Kom and Irom lead the struggles in Manipur, even as women in this troubled State ask for peace to be given a chance

One plays a sport that necessarily entails violence, while the other’s struggle is of the most non-violent form. While Olympian bronze medallist Mary Kom punches above her weight to score points against taller and heavier opponents in the ring, Irom Sharmila, the Iron Lady, has been fasting for 11 years for the repeal of Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) clamped in Manipur.

Kom and Irom have become the most visible faces of the women’s movement in Manipur today, embodying all that the society struggles for. In fact, the petite Manipuri women have been organising themselves for decades as watchdogs of society plagued with insurgency, poverty, unemployment, border issues, army high handedness and State apathy. Every locality has a council of women who are part of the group Meira Paibi or ‘the female torchbearer’.

“If you fill a two feet long bamboo stick with kerosene and stuff it with cloth so that the cloth absorbs all the kerosene and then light fire to it, then it becomes a mashaal and is known as meira in our language. Paiba is the one who carries the torch and Paibi is the female who carries it,” explains Th Ramani, 82, who was a founding member of Meira Paibi.

The group was started as a desperate measure in 1971 to control rampant alcoholism in the State that had women and children at the receiving end of it. But when AFSPA was imposed in the State in 1980, the group’s activities widened, says Ramani.

Every night, women spread a mat on street corners and sit in groups keeping an eye out for troublemakers. In case of danger, the women pick up a stone and clang it against the nearest lamp post like a bell. This is a signal for all in the vicinity, men, women and children to come out in support. “In Manipur, everybody respects Meira Paibi. The police can misbehave with men but not with women,” says Uttam Chand, a Manipuri resident.

The group is known to have held a nude protest against AFSPA and amongst its many interventions is the heroic story where they physically snatched young boys to safety, when picked up by the army on suspicion.

“There were purple bruises on legs which would later become septic. We convinced the army not to torture people they arrest but if found guilty they should punish them legally,” says Ramani.

Top on their list of demands is the removal of AFSPA on a temporary basis. “We want the government to remove AFSPA for at least two to three months. If they find that peace is being affected, they can clamp it again, but at least give peace a chance,” says Ramani.

Evicted from its land in 2004 to build the city convention centre in Imphal, Meira Paibi currently operates out of a single room in an open air theatre complex, where several Paibis sleep, cook and eat together. Paucity of funds and lack of support has rendered this group helpless in expressing solidarity with groups in Kashmir and elsewhere, laments Ramani.

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