GUWAHATI: For much of India’s population, Manipur connotes certain stereotypical images – of violence and unrest. But, very few people have tried to scratch beneath this apparent veneer of this vibrant state and tried to dig into the hearts and minds of its resilient people. In a bid to provide a refreshing insight into the life and times of contemporary Manipur, senior journalist Teresa Rehman has penned a gripping book titled The Mothers of Manipur: Twelve women who made history which will be published soon by Zubaan Books.

The book movingly recounts the stories of men, women and children of Manipur in the backdrop of the decades of violent conflict and low-intensity war. The main protagonists of the book are the 12 Ima (mothers) who stunned the nation by stripping themselves in front of the Assam Rifles headquarters in Imphal, capital of Manipur in 2004. These mothers were expressing their outrage at the rape and killing of Thangjam Manorama, a 32-year-old “alleged” militant by the troops of the Assam Rifles.

Never before in the contemporary history of India, has such a unique protest taken place where bold grandmothers dared to strip themselves to speak up for their rights and shield the dignity of their daughters. Through the stories of these women, the author has drawn a picture of Manipur never seen or heard of.

Naked and angry, they banged the gates of the Assam Rifles headquarters at Kangla fort in Imphal. These 12 women held banners with abominable slogans like “Indian Army, Rape Us,” “Take our Flesh” appalling not just the army but the entire nation’. And this was a momentous incident in the contemporary history of India. It was a potent moment in the life of the country which reverberates again and again in our collective memory.

However, these 12 brave women gradually sunk into oblivion. The book is a deeply personal, first-person account about these twelve extraordinary women who created history with this bold protest. It is an attempt to delve into their psyche. Coming from a staunch patriarchal Meitei community with deeply embedded traditional values, as Teresa Rehman mentions, this was a huge act for these women because they would not otherwise even remove the shawl (enaphi) that they wrap around themselves even when they go to sleep. Their lower garment (phanek) is as auspicious and a shred of a mother’s ‘phanek’ is even worn in an amulet like a lucky charm.

Reflecting on what made her write this book, Rehman says, ‘As a journalist reporting extensively from Manipur, the state was more than just a conflict zone. I always tried to look beyond the immediate incidents of violence. I was always intrigued. To know what the youth crave for? What the musicians sing and poets write. What filmmakers visualize? What kind of new designs tailors and weavers create? What do students think? What kind of jokes and banters the women vendors at the famous Ima market share? What kind of husbands young girls dream of? What inspires the actors to add momentum to the rich theatre of Manipur? What led to the metamorphoses of bamboo wickets around houses to high-rise walls and tall gates? How do women cope with the stigma of HIV-AIDS? How the youth and war recall the legacy of the Imphal War during World War II? And how children and the youth listen to tales of grandmothers? Through the stories of these women, I try to tell many other untold stories. Stories that inspire. Stories that are cathartic. Stories that make one feel that there is hope – for peace and sanity.’

“We have to write our own stories,” says Teresa Rehman, an award-winning journalist who has been reporting extensively from India’s Northeast. Her personal experience as a journalist inspired her research on this book. ‘Manipur has had a long history of women’s movements,’ she tells me. ‘The three Nupi Lan or women’s war was Manipuri women’s collective revolt against the political injustice and inhuman religious dogmas. There also existed a women’s court or ‘patcha’ way back in 33 AD, where women related cases were taken up and settled. The relatively new Meira Paibi movement is where women in every locality keep vigil against alcoholics and anti-social elements.’ A narrative on the lives of the twelve Ima will be a relevant contribution toward documenting the powerful women’s movement in the state. It is also an attempt to understand the young minds, who grew up in a atmosphere of low-intensity war and decades of conflict.

Coming back to the book, Rehman reflects, ‘Manipur is literally a war-zone. The cases of inhuman torture, arbitrary detention and even killing in the hands of the security forces due to the imposition of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA) in Manipur and parts of the Northeast is countless. Based on a 1942 British ordinance to quell the Indian independence movement during the World War II, the Act grants arbitrary powers to the armed forces to shoot at sight, arrest people on flimsy grounds, conduct searches without warrants and demolish structures in the name of “aiding civil power”. The powers that the AFSPA extends to the armed forces come into force once an area subject to the Act has been declared “disturbed” by the central or state government. Manipur, which had been declared a “disturbed area” in its entirety in 1980, had witnessed an unprecedented civic uprising after Manorama’s killing.

‘In many of my reporting assignments I happened to meet some of these mothers. And I wanted to know more about them, their lives, their dreams, their hopes and aspirations. I decided to track them down,” says Rehman. Through the stories of these 12 stellar women, the book tries to take a peek into the life and times of contemporary Manipur.

A first-of-its-kind book, it tells the story of Manipur in the backdrop of the iconic protest. It promises to be as engaging for the mainstream reader as it would be for those from the northeast because in the long run, human stories matter as hard facts fade from people’s memory.

(Juanita Kakoty is a writer and researcher.)