Chantham agrees to set up a meeting with the group of imas who head the main organisation that leads and represents the market’s 4,000 women, Khwairamband Nuri Keithel, of which she herself is an executive member.

Upstairs in one of the buildings, these imas gather in their office. Outside the door lies a young man taking a nap on a piece of cardboard, seeking respite from the day’s baking heat. One of the women, Mangolnganbi Tongbram (third from left), stands over him and orders him to wake up and vacate the area. He leaps up, apologises profusely with head bowed and scarpers. It is unmistakably a display of deference to a respected figure.

A strong voice

Shanti Kshetrimayum, 60 (pictured on the right), has a formidable, room-filling presence. The mother of four is the president of the aforementioned organisation. “I was elected democratically to represent the 4,000 women of the market. Why? Because of my strong voice,” she said. This is palpable throughout her interviews; when Kshetrimayum speaks, everyone in the room listens.

Through her, it becomes clear that the imas do not draw a distinction between themselves, the market, and Manipur as a whole. An issue of importance to the state is one that they will fight for. When asked about the most significant action the imas have taken in living memory, she told a story that has been paraphrased as follows.

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In 1958, to quell secessionist and revolutionary forces in India’s restive north-east, the Indian government passed the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA). This granted special powers to the region’s security force, the Assam Rifles paramilitary organisation, which has frequently been accused of abusing such powers, interpreting the AFSPA as a ‘shoot to kill’ licence. Until 2004, the 17th battalion of the Assam Rifles was housed in the very heart of Imphal at Kangla Fort, an ancient palace of the Kangleipak Kingdom. Just a few hundred metres from the market, this was an inauspicious location and somewhere ordinary citizens could not enter.

A decision to rise up

As she recounts the story, the room falls silent and some eyes well up at the details that follow. In 2004, a young Manipuri woman was abducted from her home and taken to the base at Kangla. She stood accused of having relations with a revolutionary (or of being a revolutionary herself, depending on the account), for which she was gang-raped, shot at close range in her genitals and riddled with bullets. As word spread of the murder, some of the imas – outraged at the inhumanity and impunity of the soldiers – decided to rise up.

You desire the flesh of women? Come, take our flesh and satisfy yourselves! This inhuman act is for criminals in the jungle! Indian Army, leave Kangla and leave Manipur now!” they shouted, according to Ambrabati Thingbaijam.

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