Over a decade ago, I came to Imphal, the largest town in the Northeast Indian state of Manipur. I traveled over the barricade of hills that surround the city by a long and circuitous route. The local people were engaged in a highway blockade, which I later learned was a much-employed form of popular protest. The town was also experiencing one of its almost daily power outages, so only a scattering of oil lamps along the market stalls indicated that we had actually arrived at our destination. As we neared the home of my travel companion where we were to stay, he stopped to talk to some of the local Meitei women, who were hailing an army truck to hitch a ride home. “Aren’t they afraid of getting home so late?” I asked, having learned about the security problems in the area from the Indian media. At that time I didn’t speak the local language, so my companion obligingly translated my query. The women were highly amused and answered: “Afraid of the militants? My daughter, we are the proud mothers of these same militants!”
The women of Manipur are highly politicized. Meira Paibi is a women’s association and one of the largest grassroots human rights movements in the region, comprising virtually the entire adult Meitei female population in every Meitei town and village. It is the watchdog of civil rights violations at the community level, initiating and engaging in campaigns against rights violations, such as arbitrary detention, cordon and search operations, and torture, committed by the security personnel of the federal government of India.
However, the Meitei women of Meira Paibi are little concerned with women’s rights in and of themselves, and believe that they must “get general civil rights implemented first.” This is perhaps the inevitable attitude of people in a situation of violent strife that has lasted for generations and where civil rights are routinely flouted. The tendency to dismiss women’s rights is also likely due to the Meitei culture, which prides itself on the traditionally high status and prominent role of its women. Consequently, many women are reluctant to see themselves as objects of human rights violations particular to their gender.
But the Meitei women do suffer very much from rights abuses because of their gender, and they are not accorded adequate protection. Increasingly, Indian security personnel assault women for their support of opposition groups as a means of demoralizing and insulting the Meitei community at large. The results of a recent report by my organization, the Imphal-based Centre for Organization, Research and Education (CORE), suggest incidences of violence against women, including rape, are increasing at alarming rates.
Moreover, while the community still arbitrates most disputes according to local customary law, which is more gender equitable, parties who stand to benefit from them are increasingly accessing Indian laws that are strongly patriarchal regarding issues such as inheritance. In customary law, rape is an offense punishable by death and ostracization of the rapist’s family, and judgment is passed by a local court of senior women who examine the victim. However, the way that modern Indian policies address rape is unnecessarily protracted and traumatizing for victims. Because of moral and social conditioning, local judges are often sympathetic to the “innocence” or “extenuating circumstances” of the perpetrator.
Since I started to work at CORE, my colleagues and I have been trying to give women’s rights more prominence. We’ve educated the grassroots activists of Meira Paibi and other women’s organizations on the gender aspects of civil rights by using relevant sections of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). This approach, tailored to local interest in civil rights, appears to have improved the public’s understanding of gender discrimination to some degree.
However, we have been unable to create a general consciousness of women’s rights as requiring any special attention. The Meitei women are ultimately more concerned with human rights abuses committed by the Indian government than they are with their rights as women. Consider these two contrasting incidents. In 1997, during a routine cordon and search operation, Indian Security Forces raped a woman, holding her husband at knifepoint outside the room while her seven-year-old son, bedridden with polio, witnessed the crime. For months, hundreds of thousands of Meira Paibi members, supported by human rights activists and organizations, protested on the streets of Imphal. Yet in 1999, a young woman was physically threatened with violent reprisal by community activists when she chose to be sexually involved with a trooper of the security forces. In this case, the public was widely sympathetic to the activists.
In my ten years in Imphal, I have found that unless women’s rights contribute to the common understanding of the community’s greater political cause, they do not resonate among the local women, nor are they likely to be implemented.