Ima Thokchom Ramani: A brief history of the Meira Paibis of Manipur, then and now

Meira Paibi – translated as ‘someone who holds the torch’ in Meiteilon, the language of the Meitei community – is an all-women vigilante group in Manipur in north-east India.

There was no formal starting date. Meira Paibi is an evolution of the Nishabandh movement, active in Manipur in the 1970s, another all-women group that went rounds of the neighbourhood to stop alcoholism, drug abuse and other social evils of the time.

Ima Thokchom Ramani is one of the earliest members of the Nishabandh. She was a young adult when major clashes broke out between the army and political armed groups in Manipur back in the 1970s. Over 85 years old now, she talks about the long, thankless journey that Meira Paibis have taken. What they were like then and what they have become now.

I met her during a visit to Imphal in July 2013.

Note: My questions and comments are in bold. This is a verbatim transcript of a conversation with Ima Thokchom Ramani. Real stories do not go in a straight line. They chart their own course. Any other way of telling her story would be a lie.

She had pinned fading photographs on the walls of her small bedroom. They carried the heavy weight of memories: a meeting with former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, her son Rajiv Gandhi, a handshake with former President Zail Singh, sitting with soldiers after a peace meeting.

What do you want to know, she said. Wait a minute, I will put on my hearing aid. [She walked to another room and returned after a while]

My eyesight is failing. My hearing is not good. [Laughs]

How did you get involved with Meira Paibis?
Look at the photo. That was taken when Meira Paibi started. In 1980, the army used to arrest people without verifying whether they were innocent. People were killed, they were often gagged, like this, [she twisted her wrists and brought them near my face] blindfolded and thrown into the back of trucks.

At that time we had not picked up the meira [torch], though we had started the Nishabandh movement and patrolling. April 26, 1980, was the turning point. And Thambalsana died on April 27. Even a month later we were yet to pick up the meira.

Then on September 26, Lokendro went missing; he was never found. I am talking about many disappearances. In 1981, Chandam Chaouba from Pukhou was arrested. He was also never found though we searched for him everywhere. Then in the same year a man who came to learn theatre, Elangbam Joy, was killed.

By then we had picked up the meira.

There was a man Ibomcha here. Earlier, when the ministers told the army about our activities, the army did not enter residential areas thinking we were supporters of the underground [insurgents]. Then we would see a few youth with guns, so we never said anything to them as we thought they would take objection and become unpredictable. In those days the youth were also confident as they had guns and would sometimes try to prove their power to us in subtle ways. They were also arrested in large number, so much so that when an underground person died none of his friends would come to the funeral as they would get arrested there too.

It was on December 21, 1981, that Ibomcha was arrested. Early morning I went to eche [sister] Momon to ask her to accompany me to Kwakeithel bazaar. At that time I did not know a bomb was planted on the road that we would be taking. I was riding a bicycle. I would have died if I rode over the concealed bomb. My good fortune was that I was riding on the left side of the road and the bomb was planted on the right.

When I reached the bazaar eche Momon was not there, so I rode on to Keisham Leikai thinking she must be there. I met her there. [Ningombam Momon was the general secretary of Heirancoithong Makha Women’s Prohibition Committee, Maibam Leikai, Imphal]. She spoke Hindi well than most of us. We heard from someone that a combing operation was going on in Maibam Leikai because somebody had planted a bomb there. We went back there hurriedly as when I left early morning I heard nothing of that kind.

As we were entering the area the army stopped us. They shouted ‘jao jao’ at us. We told them we have to go in because we live there. As we were walking they shouted at us again not to walk on the right side of the road and showed us the safe way towards the leikai [colony]. As we walked in we saw all the male youth of the area lying face down on the grass, their hands frozen pink as it was December, very cold. Some of them were taken away to Lilando Lampak [near Manipur University campus].

