Cynthia E. Smith: You are an Indigenous scholar, author, and civil rights activist, and you also advocate for disarmament and women-led peace. What led you to this work?
Binalakshmi Nepram: I was born in a war zone in one of Asia’s longest-running armed conflicts. It is still going on. On the day of my birth there was a military operation; my mother could have died because of lack of access to medicine. The older I grew the more I understood the violence, the more I became committed to finding ways to resolve it. Honestly, I was not aware that I was growing up in a war zone. We once had one hundred days of no school because of military operations and lockdowns called by armed and civil society organizations and I thought this was normal. The military coming into our house—I thought it was normal. The insurgents coming and asking for food and shelter—I thought it was normal. “Don’t ask questions or you will be shot”—I thought that was normal. The culture of repression and silence was prevalent. When I came out of that war zone and started sharing my experience, I realized that I had grown up in an abnormal situation. What’s going on there? It’s not written. It’s not recorded. It’s not spoken of. It hurts when you realize the world is completely silent about it. You ask, why is the world silent? That made me speak about this issue, to work with survivors. Not just on a theoretical level, but to provide support to so many women, the survivors of this conflict.
CS: Thank you for sharing your personal story. What is the history of Manipur? Why does it remain a war zone?
BN: Manipur was an independent nation-state, which has a three-thousand-year recorded history. We have our own script [written form of a language] called Meitei Mayek. I speak Meiteilon, a Tibeto-Burman language that is different from Burmese and Tibetan but is a similar language genre. We have our own written constitution. We are an ancient Asiatic nation-state, in existence from the year 33 AD. And then this region of Asia came under British colonial rule. In 1891 we fought a war with Britain. We were defeated, and our leaders were executed. However, Britain let our sovereign rule as they took charge of defense and economy. Then in 1947 India’s independence treaty with Britain stated that Manipur could choose whether it wanted to be part of India. We stated that we were never part of India and so we were going back to our independent status, pre–British rule. India imprisoned the Indigenous king of Manipur and forced him to sign a merger agreement. Manipur had its own Indigenous Constitution, its own council of ministers, and a chief minister, based on a modern democratic system of universal adult franchise.
The Armed Forces Special Powers Act has been in place since 1958. This law gives Indian armed forces personnel impunity, and the extraordinary power to detain us, to shoot us, to kill us. As a result, over 20,000 lives were lost due to the violence in Manipur alone. There are over 1,500 extrajudicial killings recorded, and this has been submitted to the Supreme Court of India, and there have been many cases of enforced disappearances. India refuses to recognize what it has done, but history cannot lie to us. These decades of violence have been hidden away from the rest of the world, as global journalists are not allowed into Manipur and many other parts of the Northeast region. Nor is the history of forty-five million Indigenous peoples recorded in the historical narrative of the world’s largest democracy. If you visit India with an Indian visa, you are not allowed in our territories. There are three hundred thousand troops in the Northeast of India right now. India has colonized this region for the past six decades. It doesn’t want the world to know this, and that’s why news and information from this region are really cut off, not just from the rest of the world but from the rest of India, which doesn’t know what its own government is doing to its own people.
CS: You’ve described how in your home state of Manipur, forty-five million people have been left out of the global narrative. There are more than three hundred similar unknown and unreported conflicts in the world. Can you talk more about the harm caused by this underreporting in your efforts to build peace?
BN: Conflict will happen as long as human beings exist. When India denies the existence of conflict in Manipur, it denies our history, our struggles, and efforts for humanitarian aid to reach us to help thousands impacted by seven decades of war. We maintain our neutrality while working for Indigenous people’s rights and gender justice. We’re not with the army, and we’re not with the insurgents, we are not with any political party. We are a neutral, humanitarian, civilians’ network working to help survivors of the violence, sandwiched between the guns of the state and the guns of non-state actors. We work with the casualties of conflict: women, young children, ethnic minorities, Indigenous peoples. Civilians are left on their own, without any humanitarian aid during a raging war. There is violence every day in our lives, but there is no help coming. Having experienced that and survived that, I felt it was so wrong. There is a huge humanitarian crisis that the world hasn’t woken up to. With Manipur as a case study we hope the world will start pushing policy makers, thinkers, and those who work for peace to ask about the other unreported conflicts in the world.
