Commentary, Sep '19
Santa Khurai on trans women in Manipur being denied their traditional space in the Lai Haraoba festival
The growing visibility of Nupi Maanbis (trans women) in contemporary Manipur has brought about a constant surveillance over them in the public domain. Apart from everyday marginalisation, Nupi Maanbis are also excluded from the domain of ritualistic practices that have shaped and defined Meitei consciousness. One such glaring example of exclusion is how the long standing place of Nupi Maanbis in the state’s Lai Haraoba ritualistic festival is being contested and gradually erased. The story goes back nearly half a decade.
On March 8, 2014, a cultural group Umanglai Kanba Apunba Lup (UKAL) reached out to the Nupi Maanbi community for a formal meeting. The subject of the meeting was an unfortunate incident that took place a few days earlier in Waiton village, located some distance from Imphal city.
A Nupi Maanbi named Naobi Salam, who owned a beauty parlour located at the Khurai Lamlong Bazar, was invited by the Waiton Lai Haraoba committee to take part in the local Lai Haraoba event. She mobilised a few other Nupi Maanbis as well for the event. But when Naobi Salam walked towards the temple shrine to offer money to the deity, she was stopped by some female shamans (Maibis) who were in charge of looking after the Lai Haraoba rituals. They told her not to enter the shrine and not to participate in the rituals. She was told that this decision was taken by UKAL.
There was already a disagreement regarding the participation of Nupi Maanbis between the Waiton Lai Haraoba committee on one side and the villagers, female shamans and UKAL members on the other. Naobi Salam and other Nupi Maanbis left the shrine, but the arguments over their participation continued.
After a couple of days, All Manipur Nupi Maanbi Association (AMaNA), a collective of trans women in Manipur, received an invitation from UKAL for a meeting. AMaNA informed the larger Nupi Maanbi community about the invitation. Consequently, on March 12, 2014, several community members met UKAL representatives at the office of SAATHII, an NGO that works closely with the queer communities of Manipur.
No final decisions were taken at that meeting in 2014, however the Nupi Maanbi community requested UKAL not to exclude Nupi Maanbis from Lai Haraoba events. This request made no difference. Despite UKAL not taking an explicit stance against the participation of Nupi Maanbis, they were still excluded from Lai Haraoba events at many places. Community members often reported that notices barring Nupi Maanbis were displayed at many Lai Haraoba venues. For instance, at the Naoremthong Takyel Lairembi Lai Haraoba, a notification read, “Nupana nupi saraga laibow chongba yowba yaroi”, which means “Men cannot participate in the ritual proceedings of Lai Haraoba in the guise of women”. This was reported by Boichi, a Nupi Maanbi resident of Naoremthong.
History repeated itself this year. On May 22, 2019, an incident similar to the one in 2014 occurred at Tangkham, a village in Imphal East District. A few Nupi Maanbis were invited by the local Lai Haraoba committee to take part in the festival. Yet again, when the Nupi Maanbis reached the venue, they were not allowed to participate by a female shaman and other members of the committee. The Nupi Maanbis were abused, denied entry into the precincts of the Lai Haraoba venue, and were told to come in masculine attire if they wished to participate.
A representative of AMaNA, who was present to record the event for Varta, witnessed the entire exchange. None of the people present at the venue stood up for the Nupi Maanbis. One of the Nupi Maanbis went to the local police station to file a complaint. The police advised her to come the following day, the reason being that it was late at night!
The next morning, I, in the capacity of Secretary, AMaNA and my colleague Bonita Pebam went to the Heingang Police Station. Sursel, the Sub Inspector investigating the matter, said they had been to the festival site, but the Lai Haraoba committee had requested that a meeting be held after the festivities were over. Though we insisted that the police take immediate action, we were asked to come again the next day. The police assured us that they would be in touch with the committee to sit for a meeting at the earliest.
On May 24, 2019, Bonita Pebam received a phone call from Officer-in-Charge Geetanjali, and we were asked to visit the police station, with the idea that the police would accompany us to meet the Lai Haraboa committee. Other Nupi Maanbi community members, who were invited to the festival but later denied and insulted, also joined us. Instead of keeping their word, the police tried to convince us to hold a meeting only after the festivities were over. They said no action could be taken till the festival rituals were going on.
