The Pulse

Manipur Violence: Understanding the Shifts in Meitei Women’s Political Activism

Recent Features

The Pulse | Society | South Asia

Manipur Violence: Understanding the Shifts in Meitei Women’s Political Activism

Why did the Meira Paibis shift from peaceful activism for a common Manipuri cause to a brand of violent and ethnically-divisive politics?

Manipur Violence: Understanding the Shifts in Meitei Women’s Political Activism

Members of the Meira Paibis block traffic as they check vehicles for the presence of members from rival tribal Kuki community in Imphal, capital of the northeastern Indian state of Manipur, June 19, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/Altaf Qadri

On July 15, a pro-Meitei civil group called Arambai Tengol killed a Naga woman, mistaking her to be of Kuki ethnicity. According to media reports, the victim was first apprehended by the women Meitei group Meira Paibis (Women Torch Bearers), and later handed over to Arambai Tengol. Following the event, the Imphal East police arrested nine people, including five members of the Meira Paibis. 

The Meira Paibis is the sole Meitei women group from Manipur, and has often played a crucial role in shaping and influencing various sociopolitical activities of the state. However, a close assessment of their participation in the ongoing Meitei-Kuki ethnic conflict indicates the changing nature of their political activism in Manipur. In contrast to their proud legacy of fighting for a common Manipuri cause, they are now embracing a brand of violent and ethnic politics that favors the Meitei community.

Fighting for a Manipuri Cause: Political Activism in the Past

Historically speaking, Manipur has witnessed two episodes of Nupi Lan (Women’s War), both during the British colonial period. The first Nupi Lan was in 1904 when the British re-imposed the policy of Lalup, a system of forced labor. The order obligated all male members from the Imphal city of Manipur to construct a new state bungalow to replace an old one that had been burned down in an arson attack. Nearly 5,000 women protested in front of the superintendent’s residence, demanding that the forced labor policy be revoked. British officials were compelled to withdraw the policy in 1904. 

The second Nupi Lan was triggered due to a huge price hike in rice, a major staple food commodity in Manipur. This happened during the late 1930s when the British officers and Marwaris exported large quantities of rice to nearby states, especially Assam. The situation took a turn for the worse when a famine struck Manipur in 1939. 

As a result, the women vendors of Khwairamband Keithel (a women’s central market in Imphal) came out to protest against the British officers and Marwaris,  demanding an end to rice exports from Manipur. These protests compelled the then pro-British Manipur king to issue an order to ban exports. The second Nupi Lan was more economic than political, but it left a lasting legacy for the future of women-led movements in Manipur. 

During the mid-1970s, Meitei women formed the group Nisha Bandhis, an anti-drug and anti-alcohol movement in Manipur that later evolved into the Meira Paibis. In the early 2000s, the Meira Paibis were at the forefront when protesting against the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which gives extraordinary power to the Indian military – such as the rights to conduct a search without a warrant, or shoot to kill on a mere suspicion, etc. 

The killing of Thangjam Manorama on July 10, 2004, by the Indian Armed Forces brought out hundreds of women protesting to withdraw AFSPA and the armed forces from the state. The naked protest by the twelve Imas in front of Kangla Fort on July 15, 2004, against the atrocities by the security forces garnered nationwide attention and played a crucial role in the central government’s decision to withdraw  AFSPA from Imphal Municipal areas in August 2004. 

The Current Scenario

The Meira Paibis have had a proud historical legacy of advocating for justice and sociopolitical reforms in Manipur. However, the ongoing ethnic conflict between the Meitei and the Kuki peoples indicates something new: These women are exclusively fighting for the Meitei community. There have been incidents where the Meira Paibis checked the vehicles of the armed forces to see if they were transporting Kuki people or ferrying relief material to Kuki communities. According to media reports, one Meira Paibi even called herself a “foot soldier” sent by God to finish the “Kuki terrorists.”