CS: This lack of visibility. Did it influence your early research into the proliferation of weapons, state violence, and insurgent groups on the border? How did mapping this activity inform your research?
BN: My 2002 book South Asia’s Fractured Frontier has become one of the key resources for understanding this conflict and the interactions between gunrunning and the trafficking of arms, drugs, women, and children. I discovered in my research that killing is magnified when there is a heavy influx of weaponry and “technologies of killing.” AK-47s can fire six hundred rounds in a minute. The Indian army carry sophisticated weapons; insurgents carry small arms such as M-16 and AK-47 rifles. I started researching these tools of violence and how they reached Manipur and Northeast India. To my amazement I discovered the presence of more than fifty-eight types of guns from thirteen countries. This is when I realized that America may have never heard of Manipur, but its M16s are flooding my region. China may say that it is not involved in the Manipur conflict, but its cheaply made 9 mm guns and hand grenades are easily available and used for committing acts of violence. I also realized that those benefiting from this conflict are not the warring parties, not even the government of India or the armed groups. It is arms manufacturers and gun dealers. It is important to note that that it is the permanent five members of the United Nations Security Council who manufacture 88 percent of world’s weapons and it’s these weapons that are found in conflict zones around the world.
I interviewed gunrunners, people who traffic AK-47s, asking why they are doing this. They said, “I have to feed my children. I don’t want to do it.” I have interviewed Indian military personnel as young as twenty-two years old patrolling the streets of Manipur. Why are you a part of the killings? “I have to feed my children too.” I realized whether it is state or non-state, many young lives are put at the front line of battlefields and they come from very poor and marginalized families. Those who colonize, create wars and conflicts, and divide communities live in fortified bunkers, away from the conflict zone, while it is the poorest and most vulnerable living in our villages that bear the brunt. I realized the humanity of what’s happening, and I realized that someone was playing us as puppets, one against the other and this must stop.
CS: What do you see as the role of Indigenous people and women, in Manipur and elsewhere, in attaining peace, security, and disarmament? In your experience, what are the most helpful ways to amplify these hidden and forgotten stories?
BN: We launched the Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network in 2007 to help women and families who are survivors of the conflict. We help to feed these families, get children to school, make occupational therapy accessible, and work with pro-bono lawyers to register these killings. Around the same time, we launched the Control Arms Foundation of India in New Delhi—India’s first disarmament organization to impact policy makers. Our organizations are diverse, inclusive, and women-led because the narrative of war and conflict has always been a masculine one of power and guns on both sides of state or non-state. Currently, there have been seventeen peace talks in Manipur and Northeast India without a single woman involved. We realized that we had to bring a gender dimension, a humanitarian dimension, otherwise this war would go on endlessly.
I thought whatever was happening in Manipur was a local and regional concern. However, when I started traveling for work meeting women from Rwanda, from Peru, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Afghanistan, from Guatemala, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Philippines, I learned about their conflicts. I saw the parallels with Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina.
In Manipur we have a 116-year-old non-violent women’s movement that formed to resist British colonial policies. Our work for peace is built on the courage of the many extraordinary Manipuri women who have walked before me: those who fought against colonialism using their bodies as a site of resistance, such as the Manipuri Meira Paibi or “Manipuri women with bamboo torches” movement. After I started traveling, I met women from different war zones, such as women from the Congo, where I learned the Congolese people were made to fight each other because of coltan, a metallic ore that is refined and used in our cell phones. Biodiversity hotspots have been the sites of armed conflicts for decades, with Indigenous peoples making up 80 percent of these areas’ populations. With the growth and perpetuation of corporatized democracies, there is no end in sight to the patterns of conflict and irreversible environmental damage.