Our strength in numbers seemed to make a difference. We were adamant that the entire incident was about social exclusion and a violation of human rights. Eventually, Officer-in-Charge Geetanjali relented and promised that a meeting would be held two days later. Wonder of wonders, the meeting did take place on the morning of May 26, 2019 with the Lai Haraoba committee office bearers. A resolution was arrived at with an assurance from the President of the committee that the shaman who had prevented the participation of the Nupi Maanbis would never be invited to the festival again. However, our trials were far from over.
On July 5, 2019, I received a phone call from an UKAL member, intimating me about a public meeting the next day on the issue of Lai Haraoba and Nupi Maanbis. I attended the meeting along with Bonita Pebam and we were hopeful of a positive conclusion, something in line with the progressive NALSA judgement of the Supreme Court of India. At the meeting we were informed that UKAL was planning a consultation on providing space for Nupi Maanbis in Lai Haraoba. But we disagreed with their approach and left the place. We pointed out that Nupi Maanbis were always a part of Lai Haraoba, so the question of ‘providing space’ should not arise in the first place. Second, UKAL did not have a problem with the participation of Nupa Maanbas (trans men) in the festival, which was a clear demonstration of gender bias.
However, UKAL contacted us again and this time a community discussion was held on July 21, 2019 at Lamyanba Shanglen, a public space for meetings. We were again in for a huge disappointment. The resource persons invited by UKAL were transphobic in their speech and behaviour. No time was allotted for the Nupi Maanbi community members to speak! P. Tomcha, an advocate who worked at the Manipur High Court, spoke about the NALSA verdict but completely misinterpreted it. He said that trans persons were not created by god, rather they were created by law. Therefore they should not be allowed to mingle with those who had ‘god-given’ genders.
He went on to say that the NALSA verdict was not relevant to the context of Manipur, even claiming that the Supreme Court had not given trans persons the right to dress up against the social norms. A simple reading of the verdict would show that the esteemed advocate was plain wrong. He also said that trans persons were closely associated with several diseases like HIV, and that was the reason why the apex court had directed that separate HIV surveillance centres be set up for trans persons.
The invitation card received by AMaNA, a trans women’s collective headed by the author, for the community discussion on July 21, 2019 shows that there was no time allotted for any Nupi Maanbi community member to speak on the occasion. Photo credit: Santa Khurai
When this sham of a community discussion was over, there was an explosion of anger from the Nupi Maanbis present! All of us were up on our feet screaming at the insults that had been hurled at us. Some of the participants, including female shamans and youth members of UKAL, tried to calm the protesters down. When the protests continued, some of the youth tried to beat up the protesters with chairs and the shamans abused them.
Following this deadlock, the organizers said there would be another slot for discussion on the issues of controversy. But the participants were given so little time that they could not express what they wished to. A report in the Sangai Express the next day tried to strike a balance by saying that the traditional form of Lai Haraoba should be maintained, but that there was also need to give space to Nupi Maanbis. My contention is that the tradition that is sought to be ‘protected’ is already supposed to be inclusive of Nupi Maanbis, and denying them participation in festivals like Lai Haraoba is what is actually against the tradition.
‘Nupi Maanbi’ cannot be dismissed as a ‘creation’ of modern law or as an identity imported from a foreign context. The existence of multiple genders in Manipuri society is reflected in the historical records written in Meitei Mayek (pre-modern Manipuri) script. Modern scholars in Manipur like Khulem Chandrasekhar Singh have written about the concept of pheita. The glossary of Mashil (1997), which has text translated from the ancient Manipuri or Meiteilon language, carries an explanation for pheita, which can be interpreted as ‘a man who does not think like a man’ or ‘a man or a woman who cannot have a conjugal relationship’. Pheita could well be the precursor of what we consider as Nupi Maanbi or transgender today.
Thus Nupi Maanbis have the right to identify themselves as women or trans women not only in the context of post-colonial Indian law, but also in terms of the existence of gender plurality in traditional Manipuri society. Such humiliation of Nupi Maanbis as exhibited by UKAL has deeply hurt the sentiment and dignity of the community. It is also a gross violation of the right to freedom of speech guaranteed by the Indian Constitution.
If some Nupi Maanbis have misbehaved with other people, then it is those individual members of the community who need to be penalized according to the law of the land. Why demonize and victimize an entire community? This matter deserves an impartial and thorough investigation and intervention, and it should concern human rights bodies everywhere – in Manipur, India and globally.
Main illustration credit: Pawan Dhall