My elder son was a good friend of Ibomcha. Early morning Ibomcha had run to Canchipur to take part in some police training and his shoes were wet. He had kept the shoes to dry in the front garden and he was sweeping the ground outside when combing operation started. Then the army came and let one of their sniffer dogs smell the shoes. [Her elder son, now past middle age, walked into the room]

Later, we saw the boy blindfolded. We were perplexed. What was happening? He was the best behaved boy in the leikai. By then it was clear the army were taking away innocent people randomly without any credible evidence. All our children will face punishment for no fault of theirs. That day I and Momon decided to enter the army camp and do something about it. Today, if I am wrong, behead me.

The army pointed a machine gun at us from our gate, not allowing us to go out. Without bothering to change what I was wearing, as my shawl was old and torn in many places, I walked up and down near the gate thinking what to do, and I could not get out as the combing operation was still on. Then they brought back the boy; we thought they will return him. His clothes were wet. They had poured water on him. They let him change clothes and took him away again. As for the rest of the youth who were picked up early morning, they were not given water or food even till late evening.

Then all the women of the leikai met somehow. In those days it was not difficult to mobilise the women because of the fact that their own innocent children were coming in harm’s way and they felt very angry inside. Of around a hundred women who turned up that day only 60 were left as the rest went back in hearing that we were planning to enter the army camp. They got scared. We walked to Canchipur and when we reached the gate of the camp, we shouted at them to release our children, that they were innocent. The soldiers shouted back ‘halt!’ After some time a senior army officer told us that only two of us can enter the camp.

Eche Momon and I went in.

They asked me why you came. We said why did you arrest our innocent children? Give them back to us. Wait then, they said, we will hold a meeting for an hour or two and return them to you. After that we came out of the camp and lingered nearby for two hours, squatting on the ground. We kept on shouting at the army.

After two hours they called us in. They gave us Ibomcha. He was totally destroyed. He could not walk. The road was also rough, and since he could not walk at all, we stopped a man on a cycle who was passing by. We put Ibomcha on the saddle and wrapped him with our shawls and took him home. Late at night word spread that some women had taken a boy back from the army camp, and many people started coming to hear the matter.

But the combing operation was still on. Any male who was not taken away earlier could not venture out as he would be arrested.

Today, when I remember that day, I think it was the day when we took up the meira. Two more boys were taken away that day apart from Ibomcha. One was a lower level employee with the town court, another was a driver.

Earlier in the day when some people, most of them local drunkards, came to know that some women were heading towards the army camp to rescue their boys, they made fun of us saying we don’t even have the influence to meet a minister so how can we face the army? We did not bring back the children of those who made fun of us. We only got back our children.

After six days, when the leikai was still under siege, two men who did odd jobs as electricians, who were also arrested, came to us and prayed before us to save the rest of the boys. We went then, again.
The army told us that one made guns, and the other made bombs. We told them that his mother was poor and she would hunt for scraps, so he made crude useless guns out of the scrap for pastime, and since the other did electrical work he used to keep wires and all. The army were so much on their toes that they did not leave anything for chance.

Though the place where the bomb was found and his house were not very far apart, and even if he planted the bomb, he would have fled a long time ago and not stay in his house. If the bomb had exploded his house would have been the first one to hit. It is anyway a bad thing. We are against any bad thing.

That was the day we started calling ourselves Meira Paibis. It has been a thousand years since.

Making others join you must have been quite a work.
During our day, in order to mobilise women, we made a plan. We would hit an iron electricity pole three times with a stone to mean that it was time for us to come out. But if we hit it repeatedly five times it meant there was a problem and we must go out immediately. In our time holding the meira we walked about the town. Army patrols would walk on the side and we would walk on the middle of the road. They would say, ‘Ma, kidhar jayega?’ I used to tell them ‘patrolling jayega’. Since we did not know, we would say ‘kya?’ and take the burning torch near their beard to scare them. Some of them would scream, laugh and walk on.

