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An activist inextricably mixed with Manipur’s tortured history

Soibam Ongbi Momon Leima (1951-2021) died on July 16 at 7.15 pm in a hospital in Imphal, Manipur, due to Covid-19. It is important for us to remember that her contribution went far beyond just the one dramatic protest she took part in outside the Kangla Fort on July 15, 2004, when 12 women stripped naked holding a massive banner with the words “Indian Army Rape Us.”

Ima Momon, as she was known, was born on July 28, 1951 in Imphal. She passed out of Wangkhei Girls’ High School. She took part in sports and traditional dance in her school and at home she learnt to spin and weave. But she finished only up to class eight and at the age of 13 she was married to a school teacher, Soibam Shamungun, and she had six children.

Ima Momon was first and foremost a proud Meira Paibi, or a part of the famous torch bearer movement that started in Manipur in the 1970s. The movement was popularly known as a nisaband (anti-liquor movement). In the early 1970s, there were 65 foreign liquor shops and two bonded warehouses for a population of hardly 20 lakh people.

The Meira Paibis would publicly shamed and paraded alcoholics and substance abusers every other evening. The offenders were garlanded with sandals and shoes, and made to confess their crimes and publicly declared that they would no longer be parasites.

Political movement

However, by the time Ima Momon joined the Meira Paibi movement, also known as the night patrollers’ movement, had become much more political movement.

By this time the Manipur saw the rise of insurgency and Manipur Valley was declared “disturbed” under the infamous Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. Young men were picked on suspicion of being insurgents and illegally detained by the armed forces and tortured.

On December 29, 1980, the Meira Paibis for the first time rescued a young man, Ibomcha Laishram from the security personnel of the Jammu and Kahmir Rifles from a camp set up inside the campus of Manipur University. From then onwards, the Meira Paibis rescued many young men arrested by the Indian armed forces during their counter insurgency operations. The women forced the army to hand over the young man to the police station as required under the infamous Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act.

This was the Meira Paibis movement that Ima Momon joined and grew to become one of the leaders. By the time in 2004, she and 11 other women protested outside the Kangla Fort, the headquarters of the Assam Rifles, Ima Momon was a grandmother.

On July 15, 2004, 12 women stripped naked at the headquarters of the Assam Rifles to protest the rape and murder of a young woman.

The protest was against the rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama, a 32 year old woman picked up by the Assam Rifles on the suspicion of being an insurgent. Her body was found the next day with 16 bullets; seven in her private parts and evidence of brutal rape.

Ima Momon was the only woman of the 12 Mothers of Manipur who personally knew Manorama. She knew Manorama, the young hard-working woman who was the breadwinner of her family. She used to collect handloom material from the homes of weavers and sell it in the market.

At the time of the protest outside Kangla Fort, another extraordinary protest was being staged by another young Manipuri woman, Irom Sharmila. In November 2000, when Sharmila was 28 years old, 10 civilians were gunned down by the 8th Assam Rifles at Malom Makha Leikai, near Imphal’s Tulihal airport. The infamous incident is commonly known as the “Malom massacre”. The massacre prompted Irom to begin a hunger strike in support of her demand for the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act.

Ima Momon was the co-convenor of the Sharmila Apunba Lup, an organisation set up to support Sharmila.

History of injustice

The story of Ima Momon is inextricably mixed with the tortured history of Manipur ever since the princely state merged with the Indian Union. It is a long history of injustice and violence committed by the Indian state.

Many times, the Manipur women’s protests are seen out of their political context and celebrated as examples of non-violent protests. However, this is a distortion of the history of Manipur women’s protests.

The life of Ima Momon shows that the context of women’s protests has been the terrible violence committed by the Indian armed forces, especially on insurgents and people suspected to be their sympathisers. Whether we agree with the objectives of the armed groups or not, there is a need to focus on understanding the causes of the anger and anguish of the people of Manipur.

It is important that the history is not distorted and the legacy of Ima Momon is preserved for future generations.

Nandita Haksar is a human rights lawyer and author, most recently, of The Flavours of Nationalism.

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