Interview taken in May 2017.
In conversation with Mary Beth Sanate, secretary of the Rural Women’s Upliftment Society (RWUS), a civil society group in Churachandpur, Lamka that works to empower women in matters of food security, livelihoods and human rights. The interview was taken with the help of Ronica Vungmuankim, a TISS Criminal Justice fellow working on human rights in conflict areas of Manipur.
Do you only work in Rural Women’s Upliftment Society or are you engaged with other collectives as well?
Yeah, I have been working for RWUS for the past fifteen years but I am involved with other women organisations as well. It’s not possible to concentrate or work with only one or only your community within this kind of complex social setup because all of them are interlinked. Here, I live in Kuki community but I actually belong to Hmar community. It’s a minority community. I cannot just work with the communities that I belong to, since every community has issues and unless you work with others you don’t have free mobility, acceptance from community. So, we follow an inclusive approach in all that we do. Be it personal or the collective.
What are the issues that you work on?
We work on three major issues 1. Women leadership 2. Environment natural resources 3. Livelihood. But in all these three, you have conflict transformation, peacemaking across. Because without peace and security, you cannot talk about women leadership.
Are you the founder of the RWUS?
No, I am not the founder. This organisation was founded by a group of women, long back. Some of them passed away. The organisation is more than 25 years old. I joined later on. There were many leaders before.
In colleges, like TISS, Mumbai there are particular kind of students that come from Manipur. They are kind of privileged. Because they get to know about education, scholarship or opportunities. Not many people know. Others don’t have any idea. How do you see people going to different cities? Do they come back?
Some come back but many don’t. I also studied in Roorkee, in the late 80s. There were very few privileged people, students who could go there. In the 80s and 90s people did go outside but they came back. But now it is unaccountable. For studies, working, today there is a huge migration. The percentage of people coming back is very less. Lot of girls too. This is a very small neighbourhood.
At present, 70% youths are not here. They come home during Christmas time or summers. It is because of the situations – if you study here, for graduation it takes at least 4 years. Sometimes there are one month blockades; universities get closed, conflict after conflict continues, education gets delayed.
We don’t have industries, companies.
It is nice sometimes.
Yes sometimes. But farming doesn’t give you sufficient income. There are many educated youths who are not interested in farming.
Because education gives us aspiration to migrate!
Yes, also because education doesn’t inspire us to get into farming. Thus, migration is the only option. I have been lately thinking what about what education teaches us because it is not just a degree. We have a lot of natural resources. Youth can engage in carpentry but you only see old people do it. The youth dreams of going to big cities. This is the effect of globalisation. You cannot blame the youth. Self employment is very important. All the minor work, barber, shoe making, and everything else is done by the Biharis. Localities are not taking these jobs because culturally tribal people in the North East belong to the farming community. They don’t have the sense of business, small or big skilled.
I see only women working on the street. Where are the men?
In valleys, women are running business. Even old, very old women engage in small business. Grandmothers will hang in the jeeps, holding their big baskets. They are very strong. They start their days at 4am, selling in the markets, sitting in the buses with big baskets, on the street. Women in the hills are entrepreneurs. They concentrate in the fields like men. The culture here is to grow, eat and surplus you share. You share and distribute in the community. That is the culture. Community sense is very strong.
There are many minor ethnic communities in the hills. They have their own dialects. But they understand. Life is very different here. Here you drive another 15kms from here, it will be different. You will be on the hills.
During the conflicts what happens?
In 1996, 97, 98 here there were two serious conflicts on this very street, between two majority communities (Kuki s and Meitei s). Before that it was very peaceful here. This district is second largest, second town of Manipur next to Imphal. There are many catholic schools, though not free but affordable. There are good institutions and schools. Many students from different states like Nagaland, Mizoram come to study here but after the conflict everything changed. Thousands of houses were burnt, people were killed.
We had serious ethnic conflicts. In such conflicts what could we do? Things have changed now. Many people benefit out of the conflict. Some lose, some gain. Conflict does not always have negative impact on all. But rebuilding communities is a major responsibility and it is mainly taken care by women’s collective and by the civil society. The Government hardly did/does anything.