Once, this man, Brigadier Jingo, while the three of us – Choubi, Momon and I – were standing in front of the konung [temple] arrested us and took us to Kangla [army camp] saying we were supporters of the underground. At that time we were foolish. We did not know we were supposed to ask for women police personnel to accompany us. The army said we should be supporters of the army, and not encourage boys to join the underground. Why are you holding the meiras, tell us the truth, they said.

I told them a meira can light up darkness. It can see everything at night, thieves, drunkards, bad people. We are holding meiras so that you and they don’t fight, so that there is peace. Both sides should respect us as mothers. Even if you people want to fight, if we come in between, then there is less chance of fighting breaking out. So it is for the peace of everybody that we are holding meiras.

The army wouldn’t have believed you.
But we also accept that our children were growing up. As we have to earn rice and bread we go out early morning to sit in the bazaar, and we have little idea of what they do and where they go in our absence. When we ask them later in evening they say they went for some work. But we never knew what they were up to. If you come to know that they have been doing bad things or taken a wrong path, then think about us and try to correct their ways as your sons, but don’t break their legs, don’t make them blind, let them stay in jail for some time, and when they come out we will try to correct them. As we were also getting older and if our children do not become responsible earning members then it is a big loss for us too.

But if there was a gunfight, I will not say anything to you even if the boy turns out to be my son. After hearing us patiently Jingo took our word. In the days to come whenever during a combing operation some boy was picked up, we would go to him [Jingo], and he would send word to all army camps nearby to ask whether they had picked up a boy. If indeed the boy was found, Jingo would bring him to us for identification. ‘Does he look like your son?’ he would say. At times the army said the boy was planting bombs, sometimes the army said the boy was picked up randomly on suspicion. They gave us seven boys picked up from Leimakhong. We told them that they should be given to police, and be made to serve a sentence if they were guilty. We never denied any charge against the boys by the army if we knew the charges were true. We said if a boy had joined the underground, yes, he has done that. If he did not join, no he did nothing wrong, we told the army.

That time our responsibility was mainly to ask the army to save these boys, which is very different from what today’s Meira Paibis do. In those days we did what we did with a clear conscience. We were not tainted, we had no agenda. Jingo told me, ‘There is something very wrong with the political class. The situation will definitely worsen in the years to come. It is not the fault of the boys. The political class has been playing Manipur in the most atrocious ways.’

Now if I have to say about the Meira Paibis of today, there are some Meira Paibis who turned out to be gunrunners; some turned out to be human traffickers, who sold children. Because of these things some of our credibility is lost, some of our core values are lost. Our history has been tainted.
It was us who reached Delhi as Meira Paibis, we spread the movement everywhere already.

Do the young ones want you to leave now? Old timers say the same thing, that times have changed and it was good in those days. They are easy to predict.
Today, what has become of the Meira Paibis is that during election time women huddle together and sit in their leikais calling themselves Meira Paibis. We, the older Meira Paibis, don’t like that. What we did and what they are doing now is very different.

We, Nupi Samaj [All Manipur Women’s Social Reformation and Development Samaj], often take up domestic strife cases. When a man and a woman fight, and want us to help them, we tell them to compromise a bit from both sides equally. This way most cases are settled amicably and the people for whose benefit we mediate end up becoming one of our members. At least we become friends. But it is upside down these days. Today, youth don’t listen to us, so we really want to get away from all this, retire and relax. Even then people say we as elders should guide them.

A senior minister told me that he cannot converse with young ministers these days as he can’t understand their language. The way people talk has changed. Youth lack discipline and don’t know what being polite and kind means.

A woman in her late 20s would call herself ima [ima means mother in Meiteilon, and in this context a member of the Meira Paiba, for example Ima Ramani]. Some newly-wed will call herself ima. There are imas everywhere. It is chaos. While they are talking from the front we can no longer bear to sit below and listen to them. It’s not that we want to prove our power or anything like that, but what they speak is totally irrelevant and senseless. In today’s meeting people compete to talk the longest. What I am saying is if you don’t have much to say then leave at least one good point and move on. My ears hurt now. Just leave one point about what action your heart says we must take.

