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Politics of the Informal

Women’s Associational Life and Public Space in the Hills of Manipur

G Amarjit Sharma ( teaches at the North East India Studies Programme, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

This article contests the view that women’s public space results from their ability to step in as peacemakers, or as part of civil society groups, during conflicts between state and non-state actors, or from the ability to hold leadership positions in electoral politics or in civil society groups. Instead, women’s public space emerges from church welfare services, reformation of inheritance laws and traditional village authorities, and women’s ability to identify problems in state, civil society, and insurgent politics while maintaining a critical distance. The informal associational lives of women are equally public and political. The informal does not merely legitimise the political role of women; it is political because it is an active, creative, and strategic public space

This article is the result of a collaborative research project titled “Making Women Count for Peace: Gender, Empowerment, and Confl ict in South Asia.” The Research Council of Norway funded the project. I would like to thank Åshild Kolås and Samir Kumar Das for their comments and observations on an earlier draft of this article, and my fi eld research assistant Tara Manchin Hangzo for assisting me in data collection and in translating Hmar language to English. This study is largely based on fi eldwork done between 2012 and the fi rst half of 2015 in Churachandpur district, Manipur.

Studies on women, particularly on those in armed conflict zones, have shown how the woman as a victim of conflict is not the only reality. The general argument in most studies on women in South Asia (Butalia 2002; Manchanda 2001; Banerjee 2008; Orjuela 2003) is that conflict pushes women into the public sphere and enables them to carve out a space to cope with the changing realities around them. The conflict could be communal, ethnic, or an armed state–insurgent conflict. Several studies argue that in coming to terms with the realities of conflict and while performing their roles, women acquire a new identity—as “peace brokers” between conflicting parties or “human rights defenders.” Such images are understood as a public identity, rooted in a certain cultural experience. The experience of women as mothers, although considered disempowering by many, is seen as a political resource for resolving conflict and defending human rights. Studies on women in the North East, for instance on the Naga Mothers’ Association1 in Nagaland and Meira Paibis2 in Manipur (Manchanda 2001; Banerjee 2008; Das 2008; Devi 2012), take this view.

Another significant feature of such studies is their dependence on formal space. Above identity, the role of women is visualised as one that is enacted in the formal space of politics. Thus, according to the studies cited above, while the informal is understood as being mediated by culture, formal space is understood as a space for dialogue among conflicting parties, peace-building, and negotiation between civil society and the state. In conceptualising a formal space in conflict zones, civil society is not just the key term, but also a formal space for active politics. Rita Manchanda, for instance, argues that in peace-building, women’s authority consolidated in the “informal space of politics” is used to legitimise authority in the public space of “formal politics” (2001: 24). In addition to the idea that conflict results in public space for women, there is also an argument that women should be given leadership positions in decision-making bodies or the peace-building initiatives of the state and civil society.

The Informal as Political

While I acknowledge the merit of the above argument, I argue that perceiving the formal space of politics as the public space for women is problematic. In the above argument, formal space is where formal, legal, and constitutional languages are used as mediums of expression and engagement. Studying women as human rights defenders and peace builders, or researching women in decision-making roles, reflects this understanding of a formal space. This also adds to the notion of civil society that constitutes such a formal and political space. In our context, civil society (as the formal space) is critically differentiated from the informal associational life of women. In other words, I consider it problematic to think of formal (legal, constitutional, state, and civil society) politics as the public space to which women aspire to belong, or where they seek or acquire recognition only as political actors. In other words, I find it problematic to accept the view that the informal, mediated by culture, is only a source of political action (hence, apolitical); whereas dialogue, decision-making, and negotiations among state, civil society, and insurgents (meaning political) take place in the formal space. The informal can be equally public and political for women; it is not simply a private space.

In my study of the associational life of the Hmar women in Churachandpur district in Manipur, the informal is not understood as merely legitimising the role of women, nor is it an experience that is enacted and formalised in a formal public space. The informal is the political space because it is an active, creative, and strategic public space for negotiation and which allows for deeper criticism of the formal politics of state and civil society institutions and processes. Seeking leadership or recognition in formal politics is not the ultimate goal of the women in my study. These women have remained distant from the formal space of civil society and the state. This study is largely an attempt to understand this distance. Although featured less in contemporary studies of conflict in the region, Hmar society is experiencing a political culture that involves the state, insurgents, and human rights-based civil society groups. On closer observation, the experiences of Hmar women, and in particular the activities and perspectives of the Hmar Women Association (HWA), suggest an alternative understanding of politics and the political domain. An attempt to understand this space is the focus of my study.

When speaking of women’s associational lives, I do not suggest that every Hmar women is necessarily involved in informal politics, and I acknowledge that some would prefer to be in the formal and constitutional space. By associational life, I mean the intelligible (shared) informal space made possible by the HWA. Associational life, in the context of this study, is not strictly an organised relationship. However, it offers an effective and interventionist associational life for Hmar women.

