Manipur ethnic violence | In an armed conflict, the war on women

The horrifying sexual violence against Kuki-Zomi women by majority Meiteis, in Manipur’s ethnic clashes between the two communities, has yet again woken the country up to the vulnerability of women’s bodies during a conflict. Alisha Dutta speaks to survivors who tell tales of abuse by both men and women

July 29, 2023 04:30 am | Updated September 01, 2023 11:11 am IST

A Kuki-Zomi woman mourns her daughter’s death in Manipur’s Churachandpur district.

A Kuki-Zomi woman mourns her daughter’s death in Manipur’s Churachandpur district. | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar

Reina Haokip, 18, sits by her bedside and ticks the names of the medicines that she has had that day — a few multivitamins, iron capsules, and spoonsful of syrup. Haokip is at a training institute-turned-relief camp for displaced people of the Kuki-Zomi community, in Kangpokpi district, located north of Imphal in Manipur. The camp, which is surrounded by paddy fields on all sides, is now home to nearly 30 Kuki-Zomi families.

Haokip’s days are mostly spent in tending to her wounds and trying to repress the terrible memories of May 15, when she was sexually assaulted by Meiteis. On some nights, she dreams of men holding a gun to her head, and wakes up screaming. While the wounds on her skin have nearly healed, the scars within remain, she says.

Like Haokip, many women have faced sexual violence in Manipur ever since ethnic clashes broke out between the Meiteis, who dominate Imphal Valley, and the Kuki-Zomis, who dominate the hill districts, on May 3. More and more such stories have been surfacing since July 19, when a video of tribal women being stripped and paraded by a mob in Thoubal district went viral on social media.

Also read | Before parading women naked in Manipur, mob killed people and torched houses, June 21 FIR states

The incident featured in the video took place on May 4 and sparked outrage across the country. It forced the Prime Minister to finally break his silence on the conflict. The Supreme Court took suo motu cognisance of the sexual assault and issued ultimatums to the Union and State governments to bring the perpetrators to book or to step aside and let the judiciary take action. Despite the Home Minister’s visit to Manipur in the aftermath of the events of May, the State continues to be on the boil.

Kuki-Zomi women protest the violence against Kuki women in Churachandpur district of Manipur.

Kuki-Zomi women protest the violence against Kuki women in Churachandpur district of Manipur. | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar

‘They threatened to rape me’

Born and brought up in Imphal’s New Checkon area — a mixed neighbourhood where Kuki-Zomis, Nagas, Meiteis, Nepalis, and other communities lived peacefully for years — Haokip never imagined that she would be brutally assaulted for her ethnic identity, and that too in this region.

Her voice a little more than a whisper, Haokip recalls that she was at her Kuki friend’s place in a Pangal locality when violence broke out. (Pangal is a term historically used by the Meiteis to denote all Muslims.) “When my family fled Imphal, I couldn’t leave with them,” she says. For nearly a fortnight, she hid at her friend’s place, located an hour away from home. She was confident that she would be safe as the Pangals were not involved in the violence.

From the world outside the safe house, her friend’s Pangal husband would bring back essential items along with tales of atrocities. Nevertheless, Haokip kept faith in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led State government. “I kept believing that they would do something to control the situation. But when there were no signs of things getting better, my friends started worrying about their safety. That is when I decided to find a way to reach my family. Who wishes to invite danger towards their own friends?” she says.

Haokip decided to withdraw some cash for her journey. When she and her friend were on their way to an ATM in New Checkon, a group of Meitei men in a white Bolero and purple Swift surrounded them, she says.

“They asked us to show them our Aadhaar cards. They began hitting my friend for sheltering me. Then they started hitting me and swearing at me. They spared my friend, but forcefully pushed me into the Bolero and drove me to Wangkhei Ayangpeli, a Meitei-dominated locality (about 24 kilometres away),” she says.

The men continued to assault her inside the car, she recalls. “They threatened to kill me. They said that all Kukis will be hunted down,” she says.

A sexually abused Kuki woman at a relief camp in Kangpokpi district.

A sexually abused Kuki woman at a relief camp in Kangpokpi district. | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar

More people — men, and women dressed in phanek, a traditional Meitei sarong — joined her captors in Wangkhei Ayangpeli. The women were Meira Paibis, says Haokip. Meira Paibis or “women torch bearers”, who are also known as mothers, are Meitei women from all sections of society in Imphal Valley. Meira Paibi is a loosely organised social movement that was formed in the 1970s to fight against alcoholism, drug abuse, human rights violations, and the assault of women. They are widely championed internationally for their non-violent methods.

“First, the Meira Paibis started hitting me. When I told them that I was a woman just like them, they started hitting me even harder,” she says. “Then these women called a few more men. A group of armed men in black T-shirts with a logo arrived. They were part of Arambai Tenggol (an outfit for reviving the Meitei pagan religion of Sanamahism). They instructed the men to kill me,” she says.

Haokip rubs and folds her hands as she narrates the next part of her harrowing tale. The group blindfolded her, tied her hands, and took her to the Langol Hills in the northern part of Imphal. “They said that if I did not obey instructions, they would not spare me. They threatened to rape me,” she says. A sobbing Haokip begged them to let her go. She was hit by the butt of a gun so badly that her eyes and ears began bleeding, she says. When she did not give in, the men began groping her.

After some time, Haokip lost consciousness. When she woke up, she found her pants undone. “It was nearly dawn when I woke up. I asked them if I could go relieve myself. They chuckled and said if that was my last wish, then so be it.”