Women’s organisations is also divided on communities. But women do come together to form joint women’s organization. On common grounds on issues like sexual assault or common interests of tribals they come together. Kuki women unions started operating orphan homes (sanga mohim) soon after conflicts. They look care for the children who lost their parents. Since, last 15 years of conflict, they help them with education and basic amenities. They do a lot of community rebuilding.
How do these communities get money?
There is membership fee. I belong to Hmar communities. I give membership fees to Hmar women’s organization. When there are big issues, people donate. We contribute and donate for training, sports etc.
How do they punish someone?
There is a customary law. They go to police depending on the cases. Cases like theft will be settled by village council. (Village council only has men. There is no reservation for women. It’s not three tier like panchayat but it is two tier: village and district council).
Do women’s collective oppose this village council for having only men?
No, we can’t because patriarchy is deep rooted in our society. We cannot openly go against it; we are doing it slowly and steadily. Some women do fight the elections but they don’t win.
If there are two tribes in a village council, will there be different customary laws?
No, customary laws are very similar.
If Kuki commits a crime, how will the person get punished? Can a council have different tribes?
Yes, depends on the person who has committed the crimes. They can compose of many tribes.
You have been outside Manipur. How do you see patriarchy different here?
Of course, a lot of different! The mobility here is different. Women can go anywhere. They smoke openly and dress according to their wish. They have better physical empowerment and confidence and they have social security. Because of conflicts they sometimes are captured within four walls or go outside to work. Religion also makes difference. They have the opportunity to socialise through the church. Through the social work. You have to do charity.
Because of religion are they empowered?
I am not saying that they are empowered. They look empowered. They are not. But in terms of decision making process, they aren’t more empowered.
I live in Mumbai; we don’t receive more news from North-East unless there are a lot of conflicts. But the picture that is created about North-East is very different. We are sometimes shown that the tribes are very empowered and even women.
That’s not the case. Patriarchy is deep rooted even here. All decisions are taken by men and all communities and programs are also headed by men. Women don’t have property rights. eg- If my father does not have a son and if he dies, all his property will go to my uncle and his son. Unless your father wishes to give, the community decides if the father should wish or not wish to give the property to his daughters or the relatives decide. Community decides. But education is making difference. You can go to the court for this but you cannot bypass your community rules. The clan member will get offended. What is the use of going to the court? Even if you go to the court the court will go with the customary law. Since customary laws are recognised by the constitution.
So it is really difficult to change the customary law. Until and unless male youths don’t come forward. Since educated youths don’t come back, do the customary laws remain in the hands of old generation?
Some of them come back but youth aren’t in the village council. Thus I say, in spite of their mobility and dressing culture, women of north east are not empowered.
There must be a bright side to these customary laws?
Yes. Your customs is your identity. It is related to your culture; it is interrelated to your way of life. Community life is nice. people get together for most of the things. There is scope of reconciliation and restitution, the true idea of justice.
What is the punishment for theft?
If there is a case of theft, the two families will come together and speak and try to sort it out but if it’s a serious case, then they go to police or otherwise, the person who does the crime has to pay some fine to the family.
So the person who is rich can remain unpunished?
Yes then it becomes unfair. Traditionally, we have concept where the accused family is asked to bring a four legged animal and some money. That’s the way of saying sorry because we measure your wealth by the number of animals you have, the number of animal heads you have in the house or by the number of bug pots. So those are wealth. But things have changed. Life of the people out here, people in the forests has also changed.
Are the people living in forests self-sustained?
Yes. But they are getting poorer and poorer. In the olden days, the land was fertile and the needs were lesser but now education and healthcare is getting expensive. In the olden days, the weather was great but now diseases are erupting. They cannot sustain these costs.
Can you elaborate on the issue of woman reservation?
Women were asking for reservations in the municipal elections but the men said that it’s not in our customary laws to give reservations. While the government said, we will contest elections by any means and give them reservations. Some fanatic civil societies objected.