None of the people who grew older working with me are alive today. I have no one to talk to. Although I still go to meetings, I sit quietly in a corner.

Recently, five imas were discussing about the miss event [proposed Miss Manipur contest]. We stopped them first. I was not there in the first discussion. Years ago we had objected to such weird initiative by the imas. I reminded them again that I was against such an idea. Let’s not do things that are not agreeable to everybody. Let’s do things that everybody agrees on. Still, they are not listening to us and may go ahead.

You know, we cannot stop everything or bring change at once. At least something that doesn’t look right, which cannot be carried on the back of society, should be stopped.  This is the difference between them and us. The way talks happen in meetings are different. The government is also sick.

The effort to save the Govinda [temple] is also dwindling. The end of days is nearing. In this situation, people are saying, whatever his forefathers had accumulated it has now fallen on the hands of Sanajouba [Manipur’s titular king Leishemba Sanajouba], and it seems they are coming back to destroy it for good. In the Japan war [Battle of Imphal, World War-II], mayangs [outsiders] who lived in Burma, had to walk all the way from here to that country since there were no vehicles. It was a calamity.

In the old days the Meira Paibis were not liars. If some of them took up arms, they admitted it. If a few of them murdered somebody, they admitted it. But they never begged to be saved. That is why some people who have seen us work still love us, the old timers. They tell me, ‘Old woman, you should stop. You have no friends left. Take rest.’

But a majority of today’s crowd is such that they often ask me to lead and mediate when they want to carry out some underground activities. I decline them. I won’t do it. Because when I go and meet the ministers and VIPs, they will not listen to me anyway, so there is no point. Even the people who approached me in the first place won’t listen either. Both sides will talk in circles and won’t come to an understanding.

But if you talk sense, for example, I remember one day telling a minister: whenever you kill a suspect, you tell the media that weapons were found in the possession of the deceased. Why don’t you stock all the weapons you recover in a room and show it to us?

The police are also useless. If there is rumour that some people in black [insurgents who wear black in a symbolic way] are roaming around, then a squad of commandos will suddenly appear from nowhere. But when ordinary people call police to sort out civil problems, you know a household quarrel or a culpable homicide, they never come. I asked police once, why don’t you ever turn up when people need you? Sensible talks like these help, but noise is useless.

There was a time when the army were arresting people sporting tattoos. The army from the Leimakhong base called us to Mantripukhri and surrounded us with a large fleet of military trucks, saying we were supporting the underground. This man, Laba, became our interpreter and spoke to the army. An hour passed with both sides arguing, and I patiently waited to point out a flaw in the army’s argument [laughs]. I said, why are you arresting people with tattoos? Even among your men I am sure many of them have tattoos on their arms and shoulders, so let me arrest them. Don’t do this. It is our ancient culture to draw tattoos, we have been doing it for a long, long time, before your father’s father’s father was even born. It doesn’t matter what you draw. You can get an insect, a human or a god done. After that the army stopped. Our Nupi Samaj has a way of handling such matters. We make people understand.

Some media reports showed you winning an award not very long ago.
In spring 2013, when people here heard that Ima Ramani, 85 years old, veteran Meira Paibi and general secretary of Nupi Samaj, was given lunch at 5 pm in New Delhi, they were upset [laughs].

What is that one different thing about the Meira Paibis in your time?
Today’s Meira Paibis were groomed by the underground. But we were not set up by ministers or the underground. We started out as Nishabandh. But things have changed a lot. If Meira Paibis work as Meira Paibis, then the work will be good. We are tired of seeing the new Meira Paibis who take Rs 7 lakh to Rs 10 lakh to take up one case [case refers to a particular line of agitation, either from the government's or the underground’s side].

Some years ago [lowers her voice to a whisper] politicians started meddling in the affairs of the Meira Paibis. The lure of money was strong. They started buying some of the imas. The older generation had warned us not to step into the world of politics. Never get into politics. Never take a ride in their vehicles. If we have to, then you give us the vehicles and we will pay the fare.

