Sunday, May 20, 2012

An Agenda for Women-Centric Movement in Manipur

Recent years have witnessed atrocities meted out against women in most visible ways. And in each and every incident, the violence is stark, brutal and inhumane. The case of Premila (killed and burnt by pouring petrol after rape at Kakching in April 2012) is a stark reminder of the prevailing state of affairs, and renders earlier understanding of our society as gender-sensitive and a society where women are accorded a higher status as compared to other societies misplaced. On one hand violence against women has come out from the invisible condition, traditionally covered by layers of patriarchal and social mores, to the visible domain. This is true as far as domestic violence is concerned and thanks to the many who have worked to bring them out. On the other hand, the alarming trend is the increase in violence committed against women in the public domain by “strangers”. Public memory is still fresh with the gang-rape and killing of Thangjam Manorama by Assam Rifles personnel and the rape, killing of a woman at Pheiyeng, gang-rape of a woman at Bishnupur and others. A reading in totality of such brutal incidents indicates that culture of violence and militaristic method of settling down issues in the society has spilled over from the military (both state and non-state actors) to the civilian population. This is on account of the prolonged and continued violence in the state, which has impacted onto the social, political and everyday life shaping into a cultural form. Overall, violence has become a way of life in Manipur that it influences the everyday life of the common men and women, and in fact percolated and reflected in the cultural life of the people. And such trends have a direct bearing on the well-being of the minorities, including children and women.
Conflict Situation & Gender
“Conflict situation” is much more than a condition of war, violence, revolution and suppression among major actors. It is also a condition that has a direct bearing on daily, social, political and economic life of people. Though conflict situation has been understood as the state of disorderliness and chaos, there has been increasing understanding that it also generates changes of various scales that allow diverse stakeholders multiple roles and claims for various political and economic interests. Also this condition unfolds power relationship of a new order, hierarchical order between classes, ethnic groups, gender, etc. Such renewed order under a conflict situation as well as the emerging peace and conflict studies have been under the scanner of gender perspectives in various parts of world and among the generation of scholars (feminist scholars). Not only the state and security forces have been criticised as patriarchal institutions and unmindful of vulnerabilities on women, the issues of victimhood and agency of women under conflict situation have become increasingly major concerns. There has been the argument that patriarchal mindsets are equally generated under militarised situation.
The armed conflict between the state forces and non-state actors of high magnitude has been understood as the major component of the conflict situation in the state of Manipur. The history of sovereign past and merger of Manipur into India (1949) have been major aspects of the armed conflict. Since early 1980s, the state witnessed armed conflicts. The Government of India declared Manipur a “disturbed area” in 1980 and with it AFSPA has been employed in the state for the last many years, thereby resulting to a situation of war and human rights violations on various scales. The effect of conflict on the everydayness of an ordinary citizen is a matter of concern. The everydayness in a conflict situation - a daily situation and experiences that become more direct affecting at various ways to each of the individual - means that conflict situation has an everyday aspect that needs urgent attention. The elements of power, violence and oppression do not merely lie in the contending parties in conflict, but these elements have filtered to our everyday life that many actors in our daily life have either substituted or emulated as power holders in the spheres of family, local clubs, streets, cinema halls, shops, market places, etc. In this everydayness of conflict situation, social stereotypes, hierarchy, status of women, social taboos and exclusion are given new power and order.
Under such conflictual order, people’s movements for the defence of basic human rights have been prominent political face of Manipur. The high visibility of women as protestors is also a major feature in the state. Not only that, the state has also witnessed conflicts of various orders - especially conflicts and tensions among the ethnic groups of the state.
However, such situation has primarily focussed on the collective struggles, self-determination and rights of sovereign nations and ethnic groups. No doubt such situation is despite the possibility that political mobilisation of women is highly possible. The state has witnessed immense powers of women in the field of protest. But this situation has never been looked through the lens of gender. This may be on account of the assumption that gender reading under such repressive state laws and forces may de-politicise the ensuing collective struggles. The idea of civil society that emerges in Manipur as the product of conflict situation apparently carries such assumption.
Agenda for Women Centric Movement?
When violence has become a way of life in Manipur wherein the weaker are at the receiving end, especially women, and in the light of the ever increasing incidences of violence against women, time has come to see if there is a possibility of both the need for collective people’s movements as well as gender readings of the situation and movements. The need to underscore gender perspective in contemporary Manipur is largely on account of the undeniable fact that there has been both increasing victimisation of women in “conflict situation” and apparent sidelining of women specific issues in much of the current movements/protests in the region. The perspective is all the more important because of seemingly contradictory presence of women in the street in various occasions. On the one hand the state of Manipur has a rich history of women’s movements in the past and present; it primarily dwells on the collective movement, nation, movement for self-determination, movement for human rights violation etc. The conflict situation has produced a condition for women larger than one can imagine. The issue of widow is a key issue. The continued armed conflicts and the immediate situation as a result of counter-insurgency measures undertaken by the state have resulted to increasing number of women without husband.
Further, the need arises on account of ever increasing violation of the body of the women and her life in various spheres such as economic, politics and social – or in short, in the everydayness of her existence. What is being proposed then is, the need for women specific political agenda. But the issue is whether such (women specific) movement would be a problematic blot on the pulses of the collective people’s movement on broader issues (such as self-determination, human right violation, etc.)? But if within a broader frame or condition of life, the category of women is put central and a gender reading of such life is being attempted, then it will not only be about empowerment but also of justice. For that matter, women empowerment cannot be confined within the limited scope of imparting education at par with males. Yes, education is crucial but it is not enough. Women empowerment need to encompass the capability to defend and protect themselves from all kinds of violence committed by not only military personnel but also male civilians. It is a tragedy that despite the rich and long tradition of women’s movements, Manipur is yet to witness any gender- centric mass movement. Its absence is conspicuous by itself given the fact that domestic violence, rape and murder of women have been disturbing the collective psyche of our people more frequently than ever before. The issue merits serious introspection. Our society would have to pay a heavy price if our women are allowed to be victimised in such bestial manner for fear of derailing the broader movements for protection of collective human rights. The broader movement for human rights is a continuous movement which has been going on for the past many decades. At some point of time, as the situation demands, the issue of violence against women should be given the central position within the broader framework even if one is apprehensive about pushing the women’s agenda separately. Women’s agenda cannot be women exclusive. They are mothers of our society, and they have been acting as vanguards in many crucial phases of the nation’s existential history. Our women have fought against drug menace, they are now fighting against human rights violation. Then they must surely have the capacity to fight violence against women. Or should we suggest that the fight against violence on woman is incorporated within the larger Meira Paibi movement ? Go on, fight for your rightful place in the society. It is no less political.

This article was published in The Sangai Express on Sunday, May 20, 2012

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