strategies as mothers. They offered themselves as negotiators and engaged in dialogue with men deployed as armed forces by the state or those enrolled as the ‘nationalist’ activist representing armed groups, appealing both the parties for total cessation of bloodshed. NMA supported mothers and family members of the disappeared and started a campaign to honour the dead. NMA would arrange for funeral of the unidentified deceased by covering them with traditional shawls, preparing coffins and burial grounds.

NMA joined hands with other Naga organizations like Naga Hoho, Naga Peoples Movement for Human Rights (NPMHR) and Naga Students Federation (NSF) etc. Peace movement under the banner, ‘Shed No More Blood’, was launched in 1990s to engage in dialogue with all parties to the conflict to cease blood shed. Mothers took journeys to the hill terrains in Burma and other difficult places to reach the rebel leaders as well as army officials for support. This trust-building process continues even in the midst of occasionally resurgent violence and constant suspicion. The NMA has provided a common platform for different parties and factions to meet and dialogue with one another.

Similarly, in Assam, Matri Manch and Mahila Samities played a seminal role in political mobilization both pre and post Indian independence period. They addressed violence against women, human rights issues specially killings and sexual violence by armed forces. Teresa Rehman, journalist, write that the ‘the first Mahila Samiti was established in Dibrugarh in 1915. These groups were formed as local associations in Assam’s urban centres and particularly picked up momentum during the 1920s’. To ease the life of women and to secure leisure time for them, the Samities passed resolution back in 1948 to fix meal timing in the family. Lunch was decided to be at 12 noon and dinner at 10 pm.

Despite the shield of motherhood, women human rights defenders face peculiar challenges due to existing gender discrimination in the society. Women activists in the region often cited of domestic violence, restricted mobility and sexual harassment at workplace as reasons for their limited participation in human rights activities.

Social notion of women as a symbol of ‘honour’ and dignity of the family has created silence over the issues of violence against women. Women in general and women activists constantly feel challenged to overcome stenotypes. The need of the hour is that each member of the society fosters a culture to respect and cooperate with the women human rights defenders in their struggle. It is for the interest of the whole society. There should be helping hands with dignity not with violence.

Published on the occasion of Women Human Rights Defenders Day, November 29, 2013

*About the author: Anjuman Ara Begum is Program Officer – India Desk at Asian Human Rights Commission and can be contacted at e-mail [email protected]


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