Those who warned us have passed away. Ningombam Momon, Sougaijam Indumani. The army used to chase us day and night, and we often took shelter in strangers’ homes [laughs]. It was a lot of struggle. Today, people don’t want to hear our stories. They get scared. It is usual to hear ‘let’s not talk about it’ in meetings. In my days the imas were brave. Now you can’t mobilise people without money. You cannot call a single person without money. You need a big vehicle to get people.

In my time people came, no matter how much they have. Snail catchers, vegetable sellers, they all came. When we went out we had no idea where we would eat. Some of us would make a fire and cook on the road near the konung with whatever vegetable and rice we had in our hands.

Almost all the people in those photos [she pointed at the wall] have passed away. Those hundred women in that photo were the first Meira Paibis. I was small then. There, there is my neighbour. That picture was taken in a government bungalow. The other one was taken in an open field near my leikai. The one with Indira Gandhi was also taken in the bungalow.

We were in Delhi when Bisheshwar was captured from Tekcham. [N Bisheshwar, founder of the People’s Liberation Army in 1979. He was captured in Tekcham, Thoubal district, 1981, and seven other leaders were killed by the army in what was the biggest setback for the PLA]

What did Indira Gandhi tell you?
In her time we were yet to pick up the meira, though Nishabandh was active. Prohibition was in force. She sent us a communication, asking what is this Nishabandh and how did it start. That letter has been lost. We replied to her that male member in most families were taking to drinking alcohol, and their demand for money to buy liquor from their families were increasing, making them miserable, that is why Nishabandh started. Then she agreed to the idea.

In the early days of Nishabandh we used to report to police about liquor stocks. We were foolish to do that we realised later. Police would enter the house, tell us to surround it, but inside they would take some money from the person who had hidden liquor and the matter would be settled [laughs]. They would come out saying ima there is nothing in the house. When we realised what was happening we stopped telling police. We became the police. We started raiding homes and caught bootleggers.

They used ingenious ideas to hide liquor. They would dig a pit in their kitchen, put bottles of rum, cover it with aluminium sheet and place firewood on top of it. Some of them would pretend to be sick, showing a sorry face and holding a bottle of vitamins [laughs]. Major fights broke out in Chandel during our raids.

Even among the tribes in the hills there were a lot of drunkards, so responsible people in the hills called us for a meeting to stop the menace in their areas. For our service they gave whatever they could, rice, yongchak (stink beans), banana stem, sweet potatoes.

Meira Paibis are said to have helped the underground, if not directly. How was the relationship between Meira Paibis and the underground?
We used to follow the youth who had joined the underground to know what they were up to, and to snatch them back if they were arrested. When we saw the army coming from a distance we would sound the bell and call out all the women. The army asked us why we were calling out all the women, is it to tell people to hide since we were coming or is it a sign to the underground elements to shoot at us in our approach.

No, not that, we mean we should stop you and the underground from fighting, that is why we came out [laughs]. If they start fighting it is extra work for us later.

We have been to numerous army camps to bring back youth. Many times the army themselves called us in. Youth would come holding guns to our leikai. Those days the guns were very long, I don’t know why. When some army people came and asked me the direction to which the youth had escape, I would point them to the opposite way. That used to be the thinking in those days. At first when I saw some young people carrying guns and walking I thought they were with the NCC [National Cadet Corps].

In the Heirangoithong encounter [14 civilians gunned down by Central Reserve Police Force personnel at Heirangoithong on March 14, 1984] after the shootings were almost over I saw a soldier holding a Sten gun running out from where I was standing. I ran behind him, trying to stop him. He yelled out, ‘Ma ghar jao, sab marega. Ma ghar mein jao, sab marega.’ I shouted back, ‘Bacha thayro thayro.’ I kept running after him and another ima also joined me. Thirty-one people were injured.