Hmar Women Association

The HWA, established in 1988, is supposedly a social organisation for relatively upward-moving and informed Hmar women. It was established by a group of young, working, and educated Hmar women. Many of them work as doctors, police officers, teachers, nurses, etc.3 The association serves society by leveraging the relatively privileged status of the members (which does not merely mean economic status, but also encompasses educational qualifications and knowledge of society and governance), and sharing their knowledge and skills to uplift less educated sisters in their community.4 The HWA is based in Churachandpur. It has branches in Hmar villages, including Hmar settlement areas in north Cachar and Haflong in Assam. The executive members of the organisation are elected for a three-year term. The president is elected from among the executive members.5

What concerns me in this study is the HWA’s positioning as a social organisation. Within this social space, the politics of informal networking and engagement with the surrounding state and non-state actors takes place. During my interactions with HWA members, I learned that they define their activities and concerns as social. These activities primarily revolve around uplifting women and providing them with information and training to raise the socio-economic status of their households and health. The by-laws of the HWA state that the association is not to be involved in “state politics.” The members felt that this was an important condition that had to be established when the HWA was formed. They expressed that state politics is the men’s domain where women’s opinions and voices are not given importance. In this perspective, the HWA’s positioning as social could be seen in the context of this exclusion from state politics. However, once unpacked, an understanding of the social, a larger understanding of what politics means to these women, and their strategic choices for political intervention, become clear. In this study, I argue that the positioning of this organisation as social is an expression of a political strategy rather than an aloofness from politics. This social positioning is not merely articulated based on women’s understanding of politics; it is a political position.

Next, let us explore the HWA’s positioning as a social organisation by observing what politics means to its members. Politics broadly refers to three domains: electoral politics, civil society groupings (mainly human rights groups), and state politics. Women demonstrate their understanding of politics by distancing themselves from these domains. The Hmar women I interviewed consider themselves not empowered enough to be actively involved in politics. The reasons women cited were their lack of self-confidence and the attitudes of men in authority towards women. According to them, men are reluctant to hand over power to women as they do not trust the latter’s opinions and wisdom; the community is accustomed to being informed and governed by customary laws that allow no space for women’s voices. So, when women say they are not empowered, it means that in practice, formal (state) politics is influenced by customary traditions that exclude women.

In the perspective of the HWA, the line between elected offices and non-elected (customary) authority is blurred; the power rooted in customary laws and practices continues to dominate both the private and public spheres in villages. The power wielded by the khullakpa (village chief)6 demonstrates the influence of traditional authority in the village’s social life. People from hilly regions, including those from Hmar society, favour chieftainship-based social and political systems.7 In fact, the prohibition of traditional chieftainship under the Manipur Hill Areas (Acquisition of Chief’s Rights) Act, 1967 was staunchly opposed in Churachandpur district.8 However, to the HWA, the members of the village authority formed under the Manipur (Village Authorities in Hill Areas) Act, 1956 are selected and formally elected. In this selection and election process, the decisions of the village chief are considered important. This system has been criticised as decisions tend to favour men.

The view of the former president of the HWA (currently the president of the Churachandpur Joint Women Organisation) may be relevant here. According to Joute Lal Sawmi,

I was advised by many people in the town of Churachandpur town to stand for the ninth and tenth state assembly elections in Manipur; both men and women from all the communities were behind me. But I refused, as I know the reality of politics in Manipur. In spite of their support, when it comes to voting, I may get a handful, say about ten votes, because I don’t have money power to distribute to voters or to hold many feasts to vote for me. I won’t get a Congress party ticket as I don’t have [the] money to buy [one]. As an independent candidate, I will not win and will become [the] laughing stock of my community.9

Finding an alternate avenue to electoral politics has become her primary objective. Sawmi says that she would rather engage in social activities, which she also feels will earn her dignity and respect within the community; she also feels that men do not respect women who occupy positions of political power (elected through the system of adult franchise). This, she feels, is an extension of the cultural system prevalent in the Hmar society that privileges men over women. For example, “thaibawi” is a term that signifies that a man has lost his prestige as the head of the family as his wife has taken control in family affairs.

Role of Church Activities

Finding dignity in social activities, as Sawmi says, is not equivalent to women claiming every sector of society as their own space. What makes it possible for women to carve out a space of their own is how they relate to social forces. In this regard, the space that Hmar women crafted for themselves through church activities is important because this space evolved in an environment of debate. Broadly, two types of arguments can be identified: on the one hand, church activities give women a space of their own while the welfare activities of the church benefit from their involvement; and, on the other, welfare activities result in curtailing women’s space. This debate has allowed the associational life of women to emerge.10 This space enables them to engage in other spheres of politics, mainly electoral processes, state and insurgent conflicts, and civil society organisations.