As a visiting scholar at Columbia University in 2017, I discovered the strength of the collective world of indigeneity in a course on Indigenous people’s rights and attended the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. I met more strong, powerful Indigenous women from around the world whose stories and struggles were similar to ours. We cried together when a woman told me how nuclear dumps poisoned the waters her children drank. We bonded as we shared the familiar stories of militarization, weaponization, and exploitation of Indigenous lands and resources. It made me realize that a lot of Indigenous territories around the world have become sites of military and nuclear testing. We saw the importance of working together because the stories are so similar, and so in 2019 we formed the Global Alliance of Indigenous Peoples, Gender Justice and Peace. In March 2021 we brought together women from seven sociocultural Indigenous zones around the world for the first time to talk about what’s happening in our territories and find what I call “Indigenous ways of peace making and peacebuilding.” The “non-peace” that we have in the world is due to the fact that modernity, the way in which modern nation-states have been created, has been implemented so violently. If we are to find that peace, we will have to take the hands and wisdom and knowledge of Indigenous peoples. And if we do not do that, we will only keep hurting one another. I’m invested in the concept of Indigenous peace, constitutions, and democracies. Treaty making that honors who we are together.
Today’s world is interlinked, and we cannot stay in isolation and separation. It’s about recognizing our histories and giving respect to each other’s struggles; saying sorry for what has happened and then moving on by inclusive, diverse policy in our nation and community building—that’s what we are asking for. But to this day, it has been denied to us. For peacebuilding to work, nation-states must have the courage to acknowledge their mistakes to their marginalized and Indigenous communities. Once that healing starts, the world will have much more peace.
CS: Can you talk more about the work you do with the Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network and how this work supports sustainable livelihoods along with Indigenous culture and traditions?
BN: It is the soul of our work. We work directly with women and family survivors of conflict—there are twenty thousand registered widows due to armed conflict. One mother we work closely with, whose two sons—ages seventeen and twenty-seven—were shot dead by Indian paramilitary in one day, told us she was just waiting to join her sons in death. I kept meeting with her regularly and told her “We feel your pain.” Our team saw a loom in her house, so gave her a bit of silk cocoons to reel. She started reeling the silk cocoons, began selling the silk, and then weaving on her loom. She now runs the Weaving Enterprise, with five looms, and employs several women weavers. When I first met her, her cheeks were sunken, but now her cheeks are pink. The healing is what inspires us at Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network.
Our work for gender justice, peace, and disarmament consists of three basic steps. First, put food on the table. In a war zone, we cannot teach human rights or gender justice on an empty stomach. We always see how the family is doing. Are they eating healthy? Are the children going to school after a killing? Second, we ask what the surviving family member wants to do. We provide a little seed money, two thousand to three thousand Indian rupees, like eighty or a hundred dollars. We did not know what an NGO was when we began. Then we open bank accounts for them, because in Asia, particularly in Manipur and the Northeast Region women don’t have anything to call their own. Third, we start the process of what I call collective healing, through addressing the wrongs done. We ask if they want to work with pro bono lawyers to find justice through litigation. We train the women to know what government programs and services they are entitled to as survivors of conflict. We use art as a way of expressing the trauma and violence they have gone through—painting, drawing, theater—where the women play out what happened in their lives. Indigenous festivals bring us together for collective healing from trauma caused by decades of war. Because we come from a culture of weaving, our team explored the idea of “weaving peace,” using Indigenous textile weavings from Manipur to create a “culture of peace and resilience.” We supported over a hundred women weavers in Manipur and set up Weaving Villages to help in economic strengthening and managed to raise the income level of women 30 to 100 percent. In my Indigenous culture, many homes have looms, a lot of women weave every day. I’ve seen homes where there have been deaths and killings, but the women and children learn to weave. And the fabric is so strong compared to the fragility of life. Hope is the strongest human emotion that carries us toward global peace.
CS: In 2016 you edited Where Are Our Women in Decision Making on UNSCR 1325?, a book about the landmark United Nations Security Council Resolution on women and peace and security, which was adopted in 2000. Why is it important for women to take the lead?
