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Why Tribal Women Of Manipur, Especially of Hill Areas Are Invisible In Electoral Politics?

If there is one thing that women didn't have to fight for in India, it is probably the right to vote. With the adoption of universal adult franchise during India's independence, Indian women didn't have to struggle for this right like their western counterparts had to, in the beginning of the 19th century. But what this right couldn't secure is equal representation in the national and local state elections. Women constitute just about 14% in the Lok Sabha of India's parliament. The figure is not very different in the local states. Manipur is one such state that has the least women representation in the state assembly. In the last state elections held in 2017, only two women were elected. Although the entry of Irom Sharmila was expected to bring about the resurgence of women in public arena, the curtains were drawn almost immediately by the voters as she could barely secure 100 votes. In the 2022 state elections, there were 265 candidates battling for 60 assembly seats. Out of the 265, there were only 17 women candidates. This is something alarming in a state where female voters outnumber males. Of the 19,68,476 voters, 10,12,655 are female voters.

Irom Sharmila during the 2017 elections; Source: The Financial Express

Now it is important to note that women not only have more votes, they have a strong pedigree in civil society. Meira Paibi, Catholic Women Society Manipur, Rural Women Upliftment Society Manipur and All Tribal Women's Union are some to name a few. These groups engage with issues that are social, economic, legal, cultural and religious. The women also have a financial support group system called Marup. Despite the success in these areas, women have not been able to translate the same in the political arena. Since its statehood, Manipur has had only six women in the state assembly. And so far only two tribal women have made it to the assembly. This is actually harrowing considering that tribal women are not considered adjunct to men. Here an engagement with some of the natives would be insightful. To get the ground reality I spoke to some people to get a sense of why women have not been able to translate their success in civil societies to the political arena.

Meira Paibi; Source:http://e-pao.net/

Ching Ngaih, a resident of tribal district Churachandpur, commented, "In the history of Evangelical Baptist Church Convention which is the biggest Christian denomination of the Paite tribe, no woman has held the position of the director or general secretary. In church, the women have their own society or department, but their opinions do not count when it comes to policy making. So one can argue that the role of women is limited in church. The scene is no different in electoral politics. Women very much participate in politics but they are not given high positions. So if one has to reason why there are less women in the state assembly, one can also point at the usual, which is its a patriarchal society. We have not outgrown patriarchy in church and politics."

A church youth leader who didn't wish to be named said, "Most of the societies formed by women are part of the church. And the women see the church and electoral system as two separate entities. The former as sacred and the electoral system as corrupt, and people regard it as unclean to dwell in politics side by side with Church. This is one of the reasons why women can't step across into politics. They are at the most prayer warriors who help in seeking votes."

Evangelical Church Association Women's Department: Women address issues related to women and children within the church and society; Source: http://eca.org.in/departments/women-department.html

Stonyseiboi, an office bearer of the Kuku Students' Organization, said "Women participate in student bodies but the number is less. For instance, in Kuki Students' Organization, the ratio of women participation is something like 2:8. They are visible but the number is not healthy. Moreover, with regard to the position they hold in the office, women are normally given literary and financial positions. I can't say if this is systemic marginalization, however, there is definitely an unequal representation."


Rucili, a content writer based in Imphal, stated. "Women suffer from patriarchy and sexism. I am saying this because people are extremely ingrained with the idea of having male leaders. People are not used to having women of personality in the political circle here. With such attitude, men can't work under a woman in the leadership role especially in politics." On the question of why women's society like Meira Paibi, that is loved, respected and also feared, have not made it to state politics, Rucili commented, "For me, Meira Paibis are the conscience keepers of the society. As much as I respect and appreciate their works, I only see them being good in moral policing and that is about it. News regarding Ima Market, Meira Paibi, women in sports and business suffer from sensationalism. We are still far from the threshold of revolution. This is clear in politics where winning is more important than moral or principles, where money and muscle power are everything. It hurts me as a woman, but in the current social set up, women can't raise money like men, and so their chances are less than slim."


From the above comments, one can articulate that a woman's world continues to revolve around the home or the spiritual domain that takes into account the spiritual purity, conscience and education. The outside world or statecraft that proposes, directs and optimizes life, continue to be the domain of men. This disparity is further widened by the lack of reservation for women in the local governing bodies in the hill areas of Manipur which are inhabited by the tribals. The hill areas are governed by the Autonomous District Council, and the Manipur (Hill Areas) District Council Act 197, which exempts the hill areas from the legislation passed by the state governments like the Manipur Panchayati Raj Act, 1994. Hence, when the state recommended 33% reservation for women in local governing bodies like the panchayats, the tribal women lost the opportunity to be inducted into the governing system unlike their Meitei women counterparts in the valley areas. Here it is important to note that the village councils of the various tribal groups constitute of men. Thus one can conclude that tribal women hold a lower rung in the political order. In this sense, men come first in the order, the Meitei women from Manipur valley come second, and the tribal women at the bottom.

Tribal women of Manipur hill districts, waiting to vote; Source:http://e-pao.net/

Now the question is, will reservation in India's parliament and state legislative assemblies be able to solve the issue of women's underrepresentation? India has a long unresolved bill called the Women's representation bill, which was introduced in the 1990s but never passed despite multiple modifications and debates in the parliament. Hypothetically, if the women's reservation bill becomes a reality, it might be a reality that is difficult to accept for the tribal communities in Manipur that take pride in their women but also show unrestrained prejudice against women. To cite an example from Northeast India, in 2017 when the Nagaland government decided to conduct local body elections with 33% reservation for women, local tribal bodies protested and the polls were stalled. This is not to suggest that a similar response will break out if reservation is introduced in the hill areas of Manipur. Rather the point is to highlight the inherent contradiction in our society, we want women to progress but we don't want them to be part of the body that decides. In the current on going elections in Manipur, the prospect of women has taken a centre stage. The Congress has promised 33% reservation of jobs for women, should they come into power. And the BJP has promised scooters, laptops and other lucrative economic packages for women. Such manifestoes address women but they do not fulfil their political aspirations and only highlight the unwillingness to share power. But the idea of offering 33% reservation for women in the national parliament and state assemblies is hollowed without first having reservation at the party levels. If there is women's reservation in a political party rather than just a women wing, it will train women to be competent (a mandatory criteria to get election tickets, as was in the case of Sharda Devi, the first female president of the BJP in Manipur) and it will also provide the necessary number of women to contest for the available seats.

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