The situation in Hmar villages indicates the increasing change brought about by women congregating while contributing to the welfare services of the church, including social upliftment projects that women have learned to manage. The Reformed Presbyterian Church has formed a registered society (under the Government of Manipur) known as the Women’s Missionary Society (WMS). It has received funding (for example, from Holland), which was used towards the socio-economic upliftment of poorer Hmar women and girls. Many young girls (including some from far-flung villages like Tipaimukh in Churachandpur) have benefited from such projects that impart basic skills such as weaving, tailoring, and other vocational skills. Many of these girls have started earning by joining tailoring shops owned by local Hmar women.

Another significant church initiative was holding regular prayers and teaching in Deborah Prayer Hall in Churachandpur; enhancing the spiritual lives of the young women is considered a primary goal for the association. The secretary of the WMS and other members take turns every Friday to teach life improvement skills, such as how to choose the right life partner, raise a happy child in the fold of Christianity, lead life according to god’s plan, have strong faith, and take care of one’s health and hygiene, etc. Another body under the Independent Church of India (ICI) is the Rural Women Upliftment Society (RWUS).11 It focuses on the following areas: caring for the aged, child welfare, education, health, rural development, and women’s issues. The RWUS works towards the overall development of weaker sections of society, especially women and children, through welfare activities in the above areas. It highlights the ill effects of alcoholism and drug abuse, and promotes the importance of healthcare and establishes homes for the aged and destitute.

Hmar women attribute their success in such projects to god’s grace. Earlier, the chairperson of the projects was always a man, but now women occupy this position. These women feel that running church projects is evangelistic work and that god has chosen them for their potential, talents, and skills to help other women. Women are increasingly involved in Sunday school ministry, women’s ministry, and leading daily family devotions at home for the spiritual upliftment of their families. Religious activities form a part of their campaign against drug abuse and alcoholism; they believe that families’ daily devotion and prayers help addicts and give them courage to quit.

To one woman respondent, the advent of Christianity and the teachings of the Bible have transformed the Hmar community to such an extent that it has become a “god-fearing community;” according to her, women conduct their family and social lives in accordance with what is said in the Bible literally.12 These “god-fearing womenfolk” raise women’s liberation issues within the church. Her argument is that the church still favours men. Further, there are more men studying theology than women, and the church hierarchy still excludes women from positions of high authority in church organisations. In addition, women still cannot be ordained as priests. My respondent informed me that, to date, there are only two women (not from the Hmar community) who have been ordained as pastors in Churachandpur.13 To reiterate, this debate, rather than creating a hurdle to the emergence of women’s associational life, has helped them evolve their own public sphere. There is not a just politics around women, but also a debate; it is this debate that makes them political.

Hmar Customary Laws

In addition to its involvement in church activities and projects, the HWA also engages with Hmar customary laws. This engagement has critically expanded the space that Hmar women, in their associational life, occupy. It questions the social structure that largely dictates women’s lives. To members of the HWA in particular, and Hmar women in general there are certain areas of concern.

First, inheritance laws: in the case of moveable and immovable properties (belonging to the father or grandfather), the Hmars follow the ultimogeniture rule of succession and inheritance, that is, the youngest son inherits all properties, as he is expected to take care of his aged parents. In the absence of a rightful male heir, this customary rule is relaxed so that another male member of the family may inherit the property. Sometimes, chieftainship is accorded to the eldest son, even though as a rule it is the right of the youngest son. In case there are no sons in the family, the chieftain’s eldest brother’s son (preferably the youngest one) inherits the properties and chieftainship. If the sons are minors, the widow of the chief, along with the husband’s brothers, look after village administration until the boys attain a certain age. A widow without a son cannot sell properties without the knowledge and consent of her husband’s relatives.

A woman may claim the right to dispose of her late husband’s properties and give them to her poor or relatively disadvantaged married daughters (and sons-in-law) without interference from her husband’s relatives. Widows with children cannot be evicted from their homes and harassed by the husband’s relatives. However, an exception is made if the widow chooses to remarry. In such a case, she surrenders her inheritance rights and is expected to pay her husband’s relatives in kind (for example, holding a feast). On the other hand, if the husband chooses to remarry after his wife’s death, he must immediately pay his late wife’s family in kind.

These women have also been discussing a possible revision of inheritance laws in the case of families who do not have male heirs. In the case of an only girl child, her father’s properties should go to her and her children, and not to the man’s relatives. Common opinion is that childless couples should will their movable and immovable properties to whomever they wish, and not just to the man’s relatives. This must be done in the presence of the village authority or in court. In this way, official mechanisms are established to transform society, by addressing inequalities embedded in customary laws and in formal settings (that is, with village authorities present or in court). In actuality, customary laws demand that the husband’s brothers and his children inherit his assets and properties. This practice does not acknowledge the wife’s contribution to the family’s accumulation of wealth, and she and her parents never benefit. If a woman chooses to remarry, according to customary law, the widow must surrender her late husband’s properties along with her rights to her children; women want this law revised so that they can continue to care for children from their first marriage, especially if the children are minors. Women feel that minor children should continue to have rights to their deceased fathers’ properties.

