Articles in local newspapers in Manipur for the past few months have been bordering on a misogynist strain of thought. Many of the articles expectedly commented on women opting out of the traditional phanek, some pointedly on the loosening of morals (of women); some even came up with a thesis of sorts, a strange hypothesis of a conjunction of mobile phones and young wives leading to the latter eloping from marital homes. This would have been laughable if not for the endorsement by many. The idea that whatever women do can be commented upon and be given undue space in the name of promoting a debate (actually too one sided to fall within the purview of a debate) is frightening. A person (I refrain from calling him a writer) bemoaned the Manipuri women choice of clothing which to him does not indicate her as an exotic being. Do we want to be looked at as exotic? The visual that his article evokes is of being caged in a zoo.
Actually his chagrin was over women who chose to wear attire of the other viz; sari or salwar kameez thus looking like the other not his own and therefore not giving visitors to Manipur the expected visual of the exotic. He sounds like a disappointed anthropologist but that is beside the point. That women can choose what to wear and what not to, has escaped this person. While this is just one of a series of articles which uses highly problematic words like chastity, morality (of course all of it referring solely to women) though he beat the others at it by using a phrase - "It does not serve the ethical purpose of their karma". All these while talking about the attires of women!!! We've given up trying to understand what ethical purpose of their (women's) karma means.
Of course as usual the one sentence either of Nupi Lan or Manipuri women being the pride and up-keeper of Manipuri society and culture has to be mentioned. We are also still not sure what upholding Manipuri culture means though we are disinclined to spent time trying to sort that out. Opinions like this in the present repression that we suffer under a repressive state and under repressive multiple authorities (who somehow by some logic) seem to have an authority over us is an extremely unpleasant experience. The latter's article was shot down by many men and women in social networking sites and other forums. Many were however of the opinion that one should just remain silent over such absurdity.
The compliance of silence as a recommendation is even more unpleasant but one that we've received since our childhood and to which we have no reason to heed to. Silence is complicity.
While New Delhi and many other cities burst into protest against the incident of gang-rape, many parts of Manipur too saw a similar protest not against the same incident but against the man-handling, molestation of an actor. The incident -a Manipuri Meitei actor was allegedly man-handled and molested by an NSCN (IM) cadre - one Mr. Livingstone on 18th of December 2012. In the aftermath protests that followed one thing was clear - the crime itself have been put on the backburner and the ethnicity of both the victim and the accused become one of paramount importance threatening the already fragile relationship between two communities.
The protest that followed left a journalist dead. No water cannons, here it is bullets (The only aspect of India Shining that we see here are the silver bullets). The discussion however was not directed against the utter failure of the state to promote and ensure a safe environment for women (and important to emphasised at this point of time is) -women of all ethnicity. One of the first demands at the beginning of the protest in the latter incident was absurd -an apology, not a prosecution of the perpetrator. The absurdity didn't remain there. Now, absurdity is oozing out of everyone -the state government is confused with the Meitei community (not for the first time though), a decision to ban Manipuri films! harassment of individuals heading home of Christmas, maybe all heading home for Christmas were thought to be the other and worst still attempt to rape a minor by suspected KCP cadres on the 24th of December.
Was a crime being committed on both the occasion? If so, the recourse should be the legal and policing mechanisms nor the widely practised shengdokchaba (an apology of sorts) and izzat dabi. (Widely used, the term itself smacks of a patriarchal attitude, compensation for taking away the izzat, the context of which varies but the central idea of lost of honour which is to be compensated monetarily is to be questioned.) The dishonour, being tied to the woman not to the perpetrators, and therefore rape is being used as a tool in communal fall out too, you dishonour our community by doing this to our women and so we dishonour your community by doing this to your women. The idea of ownership of women and therefore their honour conflated with the honour of the community is the problem. Therefore anyone who write/speak with the idea that what women wears, how she speaks, how she should uphold culture should not be seen as innocuous but part of the underlying problem. And men and women who subscribe to this idea would not be offended, outraged when women of another community is molested, raped -after all its raping the other nor yours and perhaps endorsed if this is believed to be done in retaliation. The tragedy of the current protest -each community says the other has blown it out of proportion.
