It was Christmas Eve, the year was 2004. I still vividly remember the events of that day. The tragedy that befell the Wabgai Lamkhai village of Thoubal district in Manipur left a deep and lasting impression on my mind. I was witness to the cold-blooded killing of 27-year-old Buddhi Moirangthem. Three gunmen dragged Buddhi from his car-battery workshop, and just shot him. The entire incident took place within a span of few minutes. Nobody knew why, who and what led the gunmen to kill Buddhi; even his visibly-shaken wife Rebika Akham was clueless.
Northeast India has been facing the onslaught of ethnic-based armed conflict since the late 1940s. In fact, Rebika is not the only victim of this ethnic-based violence, the lives of thousands of women have been cut short because of the gun killings of their beloved husbands, fathers or sons, be it by state, non-state actors or unidentified gunmen.
During my formative years, I thought all this was quite normal. But witnessing it at such a close range, shook me hard and led me to form the Manipuri Women Gun Survivor Network (MWGSN). The formal launch of the Network took place on April 29, 2007, in Manipur's state capital Imphal.
I guess I was born to do something like this. I remember my father telling me that the day I was born, there was curfew in Imphal. I now joke about it with my friends, saying that even an Army curfew could not stop me from coming out into this world.
I grew up in the quaint little locality called Heirangoithong. The Northeast is home to more than 70 major population groups and sub-groups, speaking approximately 400 languages and dialects. Insurgency has for long engulfed this strategic region and has held development to ransom. No other region of India, South Asia or the world must have seen such a proliferation and mushrooming of militant outfits as this region has.
But it was only when I came to New Delhi that I realised the enormity of the situation. I then stumbled upon a UN document that was published in 1997 titled “Trafficking in Small Arms and Sensitive Technologies”. That document combined with a white paper on small arms written by the Canadian government inspired me to research the origins of armed conflict and arms proliferation in my society.
I conducted research for over two years and in 2002 published my research findings as a book titled South Asia's Fractured Frontier (New Delhi, Mittal Publications, 2002). I found that 57 types of small arms had been identified, which have flooded Northeast India in the past few years. The weapons came from China, Pakistan, Belgium, Thailand, Russia, the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Burma and of late, Israel. The effect of this small arms proliferation has been alarming. Various young people have taken up the path of gun violence resulting in death, decay and destruction in various fields — socially, politically and economically. Every year 3,00,000 people are killed because of small arms.
MWGSN attempts to lift women from the trauma. It helps women survivors of gun violence find ways to heal the scars that decades of living under the shadow of guns has caused to the community. It is the first initiative of its kind in India. MWGSN assists women in small-scale entrepreneurial work.
I owe it to my parents and the Manipuri society for what I am now. I was born in Manipur's soil and despite the difficulties, my parents struggled to raise my siblings and me to do our best for the society. I am presently working as secretary-general of India's first civil society organisation working on conventional disarmament called Control Arms Foundation of India. However, no achievement is enough till peace and development comes to Manipur and its neighbouring states.
It pains me to see so much conflict, infighting and bloodshed. I firmly believe that the youth of Manipur and the Northeast region can change the destiny of our region. Each one of us can contribute in our own little way and to do that, I believe in working with women and the youth. I spend time in our khungangs (locality) and far off villages to see in what ways we can all work together to help bring about a positive change. This is true even when I am abroad, say in London or New York, where I keep meeting several Manipuris who live and work there.
I firmly believe that youth and women have a powerful role to play in bringing about a world that is free from conflict. Through my research, writing and committed work, I live my dreams of striving for a world that is free from hunger, want and war.
As told to Ipsitaa Panigrahi