The women in my study argued for a revision of customary laws based on the ethical grounds that inheriting parents’ properties also involves taking on the responsibility to care for and support parents, and sustain the family. This is particularly true, they feel, when it comes to caring for the elderly. The general sense is that the empowerment of Hmar women (addressing gender inequality and affording women their due rights) will remain a far cry unless a codified law is passed that entitles women to property, custody of children, and maintenance rights for children even in the event that the woman gets divorced or becomes a widow. An attempt was made by the members of the HWA to reform marriage laws; however, they were unable to address gender inequality. All they achieved was allowing women the freedom to choose their bridal wear.

The women in my study often mentioned the reform of customary laws in Mizoram. Mizoram is taking the lead in trying to reform customary divorce laws by bringing about an ordinance with the help of the Mizo Hmeichhe Insuihkhawm Pawl (MHIP), a women’s organisation which has been fighting to amend customary laws for the past 40 years. The challenge, according to Hmar women, is in figuring out how to follow the Mizoram example and start taking the initiative to bring about a change in their own customary laws.

Second, there is the issue of women’s reproductive rights. This is a major issue among the women associated with the HWA. Women are expected to give birth to a male child so that he can continue the clan, lineage, and family. As a result, women undergo multiple pregnancies and risk their health by giving birth to several children (to ensure the family has a son). There is no importance given to women-specific healthcare services, such as reproductive healthcare and services of gynaecologists or nurses.

Civil Society and Its ‘Outside’

As the members of the HWA consider formal (politics) a male domain, I now tackle how the HWA engages with such a formal public space. The activities of major Hmar civil society groups (CSGs), among other rights-based groups, can be considered a major part of such a public space. Prominent CSGs (in my study) among the Hmars are the Hmar Inpui (the apex body of the Hmars for discussing every concern of members of the community), Hmar Students’ Association (HSA), Sinlung Indigenous Peoples Human Rights Organisation (SIPHRO), HWA, etc.

Civil society, in my study, is a public space where the state, insurgents, and human rights groups fight for the legitimisation of their respective identities and the issues they have raised.14 Broadly, these issues comprise inter-tribal conflicts, human rights violations, and armed conflicts between the state and insurgents. Fieldwork in Churachandpur has given me the sense that civil society here is predominantly concerned with protracted wars between the state and insurgents, criticism of the presence of insurgent groups in the areas, and, recently, development issues. It encompasses a large number of individual members and ethnic organisations and is not restricted to a few elite people and experts.15 However, it does not mean that every section of society participates. The HWA chooses to stay outside and engage whenever necessary.

To grasp a sense of the conflict in the area, which has become the major lens through which many public issues are understood, would be worthwhile at this point. I have been told that insurgents inhabit the Churachandpur hills and that Meitei-based insurgent organisations are dominant there. According to locals, insurgent organisations such as United National Liberation Front (UNLF), People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Hmar People’s Convention (HPC), and Zomi Revolutionary Army (ZRA) are prominent. Apparently, the Meitei-led UNLF and PLA have been operating in the hills for long, taking shelter in the jungle and in villages. Locals claim that they are also allegedly involved in incidents that make life difficult for the local people.16

Another narrative claims that, after the state began counter-insurgency measures in Manipur, armed conflicts in the hills have changed villages from “shelter-giving” sites to those that play an active role in clearing out insurgents. My interview with a human rights activist and historian, Arambam Lokendra, in Manipur revealed that, at first, insurgency flared up mainly in urban areas in Manipur, and a cordial relationship between tribals and Meitei insurgents continued in the hills.17 Then, there were instances of insurgents attacking state forces in valley areas; later, most valley areas became sites of counter-state operations. In the 1990s, the conflict shifted to the hills. Early stories of insurgents tell of how Meitei insurgents used to be sheltered in the hills, but this ended with the Government of India initiating peace talks with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) (NSCN [IM]) in 1997 and taking similar initiatives with the Kuki insurgent organisation and the HPC. After the Government of India started major army operations, the hills were transformed from sites of shelter to sites of counter-insurgency and ethnic tension. This has made it difficult for organisations like the UNLF to operate in some areas in the hills. State forces allied with other insurgent groups or factions to target the remaining insurgent groups. This has completely changed the equation between state forces, the villages in the hills, and the insurgents, triggering ethnic tensions and more fighting among factions and major armed groups like the UNLF, HPC, and NSCN (IM).

