Annals of Organizing: Naked Protests

SHonduran ACORN Organizers and Wade an Pedro Sula Waiting for the meeting to begin ACORN Honduras leaders in the San Pedro Sula area were talking animately back and forth. In my sorry Spanish I could make out the fact that the subject was Cairo and the military, but not enough to be certain how each leader was coming down. I whispered to the volunteer helping translate and she confirmed that almost everyone but one leader believed that Mubarak should have stepped down, and all of them were worried about how the Egyptian people who handle the military from their own experiences in Honduras. When I asked if my companeros did not believe that the protests would go back to Tahrir Square if the military stepped out of line, another burst of talking began and one leader, cowboy hat on his head, held up a flash card to me, which read: “NO.”

We will see soon enough, but the creativity of social movements and their organizations had hit me hard reading earlier in the day about an effective protest and tactic in the frontier Northeast of India which has been under the equivalent of martial law for 50 years through the perverse Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) of 1958. Local and international human rights organizations have attempted consistently to make the AFSPA and the military abuses under the act an issue in India, but one government after another has sidestepped the matter despite frequent allegations of murder, torture, and rape by the armed forces.

A local victory came from the courage and creativity of a women’s organization in July and August 2004 to the terrible murder and likely rape of a 32-year old Manipuri woman, Thangjam Manorama, by soldiers. Here’s how an excellent new book called, The Politics of Collective Advocacy in India by Professors Nandini Deo and Duncan McDuie-Ra, tell the story:

“A group of soldiers from the Assam Rifles paramilitary division and several unidentified others entered Manorama’s house in Imphal and arrested her on the premise that she was an explosives expert with the People’s Liberation Army, the oldest insurgent group in Manipur. They beat her outside the house for three hours while the rest of the family was locked inside. The following afternoon her body was found naked and bullet-ridden by a roadside. It was difficult for doctors to determine whether she had been raped as she had been shot through the vagina. As the news became public the state capital erupted in protest led by the Meira Paibis, the vanguard organization in the women’s movement in Manipu. People poured into the streets demanding the immediate withdrawal of the AFSPA; the army fired tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd and imposed a curfew. Still the people protested; government offices were set fire, five youths attempted self-immolation in the center of Imphal, while another young man cut off one of his fingers. Opposition political parties joined the protests and demanded that the AFSPA be removed in three days.

“At 10:30 on the morning of July 15, forty middle-aged Manipuri women from the Meira Paibis marched to the Kangla Fort, the headquarters of the local branch of the Assam Rifles paramilitary force. The Kangla Fort is a significant symbol of Manipuri identity and resistance narratives; it is believed to be the first place settled in the Imphal valley and where the Manipuri kingdom was established in AD 33, but it has been occupied by British and Indian armed forces since 1891. The women entered the fort and unfurled anti-AFSPA banners, shouting slogans calling for the removal of the AFSPA. Then a dozen of the women stripped completely naked and ran into the army compound and called out to the soldiers to come and rape them. They then held up a banner that read in red lettering “Indian Army Rape Us,” while those at the gate held up a banner that read “Indian Army Take Our Flesh.”

The protest was extraordinary. Editorials appeared in newspapers from Kolkata to Mumbai debating the AFSPA and publicizing Manipur’s anguish. Displays of solidarity took place in locations like Delhi and Bangalore. Manipur was now on the national agenda.” The AFSPA remains, but the women won a victory nonetheless: “…on November 20, 2004, the protests led to the Assam Rifles vacating the Kangla Fort, the first time in nine decades that the fort returned to Manipuri control. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh conducted the handover on the site where the nude protests had taken place. The colonizers were handing the fort back to the colonized, and the women’s movement had been the catalyst for this – something militant groups and transnational networks had been unable to achieve after decades of similar demands.” Meira Paibi in Hindi means “torch-bearing women.”

The military can be beaten!

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