Perhaps we could choose to see the larger picture, question the lack of security of women and men both, remove our ethnic-tinted glasses and maybe optimistically join the protest at the capital and put forward our agenda -to pressurise the government to remove the Armed Forces Special Powers Act 1958, an act using which many rapist army personnel go scot free in the peripheral states of the country. Perhaps I am hallucinating. The fact is that a number of rape victims and families have to forego any hope of justice because the perpetrators happened to be army personnel and uses the Armed Forces Special Powers Act as a ruse to escape punishment (and considering the fact that police commando personnel in Manipur also regularly eve-teases, molest, sexually assault and rape women faultily thinking themselves to protected by the same act).
Maybe the same Act had encouraged the state government to use bullets, yes, live ammunitions to suppress the agitation. All these would be quite lost to the protest at the capital, the moment of protest in the national capital could never be anticipated to be utilised for a protest against acts and laws that make violence against women possible. For the mainstream we are the other, a small number to be feared, who make insidious insinuation against the national army or perhaps the idea of the nation itself, for the ethnic other we are the mainstream that choose to protest when it doesn't make us look at the mirror to reflect our ugly selves. Now, we are all lost in a hall of mirrors.
Newspaper and internet discussions and reactions to the 18th December and 24th December incident seem no different from how the Indian state view any collective agony of people - they pitch one victim against the other, one incident against the other, one mass rape against another. We've learnt a lot indeed from the BJP and the Congress hurling 1984 and Gujarat violence against each other. No rape, assault, molestation is any better or any worst than the other, and our frayed emotions at why one incident gets more 'coverage' than the other could provisionally be one reason why we as a collective are not able to demand for a safe environment for everyone or maybe it is the other way around. This is not surprising because women as opposed to what we would like to believe, is not a collective and where we draw our primary identity from is not uniform. Yet, at times like this when one see the opportunity to steer the momentum of the protest (both in the capital as well as in parts of Manipur) towards a conspicuous change one will have to conclude with the dull but familiar tinge of disappointment. The attempt to rape on the 24th of December (under Lamlai police station, Manipur) by suspected KCP cadres lead to a similar mass outrage, the victim, a minor who happened to be on her way home for Christmas seem ethnically identified with that of the accused of the 18th December case. It is however very improbable that the two different protests could ever become a collective one to denounce violence against women. Our selective anger and our mobilisation on lines of ethnicity, religion and other such constructed formations reveal the lack of an intention to engage with crime against women.
For instance one can see that in the case of the mentally challenged minor girl of Moirang, the mainstream identity of the so called world of sane seem to dictate against the victim and thus the highly moral and offensive retort of the victim being tonsured and paraded by women's groups. That the incident happened inside the INA Memorial, a guarded museum complex does not have any bearing on the people's anger or rather the lack of it. Rather the nature of response to the act seems to say -Don't get raped. However, to state cases like this would be ironic, it would be to compare and contrast one incident against the other, why one was picked up for protest, why not the other, it would be analogous to why/why not this rape/molestation. But one could see in the case of Manipur the other raping your community member seems to be treated with more seriousness as compared to an incident where the victim and the perpetrator are from the same community. One can question whether the motive is to truly resist such crimes or rather the potential of the incident to be used politically is what drives them, people appear as if ready with a chisel trying to give shape to a stone of offence. Ethnic colouring of such incident shows the lack of collective will to address issues of safety and provision of a safe environment for women and other sexual minorities. One hopes that the protest would demand justice for all victims of rape/ assault/ molestation, more so when the culprit are in the police forces, armed forces and non-state, the first because they are supposed to be the one upholding the law, the second because we hope that our elected representative believe that the army is hierarchically not above them in our so-called democracy and the last because they claim to be working towards a nation, a nation we hope that respect women, though one cannot be too sure. The current phase of the protest gives us a claustrophobic feeling of living in Topsy Turvy land, once again.
This article was webcasted on 4th January 2013 (The North-East blog)