Today, because of the AFSPA [Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act] the security forces have unleashed atrocities on women. And since they seem to be ruthless, an equally ruthless group of young men and women are also starting to appear in our land amid us. Nobody respects us [Meira Paibis] anymore. There is no law. Children and women are doing whatever they want.

If anybody asks me how it is like to join the Meira Paibis today, I tell them not to join. Any spineless woman can become a Meira Paibi. People have started asking whether you are a Meira Paibi or a nongmei paibi [gun-toting person]. They don’t know when and whom to address somebody as ima. Even a teenager is called ima. The world has turned upside down.

I am ashamed of telling this to anybody, especially to you since you say you are writing a book. Isn’t shameful to see a woman become a gunrunner here? It would be nice if she picked up the gun in a show of bravery to cure some of society’s ills.

In the Manorama case [killed by the paramilitary], we told the army to issue an arrest memo. Since they gave us that, we thought she would be alive as everybody knew she was arrested. But even after all this, the army murdered her brutally and dumped her body in public. That made us very angry.

There were rumours about using surrendered insurgents to extort from people.
Now, even the people who become commandos [Manipur Police] after rigorous training don’t get paid respectable amount. So how can the government afford to promise a lavish life to underground members who surrender? Naturally, these surrendered people have to be sent out as local gangs. They release the worst characters on the streets. That’s why I tell young women these days to be careful. They will see smartly dressed young men driving new shiny cars, but who are all former underground members who had surrendered. Girls will fall for them, thinking they look like from good rich families. It is so dangerous. Police keep watch on the surrendered men, but they are let to roam free. I give this advice to teenagers. Some of them talk on the phone with their boyfriends. The girls say they are rich and all.

I don’t know what you are going to write about today’s Meira Paibis [laughs].

The Ima Keithel [or mothers' market at central Imphal] seems to be doing well. Are women in Manipur in a much better position than they were in your time?
In Manipur, it is not that women don’t want to work. It’s that they don’t know what to do, where to go. If you make cloth, you don’t know where to sell. People are buying clothes made outside, but not buying what we make. These you can write. Since a lot of old women today have been Meira Paibis since their youth, they have no money. Many are bearing it and living on. It is not that they don’t want to work.

What we are saying is do some marketing for us. Buy the clothes and store them in a government pool and market them as finished product in and outside the state. What is happening these days is that the number of poor is more. The government doesn’t know how to plan. If you create a separate enclosed space for vendors, how many people will sit? How many people from anywhere in the town will come there to buy essential items?

Earlier, there used to be separate places for selling dried fish, smoked fish, kabok [a type of sweets], coriander. While walking in the market we would say let’s go toward the dried fish side, let’s go toward the smoked fish side. That is how we used to navigate in the market. Today, you have to stock up everything so that the customer doesn’t go away. Everybody has no choice then but to stock up everything. Imas squat on the floor like ants now, kicking and pushing one another for space. The government does not see this fault and don’t listen to us. They should plan and do things. Nothing will go wrong if you plan. Taking money and moving on is more important to them.

Like, for example, while brushing your teeth in morning you think about something that needs to be done, you work it out in your head. After that you can anytime pick up that task and do it well, even on the next day, but you would have planned. But if you try to do something at once you will be lost. Like how Ibobi [incumbent Chief Minister of Manipur] does things.

Because of poverty Meira Paibis have crossed over to the corrupt side. A human being has to live. The rich keeps lapping up everything. If there is a small tender, the rich grabs it. The poor don’t have money to even apply for a tender.

Yes, Meira Paibis still do some of their traditional tasks like intervening to stop attacks on innocent people by security forces, but they are very tired because of poverty. The poor are in umpteen numbers. The rich are getting richer. But the poor are not coming out from the pit. And since they live in a bad land they turn bad. The poor in a bad society will always turn bad. If people are clean in Manipur, it would be better, but that is not the case. These days you have to give something to eat to the officials even for the most insignificant of tasks. If you don’t bribe then it seems abnormal.

