Heavy lifting the chains of patriarchy

Manipuri women in the Olympics and the indelible legacy that guides them


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Let us start today with a poetry excerpt by the luminary Human Rights Activist - Irom Chanu Sharmila

“since death hasn’t embraced me, I’m able to see!
kanglei, the mirror of my vision
on the new page of history
so written in red ink
in the battle between god and worm
worm has killed god
man of integrity
is revered as god himself,
a dirty worm like me
detests those as enemies
who won by sinning against the almighty
for them darkness prevails everywhere in the end”


The Tokyo 2020 Olympics has brought new energy to the world. Since we are navigating through some dark times, the longing to feel inspired has deepened within each of us. At this point, the Olympics is standing like the resilient Everest of sportsmanship between the collective human race and the despair it endures. The only medal for India is won by a woman from Manipur in the category of weightlifting - Mirabai Saikom Chanu.

Manipur, a basking beauty etched on the terrain of North East India and encircled by nine hills, is a proud state of world-class athlete daughters. It is safe to say that the state belongs to these brave and beautiful women, more than they belong to the state. Over the last decade, Manipur has consistently produced a generation of women athletes like no other state of India. Unlike the prevalent skepticism for sports among many Indian parents of other states, Manipuri parents believe in the profound virtue of sports. Children at a young age are introduced to the world of sports through the state’s organized sports clubs. The sports club culture is unique to Manipur’s tradition of initiating kids on the path of fitness and perseverance. The early incubation has helped Manipur successfully churn out a brand of women world champions.


Here are the five Manipuri women who have challenged the gender stereotypes against Indian women in various world championships:

1. Kunjarani Devi in weightlifting - seven silver medals in different world championships

2. Sarita Devi in boxing - one gold and three bronze in various world championships

3. Bembem Devi in football - three times SAFF championship winner and two-time gold medalist in the South Asian Games

4. Mirabai Chanu in weightlifting - Silver medalist Tokyo 2020 Olympics

5. Mary Kom in boxing - one bronze in Olympics, won six world championships and five Asian championships, one gold in commonwealth games

These founding mothers are the pillars of fortitude for the future generation of Indian women in sports. The legacy of these powerful women will turn them into myths for generations to come. These stories are rare, especially when they transcend the sociocultural turbulence of Manipur.


The state has a reputation for trouble. Manipur’s violent history had witnessed multiple militant insurgencies and political upheaval. When the infamous Armed forces special power act (Afspa) was passed, the fate of the civilians was sealed with misery. The act provides the Indian Army immunity from persecution. This has enabled them to intervene unquestioned, in the lives of the civilians. It is an indirect way to dehumanize the people of those regions where the Act is implemented. By providing unfair legal power to armed men - who by no standards of virtue are holier than the civilians - you tell them that they can do whatever they want. This created imbalanced power dynamics because the military can torture and murder without facing any consequences for their actions. The Law is a violation of human rights.

When the Gods turned their backs on people, the women of Manipur lit up the torches at night and rallied silently as watchers, benefactors, and rebels.

As a result of the Afspa, people were killed almost every day, sometimes for animosity and sometimes for entertainment. No one but only the invisible Gods heard their muffled screams dissolving into the blind nights of Manipur. The Gods were silent, they were absent. The Gods decided that they had nothing to do with the lives of a handful of men, women, and children. When the Gods turned their backs on people, the women of Manipur lit up the torches at night and rallied silently as watchers, benefactors, and rebels. To protect and protest, to endure together and embrace each other - a sheer display of the feminine spirit. They were called Meira Paibis (Women torch bearers), who stood upon the graves of their beloved daughters like ghosts of the tortured past. Like an imminent force of nature, they rose to demonstrate courage when it was nowhere to be found. They were goddesses personified. Their incredible escapades healed the fractured spine of Manipur. Through their subversive act of rebellion, they successfully cradled the maimed spirit of people back to vitality. Vehement protests broke out in every corner of the state. The revolution began.


These stories of bravery have no direct impact on the Manipuri women athletes, or so did we assume. It is a fact that people are products of their social and cultural conditioning. The extraordinary feat achieved by the women of Manipur in various championships made me curious about the archetypal stories that instill them with such strength. I began to search for the legacy of the forgotten heroes, who once rose like tsunami waves both in magnitude and intensity and swept the dirt off Manipur’s grim socio-political scenarios.


