As ethnic violence continues to rage after nearly two months in India’s north-eastern state of Manipur, a powerful grassroots women's movement known as the "Meira Paibis", or the "torchbearers", has taken centre stage.
With origins dating back to Indian resistance against British rule, the group see themselves as powerful advocates for peace and fair punishment against violent men from rival ethnic groups.
But their detractors, including the Indian army, say they have taken on the role of vigilantes and are complicating efforts to restore order to the crisis-hit state.
Large-scale violence has left at least 100 people dead and displaced more than 60,000 in Manipur since May 3, after clashes broke out between the majority Hindu Meitei community and Christian Kuki tribes over a government policy that would grant greater benefits to Meiteis.
Thousands of homes and religious sites, including churches and temples, have been destroyed in the months-long strife and dozens of cases of sexual assault on women from both communities have emerged.
For decades, the women have fought against alleged human rights violations by armed forces in the state, which has been marred by insurgency. There are 34 ethnic tribal groups, complicating efforts to maintain social cohesion.
The Meira Paibis have taken it upon themselves to maintain peace and protect their community.
Last week, the women, primarily from the Meitei Hindu community, burnt down the houses of two accused over a horrific incident where two tribal women were stripped, paraded and sexually assaulted by a mob of 800 men, allegedly from the Meitei community.
The incident sparked widespread outrage across the country.
“We really feel ashamed that we can’t raise our head … we condemned it in the strongest terms. We feel choked after seeing the viral video,” Mamta Lukram, a Meira Paibi, told The National.
“We don’t want harassment. We don’t want Kuki brethren to commit more crimes, we really condemn our Meitei community for committing those kinds of crimes to the women of other communities. Don’t use women and children as war weapons,” she said.
From mothers to vigilantes
Meira Paibis are mostly between the ages of 30 and 65. They are farmers, homemakers or small-scale businesswomen.
They have no political leanings, are not formally organised but become active when the state faces any crisis.
Their origins date back to the early 19th century when like-minded women initiated protests against forced labour as the British rulers made Manipuri men provide free work for specific days each month.
After independence, the group gained prominence for their campaign against drug and alcohol abuse.
In the 1980s, when insurgency gripped the state and New Delhi enacted stringent emergency laws that gave unfettered powers to the armed forces to arrest anyone without a warrant and even commit extrajudicial killings, the women protested against the army.
They attracted widespread attention in 2004, when around 30 middle-aged women stripped in front of the office of the Assam Rifles – a paramilitary force – holding placards that read “Indian Army, rape us too”.
The incident took place after a bullet-ridden and badly mutilated body of a 32-year-old woman was found after she had been arrested by security forces. It was alleged that she had been tortured and raped by Assam Rifles soldiers.
Manipur borders Myanmar and Bangladesh. About 40 per cent of its population have traditionally inhabited the hilly areas that make up 90 per cent of the state, while the Meiteis, who account for more than half of the population, are confined to only 10 per cent of the land, dominating the valley areas.
With intercommunal violence escalating within the state, the Meira Paibis or ‘Imas’– mothers in the Manipuri language – say that they want to protect their people and bring peace. There have been widespread reports of people from both the communities ransacking each other’s villages, burning down homes and attacking people.
The fierce women have been guarding their houses, properties and villages every night, carrying sticks.
As soon as it gets dark, they come out in groups of three to 300, sit at intersections or on the approaches to their neighbourhoods, keeping a vigil from dusk to dawn.
“Manipuri women have actively participated in incidents that have happened in the history of the state. Meiteis, in fact every woman in the state, are active to protect the family. Our only aim is to bring normality,” Siarjubala Puyan, a Meira Paibi from Thoubal district, told The National.
The 40-year-old mother of two has been guarding her village in Thoubal district with over 300 women on a road protecting it from Kuki militants since May 20.
“We are sitting here to protect ourselves, brothers, sisters and families. We want peace in Manipur. We want peace in the state. We are farmers, we work during the day but sit here from 8pm to 6am to protect everyone,” Ms Puyan added.
But Meira Paibis have also faced allegations of provoking violence. They have been accused by the armed forces of interfering with their duties, including during attempts to arrest Meitei men in connection with the violence.
They have also been accused of instigating mob violence that eventually led to the death of a seven-year-old Kuki boy as he was being rushed to a hospital in an ambulance. But Ms Lukram defends her group, saying the people at times react irrationally out of “frustration”.
“It may not be right for us to generalise the whole community through the understanding of a mob. A mob doesn’t have a head; they lose their rationality.”
“The prolonged exposure to the conflict situation for more than 75 days without any resolution or ray of hope of resolution, Meitei people are frustrated that they lose their rationality,” she said.
The state is ruled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party yet the government and particularly Mr Modi, remained silent on the ethnic violence until last week.
After the video of the tribal women sent shock waves across the nation, Mr Modi said “the entire country has been shamed”.
Meira Paibis criticised Mr Modi for his silence when Meitei people were allegedly attacked.
“The prime minister has been maintaining a very long silence regarding the conflict situation in Manipur,” Ms Lukram said.
“He broke silence when this viral video came out and commented on the viral video … whomsoever will see the video would surely react and condemn it, but after condemning the video, if actions were taken to resolve the conflict, to chalk out a plan on how this conflict would be resolved, then we would have appreciated it.
“Words are important but actions are more important.”