With the above account, I have attempted to reveal the dominant understanding of civil society as driven by this understanding of conflict. This understanding is particularly informed by the dominant rights-based perspective. Much of the civilian and state narratives have been about insurgents and state conflict, and how rights-based groups intervene to resolve them. As a result, women are expected to act as peacemakers. This view, however, limits our understanding of the associational role of the HWA, which is also concerned with other, wider issues, and also of the ways and means that the HWA has evolved to engage with the public space. A few things are important here. First, unlike the liberal understanding of rational institutions and individuals, the civility of the public space of Hmar society is also informed by concerns and identities articulated at the community level. Second, such civility accounts for the presence of women without necessarily promising that women’s issues will be addressed within it. Third, civility is clearly a domain wherein male intellectuals and activists conduct various activities. Fourth, rights-based bodies limit themselves to a sort of civility in which traditional bodies and customary laws are least expected to guide how public issues are addressed; this is despite the importance given to the latter in the personal sphere in villages. This is evident more in matters of human rights violations, as rights-based bodies like the SIPHRO take the lead, rather than traditional bodies.

With regard to development projects, the Hmar Inpui is for banning all activities related to oil and gas exploration by Asian Oils Private Limited under Jubilant Oil and Gas Private Limited in the Tipaimukh and Vanghai areas of Churachandpur district. It is these bodies, not just customary bodies, that fight for the community. However, it is also important to note that when it comes to the tribe’s identity, bodies like these defend customary institutions and practices, chieftainship, customary laws, and clan and dialectical differences as the core of tribal identity.18 Rights-based groups that talk about the rights of individual citizens, regardless of ethnicity, are often limited in their operations by inter-tribal complexities and dynamics.

Khuga Dam Case

By now, two meanings of civil society have emerged: one is driven by the conflict between the state and insurgents, and the other is shaped by concerns articulated at the community level, and not just by individuals. I attempt in this section to look at how bodies like the HWA engage not so much with big incidents of armed conflict, but with incidents that attract the least attention from rights-based organisations (cited above), which occur on a daily basis in public.19 Let us consider one incident. The response of the HWA working under the Churachandpur Joint Women Organisation (CJWO) (headed by Joute Lal Sawmi) in the aftermath of an incident at the Khuga dam20 (2013) that involved security personnel in Churachandpur is considered significant (by my respondents); the perpetrators of the crime were caught the day after the incident.21 Members of a law enforcement agency, the India Reserved Battalion (IRB), posted in the area, allegedly stripped and sexually abused two young lovers and recorded the incident on video and uploaded it onto a social networking site. The ethnic communities of Churachandpur condemned this act of violence perpetuated by the security personnel; it was deemed wrong and unlawful. However, it was the women’s groups, including the HWA, which first responded to the crime. The response is worth noting for two reasons: the nature of the inquiry and their engagement with the authorities.

The members of the CJWO made their own inquiries regarding the security personnel involved in the crime. By doing so, the CJWO differentiated itself from the mob or mob justice. This decision could be considered a technique of engagement. Mobs and mob justice operate through masses that do not approach the authorities and make decisions by themselves without the intervention of legal or state institutions. The CJWO made sure that the alleged culprits were booked under the laws of the land. The CJWO made an appeal to the public not to take justice into their own hands, assuring the people that they would apply pressure on the concerned authorities for quick justice as per the law. However, protests erupted, and the police fired at the protesting crowds to control them, which left one dead and many injured. What began as an expression of faith in the institution (approaching and handing over the alleged culprits to the local police) changed into a critique of the institution (including of representatives in the state legislative assembly). In this change, there is a shift from the formal to the informal.

Significantly, there were informal aspects in their response, such as their concern about the social stigma surrounding the girl who was allegedly involved in the case and the possibility of similar things happening to other girls. This aspect was neglected by formal institutions and the stigma was left for the CJWO to handle. Explaining the stigma, a woman respondent remarked, “Who will marry this girl now? She has bad reputation while the young man will not be affected at all.”22 Nonetheless, women’s organisations consider the case sensitive as it involves responding to defend women’s dignity and because they feel it is their duty to create a means of living for stigmatised women.

The CJWO wants to raise funds for the woman and send her to Delhi so that she can get a job and start a new life there. To send her outside Manipur to begin a new life could mean that she could escape a stigmatised life in her hometown. Helping a victim leave a place of trauma is a way of diverting her from the immediacy of the scene. This is not to say that they believe that a place outside is safer. At the same time, this is a clear critique of the state government. A woman respondent mentioned during an interview that she had asked a local member of the legislative assembly (MLA) of Manipur to take responsibility for the safety and well-being of women.23 The government has been criticised for Manipur’s lack of trauma counselling centres and women task forces.

