New Delhi, Sep 23 : When the hills of Manipur erupted in flames after the state assembly, in a specially convened session on August 31, passed three bills ostensibly to protect the rights of the indigenous people of the state, it was the womenfolk who stepped out on the streets to ensure that the situation did not spiral totally out of control.
Following a months-long agitation by the people living in the valley districts of the northeastern state, the Manipur assembly passed the Protection of Manipur People Bill, the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms Bill (Seventh Amendment), and the Manipur Shops and Establishments (Second Amendment) Bill.
The demand was also made for an inner line permit system - similar to the ones in force in Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland - to be introduced in Manipur.
The very day the bills were passed, protesters, mainly comprising tribal organisations, torched five houses belonging to Congress lawmakers. Among them were dwellings of state Health and Family Welfare Minister Phungzathang Tonsing and Lok Sabha member from Outer Manipur Thangso Baite in Churachandpur district of the northeastern state.
The violence and resultant police action left at least nine people dead.
According to the tribes inhabiting the hills of Manipur, the three bills would directly undermine the existing safeguards for the tribal hill areas regarding land-ownership and population influx, as the primary threat for the tribal people came not from outside the state but the Meitei people from the valley itself.
As things came to a boil, women in thousands hit the streets in Churachandpur, while preventing the menfolk from coming out in protest.
"Fearing that men coming out to protest might spark further violence, the women came out to hold protest rallies," Romeo Hmar, convenor of the Manipur Tribals' Forum, Delhi (MTFD), told IANS here.
"The womenfolk are really giving a lot of their time for this. Every single day, women are coming out into the streets in thousands," Hmar said.
Torchlight processions, human chain formations, and in one case, filling up an entire football ground, are among the protest programmes adopted by various tribal women's organisations.
"It seemed like people were acting without thinking," Rose Mangsi, president of the Kuki Women Union, Manipur, who was here to attend a South Asian women's peace and security conference, told IANS.
"As the protesters tried to burn more buildings, the women stepped out and stopped them," she said.
According to Mangsi, the tribal women's organisations want the three bills to be withdrawn but at the same time also want there should be no violence.
"Women are peace-loving people. We request the Manipur government, civil society organisations and all stakeholders to solve the problem in peace," she said.
Mangsi pointed out that Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh has invited both hill and valley leaders for talks so that the contentious clauses in the bills can be amended.
"But none of them is going, including the tribal leaders," she noted.
Mangsi also referred to the chief minister's assertion that the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms Bill (Seventh Amendment) did not affect tribal land.
"How can the problem be solved if they keep struggling from a distance? A dialogue should be held between the state government and the tribal leaders," Mangsi maintained.
On Tuesday, when Ashok Prasad, secretary for internal security in the home ministry, visited Churachandpur as a special envoy of the Centre, he was greeted by a big gathering of around 3,000 women.
Prasad made it a point to make special mention of the role played by the women in calming the situation.
"I congratulate the perseverance and effort of the women, the JAC (Joint Action Council) and elders. I appeal to the older people to continue guiding us in the future too," a leading English daily of Manipur quoted him as saying.
This latest story in the hills of Manipur is yet another manifestation of the power and influence women wield in the state which boasts of the largest women's market in India.