In Itham village in Imphal East district, the Meira Paibis confronted security personnel, forcing them to release 12 cadres of the Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (a Meitei separatist outfit). The cadres had been arrested with arms and ammunition during an operation in Imphal East district. On June 26, the Indian Army even tweeted a video showing the Meira Paibis helping the rioters to flee. On top of that, it also showed footage of groups of women on the street, day and night, waiting to confront the security forces, interrupt their movement, and deter them from maintaining law and order. 

These incidents underscore the evolving nature of the political activism of Meitei women in Manipur. 

Explaining the Shifts in Political Activism

One likely explanation for this shift is that the Meira Paibis have always been a pro-Meitei organization, despite not having acknowledged the same publicly. The Meitei community, being the majority, has been inhabiting together with other communities in Manipur for over a hundred years. But a sense of insecurity has always persisted between the communities due to their deep-rooted pride in their unique identities. However, until recently, women’s organizations from all ethnic groups were fighting against a common enemy: either British colonialism or the harsh tactics of the Indian state. 

With the improved law and order situation in Manipur, in June 2022 the central government decided to withdraw AFSPA, for the second time, from the jurisdiction of 15 police stations in six predominantly Meitei-inhabited districts. As a result, atrocities committed by the armed forces decreased. This meant that the Meiteis had less sense of sharing a common enemy with the rest of the communities in Manipur. This transition motivated the Meira Paibis to shift their focus exclusively toward advocating the interests of the Meitei community.

Another potential explanation is the hill-valley demographic imbalance in the state. The distribution of population in Manipur is quite complex, with the Meitei and Meitei Muslims making up the majority (60 percent of the population), but possessing only 10 percent of the land in the state. In contrast, the Kukis and Nagas make up 40 percent of the population in Manipur but reside in hilly areas, possessing over  90 percent of the land. 

The Meitei people lost their tribal status when Manipur acceded to India in 1949, which also prohibited them from purchasing land in the hill areas. Consequently, the Meitei community has been demanding Scheduled Tribe (ST) status for over a decade now, arguing that this is necessary for safeguarding their unique identity, culture, and land. However, the Kukis have opposed the idea, arguing that the Meitei community already holds major political power in the state legislature and benefits from certain privileges. These divergent demands have thus fuelled mutual suspicions. 

The final piece of the puzzle is the actions of Biren Singh’s government since his second legislative electoral victory in June 2022. His administration has implemented several divisive measures, including evicting settlements in reserved forest areas, a war on drug-related activities such as poppy cultivation, and verification drives to curb the  influx of illegal Kuki migrants entering from Myanmar following the coup. These initiatives have predominantly targeted the Kuki community. 

In particular, Singh publicly denounced what he claimed was an enormous presence of Kuki immigrants and stated that the indigenous tribal peoples were being reduced to second-class citizens in the native hilly areas. This exacerbated the existing fears amongst the Meitei that they could be overwhelmed by Kuki “illegal immigrants” from Myanmar. This has further revived Meitei nationalism and generated alarms among the Meitei population.

These tensions came to a head on May 3, 2023, when the non-Meitei All Tribal Students Union Manipur organized a peace rally against the Manipur High Court’s judgment to forward a recommendation to the center regarding the Meiteis’ demand for ST status. The Meiteis organized a counter-protest, leading to violence throughout the state. The violence fueled the suspicion further and turned the communities against each other.


A thorough examination of the recent incidents in the ongoing ethnic conflict in Manipur highlights the evolving nature of the Meitei women’s political activism. Historically, they have shown their commitment to fighting for a common “Manipuri cause,” as seen in the Women’s War and AFSPA resistance. However, the current conflict reveals a contrasting picture. Meira Paibis have taken a sectarian turn, favoring only the interests of the Meitei community. 

Multiple factors have influenced this shift, such as the withdrawal of AFSPA, the hill-valley demographic imbalance, the influx of Kuki refugees, and the policies of the incumbent state government. This has made the conflict more complex, leaving less room for peace and coexistence. With one of the foremost civil society groups now embracing political violence, the outlook is bleak indeed.