Did anyone else support this protest and did it get any violent? How is the situation now?
Yes, it was supported by many and yes, it did get violent. Two people died during this protest. We don’t take it strongly like Naga women. They took it to the court.
So, it is long road for gender justice, isn’t it?
Yes, it will take some time. You cannot go fast. It’s everywhere.
Are the males supporting such movements?
There are many youth males now who are supporting now from the backside but also intellectuals they write. Even men. They write.
Which communities in Manipur own media houses?
Meitei. In Imphal, Meitei people usually are the owner and editors of media houses.
So how does tribal point of views get reflected?
There is always fight. Sometimes they ban the local channel. They say you are biased. Like you know the situation, the environment between the mainland and North-east, and within the North-East. It is layers and layers and layers. The dominant class is usually the one who owns media everywhere. No media has women editors but there are few women lawyers.
If you are in Bangalore, there is a girl from this community name Makepeace. She works in Amnesty International. She writes a lot. I think she was born during the Naga Kuki conflict. Her father was shot down by the militants.
In TISS, I see one day celebration of culture and talk in a festival called MOSAIC.
People always feel it is greener on the other side. Some of the people are also frustrated. Lately, people have started recognising the beauty of North east culture. It has two extremes. The beauty and the violence. In the 70s and 80s, most of the youth were indulged in drugs and arms smuggling which is done in the small lanes. The area is called the golden triangle. Burma, Laos, and Cambodia. We are on the way. In the whole area, drugs are circulated. The politicians are the ones who are involved in drug smuggling; even the army, the armed groups. Many of the army officers who come here are usually highly qualified from Punjab, Haryana etc. When they go back, they are rich because they align with smaller arm groups, smuggling groups, across the borders since they have free pass. I have all my classmates, mainly boys, 70% passed away due to heavy intake of drugs. There was not awareness of drugs problems or HIV. But now it’s declining.
What is the process of complaining against this phenomenon, involving politicians or army?
There’s nowhere to complain. In earlier days, there were drug peddlers but now people sell drugs in bulks, it is dealt in higher level, not just that, but farmers even grow drugs like weed, marijuana not for themselves but they act as labourers. They are forced to grow. Like Cambodia. I wonder why the government is not accepting this as a conflict area. They are saying it is domestic affairs.
Conflict is always related to arms, drugs, sex work, human trafficking. All this goes together. The civil societies are very strong. They are the only guardians of the common people but even they are influenced by other groups like arms groups or govt. It is difficult. Especially the valley. Meitei civil society organization are called the frontal groups, who advocate the agenda. I am not saying they are part of armed groups. They are sympathizers. It has to be.
In conflicts, you cannot blame the insurgents alone. The govt. is also doing the same. It is a race to win over people. What is army doing? They run canteen, supply food, water, and make shelter. To win over people. All of them have weapons. We always say that as a women’s groups, we say ‘no arms’ since women suffer if you have arms in your community, but if you have arms in your homes, it is worse. We don’t need arms to protect ourselves. We lodged a complaint against arms – ‘say no to arms’ (arms groups do not have women in them) and we even promote ‘no toy guns for children’ during festivals because giving a gun toy to your children is like imbibing sense of violence in the minds of your children.
Does your personal life get affected by all this?
Of course it is complex. I even face threats. But I manage somehow. There is no harm in talking against customary laws since it is policy related but it gets difficult to discuss about arms. We look at something that is acceptable. I can talk about military and arms groups but we need to talk in such a way that we don’t single out anyone. It has to be generic.
There was an former police officer Herojit, who killed multiple arm groups in fake encounter cases and later he confessed it later by sharing how fake encounters cases and extra judicial killing are taking place in Manipur. He killed almost 100 people and now he has no place to stay and also seek protection because he has enemies on both the sides. Whatever is doing is because of the command given to him by the higher authority and they are now demanding to kill him since he is exposing everything now. He is being protected by an armed group now. So it is complicated. We need to be very careful about what we say. He was also a drug addict.