In another case, it was clear that the critical space for women’s associations was expanding. The HWA, in cooperation with other women’s organisations, took prompt action in December 2010 following the rape and murder of a middle-aged woman in a paddy field. The CJWO, along with the HWA, Churachandpur District Students’ Union (CDSU), Joint Philanthropic Organisation, and church leaders sent a joint memorandum to the chief minister of Manipur demanding that the culprits be caught and punished. Members of these women’s groups guarded the morgue to prevent the police from disposing of the dead body until the culprits were caught. The women’s organisations reportedly took the help of an insurgent group to identify the men involved in the rape. The women’s organisations did the groundwork for tracing the culprits. A post-mortem report was created, which helped classify the case as rape and murder. It showed that the dead women’s nails were bloody; later on, these were matched with the evidence of scratch marks on the culprit’s body. Afterwards, the CJWO issued a press release to notify the public that the culprit had been caught and that sexual harassment should stop.

Through these instances, it is evident that a critical space of women’s organisations (the HWA and its allies) has evolved through activism. As seen above, this space refers to mechanisms of self-enquiry, monitoring incidents, urging officials to take responsibility, and fighting for the dignity of women.

Engaging with Everyday Insurgency

There is often outward silence rather than criticism when cases involve or are linked with armed insurgents. This is because the consequences usually include the risk of being killed. The face of insurgency has changed over the past decade. It is now true that insurgency has evolved to become an agency of violence that operates on an everyday basis. Insurgency takes an ethnic stand to defend the interests of a community or party. From being a force that was understood only in relation to the state, it has pluralised into parties that engage in daily violence. I will not elaborate on the why and the how, except to emphasise that, in situations of everyday violence, choosing the means and methods to encounter insurgents and speak for victims of violence must be done strategically and creatively. The strategy has implications for the kind of public space in which associations like the HWA operate. This section will deal with how the HWA and its allied women’s groups chose such a strategy.

Our field data give an idea of the everyday insurgency present in ethnic conflicts, hostilities, and clashes (directly or indirectly involving insurgents and state). Women’s actions in such circumstances are both conscious and creative. They cannot merely be actions sponsored by civil society groups from which women have chosen to distance themselves from time to time, if not always. To elaborate, consider the war between the Paites and Kukis (1997–98) in Churachandpur that allegedly claimed 1,500 lives and displaced 5,000 villagers. Women respondents in the study were of the opinion that, in such situations, women choose rehabilitation work. Under the leadership of the CJWO, women gathered in large numbers to stop two warring parties (Kukis and Paites). The ZMA and other women’s organisations, including the HWA under the banner of the CJWO, rose to the occasion to provide rehabilitation to the displaced. Many houses were torched and burnt down during the ethnic conflict; as a result, welfare measures such as constructing relief camps, shelters, and providing people with basic needs were prioritised. Women volunteers went from house to house, collecting rice, pulses, clothes, blankets, and charcoal or firewood for cooking. The volunteers aimed to resettle the displaced and empower them to restart their normal lives by working in cultivation, as vegetable vendors, or daily wage earners. Women volunteers made appeals as mothers and sisters to end the fight. Church leaders joined them. The ethnic clashes came to an end after appeals by women activists, church leaders, and local politicians.

What is significant is that women’s ideas of care or rehabilitation closely relate to their understanding of the politics of armed violence. According to our field respondents, masculinity is constructed in a particular way in everyday insurgency: there is a general embracing of gun culture or a macho show of strength by insurgents.24 According to the respondents, ethnic clashes often involve armed insurgents, leading to the further perpetuation of gun culture, which has only made the situation worse. Frequent hostilities involving armed insurgents erupt over petty matters, thereby creating tensions between communities. Respondents cited examples of such hostilities. In a clash between the HPC (D) and ZRA in 2004, the cadres of the ZRA chased a suspected HPC (D) cadre who had escaped from their custody on foot, firing indiscriminately into an inhabited Hmar locality. Three ZRA men were gunned down in cold blood and one HPC (D) cadre died. The ZRA cadres were counter-attacked by IRB personnel. However, it is evident that conflicts between armed insurgents of the Hmar and Zomi people do not provoke women volunteers to help only one ethnic group over the other. In this case, Hmar and Zomi women worked together, even as part of the CJWO. Leaders, including women’s associations from the two communities (Paites and Hmars), held parleys to work out an amicable solution and not let the tension escalate between the two warring outfits.

Gun Culture

Women’s associations do not see much use in macho shows of strength and gun power; this culture involves armed encounters between ethnic insurgents, armed insurgents’ backing of perpetrators of crime, etc. Gun culture has additional implications for women’s organisations. The reason women distance themselves from armed encounters is because they fear the dictates of armed ethnic insurgents and such conflicts are mostly mediated by community leaders, including church leaders or CSGs (where men make all the key decisions). When women’s organisations take up women’s issues that are not linked to insurgent groups, they expect that insurgents will not interfere in their functioning. Women’s organisations are also expected to keep their distance since, if local crimes involve insurgents, then their actions may be questioned by the groups with whom they are cooperating. For instance, women get questioned about why they file first information reports (FIRs) at the police station following a crime. This is a challenge for woman leaders as they can be intimidated and scared off. Women activists (of organisations such as the HWA, ZMA, CJWO, etc) tend to choose welfare activities and social issues over sitting in meetings with armed insurgents and community leaders. They assert that even if they wish to be part of such deliberations, they are never invited to participate. This implies that women’s opinions have no value to the men armed with guns.

