Rehman’s book aims to document the landmark event of the Kangla protest, as well as its political and personal aftermath, through the voices of the twelve Manipuri women who took part in it. It is true that the twelve activists, otherwise known as the twelve imas (meaning ‘mothers’ in the Manipuri language), have spoken numerous times and at length to journalists, researchers and scholars about their experiences in the years following 2004. As Pamela Philipose writes incisively in her introduction to this book: ‘Over time the Meira Paibis turned into their own historians, keeping the Kangla fort action alive through the constant telling and re-telling of their stories. State censorship is flat-footed and cannot keep up with the swiftness and pervasiveness of personal accounts and the depth of that all-encompassing commons which is popular memory’ (p. xix). This is an astute assessment of the critical work of ‘storytelling’ as an instrument of political resistance in conditions of absolute state repression. However, in spite of the imas proving to be ‘natural raconteurs’ who, it seems, rarely grew tired of telling their story, a consolidated account of their narratives in their own voices has never before been attempted. Hence, Rehman’s endeavour remains indisputably valuable.
Rehman attempts to document not only the events leading up to the Kangla protest but also the subsequent lives of the twelve women. The several narratives are arranged in a sequence of separate chapters, each dedicated to one of the women. These chapters build upon each other, adding significant details, corroborating and on occasion, contradicting each other. The picture of the ‘actual event’ then emerges like a complex mosaic or palimpsest through these diverse narrations: each story is unique, yet each contributes towards the same collective history. In these chapters, the individual voices of the imas are telling ostensibly the same story and yet telling it differently, in tones quite distinct from each other. In spite of this, the writer makes no actual sustained attempt to let these stories speak to each other. If there are any shades, heterogeneities or traces of discord within the Meira Paibi movement, they do not appear except as fleeting glimpses that are allowed to pass without much commentary or analysis (p. 79). This is strange because amongst the individual narratives collected in the book, there are evidently considerable differences of class, educational privilege and social status.
However, The Mothers of Manipur does manage to engage with the long term implications and effects of the Kangla protest on the daily lives of the imas. In the years after 2004, they have continued to live as ‘ordinary’ Meitei women in their communities and leikais (neighbourhoods). Yet there is no denying that they had once been hailed as heroines, as also cursed by some for their ‘sacrilegious’ act. How has the long shadow of the Kangla protest shaped their subsequent lives? How has domesticity, family and communitarian life been moulded in the years following this public act of nudity? For most of the women interviewed in this book, Kangla was not their first moment of activism. Most had long histories of participation in the Meira Paibi movement, some from the 1970s and 80s onwards. It is crucial to locate the exceptional instant of the Kangla in the context of the imas’s participation in years of resistance to military rule as part of an organized women’s movement in Manipur, as also take into account the years of quotidian and perhaps ‘unexceptional’ struggle that have followed the action at Kangla. Rehman’s book is significant in its attempt to return us to these women, who have survived in public memory as extraordinary figures frozen in a moment of spectacular upheaval, on their ordinary days, as they struggle with problems of family, community and collective in spaces far removed from public view.
