‘Women hold up half the sky. But have we ever been allowed to join the men at the negotiating table?’

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Photo: Ishan Tankha

THEY SAY women who become activists are those who have endured the most and that is what happened with me. You are not taught as a young girl about sexual harassment. But I experienced it at three levels. There is a joke going around in our family that on the day I was born, in 1974, in Manipur’s capital city Imphal, there was curfew and the army was on the streets, and my mother nearly died because the medicine she needed couldn’t be bought. My father walked 11 kilometres to get the medicine. I lost my niece in a bomb blast when she stepped on an improvised explosive device. My parents run a lovely school. So they were threatened by an armed group. When that didn’t work, this group announced through the papers that my parents would be shot in the knees, and we had to flee and were dislocated for six months. So I was surrounded by violence.

This was all there within me. But it’s only after I came to Delhi to study in college that I ended up becoming an activist. There was a young boy from an adjoining college who wanted to date me, but I didn’t want to reciprocate. He stalked me for a month. One day I was returning with a friend on his bike and this stalker hit him on the head with a helmet and tried to strangulate me. He said in broad daylight, “If you can’t be mine, you cannot be anyone else’s.” I screamed and disengaged myself from him and a crowd gathered in which there were lawyers, and I was dropped back to my hostel.

At that time I had no idea what sexual harassment was, or how to file an FIR. A gender studies group from the Delhi School of Economics came to meet me. They said, “Don’t take it personally, what happened to you can happen to any of us.” My father came down to take me back home. My mother said only cowards do what that man did. If you want to stay in Delhi, stay there.

My mother’s courage at that time has made me what I am now. And the gender studies group also played a big role in transforming me. They made me speak out in public for the first time in my life about what happened. I was shaking but they said, just speak it out. Suddenly, I found myself in a hall with teachers and students, and the moment when I spoke out, that was the time the fear went out of my system. I was filled with courage. It was beautiful. That’s how I was introduced to activism. And what solidarity really means.

But I still had no political consciousness. Then, as a postgraduate student in Jawaharlal Nehru University, I was asked to submit a term paper on small arms and narcotics. Narcotics was becoming a hugely destructive force in the Northeast. I wrote up my thesis and it became a book that described the connection between small arms and narcotics and took me to the UN. That year the UN had declared that small arms and light weapons kill 5 lakh people every year around the world. Eventually, I started connecting with a lot of Meira Paibis or activist women in the Northeast.

I was in a small village, interviewing a Meira Paibi who was also a fish seller, when I heard three gunshots. Everyone fled and it eventually emerged that a surrendered militant had been shot dead. Just two hours later, these women activists had a public meeting and condemned the killing. They summoned the young widow to come and speak. She didn’t cry, she was just blank. And her mother came out, wailing profusely and saying, “How can I feed you any more, they should have shot you dead too.” It was a deep shock that went right to my gut where I asked myself, what did I just hear? I looked at the widow and told her she must call me and gave her the small change I had on me, and told her she had to live. But I couldn’t sleep. I stumbled upon hundreds of other cases like this widow’s, women whose husbands are killed. They are killed by insurgents, the army, both sides. The widow called back and I asked her what she can do. She said she can sew. So I got her a sewing machine. That’s how I started the Manipur Gun Survivors Network.

Now, I want to ask human rights activists and governments: have they ever taken a Manipuri woman to Geneva to the Human Rights Council? Has a Naga woman been taken there? It’s only the men who talk there. We may not wear a ghoonghat, we may not be burned for dowry in the Northeast, but our role is clearly circumscribed for us.

So, while we draw on the rich legacy of the Meira Paibis of Manipur, their fight has been for survival. We are demanding survival plus our political rights. Our bodies as women have been used time and again as spaces for war or to destroy the enemy or to cook for insurgents. But in 50 years of conflict in Northeast India, what has shocked us the most is that no women have ever gone to Delhi to negotiate with the central government or be part of formal peace talks. The failure of these talks is that women who hold up half the sky have never been part of it. At a personal, social and political level, the absence of women in all these spaces has made us rise up now.

revati@tehelka.com

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