What made these grannies go nude in public?

By Geeta Pandey
BBC News, Imphal

  • Published
The iconic image of mothers protesting in ManipurImage source, AFP

This image of a nude protest by a group of Indian mothers and grandmothers stunned the world 13 years ago.

Defying all stereotypes, the 12 women challenged the security forces and paved the way for real change on the ground in the north-eastern state of Manipur.

Eleven of the mothers regrouped in the state capital, Imphal, recently to speak to the BBC about their unconventional protest. The 12th protester died five years ago.

In a large bare hall, they sit on floor mats, many of them in their sunset years. Many are frail and have failing eye sight, one is accompanied by her daughter as she cannot walk unaided.

As they start telling me about that day, it's hard to imagine these women carrying out that act of protest.

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Manipur has struggled for decades with an insurgency involving several militant groups, and the Indian military has for more than half a century had sweeping shoot-to-kill powers under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (Afspa).

Image caption,
The mothers regrouped in Imphal to speak about their unconventional protest
Image caption,
Manorama was gang-raped and killed in July 2004

The security forces were often accused of rights abuses, but it was the gang-rape and murder of a 32-year-old woman in July 2004, allegedly by paramilitary soldiers, that set the state on the edge.

Manorama was picked up from her home at midnight on 11 July by soldiers from the Assam Rifles, a paramilitary force deployed in Manipur to fight insurgents. A few hours later, her mutilated, bullet-riddled body was found by the roadside. It bore tell-tale signs of torture and rape.

The Assam Rifles denied any role in her death, but the state witnessed unprecedented anger and at the centre of that was the "mothers' protest".

Image caption,
The grannies in front of the Kangla Fort where they had staged their famous protest

The women were all housewives, mostly from poor families, and many did small jobs to supplement their family incomes. The oldest was 73, the youngest 45. Between them, they had 46 children and 74 grandchildren. They were also activists (called Meira Paibis, or torch-bearers). They knew each other, but belonged to different organisations.

Some of them visited Manorama's family and the morgue where her body was kept.

"It made me very angry. It was not just Manorama who was raped. We all felt raped," says Soibam Momon Leima.

Image caption,
Lourembam Nganbi (left) arrived in Imphal a day earlier from her home in Vishnupur, 30km away

The idea of a nude protest was first discussed on 12 July at a meeting of the All Manipur Women's Social Reformation and Development Samaj, but it was thought "too sensitive and radical", says Thokchom Ramani, who was 73 at the time.

But at a meeting later in the day of different women's groups, Ms Thokchom mentioned it and believing that "desperate times call for desperate measures", it was agreed that a small group of women would attempt to strip in front of the iconic Kangla Fort, the Assam Rifles headquarters.

On the morning of 15 July, the day of the protest, Laishram Gyaneshwari left her home at 5:30am.

"I didn't tell my husband or children that I was going to take part in this protest. I had no idea how it would go, I knew I was putting my life in danger and I knew I could die that day. So I touched my husband's feet, sought his blessings and left," she told me.

Image caption,
Thokchom Ramani, at 73, was the oldest protester
Image caption,
Haobam Tombi, 45, was the youngest protester

Lourembam Nganbi arrived in the city a day earlier from her home in Vishnupur, 30km away. Because of a government-imposed curfew in many parts of the state, there were no buses so she hired a private taxi to reach Imphal and walked the last few miles to the home of Haobam Ibetombi, another of the protesters.

"There, we removed our inner garments and just covered our bodies in the traditional Manipuri sarongs so that we could strip easily," she says.

Just after 9am, a van began ferrying them to Kangla Fort - it made three trips, carrying the protesters and volunteers, depositing them not at the fort but near enough to get there quickly.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Manipuris accuse the Indian army of misusing the sweeping powers given to them under the special law
Image caption,
The women were all housewives and mostly from poor families

"We were crying even before we left. We are women, all we have is our honour. And Manipur is a traditional society, we don't show our bodies. We are uncomfortable even showing our ankles," Mrs Laishram said.

The authorities had somehow got wind of their protest and a large number of police, some of them women, were beginning to gather outside the fort.

At 10am, the rag-tag bunch walked in twos and threes to the fort gate and before anyone could realise what was going on, the mothers stripped. They threw off all their clothes, beat their chests, rolled on the ground and wept.

The women carried banners that read "Indian army, rape us" and "Indian army, kill us". Even though Manorama had been taken away by members of a paramilitary force, most Indians don't know the different branches of the security forces, and so army is used as a loose term to describe them all.

Image caption,
Nine women were accused of arson and waging war against the country and were sent to jail

Although there were no leaders, Mrs Lourembam shouted the loudest, chanting slogans in English "because we wanted to shame them in a language they and the rest of the world understood", she said.

"I was thinking their action must stop, they must be punished. Women should not be raped anywhere in the world.

The women tried to storm the fort, but the soldiers locked the gates. "Two sentries pointed their guns at us. We dared them to shoot us and they lowered their weapons. I think they were ashamed," says Mrs Laishram.

Soon, a large crowd gathered and Mrs Thockchom says most people, including many police personnel, were crying.

The protest continued for just 45 minutes, but those 45 minutes have had a lasting impact on the lives on the 12 women and the story of Manipur.

Image caption,
Laishram Gyaneshwari did not tell her family that she was going to take part in the nude protest

The mothers became celebrities who were feted at neighbourhood receptions. But they were also harassed by an embarrassed government which began a systematic destruction of their offices and organisations.

Nine of the women were accused of arson and waging war against the country and were sent to jail for nearly three months.

Their protest, however, did have the intended impact of putting the spotlight on the Manipur problem.

"The mothers' protest came too late for Manorama, but it played a crucial role in forcing the Assam Rifles to vacate the fort four months later, for the first time since they occupied it in 1949," says Babloo Loitongbam of Human Rights Alert.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Manipur is one of India's most restive states

India also promised to look at the demand to repeal Afspa and then prime minister Manmohan Singh promised a "healing touch" to the Manipuris.

Thirteen years later, though, Afspa remains in large parts of the state and reports of rights abuses by security forces still come in, but campaigners feel the situation has improved.

Along with the 16-year fast by the state's most celebrated activist Irom Sharmila, the mothers' protest has entered the history books.

The mothers, however, remain angry.

"We are still naked," Mrs Laishram tells me. "We will believe the government has clothed us only on the day Afspa is removed from the whole state."