What's the use of clothes? You can strip me,
but how can you clothe me again? Are you a man?
In Mahasweta Devi's short story 'Draupadi', an adivasi woman from Bengal refuses to put on her clothes after she is taken into custody and raped by soldiers of the Indian Army. At the end of the story the naked Draupadi confronts the army officer who sanctioned her rape and who now stands before her as 'an unarmed target', in a state of total paralysis usually associated with the victim. In January 2000 Heisnam Kanhailal adapted the story as a play. When it was first staged in Imphal, with Kanhailal's wife Heisnam Sabitri playing the lead, the play did not go all the way. The magnificent final scene in which Draupadi faces her abusers, naked and bloody but fierce, was not shown, only suggested. But the troupe realized that for the play to really work it had to startle the audience. Later that year, the play was part of a festival organized by the National School of Drama in Delhi. When the play was staged at the Shri Ram Centre Auditorium, the troupe enacted it in its truest form, including the final scene. The audience was overwhelmed.
Four years later, the play turned out to be prophetic, a premonition of a real event in the history of Manipur when twelve Imas, mothers, stood naked in public to protest the killing and possible rape of a young girl, Thangjam Manorama. Quite like Mahasweta Devi's Draupadi they gave up modesty for justice and displaced some of the shame of nakedness and violation onto the soldiers of the Assam Rifles who were accused of raping and killing Manorama. Kanhailal got many phone calls that day. The morning newspapers of 16 July 2004 called him Ching'ü, a wise man, who could foresee the future.
There was a tiny quiver in the air when the twelve Imas threw off their clothes in front of the Kangla. No one is sure who was the first to disrobe. But they had come prepared, leaving behind their petticoats, blouses and fear. They hardly exchanged a glance, they didn't wince or hide. No one spoke. But in a few moments the air was ringing with slogans, like a chant.
'Rape us, kill us! Rape us, kill us!'
First a few meek voices, and then a chorus, sharp and strong.
'Indian Army, rape us! Kill us!'
Video footage of the incident shows one of the women protestors shouting, 'We are all Manorama's mothers, come, rape us, you bastards!'
The mothers had left their hair loose, a mark of mourning. Some wore slippers. Others were barefoot. All were on a fast and had prayed in the morning before they embarked on this Nupi Lan, this women's war. Their nakedness, old, haggard, was indescribably sacred.
To find fellowship in loss is easy in a brutalized land. The odd relief here is that you don't need to make people understand grief. They know what you have suffered because chances are they have suffered the same. Laisram Gyaneshwari had seen Manorama's body. As news of the brutality of her death became public, civil society organizations had demanded to see the body. Many women who went to the hospital were horrified at the mutilation and cruelty. There were scratch marks, a deep gash on her right thigh, probably made by a knife. There were gunshot wounds on her genitals.
'I didn't know Manorama, but that such a terrible thing can happen, can be done to a girl, shocked me. There was so much cruelty...so gruesome that my heart bled. It was like vultures had preyed on her,' Gyaneshwari would tell me.
To talk about this death in an honest manner required the retelling of the truest, the worst versions of this story. For some the narrative was that Manorama, the girl who died, was unworthy or stained or anti-national or an insurgent, that anyone who was protesting her death must think of the living. For weeks, months and years after, the Assam Rifles would respond to questions related to Thangjam Manorama and her brutal death as if it were a phantasmagoria of sorts afflicting the questioner. According to them on 10 July 2004 officials had gathered reliable information that a member of the banned People's Liberation Army identified as PLA No 1262, Corporal Manorama Devi, alias Henthoi, a militant since 1995, was in the Bamon Kampu Mayai area. She was identified as an expert in improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and an informer for the PLA. A little after midnight, a preliminary checkpost set up in the area confirmed her presence in her house. The Assam Rifles launched an operation and troops were dispatched to cordon off the area. Around 3 a.m. they knocked on the door, provided an arrest memo and took her into custody. The Assam Rifles listed this as the sequence of events, as simple as that.
This version was consistently disputed by Manorama's family. They claimed that seven or eight Assam Rifles personnel, some in civilian clothes, first arrived a little after midnight, around the time the army claims a preliminary checkpost had been set up to confirm Manorama's presence at home. The youngest of the siblings, Th Basu, was watching a Hindi film, Raju Chacha. The middle sibling, Th Dolendro, was sleeping when the men rushed in, providing no explanation, pointed a gun at their mother who was awake and asked for 'Henthoi'. Manorama came out of her room just then. One of the men gagged her with his hand and dragged her out of the house to one side of the courtyard. When the brothers and mother tried to stop the men they were pushed and beaten up and told to stay inside the house. For the next several minutes, the brothers, through partly opened doors and windows, saw their sister being slapped, pulled by the hair and thrown to the ground in the tube-lit courtyard. Later a man from the arresting party, who was not in uniform, knelt by Manorama. He inserted a kitchen knife under her phanek. Her mouth gagged, her hands tied behind her back, Manorama struggled as her phanek was pulled down from her waist to her knees, exposing her thighs. The long blouse she was wearing was pulled up and unbuttoned. Through all this, the men kept asking her about the presence of arms.