We talk about something which is acceptable. If I talk anything particular about any army officer or armed group or customary laws then it will not be easy.
What are the boundaries of normalisation? It has to be challenged!
We have this public distribution system. 30kg of subsidised rice are hijacked and people get like 5kgs. BPL family gets like 3-4 kgs in three months. Some of them are hijacked by the armed group on the highway. Some by the agents appointed by MLAs. When you monitor these, you get direct threats. One armed group came to my house with guns. And asked me why did you expose us? Other areas are worse than here. I will bring another armed group and I will get you gunned down. But what I do is I call all women’s group. You need backup. If you have strong support from community they will be afraid. I told him that I am not afraid. If you do something you face the same. Because there is people behind me. The man passed away.
Before 2000, the armed group use to extort. They come every month to collect. Not only from government employees. House to house. Now government rules changed since they are depositing it directly in the bank. Also, the armed group does not take it directly from us but from the department. We are still giving it but giving it directly to them was so painful.
So, the armed group and government are same? They have their own arrangement. Or village council in terms of patriarchy?
Armed group is more patriarchal than government. But you cannot say it is insurgency altogether. Sometimes you need them. When army is torturing you, you need them. They are protecting the community. They are at least not physically harming the community. They don’t rape much. They don’t knock the door in the middle of the night. Anyway they are under SOO, Suspension of Operations. Except the Meitei. They say they don’t want to negotiate with the government. In the hills they are in SOO. Their cadres get Rs 3000 per month. They have laid down their arms.
So, everyone is now identified. How is it good for community?
You have also armed conflict among armed groups. Now it is better. Otherwise it was insane. You sleep. You hear gunshot. You cannot move around freely. Now, at night I can go to the neighbourhood. But somehow they are pitiful. No schools, no sufficient foods, no facilities. They see outside world. They wonder. Many youth unemployed. The leaders are intellectuals. The cadres are 10th drop out. So, the leaders have big ideology. Of self-determination. But everyone has the right for self-determination. That is a universal right. Who can deny that?
The hardest people to tackle and worse to handle are cadres. They are uneducated. Don’t know how to behave. They are from very poor background. Cadres are the worst sufferer. Some of their family is killed in ethnic conflicts. They don’t understand. They say it is community work. They just follow orders.
The government keeps on extending the SOO every year. The talk failed last time. Kuki and Zomi armed group talked with them.
What are the students doing? Kuki students union doing?
They are sympathizers of armed group. They are also safeguarding the interest of the hill region student. Student unions are very helpful in connecting with armed groups, government anyone. They are like bridge. They take appointments for us. And make things easier for us.
What are the problems of managing journals to spread awareness regarding rights?
In terms of contribution and donations, it becomes very difficult to manage because very few people contribute. We don’t have culture of writing. Women of Manipur have many responsibilities. Thus this becomes secondary. It is easier for men to engage in such activities since they have lesser responsibilities at home but that isn’t the case of women.
It seems it will rain here. When I was coming from Imphal to Churachandpur, I saw roads were very smooth. Is it newly constructed? Does the road constructions work too are done by Biharis?
No, local people are doing it. Where are you from?
I belong to Bihar.
Bihar people are similar to that of North-east. Here people say that it is so difficult to talk with people from Punjab, Haryana or U.P. Biharis are humble. (Ronica says Shillong times says BJP will reduce the Beef price if elected.) BJP started construction of road. Everybody say wow, good things are coming, finally.
They distributed iphone here to journalists. So they are writing good stuff.
They have good media strategies. Congress is very lazy. In Assam election, they captured all the media. First they captured all the youth in the media. In Manipur, they changed their strategy. They didn’t talk with the media. They talked with the armed groups first. That is what they do already. Biswas, their man in Assam. He comes here to Manipur all the time.
He was from underground group?
Before. Most of them were. Our CM, Biren was the former chief editor of daily Naharolgi Thoudang. He is a journalist.
So, he knows how to manage. To Edit.