Women’s associations would rather focus on non-sensitive issues (not involving armed encounters or fearful dictates) by looking after the welfare of women and people displaced by such conflicts. The women activists said that they belong to non-political associations; theirs are issue-based organisations working for women, as their gender and vulnerabilities place them at higher risk than men in such situations. This means the women’s organisations, collectively and individually as activists, wish to keep a distance from the insurgent-linked activities. However, I have chosen to interpret their position as political because of the definition and distinction of the sphere in which they as women can act; this includes elements of negotiation wherever possible. For example, distancing themselves from insurgents is an act of negotiation. The women in our study are very aware of their context and strategise accordingly.

The above discussion reveals the additional aspect of political strategy. Further, what appears to be a non-political position is actually part of a political strategy. However, the women’s organisations under discussion do not have the issue of maintaining a distance from state forces. Unlike the other anti-state voices and organisations (on the alleged human rights violation by state forces and laws of the state like the Armed Forces [Special Powers] Act, 1958 that give state forces immunity) in the Manipur valley, women’s organisations do not demonstrate much antipathy to state forces. As per the opinions of my respondents, there are more voices against armed insurgents than state forces; there is a feeling that insurgents create problems while state forces protect them. To sections of Hmar society, the presence of the state’s military, paramilitary, and police forces in the hills has now become a norm.

There is a general perception among the women whom I interviewed that arbitrary arrest and detention are mainly actions conducted and contested by men, including insurgents and state forces. It is also true that certain sections of society have normalised security personnel’s actions. For instance, women in the Tipaimukh areas (in the same district) feel safer with armies in their vicinity: “Armies don’t take but give us many useful things; solar lamps, football, volleyball net, sewing machine, etc are given by the armies while the local armed insurgents are making lots of demands and abuse us in return.” Since the 1990s, the army, as part of counter-insurgency measures in the region, has begun to wipe out insurgents from the hills and valleys of Manipur by following the twin strategy of winning over the hearts and minds of locals through civic action programmes on the one hand, and using force on the other, to deal with insurgency. It would be wrong to interpret this perspective as the only reality in Hmar society, particularly in the case of the HWA. This is because the association is known for criticising the state for failing to intervene in the alleged rape case of Hmar women by insurgent groups in 2006. Although state presence in the form of security forces has been normalised, it has not been able to completely own the informal space of politics.

To conclude, let me briefly recap this study’s arguments. It is true that the space of the HWA, in particular, is marginal compared to the major politics of the institutions and processes of the state, insurgents, and civil society. However, in prioritising the informal as the public space for women’s politics, we show how difficult it is to consider change for women or question the structure of society and politics from women’s viewpoints within the formal space of politics. In considering the informal women’s public space, one must also take into account cultural experience, particularly customary laws and institutions that have had a greater say in formal politics. To question cultural experience and simultaneously engage with formal institutions and processes of the state, civil society, and insurgents and their politics enables a creative political position for women’s associations. It is also important to acknowledge that the root of associational life is not necessarily the result of armed conflict, civil society, or state initiatives, but the networks around church activities and debates about women’s rights and welfare. Questioning patriarchy and valuing the rights of women in everyday life enables women to carve out a space of their own.

Lastly, the informal is also the space of alliance for women’s associations. This alliance is important to highlight in a society that is highly polarised on ethnic grounds. The informal is not assumed to be a space that is completely owned by or free for women. It is true that politics of the informal are marked by spontaneous protests; this can create the grounds for democratic political change. The fact that the informal is insulated from formal politics enables alternative politics.


1 The Naga Mothers’ Association is known for its strong interventionist role in conflict resolution and peace-building processes in Nagaland.

2 Meira Paibis are the women torchbearers of Manipur. Not all women are Meira Paibis. But all Meira Paibis are women. It has become a public identity, particularly associated with elderly mothers (Imas), of the Meitei community. It is also a movement against human rights violations committed by the state’s security forces (Devi 2017).

3 The church is an important agency for producing this class of women. The Hmars have a nursing school, the Bethesda Nursing School, in Mualvaiphei village, Churachandpur, which is sponsored by the Independent Church of India. This nursing school has produced a large number of graduates since its inception some 20 years ago. After graduating, nurses seek employment in metropolitan cities in the rest of India.

4 The literacy rate among Hmar women stands at 75.2%, which is quite high compared to the overall Manipur literacy rate of 79.85% and the overall female literacy rate of 73.17% (Census of India 2011).