This is not the full story, but a version of events till around 3.30 a.m., when the soldiers informed the family that Manorama was being taken into custody. She was alive then. Havaldar Suresh Kumar signed the proof of it, an arrest memo, with two other soldiers as witnesses.
The Assam Rifles had an incorporated practice where the operating party got a 'no claims certificate' signed by the family whose member had been taken into custody. This was to safeguard the men involved in the operation against any claims, so family members had to sign on a memo that said the soldiers hadn't 'misbehaved with the women of the house or damaged property'. Manorama's family signed the no claims certificate. The Assam Rifles claim they found one Singapore-made Kenwood radio set and one Chinese-made hand grenade in Manorama's house. The family says the men found gold-plated jewellery, which they took away.
Two hours after she was taken away, Manorama's bullet- ridden body was found four kilometres from her house. The petition of the Assam Rifles had a simple explanation for that. After being taken into custody the soldiers had intended to hand her over to the nearest police station. Manorama, they claim, led them on a wild goose chase, giving details of another militant colleague, SS Lt Ruby, who she said had an AK 47.
After almost two hours of driving around, she tried to flee on the pretext of wanting to ease herself. The soldiers shouted for her to stop and when she didn't they fired a short burst in the air to warn her and then fired towards her legs, which resulted in her death.
There wasn't a single bullet wound on Manorama's legs. There were sixteen on her genitals.
Recovery was tough for anyone who saw the body at the morgue. In the first few days after her death there were many protests. Men, women, children marched, held dharnas. They carried torches, they held peaceful protests, they held angry protests, they clashed with the police and they demanded the repeal of AFSPA. The public space was saturated with grief and anger but it still didn't mean much. 'At first,' Gyaneshwari remembers, 'we all just sat and cried'. This pain seemed sharper than any they had suffered so far. The response had been impotent.
At the Nupi Samaj, a prominent Meira Paibi group—the term for the historic 'women torchbearers' of Manipur who had in the past led campaigns against alcoholism and the armed forces—there was rage. The term Meira is also used to mean initiative, progress, or to signify a method for enlightening darkness. The Meira Paibis, typically married women between the ages of thirty and sixty-five, with or without any official post in the organization that they were loosely affiliated with, were like a disciplined cadre. These were mostly women with similar stories of early marriage, domesticity, the birth of children. Together, they also took on the obligations of their society, held night vigils with flaming torches or stood guard against the army taking away their boys by banging electric poles or beating a gong or banging bamboo poles on the ground. The banging would produce varying rhythms of sounds and beats, each conveying a different message, a message to congregate for an emergency. The recent years had been particularly difficult, but there was much fight still left in them. Manipur's history expected no less.
Across Manipur, from the valley to the hills, there are stories of the brave acts of its women, and many women felt that this time more was demanded of them. It was time for the third Nupi Lan or women's war. In 1904 thousands of women fought the first 'war' when they came out in large numbers and demonstrated in Imphal demanding the withdrawal of an order of forced labour. The government had issued an order for Manipuri men to go cut timber and rebuild colonial offices and bungalows, which had been burnt down. This was to be done without any payments. The British tried to quell the protests but had to finally withdraw. A little over three decades later, in 1939, the second Nupi Lan was in response to an artificial famine created by the British policy of exporting paddy coupled with hoarding and excessive rain that year which had led to severe shortages. Women petitioned the British Political Agent for a ban on rice export. In December of that year women confronted the President of the State Durbar, T.A. Sharpe, and forced him to send a telegram to the Maharaja who was out of Manipur. Many women leaders sat inside the telegraph office as the message was sent, while thousands sat outside on vigil. By the evening 4,000 agitators had collected. The police attacked the women, some of whom sustained serious injuries. On the 13th of December the Maharaja sent a telegram ordering an immediate ban on the export of rice. The women of Manipur had won, once again.