Today, I saw in the news that two children died of starvation as their parents could not afford food. The situation is that bread winners must eat first before serving food to dependants. That is bad.

Old Meira Paibis want the government to support them financially?  
Meira Paibis are so poor now, the entire day they forage for food and work. In the evening they go to the market to sell something, but there is no place to sit. They are chased around by constables. At night they still use whatever strength left to go out and join the other Meira Paibis for patrolling. And a lot of old women who want to come out don’t have the money to pay for commuting. So they have to depend on vehicles hired or sent by some local influential person, chaining themselves to his illicit generosity. But their desire to be Meira Paibis blinds them.

We have no place to sell our handmade products. The government doesn’t value the cloth we make. Everybody is living on second hand. What will we eat? If we buy vegetables, we buy the ones brought from outside the state. All our fertile land has been used to set up offices. We are now borrowing rice from one another to eat. The roads are bad. If the roads are good, linking the hills and the valley, it would help in movement and bring people closer. Please write about the hardships of Meira Paibis. They do go out at night, but since they have no food at home, even though the government tells us to take rice from this centre or that centre, and they have no money to commute, senior women in Manipur live a hard life.

In the old days we were financially independent. There was always something to do. But now maybe because of rising population, everything seems like in a chaos, there is no order. You see women doing woodwork and hard labour because they have no choice. Who will want to do that if they had a choice?

In other countries I have seen three people working on an orange. One to peel it, one to juice it, one to bottle the jelly. That should be done here, at least something that can help a woman earn one day’s wage. You can earn money by digging a ditch today. You don’t need education. But the politicians have eaten up the money. They have gone crazy.

Number four [local slang for narcotics] came here. But who sold them? The politicians. Once I went to meet a VIP on this matter. I told him in broken Hindi, 'Manipur ka mantris, babus, police sab kharab hai. Bahut kharab hai. Sab pagla ho gaya hai.' They said, 'Acha acha'.

If I feel like saying something, I say it. If police stop me from going to meet some VIP, I tell them, I am not coming after you, don’t stop me, and if you still try to stop me, it means you are involved. I will make you lose your job. The politicians bring the number four, and senior police officers check them, so who will catch both? Who is going to check them together? So I try to isolate the lower level policemen, saying they are not involved in all this. I am not going to give them hardship for no reason.

The government built the keithel [market building] but the top floor is vacant. All anti-social elements hang out there. All the VIPs have got shops there. Then they say go here, go there to submit applications for shops. They are telling that to us when we have no money to even go out of the house. Set up small shops in every leikai, it will work wonders. There should be place to stock cloth. Since we have no storage all the pineapples we produce go waste. When we want to eat them later we have to buy the ones brought from outside as by then our stock would have gone rotten.

There are no factories. Children don’t want to learn. But yes, the boys and girls of Manipur are very talented. They learn everything fast. It’s just that there are no facilities for them. The hospitals don’t have adequate equipment, so we have to go to Guwahati. The way we work here is faulty. The government never bothers.

There are more poor than rich in Manipur. Wherever there are more poor people there will be violence. How to solve this is by paying attention to their needs. Build shops in leikai. Let them take control of their neighbourhood. This will generate income.

We can’t get stuffs from Singjamei because of commuting costs. To make all this happen corruption should be stopped. Honesty is needed in everything.

When Shantidas Adhikari [Hindu missionary from Bengal] came to Manipur to propose the conversion of Meiteis to Vaishnavite Hindus, the king of Manipur, Meidingu Pamheiba [1690–1751] called his Chingnu Khongangthaba for his opinion on the matter. The king wanted the conversion to happen. He asked the advisor to remove all the existing gods of Manipur and let people embrace Vaishnavism. Khongangthaba first thanked the king for considering his opinion worthy of a hearing. Then he said: if you tell our people to convert to this unknown religion, a time will come when father and son will stop loving each other. Another advisor, Lalaba, was also against the idea of converting people to Hinduism. The enraged king then told Khongangthaba to hang Lalaba from a tree in a public place so that people know that those who opposed the move will be dealt with severely. But Khongangthaba refused, and said, 'Who dares snatch Lalaba from my hand?'

