I HAD a very happy and comfortable childhood, growing up in a small village in the Bishnupur district of Manipur. I was the youngest of six brothers and sisters and was, therefore, the most pampered. I was a tomboy and a very naughty kid. My two brothers didn’t approve of my playing with boys in the area, especially when I beat them up if I felt they were wrong. But my mother was always on my side. My favourite memory of those days is of my father carrying me across the river on his back. I loved him dearly. After his death, things changed. My family could only afford to send me to school upto Class X. Even so, I have my parents to thank for laying a very strong foundation for me. My mother never went to school, but she was extremely far-sighted. She always worried about what would happen to her girls when they grew up, and so she did something that was very unusual for our culture and in the times she lived in: she left me some land, and the one-room house I live in now is built on that land.
In 1974, I found myself thinking about how women in my state were always weaker than men. And it made me join the women’s association. Around that time, I fell in love and got married. My husband was always a great companion and supporter of my work. But my mother-in-law didn’t approve. So I had to quit.
By the time we had our fourth child, things changed drastically. My husband poured all our savings into starting a petrol pump. But our dreams were broken by rivals, who appeared one day and beat my husband so badly that he was incapacitated. When he was in hospital, all I had was 40. It was a very difficult time. My husband lay at home in a numb state, and eventually died a decade later.
I couldn’t leave my small kids alone at home and look for work. Some friends suggested I peddle liquor for a living. I told them that I would rather starve. So I started work as a daily-wage labourer, clearing sand from the river bank. It was the same river that my father carried me across as a child. I remembered that and it gave me strength.
But the activist in me, long dormant, couldn’t stay suppressed forever. At that time, alcoholism was rampant in Manipur. Some Manipuri mothers wanted to set up an association to help addicts detox and wanted me to be its president. I somehow managed to take a few rupees out of my earnings and put that into my activism. The recovery programme for addicts gradually turned into the Meira Paibi movement, or the women with the flaming torches. I ended up being seen as its ringleader. I used to work from 4 to 7 am every day, and devote the nights to my activism. My kids used to leave the door open at night so I could let myself in. One night, soon after I’d been out on protest, the children heard a knock on the door and, thinking it was me, opened it to find the army asking for me.
Once, when I went to Imphal in 1996 or ’97, there was a brutal rape and a women’s rally was being held in protest. I also got involved in campaigns against the State when people started mysteriously disappearing due to the conflict in Manipur. The All Manipur Students Union was seen as a front for insurgent groups and was banned by the government. Some of their representatives were jailed and their office was burned down. I said that if these students weren’t released, I would fast. Thirty of us began a hunger strike. After two days we were arrested. This is the first time I went to jail. My youngest child was in Class II at that time. She used to come and lie down next to me, cry for an hour and then go back home. I used to tell her, “Don’t cry, be proud of me for doing something for society.” But my girl was too small to understand that. After she’d go, I would break down and cry. We were then told that the students were released and the others went off their fast and protest. But I knew there was still one student left in jail. I stayed back there for a month until that last student was released. That time, my family stepped in and looked after my kids.
When I was jailed for the first time, the government had already introduced the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which gave the army immunity and protection from punishment for the crimes they were committing. In one incident, the editor of a newspaper was arrested for speaking out against the government. I asked for his release, along with other Imas. Section 144 was imposed by the State and our protests were met with police brutality. One woman was bleeding profusely after being beaten by a policeman. So I picked up a piece of cycle rubber and gave in to the urge to hit that policeman back. They ran after me to take their revenge. The superintendent of police threatened me with his stick. He was waving it at me, but I caught it and we both fell to the ground. He ordered my arrest. The cops poked a stick between my eyes. I was back in jail, and this time as well, my brothers looked after my kids. And my kids went to the river to clear sand as daily wage labourers in my stead. They really struggled along with me.
In the midst of all this, on 11 July 2004, a 32-year-old woman named Thangjam Manorama was picked up by members of the Assam Rifles in the middle of the night. They raped her and pumped bullets into her vagina. It was too much for us to take. I cried a lot that day. It could have been my daughter in Manorama’s place, I thought. And so, when I got a call from a women’s organisation to go to Imphal, I hired a cab. But the driver could not enter the city. I got out and walked. The police knew me, so I got past the blockades and entered the space where women were protesting against Manorama’s rape. I stripped naked along with other women protesting on the street outside the Kangla Fort where the Assam Rifles was stationed and shouted, “Indian Army, rape me! We are all Manorama’s mothers.” We felt this was the right thing to do.
The shame of Manorama’s rape ricocheted across the world. So the police were especially upset with me and were hunting for me. NDTV had come to interview me, along with the other women who had stripped. I went for the interview and was arrested at midnight along with my daughter. I was released after three months in jail. The fourth time I was arrested, I was part of an agitation against fake encounters in the state. While I was in prison, a policeman saluted me and said, “Ima, don’t be scared and don’t lose hope. We are there for you.” I cried when he said that.
Today, AFSPA is still in force and Irom Sharmila’s fast is nearly 12 years old. As a mother of Manipur, I am doing my best to fight for human rights. Times have changed since I was out on the street agitating, spending whatever loose change I had tied to my skirt. Today if we don’t pay social workers conveyance, they won’t turn up. Their commitment to politics isn’t the same. But I urge women to please continue the fight. And fight strategically. In the past few months, however, I have seen a stirring. Things are not going to be as they were. One fine day, with enough women rising, AFSPA will have to go.