In the 1970s the Meiti women of Manipur, the state’s largest ethnic group, came together to drive out alcoholism and drug abuse from the state. They would patrol the streets at night, fining drunks and burning alcohol. One of them was Ima Ngambi, a daily-wage labourer struggling to feed her four children. This movement evolved into one of the largest grassroot human rights movements in Manipur, where the entire adult population of Meitei women speaks out against the abuse of people’s civil liberties, and of women’s rights, most often by the armed forces under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA). Ngambi has been over the course of her activism jailed four times. One of the most famous instances of her and the Meira Paibis protesting crimes against women hushed up under the AFSPA was in July 2004. Twelve Meitei women stripped outside the gates of the 17 Assam Rifles Battalion at Imphal’s Kangla Fort. This was in direct reaction to the killing and the alleged rape of 32-year-old Thangjam Manorama by the troops of the 17th Assam Rifles. Ngambi and her fellow Paibis stood naked and shouted “Indian Army rape us” at the behest of the then 75-year-old ‘ima’ (mother) Thokchom Ramani, founding member of the Meira Paibi.
With a name that literally means women torchbearers — meira is the long bamboo torch and paibi the woman who carries it — the members of the Meira Paibis come from a history of women fronting great agitations against oppressive regimes, to fight for their people and to sow the seeds of economic and political reform in Manipur — the two Women’s War or Nupi Lans in 1904 and 1939. Today, they still raise a clamour in the streets of Manipur as they go on patrol, be it day or night. Ngambi, now 62, has spent her life clearing sand from a river bank by day and patrolling by night. Every night they sit on street corners, keeping an eye out for trouble or danger. At its first sign, one of them uses a stone to clang against the nearest lamp post. This alarm is the signal for all men and women in the vicinity to come out of their homes. Their movement, their network isn’t specifically for women’s rights, but for the rights of all Manipuri people. By occupying the streets of Manipur they have created a very public space for women. And these women are taking back the night, a little bit every time.