Today, if you see around you the prediction has come true. People are killing people. There is no kindness left. Old parents are dying alone, while their children do all sorts of bad things. All these were already predicted. The end is nearing. Even gold will be impure. If you really check you will find only adulterated gold in the market.

Do young people know you?
Look at yourself. It is said that crop sown in a fertile land grows up healthy. Children born in peaceful times, in a peaceful society will grow up to love their parents. Those who were born in criminal times will not turn out good. That is why we say the young should sit near elders to hear their advice. The youth of today were born in tumultuous times, when their parents were unclean and dishonest. These days the youth don’t want to feed their parents. Parents who brought them up tirelessly get nothing from them. We as elders think the parents have suffered since the start. It is said that parents are gods that you can see. You should always respect elders. Even in your most difficult times if we get some portion of what you are eating, we will cry of happiness, we will think that you care. But I see more youth disrespecting elders. All the youth who don’t respect their elders turn out bad. This, you should know. You collect all the bad things from here and write a beautiful book. That is how good songs are written and sung.

Let’s have some tea. You cannot leave without having tea [A girl entered with tea].

It has been 33 years since the first time we protested for removing AFSPA. This law is another reason behind the sufferings of the women of Manipur. They are doing anything they want under AFSPA. I don’t know why they are not removing this act. At least remove it for some time and see. If things get worse then enforce it again.

We spoke with Sonia Gandhi about what was happening back home. We told her to remove AFSPA because of which women are facing a lot of hardships. Children and women are getting arrested for no reason. The politicians are also bad. We told her that. She really listened to us. 'We will discuss it. We will consider it,' Gandhi told us. I asked her for a photo to be taken together, though she seemed a bit reluctant. I told her that if we don’t get the photo how will people believe us that we met you?

I was there at the rally when Indira Gandhi came [1972]. I went there to protest against the high price of rice. AMSU [All Manipur Students' Union] was leading the agitation then. Another very difficult time was between 1952 and 1953 when the price of rice was very high. We went to Kangjeibung at night holding lanterns to buy rice.

I have faced many difficult things, starting from the time when Japanese planes dropped bombs on Imphal [Battle of Imphal, World War-II]. Today when I see a person suffering the most I think that suffering is nothing compared to what we faced in our days. But I was my parents’ only child, so in a way I could get food and clothing adequately. There was no salt, no rice, when the war broke out.

India was a nation state under the British. But Manipur was a kingdom. So there is no harm in keeping that way. The palace [Manipur king's home] should be renovated but not dismantled. Otherwise a lot of problem is going to arise. The Whites may return, I think in your lifetime. I am too old.

[She was perhaps referring to the discussion of the Manipur insurgency in the United Nations. At a talk on the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act in September 2013 at New Delhi the National Human Rights Commission member and former diplomat Satyabrata Pal said India is not bothered by what human rights defenders are showing about the Manipur situation to the United Nations. "India is too big to be bullied at the UN," Pal said. "You have to find other ways."].

Whatever properties have been sold were sold by the forefathers of Sanajouba, not by him. It is not right to evict him just because some older generations were salespeople. He wants to keep the palace intact. It contains the history of the people of this small land. If you erase this, people will have no connection with their past.

*          *          *

Ima Thokchom Ramani visits the Taj Mahal in Agra in January 2013.


  1. Lucky to read this.
    When I came to kolkata, I had a desire to know about North East, I have travelled to all NE capitals except mizoram and Manipur.
    And I have found they really have interesting culture and significant history.

    1. I'd like to explore all the NE states. Have covered only some of them. It's good you managed to see quite a bit there. Cheers!

  2. Wow! This is a brilliant article. I had no idea about this. Thank you so much for sharing.


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