5 Prominent members who have served the organisation are Khwalpi Joute (first elected president of the HWA), Joute Lal Sawmi, D Varry, May Rose, Zousangkim Pudiate, Lalremsiem, and Chonglouzing.

6 Khullakpa, chief of the village, is the ex officio chairman of the village authority under the Manipur (Village Authorities in Hill Areas) Act, 1956. There are 112 village authorities in Churachandpur district.

7 During an interaction with a Hmar scholar, I was informed that village chieftainship in Hmar society is a “necessary evil.” Chieftainship is considered a marker of traditional Hmar identity; yet, chiefs are not considered worthy for driving village development because these days chiefs neglect village development (implementation of rural development schemes). However, the HWA argues that there is cultural dominance of chiefs in social life.

8 One serious reason for such opposition to abolition of the traditional chief’s rights in “hills areas” is the perception that the acquisition of chief’s rights is an attempt by the Manipur government to extend the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms Act, 1960 into the hills, which may end the autonomy of tribal society and polity.

9 From an interview in 2015 during fieldwork in Lamka town in Churachandpur district.

10 I distinguish associational life from philanthropy, although there are elements of church related welfare services that Hmar women give to people, and associational life emerges out of such services. As welfare service is debated even within the church, associational life here is much more than service to people. It is a space of debate and critical views on the institutions, including church and chieftainship, state, electoral politics, civil society, and insurgent politics.

11 Darthang Mawiwasthe was the president of the organisation at the time of my fieldwork.

12 From interview in 2013 in Siakot, Churachandpur.

13 My respondent mentions of Pastor Kim Vaiphei from Churachandpur and another woman (whose name I failed to record) from Mizoram.

14 This aspect of civil society has been discussed in another context as well. See for instance the work of Biswas (2010).

15 Due to space limitations, I cannot engage with the debate on the usage of the term “civil society” in non-Western societies like ours, which has been discussed in the works of Partha Chatterjee (2004, 2011). However, civil society is thought to encompass quite a large membership across communities in North East India, and the term is used, in particular, to make sense of civil organisations’ engagement with the state and sometimes with insurgents. The popularity of the term and its usage makes the case for a broader and more strategic usage of the term, not restricted to a few elites’ and experts’ constitutional language and legal practices. However, not everything comes under civil society. This is because there are sections of society that choose to be outside it because they are critical of the functioning and operation of civil society. The HWA, for example, operates in this context of “the outside.”

16 The most famous case is the Parbung rape case from 2006, in which the locals, particularly Hmar civil society groups, alleged that the United National Liberation Front cadres raped Hmar women. The Manipur government formed the Rajkhowa Commission to investigate. However, the report was never made public. The National Commission for Women has produced a report that indicates involvement of insurgents in the case. Briefly, this case has revealed a deep divide between society and insurgent organisations, particularly Meitei-based groups.

17 Interview with Arambam Lokendra in 2013. Lokendra is a human rights activist, theatre personality, and historian based in Imphal.

18 Inter-tribal contestation for recognition of tribal identity under the Constitution of India on the basis of clan and dialectical differences and the simultaneous effort to bring together collective tribal nomenclature and platforms among the Zo communities have been discussed in detail by scholars (see Suan 2011; Zou 2010).

19 Partha Chatterjee (2011) has theorised instances of daily political negotiations as forms of democratic politics using the concept of political society. In our study, however, we use politics of the informal instead of political society. Our study focuses less on seeking exception in state’s policies and programmes, and more on politics that engage with formal institutions and associated political processes from a critical distance.

20 Khuga dam is constructed over the Khuga river in the Churachandpur district of Manipur. On 9 June 2013, an obscene picture of a young couple was released through MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service) by the Indian Reserved Battalion personnel posted at Khuga dam.

21 The Naga Mothers Association extended its support to the CJWO of Churachandpur and made spot visits to show solidarity with women activists in Churachandpur.

22 From an interview during my fieldwork in Churachandpur district, Manipur, in 2015.

23 From an interview during my fieldwork in Churachandpur district, Manipur, in 2015.

24 In the Churachandpur district, there are three parallel outfits, allegedly collecting illegal taxes: Kuki National Army (KNA) and Kuki National Front (KNF) demanding for Kukiland, ZRA for Zogam, and HPC (D) for Hmar land. They have their own demarcated areas of territorial control, which overlap, leading to occasional skirmishes.


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This article is the result of a collaborative research project titled “Making Women Count for Peace: Gender, Empowerment, and Confl ict in South Asia.” The Research Council of Norway funded the project. I would like to thank Åshild Kolås and Samir Kumar Das for their comments and observations on an earlier draft of this article, and my fi eld research assistant Tara Manchin Hangzo for assisting me in data collection and in translating Hmar language to English. This study is largely based on fi eldwork done between 2012 and the fi rst half of 2015 in Churachandpur district, Manipur.

Updated On : 23rd Feb, 2018


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