In situations of conflict, women's bodies become the terrain that wars are fought on. This is amply clear in the raging controversy around the rape of 21 women and girls, some of them minors, from Parbung and Lungthulein - two remote villages in Churachanpur district in Hmar hills of Manipur. The allegations of rape, their denial by the accused and the reaction of civil society have exposed both the deep-rooted ethnic divisions in the state and the fissures in the state's civil society.

This time, the arrow points not to the Indian army as is usually the case, but to the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) and the Kanglaipak Communist Party (KCP) - two of the more respected valley-based armed organisations demanding freedom from the Indian State. UNLF and KCP refute the charges point-blank, claiming it is an "Indian intelligence ploy to defame" them. Sana Yaima, chairperson, UNLF claims that an internal inquiry has found the charges false. He refuses to acknowledge the authority of the Manipur government-appointed Rajkhowa Commission, and demands an 'independent' probe by an entity like the International Red Cross.

Organisations in the Hmar region - such as the Hmar Women Association, Hmar Students' Association and Hmar Inpui - that have been seeking justice for the 21 women who were raped, are outraged. They say that the UNLF/KCP men had vented their anger and frustration at the Indian Army's operations to flush out militants from the hills on these tribal women. The women were raped on January 6 and January 16, 2006, and more than a thousand people fled in fear, they assert.

As the matter heated up, some human rights groups and women's organisations decided to take matters into their own hands. They formed a 'Civil Society Fact Finding Team on Internally Displaced People'. This comprised representatives of the Hmar Students' Union, Rongmei Lu Phuam, Human Rights Law Network, Human Rights Alert (HRA) and Naga Peoples' Movement for Human Rights. The team conducted a six-day study in Mizoram - where the people who had fled the villages sought shelter - and in the two villages. This exercise came a cropper because the team was divided not along facts, but along ethnic lines.

"We have been trying to bring women together, but it is difficult. The leaders of ethnic groups control the response of women in their communities."

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A deep divide already exists between the various hill communities - like the Nagas, Kukis, Hmars etc - and the valley-based Meiteis over issues such as neglect by the predominantly Meitei-run government and the historical cultural prejudice between the hill and valley people. The chasm was further widened by political rifts created by various armed homeland movements. Every tribe has rushed to arm itself, pushing the region to the brink of open ethnic war. This is where the women find themselves, embattled between warring groups, with the Indian Army as the largest and most powerful armed group.

Valley-based activists were inclined to doubt the women's statements, and representatives of the hill peoples unquestioningly believed the women. Hmar activists point out that HRA, usually a frontrunner for such causes, has demanded that it be allowed to cross-examine the women before the Rajkhowa panel, before whom the women had given their statements earlier. They say that HRA is quick to take up issues when the victims are valley people.

Even the words to be used are a matter of contention. Hmar activists say that prefixing 'alleged' to 'rape' is an insult to the women who have spoken out about their ordeal. They also point to a bias in the valley-based newspapers' reports, which refer to the Naobi Chanu rape case as 'rape' and to the Hmar rape case as 'alleged rape'.

Malini Bhattacharya, Member, National Commission for Women (NCW) investigated the matter on behalf of the NCW. Deeply disturbed by the hubbub surrounding the case, she says, "I spoke to the rape victims. I believe them. Quite a few of them were minors. The case of minors is particularly sensitive. In past rulings, the Supreme Court has laid down the rule that when a minor says that s/he has been raped, his/her word is to be taken as the truth, because minors are not equipped to lie about such things."

The people of Parbung and Lungthulein told her that their villages were too remote to have functioning administrative set-ups, and so militants felt free to heap all sorts of atrocities on them. Since October-November 2005, the atrocities became worse and they could not even cultivate their jhum (rotational agriculture) fields. "They even had to feed militants," Bhattacharjee says. Then the army stepped in as part of its operations against armed outfits. It is in retribution for this that the UNLF-KCP men raped and molested the women, she surmises. Bhattacharjee regrets that the protests are divided, but says that this is not a "battle between the hill and valley people", but a "situation of terror" where the valley people are afraid to speak out.

Whatever the explanation, the civil society's lack of unity on an issue as grave as the mass rape of 21 women has shattered the image of solidarity among women's groups in the northeast. The most telling example is the silence of Manipur's Meira Paibi - a network of women celebrated as one of the strongest women's movements in the country - even as their sisters in the hills are struggling for justice. Ksh Bimola Devi, a well-known women's rights activist in the northeast region, and Professor of Political Science in Manipur University, believes that in the context of the intense militarisation of the state, "women's issues often fizzle out in the face of ethnic considerations". She says, "It is not enough if women from one ethnic group come out. We have been trying to bring women together, but it is difficult. The leaders of ethnic groups control the response of women in their communities."

Meanwhile, the Manipuri people repose little hope in the Rajkhowa Commission or the other commissions set up to investigate rape charges against the Indian army and the armed insurgents. And the state government remains an inconsequential spectator in this highly charged situation. (Women's Feature Service)