BN: The two-page resolution was the first gender resolution ever passed in the Security Council. This historic document on women and armed conflict spoke to us. I remember the joy I felt when I first laid my hands on it a decade after it was passed. It talks about how women are disproportionately affected in conflict areas. It’s the men who mostly go to war, and the women are left to pick up the pieces of life. Women are not at the negotiation table, so even if the “men made peace with nations” it was not sustainable peace, as it excluded half the population. In Manipur and Northeast India, peace was negotiated with Indian government on one side and the rebels negotiating on the other. No one was taking women’s voices into consideration. The UNSCR 1325 states that women be included in all forms of decision making—socio, economic, and political—in times of war and peace.
CS: Why did seventeen peace accords in Manipur fail?
BN: Because they excluded half the population. We have got to change how power is defined; we need a narrative of power that gives agency to every human, not just men. It’s so important to have a gender perspective—to see where our voices are included and respected and where we have the agency to define what we want for the next ten or twenty years.
Knowledge is such a beautiful thing. It’s like light. Once we discovered UNSCR 1325, our little team realized we had to share the knowledge. The UN has many challenges, but one thing it produces are good documents. We took this document, translated it into several Indigenous languages, and did a series of trainings across Manipur, Northeast India, and the Indo-Burma region letting women know they are not alone in the struggle and that there’s a world body out there trying to mitigate violence in conflict zones. The book is a product of the trainings. It was the collective work of many people.
CS: Are there systems we could put in place—at a local, national, or international level—that could support these efforts to bring women to the negotiating table?
BN: We had the third Northeast India Indigenous Women Peace Congregation in 2020, which yielded several directives for the future. One resolution calls for rejecting any peace talk, whether in Manipur or around the world, that does not make women equal stakeholders in the negotiations. Another calls for the inclusion of voices from forgotten conflict zones. In Northeast India we have had more than four hundred thousand people living in more than three dozen displaced people’s camps since 1990. A third directive is about including the voices of the 476 million Indigenous people living in ninety countries and territories with 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. This calls for equitable sharing of resources, which is important to peacebuilding work, because as long as greed exists, for-profit exploitation will continue. We also affirmed that peacebuilding cannot be a project where after two years you suddenly abandon everything and go away. That creates more misunderstanding. Generally peacebuilding is done on a project-by-project basis, but funders need to align, know what others are doing in different parts of the world, and have a more cohesive interaction to really transform peace.
CS: “Peace is not a project, it is a way to fight back.” Can you expand a little on this idea? How might peace be active?
BN: Peace starts from within. With how we relate to ourselves and the world around us and how we nurture that and think of a larger collective rather than just “me, myself.” Peacemaking has to be a process of continuous dialogue. Peace is hard work, every single day. It is a commitment for a lifetime.
CS: What is your definition of peace?
BN: For me, growing up in Manipur, peace is when our lives are not controlled by the barrel of a gun. Not put under surveillance and militarized. Peace is the freedom to be who we are and to live our life, without threats or exile for what we believe and what is enshrined in our constitutions or in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or law of nature. Peace is the ability to go to school freely without fear or being locked down by humans or by a pandemic. Peace for the Indigenous peoples of Manipur and Northeast India is the removal of the former British colonial martial law called the Armed Forces Special Powers Act imposed on our people since 1958 by the government of India. Peace is when we are able to get justice for the decades of violence done to our bodies, to our lives, to our territories, to our consciousness, to our histories. Peace is when nation-states apologize for the wrongs and the genocide committed against Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities, and set up truth and reconciliation measures. Peace is to take the first step towards collective healing within ourselves, in our communities, and in our nations.
CS: How might we design for peace?
BN: Designing peace is about hope. Hope that things will become better, less violent than they are now. If we are to create a culture of peace, it has to start from a very young age, so our children will be able to take a stand when they become adults. Designing peace means reimagining and rewriting our histories, where cultures of Indigenous peoples and nations are woven equally in the narrative of the world. Where Indigenous peoples are not labeled “savages.” It is an inclusive process, listening to one another and respecting one another, then finding the collective courage to create that collective peace that every being and non-being in this world deserves.