For 16 long years, one woman went alone on a solitary path of peaceful rebellion against a century-old law, a weight too heavy for her frail shoulders to carry.

On 4 November 2000, a small and pale woman with wild hair and dark resolute eyes decided that she will not eat again if the Afspa is not removed. The 28-year-old Irom Chanu Sharmila back then was an intern in a human rights organization. She documented the testimonies of many victims who were allegedly gang-raped by the Indian soldiers. She also interviewed the families of the civilians snatched from their homes and killed in the name of interrogation. She restlessly worked to defeat the inglorious monsters created by war, who ravaged the beautiful valley and its vulnerable people (women in the majority). More than 1,528 execution of civilians were being recorded just in the span of 33 years (from 1979-2012). Sharmila remained the face of the opposition against Afspa for 16 years. She was arrested, forced fed, and kept confined in the government hospital. For 16 long years, one woman went alone on a solitary path of peaceful rebellion against a century-old law, a weight too heavy for her frail shoulders to carry. She was named the Iron Lady of Manipur or Mengoubi (The fair one). However, her resistance and struggle failed to cease the atrocities as her method lacked both agency and intensity. Sharmila's hunger strike was not radical, and hence it couldn't create any massive upheaval. Nevertheless, the mystical Irom, in spirit and bones, has inspired a generation of women who sought solidarity and refuge in her struggle.


The disrobed Imas were symbols of the ripped dignity and reduced humanity of the Manipuri women.

Then Manorama happened in 2004, and the women snapped. If you don’t already know, I will spare you the horror of the details of the Manorama case. In short, she was raped and killed by the Assam Rifles (check the details here). At this point, the Manipuri women were tired of paying penance for a crime that they did not commit. On 15 July 2004, 12 Imas (mothers who run the stalls) took matters into their hands and demonstrated what proved to be one of India’s most iconic feminist disobedience. The Imas marched till the Kangla fort (the headquarters of the Assam Rifles) situated at the heart of Imphal. They stripped naked in front of the building, carrying white banners on which words painted in red painfully screamed through the fabric, “Indian Army Rape Us". Another banner bellowed, “Indian Army Take Our Flesh”. These women with their bloody sacrifices rewrote the history of Manipur. In their naked fury, they took to the streets and howled like a pack of hunted wolves, “We are the mothers of Manorama. Rape us. Kill us.” The disrobed Imas were symbols of the ripped dignity and reduced humanity of the Manipuri women. Even though Manorama never got justice, the protest raged like wildfire in the hills and valleys of Manipur. It initiated a wave of radical rebellion. After that, no one believed in silent protests anymore. No one believed that stagnant water could soothe the burned wounds of their frantic hearts.


Even if they belong to drastically different walks of life, the collective feminine pain is universal.

There are no correlations that can be traced between the grit of Manipuri sportswomen and the foremothers who fought to restore human rights in Manipur. However, feminine wisdom traverses a mysterious path. What often cannot be seen through the lens of pragmatism can be realized through the intuitive flow of emotions. I could sense an invisible umbilical cord that connects the psyche of these women. Even if they belong to drastically different walks of life, the collective feminine pain is universal. Though they are unaware of it, they are interconnected like a network of mushrooms permeating through a rainforest. These revolutionary women are spread across the cultural and political landscape. And like mushrooms, they work unanimously to extract toxins from the roots of society. Their purpose is to evoke the urgency of freedom, promote regrowth, and become the symbol of feminine power.


Chanu’s medal belongs to the women of Manipur whose indomitable spirits rise like the phoenix from their ashes. It belongs to their ravenous hunger for change.

Whether it is in the arena facing the opponent in the Olympic Games, or the protest marches against the loaded rifles of the Indian Army - the women of Manipur have proved that they can take affliction and retort with valiance. Mirabai Chanu’s triumph does not belong to the government of India whose lack of transparency in policymaking still haunts many minorities. Neither does it belong to the rest of India that was a silent witness to the military brutality in Manipur for more than three decades. Chanu’s medal belongs to the women of Manipur whose indomitable spirits rise like the phoenix from their ashes. It belongs to their ravenous hunger for change. Chanu's legacy ensures a future where women of Manipur will not go down in the history books as victims of a troubled Indian territory or as casualties of military brutality, but as the champions that they are.


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