Conflict has marked life in India’s northeastern state of Manipur for over six decades now. It has affected the lives of people, especially women in many direct and indirect ways.
This is a region where even something as basic as clean drinking water is scarce. In many areas, people use either pond water or river water, neither of which is free from contamination. There has also been a substantial increase in malaria cases in the state, which rose from 708 in 2008 to 1,069 in 2009, an increase of 51 per cent.
Tuberculosis used to be a general problem, so it is not surprising that in a state with a significant number of people living with HIV/AIDS, HIV-TB co-infection is also manifesting itself.
According to Dr. M. Akshayakumar Singh, head of the Department of Clinical Psychology at the Regional Institute of Medical Sciences (RIMS) in state capital Imphal, social tensions and violence related to the ongoing armed conflict are affecting the average person both mentally and physically.
“Fear, anxiety, tension, stress and depression are the most prominent effects seen. It manifested physiologically as palpitations, ulcers, colitis, irregular bowel movements, dizziness, headache, backache and many other social diseases such as diabetes,” he says.
Those on the frontlines of the struggle for justice in this violence-prone region have lived with deteriorating health for years. Take the Meira Paibis “torchbearers,” a women’s group that has a presence in almost all the nine districts of the state. The group has been actively engaged in fighting rights violations, whether perpetrated by local people or by security personnel.
Phanjoubam Sakhi, one of the pioneering leaders of the Meira Paibis, has worked tirelessly for almost as long as armed conflict had raged in her state, even though she is 75.
“At night I would open the cupboard as casually as possible, stealthily take out the clothes I would wear the next day and keep them by my pillow, to stop my husband from suspecting that I was about to set out early the next morning on Meira Paibi work. On my return, I would peek at the house from the gate and sneak in when he is not around,” Sakhi recalls with an impish smile.
The years of work she has put in have earned her the epithet of Ima. But being called and honoured as “mother” has come at great personal cost and sacrifice. ”
Such lives of uncertainty inevitably took a toll on the health of these women.
“Our circumstances affected our health a lot,” says Sakhi, who is presently the president of the All Manipur Kanba Ima Lup (AMKIL), one of the prominent state-wide Meira Paibi organisations.
And it’s not just Sakhi. Most Meira Paibi women complain of gastritis, insomnia, dizzy spells, anxiety and fatigue. “During the peak of agitations – which are very frequent – we would go to bed, yet lie awake unable to sleep for hours, thinking what would be the best course of action,” Sakhi says, adding humorously, “Sometimes thinking about how to out-manoeuvre the police trying to stop or arrest us.”
Their campaigns were by no means easy. Some senior Meira Paibi women even formed a group in support of the Sharmila Kanba Lup (SAKAL), which takes turns in staying overnight in a small lean-to, walled by bamboo mats, on the side of Porompat road in Imphal East district, a few metres away from the state-run JN Hospital where Irom Sharmila is kept under judicial custody and force-fed.
Another woman, Ima L. Gyaneshori, 60, always carries a pack of biscuits in her bag to counter any fluctuations in her sugar levels. She also makes sure that her pills for controlling her blood pressure are always at hand, a precaution that has become essential ever since she actively participated in the relay hunger strike for Sharmila, who has herself been on a decade-long indefinite fast for the repeal of the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), 1958.
Dizziness and back pain also plague Ima Soibam Momon, 67, president of the All Manipur Tammi Chingmi Apunba Nupi Lup, another prominent Meira Paibi organisation, and she has developed some indigenous healing techniques to overcome them.
Agitations and protest movements have become everyday occurrences in Manipur given the high levels of violence. According to media reports, as many as 235 people were killed in the ongoing conflict between January and April 2009 alone.
And sometimes the years of pent-up tension, frustration and fury have found their manifestation in raw emotion. The nude protest of 12 Meira Paibi women in 2004, against the extra-judicial killing and rape of a young woman, Thangjam Manorama, alleged to be a member of an underground outfit by the Assam Rifles personnel, was one such moment.
The impact of conflict on the health of peace builders and human rights activists is rarely highlighted, much less understood. But its effects run deep nevertheless, as the words of Manipur’s indomitable women activists prove.