Meeri Piribis: carrying the torch of hope

“No more will we let the army decide, the insurgents decide, or the patriarchal structures of our societies that control our lives and our movements. We will act and lead on our needs and our priorities, not theirs”. Jameen Kaur talks to Binalakshmi Nepram Mentschel about her work to end decades of violence in Manipur
Jameen Kaur
3 December 2009

Binalakshmi was 11 years old when she witnessed her first massacre in her home state of Manipur. Twenty three people were killed. Since then 2 to 3 people have been killed each day in this small north-eastern state, making it one of the most conflict ridden states in India. With no less than thirty armed groups operating in Manipur, and an Indian Army person for every twenty civilians, the conflict has no end in sight. The International Committee of the Red Cross has tried its best for the last five years to gain entry into the State, but has so far been denied. ‘The occupation is evident everywhere, it fills our lives, our spaces, the occupation is in our cities, our towns, our villages in our homes’ says Binalakshmi, founder of Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network and secretary general of Control Arms Foundation of India. State conducted encounter killings, gun killings either by the insurgents, criminal gangs or the paramilitary and police force, have claimed the lives of over twenty thousand people. ‘The Indian government calls it a ‘law and order’ problem. It is not, it is a slow genocide’ according to Binalakshmi.

‘There is a darkness, an isolation felt by the people, the youth, the lack of opportunities for over 600,000 unemployed people, daily curfews at 5pm, schools closed for weeks, people have no access to doctors or hospitals, every year there are more than two hundred new widows’ says Binalakshmi. ‘Manipur used to be known for its colourful women’s market, where women used to come and sell bangles, hair clips and fish, ways in which they earned their livelihood. However the market is now overflowing with women and girls - widows and women/girls who are left without breadwinners are being induced in to prostitution, to feed their children. They often stand at the outskirts of the market, and the numbers grow daily.’ This has been one of the consequences of the conflict.

Yet it was not always like this. ‘We Manipuris are a proud people’ says Binalakshmi, as she sweeps her long black hair into a bun. ‘We have no concept of the word ‘servant’. We’re a very egalitarian society and have a strong sense of our past and culture’. Manipur has a rich history of over 2,000 years; it was an independent kingdom prior to merging with the Union of Indian in 1949 and the state is rich in resources. However, Manipur’s most valuable asset is and continues to be the spirit of resistance born into the people, especially the women. ‘We have a group of women called Meera Piribis (torch holders), who patrol the streets at night. It is often at night when men and boys are picked up by army patrols that the shootings occur. The women set up little huts at the end of each street, and if there is any trouble, then the other members simply throw pebbles at lamp posts to alert and mobilize the other women.’

The impact conflicts have on women and children has often been ignored by governments and civil society. Woven into this conflict and bloodshed, has been Binalakshmi’s own story. Binalakshmi started the MWGSN in 2004, after she witnessed the aftermath of the killing of a 27 year old man in Manipur’s capital Imphal. In order to assist the man’s widow, Binalakshmi brought her a sewing machine, so that she could then earn a livelihood, and not have to resort to more degrading or humiliating means. MWGSN aim is to provide women who have been victims of armed conflict with practical assistance, such as opportunities for women to earn a livelihood by starting a small business, as well as mobilizing committed young people to raise awareness on the need to control the use and spread of small arms. Though her activism has at times come at a personal cost to her, ‘each side - the government or the insurgents - say I am siding with the other. Rumours are spread that I am trying to disarm the insurgents, that I am pro-government. That is a false allegation.’

It is clear from Binalakshmi‘s determination and commitment to the people of Manipur that she will continue working for peace. ‘I am privileged. I am educated. I, like the Meera Piribis, am the next generation of my women to carry the torch of hope. It is my responsibility to work for peace. No more. No more will we let the army decide, the insurgents decide, or the patriarchal structures of our societies control our lives, control our movements. We will act and lead on our needs and our priorities, not theirs.’

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