Removing her blindfold and undoing the cloth around her wrists, Haokip walked a short distance. From there she rolled down the hill. “I was covered in dirt, mud, and blood. A Pangal auto driver carrying vegetables found me. On seeing the white Bolero follow us, he took me to the nearest police station, the Bishnupur station. On seeing me stand in front of a police station, the group left,” she says.

But Haokip asked the driver to drop her at New Checkon. “After all that the Meitei men did to me, how can I trust the Meitei police?” she says. T.T. Haokip, a politician associated with the Shiv Sena and a former MLA of the BJP, received her and took care of her. Haokip was treated at a hospital in Kohima, nearly 136 km from Imphal, before being reunited with her family.

While relieved that she is home, Haokip’s family is also very worried. “She frequently gets nightmares and wakes up screaming,” says her younger sister Dona Haokip, 16.

Meira Paibis check vehicles on the road in Moirang in Bishnupur district.

Meira Paibis check vehicles on the road in Moirang in Bishnupur district. | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar

‘My daughter can’t be dead’

While Haokip is now at a relief camp far away from Imphal, many Kuki-Zomi women have not found a way back to their families.

Sitting inside a hamlet in Churachandpur, the epicentre of the conflict, Rosie Kipgen, 70, is glued to the family’s walkie-talkie. Though she is normally not a fan of gadgets, Kipgen is now inseparable from the device. As phone connectivity is poor and the government banned the Internet following the conflagration on May 3, most people depend on walkie-talkies to communicate.

Kipgen’s daughter Mary is married to a Meitei man, Jacob Singh. On May 30, after days of being silent, the walkie-talkie buzzed. Singh was on the line. But the relief on finally hearing his voice dissipated quickly for the Kipgens as Singh sounded fearful. “He told me that the people in the Meitei relief camp in Kumbi, where they had taken refuge after fleeing from a village on the outskirts of East Imphal, were now growing suspicious about the identity of Mary,” says Kipgen.

Whimpering, Kipgen recalls hearing her grandson crying, “Baba! Baba! The Manipur police commando is here, and they are looking for you!” The call got disconnected.

The Kipgens tried to establish contact once again. This time they heard Mary crying out for her mother. “She kept on begging them not to do it and to leave her alone,” says Kipgen.

The next morning, Singh narrated to the family the events of the previous night. He said that at 9:30 p.m., the Manipur police commando had asked him where his wife was. “Scared, he pointed at my daughter. She was picked up by the Manipur Police commando without her consent,” Kipgen says. Singh told the family that Mary was taken to an isolated place. She was later found dead, without clothes, on the road between Sugnu and Langingchin in Chandel district. “He told us that her body had been kept in the morgue of the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences in Imphal,” whispers Kipgen.

The First Information Report filed by the family mentions murder, but the Kipgens allege that Mary was also brutally raped by the Manipur police commando. They are no longer able to reach Singh. Wiping her tears, Kipgen says, “My daughter can’t be dead, right? How can people behave so brutally towards a woman?”

Other mothers whose daughters were allegedly sexually assaulted and murdered are also in disbelief. Nancy Chongloi, a resident of Kangpokpi district who also lost her daughter to the ethnic clashes on May 5 in Imphal, is unable to comprehend the brutality. Her daughter Rosie Chongloi was one of the two Kuki-Zomi women who were attacked by a mob of men and women in a car wash in Imphal. It was Rosie’s co-worker, present at the time of the assault, who informed the family of the incident. Meitei women assaulted the two women and then handed them over to the men, the co-worker told the family. The men allegedly sexually assaulted the two women and murdered them on the evening of May 5.

Nancy Chongloi is especially troubled by the savagery of the women. “How could the women in the mob hand over two young women to a large group of angry men?” she says, incredulous. “Whether Kuki-Zomi or Meitei, how can women do this to other women?”

Responding to the stream of allegations faced by the Meira Paibis, Ima Lourembam Ngambi, 72, one of the founding members of the group, says it is “extremely shameful how the men have been using the Meira Paibis as a tool in this war”. Ngambi is one of the 12 women who staged a nude protest against the brutal killing and rape of Manorama Thangjam, 32, while in custody of the Assam Rifles in Manipur in 2004. Today, she goes back and forth in denying and condemning the recent acts.

A Kuki-Zomi woman covers her face after hearing the news of her daughter getting killed, in Kangpokpi district of Manipur.

A Kuki-Zomi woman covers her face after hearing the news of her daughter getting killed, in Kangpokpi district of Manipur. | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar

Fear in camps

Meanwhile, the Kuki-Zomi women who have taken refuge in relief camps across the State are shaken and afraid. Nancy Touthang, 34, is a displaced Kuki-Zomi woman living in a camp in Kangpokpi with her family of four. She says she was able to bring very few of her belongings from Imphal to the camp. She and her husband have lost their means of livelihood. “I fled from Imphal and took refuge in this camp. I could have been one of those women who were sexually assaulted and killed,” says Touthang. She cannot believe that she has been forced to leave her home, situated in the Chief Minister’s constituency.

While Touthang was able to articulate her fear, Grace Ningombam, who has been at a relief camp in Churachandpur since May 28, cannot bring herself to put her grief into words. “I get goosebumps every time I think about these women, both young and old,” she says.

“Many of these cases of sexual violence have surfaced after that video went viral,” says a senior Kuki leader. “While the world is learning about how sexual assault is being used as a tool in this conflict, there are far more such cases which have gone unreported,” she says.

The husband of one of the survivors of the viral video describes the lingering trauma of such incidents. “While it was already difficult for my wife to live with the memories of the assault, it has become even more difficult for her to live with the fact that so many people saw her being humiliated publicly,” says the Kargil war veteran. “She has frequent nightmares. To get rid of the trauma, sometimes she tries ripping off her skin.”

All names have been changed to protect identity.

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