Just as in the valley, in the hills too the British were facing political disobedience of a different kind, from a woman. She was a Naga Joan of Arc by the name of Gaidinliu. A sixteen- year-old Rongmei Naga girl she was fighting for her people, ironically at the same time that the Indian civil disobedience movement was on in the 1930s. Gaidinliu was to start her 'no tax' campaign, one of the first acts of political disobedience against British rule. While the political aim of her movement was to resist the British, her movement also created problems for the administrative machinery, making it tough for the British to collect house taxes from the tribal houses. According to the files in the National Archives of India, at the zenith of her movement, Gaidinliu would often invoke the name of Mahatma Gandhi. She asked the villagers to believe in 'one god, Gandhi'. As the movement spread, the government ordered that 'every effort should be made to arrest the accused Gaidinliu who is absconding'. The Manipur government offered a reward of 500 rupees and guns, and announced that any villager, either in the Manipur State or British India, who gave reliable information leading to her capture would also be given ten years' full remission of house tax. But no villager turned up as informer. On 17 October 1932 Gaidinliu was arrested at the Pulomi village in the Naga Hills. The trial went on for ten months in the court of the Political Agent of Manipur. She was eventually convicted for the abetment of murder and sentenced for life.
There could be no question of releasing Gaidinliu so long as the British ruled the country. She was strictly guarded during her detention. For some time even an interview with her was not allowed. The man who was most considerate towards Gaidinliu was Jawaharlal Nehru. He was apprised of her movement during his tour in Silchar in 1935 and was greatly shocked by the story of her detention. Later he wrote, '...I heard the story which India ought to know and cherish. It was the story of a young woman...She dreamed of freedom for her people...she raised the banner of independence and she called her people to rally round it...Now she lies in some prison in Assam, wasting her bright young womanhood in dark cells and solitude...And India does not even know of this brave child of her hills, with the free spirit of the mountains in her. But her own people remember their "Rani Guidallo" and think of her with love and pride. And a day will come when India will remember her and cherish her, and bring her out of her prison cell.'
Nehru spelt her name wrong but was correct in calling her the Rani of the Nagas.
Gyaneshwari left home at six that morning. It was a bright, sweltering day. She hadn't told anyone at home what had been discussed at the Nupi Samaj meeting. She had taken a bath, prayed and touched her husband's feet before she left the house. Her husband had noticed this gesture as something she did whenever she embarked on an important task, but chose to remain silent. He would remember this for years to come. By 7 a.m. a few women had reached the office of the Nupi Samaj. A banner had been kept ready. They removed their undergarments and dressed themselves in white blouses and phaneks. They then took a rickshaw to Kangla Fort, considered a sacred site, where the Assam Rifles were now stationed. No one said a word; no one enquired how many had turned up for the protest. They were all carrying within them a beast of pain struggling to come out. By 10 a.m., the numbers had increased in front of the Western Gate of Kangla. The office of the commander of 9 Sector Assam Rifles, Brig V.K. Pillai, was situated a few metres away from the gate. The presence of women in such numbers at this spot was becoming suspicious.
And suddenly, taking everyone by surprise, the Imas' protest broke out without warning. They stripped off their clothing. No one knew who was the first. No one looked at the other. They raised slogans and unrolled a cloth banner, at first holding it upside down. It read: 'INDIAN ARMY RAPE US'. The act was so powerful and intense that the men on duty were confused and remained still, some shifting their gaze to the ground, others looking and then turning their eyes away. Alert Assam Rifles personnel on sentry duty shut the gate. There were more slogans. At first the Imas were scattered, some faced the Kangla demanding that the men involved in the killing of Manorama be produced before them. Others held the banner, breaking down in manic energy but continuing to shout, 'We are all Manorama's mothers!' They challenged the security personnel to come out and outrage their modesty, if they wished. More women had gathered and though they didn't bare themselves, grief enveloped everyone. Policemen came to the site and didn't know how to deal with this surge. It was a battle against which the state had hardly any arsenal. The mothers were heartbroken and their act heartbreaking. Their exhaustion, physical, mental and emotional was so complete that their very sight was a sight of pain. It made people nauseous. Some Imas fainted. A few minutes later, when they didn't stop, the police moved to arrest them and carried them into custody. But the protest continued; the Imas shouted slogans and continued to be on a fast even in jail.
An indefinite curfew was imposed in Imphal. At about three in the afternoon the local ISTV network broadcast images of the naked protest. Gyaneshwari's family watched the protests play out on television. Her children, her husband all cried that afternoon.
In the photograph that captured the iconic protest, Gyaneshwari is behind the banner, second from the left. She and the eleven other Imas, Taruni, Ramani, Jamini, Nganbi, Ibemhal, Momon, Ibetomi, Jibanmala, Tombi, Soro and Mema, would stay in jail for three months, even as protests would continue outside unabated. When the state government would finally release them, dropping all charges, not all families would be as understanding as Gyaneshwari's.
For three months after the protests, troops remained gated in their posts and no operations were allowed. A month after the protest the state government withdrew the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act, AFSPA, from seven assembly constituencies in Imphal area. While the Centre and the army remained opposed to the move, the massive protests had forced the state government to make this small concession. A year after the protest, a remembrance ceremony was held and the twelve Imas were given clothes as a gesture of solidarity with their unique protest.