The 'thabal chongba' dance of young Manipuri women and their beaus is an event that evokes the strongest feelings in every Manipuri woman's heart. But for Sunibala, 26, of Lila Kambong village in Thoubal district, the drum beats of this moonlight dance are now mixed with the echoes of gunshots.
Last year, on February 1, Sunibala's husband, Ningthoujam Ranbir Thopchao, 27, was killed by the security forces at Nongpok Sekmai BSF post. They had been married for only three years. The security forces were retaliating to an attack by unidentified gunmen on some of their colleagues, who had been watching the dance at the nearby Lila Kambong community ground.
"After helping to organize the dance, we had gone to the market. But when we reached there we learnt that there had been a shootout, so we hurried back home. The guards on duty at the first gate at the post stopped us and asked us where we were going. When we told them that we were going home, they told us to walk with our hands in the air. As we reached the main gate, someone fired at us from inside the camp. We fell to the ground to protect ourselves; when we got up, Thopchao was bleeding," narrates Hemanta, Sunibala's sister's husband. Thopchao, a mason, died later that night.
For nearly six decades now, around 20 armed groups have been waging a war in Manipur for various causes, ranging from political autonomy to the restoration of lost sovereignty. Caught in the crossfire between the insurgents and the government's security forces are the women.
For a young, newly married woman, losing her husband is a tragedy. It is also the beginning of a lifetime of strife. And Sunibala can vouch for this, as she soon discovered that local traditions created by an unequal, patriarchal society would forever be weighed against her as a widow.
As per the norm, a Hindu Meitei widow is supposed to wear a black 'chandan tilak' instead of the usual yellow one. She has to dress in a pink 'phanek' and white 'phi' - attire for religious activity and mourning - till the first death anniversary. At weddings, even the sight of her is forbidden, as that is believed to bring ill luck. Yet, ironically, if the widow's first child happens to be male, she is absolved from this particular discrimination. In addition to their inheritance and property rights often being ignored, a patina of suspicion is forever attached to a young widow.
"About a week after the thirteenth day death ceremony, Thopchao's family - my husband's step brother, wife and younger brother - called my parents to discuss where and how I should be kept. They told me to marry, since I was still young, and said that they would find a groom for me," recalls Sunibala.
But Sunibala hasn't wavered in her decision to remain single. Until today she continues to live alone with her three-year-old son, Arun, in the house she had once shared with her husband. She has now set up a loom for weaving there and has also created a kitchen garden that provides some vegetables for her son and herself. She makes bed sheets and sells to the middlemen for Rs 250 to Rs 300, depending on the design. She earns around Rs 800 to Rs 1,000 per months by weaving. The presence of her younger sister, Romita, and her husband, Hemanta, just two houses away, is a source of solace.
Meanwhile, her in-laws have tried every tactic to throw her out to her home and usurp her property. "If I stay with them, I know they would treat me as an unpaid slave," she says. Even her younger brother-in-law, who had initially stood by her, duped her. He sold off half the paddy field that they jointly owned, and also tried to sell off the house and its adjoining land. "He tried to persuade me to sell the house, saying that I could stay with him or at my father's house until another house was built. He told me he would give me Rs 500 (US$1=Rs 48.75) every month for my expenses. When I refused the offer, he started accusing me of being selfish and wanting my dead husband's property. One day, I was so distressed I ran out of the house to kill myself," Sunibala recalls.
Fortunately for her, Sunibala had well-wishers in the village. They not only stopped her from committing suicide that day but helped her gain legal advice so that she could fight for justice. Deban, 31, a pastor and social worker, helped Sunibala contact the Human Rights Law Network of Manipur. Even now, Deban and his family provide unflinching support to this young widow. "Initially she was just a simple village girl - unaware of the armed conflict, the rights of a woman and the legal options available. Now, she helps me by counseling the women affected by conflict who come to me for help," says Deban.
Upama, 24, has benefited from Sunibala's counseling. Hailing from the neighboring Ukhongshang village, Upama's husband, Thangjam Bishwarjit, and brother, Dharmendra, were among the four persons killed by suspected Kuki militants in the Kangpokpi area of Senapati district on December 4, 2006. Upama and Bishwarjit were visiting her brother, who lived in Kangpokpi.
Besides being cheated of her rightful property and the ex-gratia money she received after her husband's death, Upama had to face constant jibes from members of her husband's family that she was the cause of his death. Unable to cope with the abuse, she returned to her parental home. "I never thought all these events would happen to me. But they did. Now that I know my rights, I have more courage," she says.
Sunibala adds, "I don't want to be leader, but I want to help other women. The only thing I know is my own story, which I share with others like me - women like Upama. It gives them the courage to speak out against the injustice committed against them." Sunibala now takes part in torch vigils with the local Meira Paibi groups, who have emerged as exemplars of woman power in Manipur.
"There's nothing more inferior to being a widow. If I laugh, people say I am laughing and happy. And if I dress nicely, they smirk. But I will laugh; I will also dress in good clothes. To me the only thing of concern is that I don't sin," explains Sunibala, as her work-worn hands weave intricate designs on a vibrant red bed sheet that she is making on her loom.
The armed conflict in the area continues to haunt her. "When I see them (the security personnel) I feel very angry. They made my son an orphan. Once some of them entered my home and asked for a glass of water. I told them there is water in my house, but I have no water to give them. I also told them not to stand at my gate on patrol duty. Now, they don't stand anywhere near my house. To go to the market I have to pass the BSF camp. But I hate passing by the very spot where my husband was shot. It makes me want to cry. So, as far as possible, I avoid that way," she says.
In the last two years alone, local newspapers have reported as many as 890 deaths in conflict-related incidents. And with the government reluctant to address the situation through political dialogue - a demand of many civil organizations here - the tough times continue for women like Sunibala.