There is very little attempt by the author to lay out for the reader a sufficiently thorough chronology of the events and factors leading up to the AFSPA on Manipur in 1980, or the irreversible transformations (cultural, social and economic) in the State that resulted from decades of military control. The brutal history of a law such as the AFSPA (initially a British colonial law) in the Indian subcontinent is not explained, nor are the actual events leading up to the supposed ‘merger’ of independent Manipur with India in 1949 detailed. The origins of the Meitei nationalism that drove even a large part of the Manipuri women’s movement lie in the long history of economic, cultural and political domination of Manipur by the Indian state in the years following 1949. Without an adequate engagement with this history, it would remain difficult for the uninitiated reader to understand the roots of the political despair and rage of the Manipuris, especially that of women who have been the worst sufferers of this violent regime. One would have also expected, in a book such as this, a more methodical engagement with the trajectory of women’s movements in Manipur, starting with the two Nupi Lans (‘women’s wars’, 1904 and 1939) and leading on to the nishabandhi (anti-alcohol) movement of the 1970s. Many of the elements and contours of this history are so distinctive and have so little to do with the women’s movements in the Indian mainland in those same years, that without a fairly exhaustive historical account of these, it would be far easier to continue to see the ‘Kangla protest’ as a miraculous accident of some sort. Rehman speaks of the Meira Paibi’s storytelling about the history of the Nupi Lans at the crucial Machai Leima meeting, which decided on nude protest as the course of action after Manorama’s death (p. xxxi), but fails to outline its political and historical significance. It is Pamela Philipose’s introduction, which outlines the vital elements of this decisive historical context. Philipose refers back to Meitei women’s courageous testimonies of sexual violation by the army in the 1990s and recognizes them as having prepared the ground for Kangla (p. xv). She also alludes to Irom Sharmila’s radical transformation of her own body into an instrument of resistance against military law, reading this historic decision as a necessary precursor to the events of 2004. However, quite inexplicably, even Philipose ends her introductory chapter by referring to the ‘inherent heroism and capacity for social action of the Meira Paibis’ (emphasis mine, p. xxv), once again driving the narrative towards a kind of ahistoricism that is fundamentally detrimental to any materialist reading of the subject at hand.
That oral history does not add much to what we already know is, of course, not true of a place such as Manipur, where official or documentary evidence on state brutalities is hard to come by, and documenting fake encounters and sexual violence often requires years of painstaking work by Human Rights groups, who put themselves at great risk to gather testimonies and data. Many official reports by state committees disappear after being tabled*, autopsy reports on crucial cases (including Thangjam Manorama’s) are never made public. Oral history becomes an invaluable source of information (albeit a different kind of information) in these situations of enforced erasure and silencing. The trouble with Rehman’s work is that most of her chapters seem to be based on one time encounters/interviews between the historian and her subject; there is no attempt by Rehman to return to the same narratives repeatedly over time and witness their possible transformations or deepening. We also do not get a clear sense of how these interviews are related to each other chronologically: whether they were all taken at one go (if so, when was this) or at different times. Rehman remains, as a historian, unimplicated in the stories she hears or the events she witnesses. This, given the politico-social distance between her and the women she interviews, is problematic.
The author does appear in the foreground of the story, however, when she quite lovingly and frequently describes the dress, hair and manner of her respondents. She writes, in the first person, detailed accounts of their domestic chores, as well as the food they cook and eat. She also reflects, eloquently, on the beauty of the Manipuri landscape or the ‘soulfulness’ of the ‘ima keitheil’ (Khwairamband bazaar in Imphal, also known as the ‘mothers’ market’). At times, her gaze is that of a traveller fascinated by the warmth and novelty of the scenes she encounters; at others it is that of an amateur ethnographer who stops just short of exoticizing what she witnesses.
Rehman doesn’t tell us about the extent of her familiarity with the Meitei language and whether she ever needed the help of local translators. A note on the politics of translation and how certain terms were translated into English might have actually helped us to understand the stories we read better. Further, I have been incredibly perplexed by her juxtaposition of the narrative of one Manipuri person in each chapter with the story of one of the imas: some of them are doctors, others social workers and still others are professional models, some live abroad while others are interviewed in Imphal itself. Very few of these framing figures are asked any direct questions about what happened at Kangla or about the modes of political resistance in Manipur.
The most disturbing thing about this book is that Rehman avoids taking a clear political stand on the crisis she witnesses and records. By avoiding serious political analysis, as well as frequently remarking on the serious familial and domestic costs of a political life for women in such circumstances, Rehman maintains a largely centrist position on the subject. This may not be a problem for the book in itself, but becomes so because it leads us to intellectual/political dead ends and platitudes in abundance. Can one formulate a feminist position on the question of sexual violence under military law without taking full account of the enormity, range and sheer scale of governmental brutality in these regions? Can one undertake a work such as this while avoiding the radical political and historical implications of mainland domination of the ‘North East’? Is a feminist critique possible without a foundational and structural critique of the military establishment, especially after decades of systematized state terror? The refusal to assign full culpability and the tendency to continually tread the middle path makes Rehman’s book much less than it could have been.
Trina Nileena Banerjee is Assistant Professor in Cultural Studies at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, Kolkata.