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Mothers of Manipur: Meet Meira Paibis, the torch-bearing activists

The Meira Paibis has led numerous social and political movements in Manipur, including some powerful protests against alleged atrocities committed by the security forces

Meira Paibis, Amit Shah

Union Home Minister Amit Shah in a meeting with a group of women leaders (Meira Paibi) in Manipur. Credit: Twitter/@AmitShah

BS Web Team New Delhi

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The Indian Army's Spear Corps on Monday accused women activists in Manipur of "deliberately blocking routes and interfering in Operations of Security Forces", as the state struggles to contain weeks of rioting and unrest.
Since the beginning of May, violence has erupted primarily between the valley-dwelling majority Meiteis and the hills-dwelling Kuki-Zomi groups, as the long-standing Meitei demand for inclusion on the list of Scheduled Tribes (STs) has risen dramatically.

The video, which included footage from the Imphal East district, stated that women protesters were "helping rioters flee," including "accompanying armed rioters" in their vehicles and even using ambulances.

It also showed clips of groups of women protesters on the streets, confronting security forces and interfering in the “movement of logistics”.

But who are these women?

While the women in the video are not identified, activist women have long been a part of Manipur's civil society.

The Meira Paibis, or "women torchbearers," have been the most visible organised face of such actions, so named because of the flaming torches that they carry aloft while marching in the streets, often at night.

The Meira Paibis, also known as Imas or Mothers of Manipur, are Meitei women from all walks of life in the Imphal valley who are widely respected and represent a powerful moral force.

The Meira Paibis are loosely organised, typically led by groups of senior women, but they lack a rigid hierarchy or structure, as well as any overt political leanings.

They may become more visible during certain times, but their presence and importance in Manipuri civil society are constant and palpable, and their role as society's conscience keepers is widely acknowledged.

Home Minister Amit Shah met with Meira Paibis during his recent visit to Manipur as part of his meetings with various civil society groups.

What role do Meira Paibis play in society?

“The Meira Paibi was formed in 1977. One of the largest grassroots movements in the world, its initial focus of fighting alcoholism and drug abuse has now expanded to countering human rights violations and the development of society at large,” Lt Gen DS Hooda, former Northern Army Commander, had earlier said in a report published by The Indian Express.

Over the years, the Meira Paibis have led numerous social and political movements in the state, including some powerful protests against alleged atrocities committed by Indian security forces, leveraging their powerful position in society in the service of the causes they have championed.

What are some of the major actions that these women have taken?

The Meira Paibi women were an active support base for Irom Sharmila, the activist who went on a hunger strike in the state from 2000 to 2016 to protest the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which grants the armed forces immunity from action in "disturbed" areas.

In 2015, tensions arose in the state over demands for the implementation of the Inner Line Permit (ILP) system, which would require outsiders to obtain a permit to enter. Protesters claimed that this was necessary to protect local interests, culture, and commercial opportunities. The Meira Paibis played an active role in ensuring bandhs and shutdown calls in the markets.

Two years later, the Meira Paibis were part of a bandh called in the Thangmeiband Assembly constituency in Manipur after the first BJP-led government came to power. After Heikham Dingo Singh, a first-time MLA, was accused of breaking his promise to marry a woman, the woman approached the Meira Paibis in her area. The women stormed into Sekmai town and occupied the MLA's gates.

The Meira Paibis are also said to be involved in the current crisis. During an operation in Itham village in Imphal East, the armed forces apprehended 12 Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL) cadres with arms, ammunition, and war-like supplies, but were forced to release the men, reportedly due to pressure from women activists who confronted the security personnel.

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First Published: Jun 27 2023 | 7:57 PM IST

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