Curfews and the women of Ima Keithel

By Chitra Ahanthem

The Market of Mothers in Imphal, Manipur, is the only marketplace that is run and controlled entirely by women. Over the generations, it has been an arena for women's uprisings and opinion-moulding. But curfews and general strikes are now affecting the women who trade here

Market of Mothers in Imphal Manipur

It is said that Ima Keithel (Market of Mothers), situated in the heart of Imphal in Manipur, is the only marketplace to be entirely run and controlled by women. The market is so called because it is the Imas (Mothers) who manage it, although some say that the name is actually derived from the Goddess Ima, the female deity that graces the market compound. Over 3,000 women sit in rows in the covered market, selling a variety of goods and commodities: handloom and handicraft items, knives and utensils, basket and cane works, trinkets and beads, vegetable and fish. There is no clear record of when the market was set up but memoirs and historical accounts dating back to the British rule over Manipur indicate that the market was well-established even then.

According to Yambem Laba, former Chairperson of the Manipur Human Rights Commission, "The origin of Sana-Keithel is lost in antiquity. It is perhaps hundreds of years old but over time it began to acquire the acronym Sana - the Manipuri word for royalty - to justify its position as the Queen of Markets. It also began to acquire other names, amongst them the Khwairamban Khoiri Keithel and, more recently, the popular Ima Market - a name coined by outsiders to describe this unique spot in South East Asia where Manipuri Mothers or Imas of all hues and religions would come out to do trade and commerce or 'man' the economy."

Over time, the marketplace got converted into an arena of opinion moulding, with severe social and political consequences. It was this marketplace that gave birth to the germ of the Nupi Lal or the great women's uprising of 1939 against the economic policies of the then British colonial forces.

The spectre of urbanisation has brought its share of conflict amongst the Imas and the state government. It was during the early-1990s that the women who sat in the market, spread in three different directions with all sections linked to each other, were served the first eviction notice from the state urban development authorities. The Imas had to resort to 24-hour vigils at the market, which ended only in 1992 after an official assurance from the then Governor of the state, Chintamani Panigrahi, that the market would be renovated without altering its basic structure and that lighting would also be provided in the process. The state government under the current Chief Minister, O Ibobi Singh, ordered the old market areas to be razed to the ground, forcing the Imas into makeshift sheds where the market exists now.

Angom Memma Devi (42) says that the brand new three-storeyed market complex that is currently under construction takes away the unique atmosphere and spirit of the Ima Keithel. At present, however, her attention is more on dipping sales figures due to the recent imposition of curfew, which has adversely affected her business. "Holi festivities and the ongoing marriage season mean more sales every year but the imposition of curfew has affected our trade," she says, sipping the tea that a young man brings to her. The market, which is made of rows of spaces where the women sit, has been regulated over the years. "There are specific areas within the market for specific types of commodities," according to Memma. So a segment that offers food and vegetable items will not have clothes and vice versa.

Curfews are not a new phenomenon for the people of Manipur in view of the ongoing conflict situation and political unrest. "The government imposes curfew while the public calls for general strikes and market closures but all these affect us the most," says Memma. Sitting next to her, K Menaka Devi says, "Our families not only depend on our daily earnings but, at the end of the day, we also buy groceries and other household items from the other women in the market." According to her, thanks to the curfew, she has to pack her wares earlier than usual to make sure she has enough time to buy essential commodities for her household. "There were fewer people coming to the market during the long curfew hours, although sales are picking up gradually since the government recently began cutting down on the curfew hours," says Memma.

The killing of three government employees by an armed group on February 17 sparked off widespread protests in the state, with a general strike (bandh) being called for two days (February 18-19). Though the state has known everyday conflict-related violence for a long time, the killing of Dr Thingnam Kishen, a Sub Divisional Officer posted in the Kasom Khulen sub-district, triggered public outrage. The upcoming officer, who was known for being upright, was abducted along with five other staff on February 13. The bludgeoned bodies of Dr Kishen, along with two of his staff members, were recovered from Senapati district on February 17. The other three staff members, who belonged to another community, were kept in custody of the armed group, which later released them. Total curfew was imposed immediately after the general strike for the next two days (48 hours at a stretch) to quell protests. The curfew was then gradually relaxed in phases: while there was curfew from 5 pm to 5 am up to March 6, from the next day it was relaxed by a couple of hours to begin at 7 pm.

Though most women in the market complained that their sales were affected by curfew, it is the vegetable and fish sellers whose businesses suffered the most. Usharani (40) from Yurembam did not get to hear about the first day of the bandh. "I reached the market around 5 am with the stock of vegetables for the day. As soon as I heard about the general strike, I prepared to leave with my goods but could not get a bus to go home," she says. She had to walk 25 km to get back home. "I had to leave most of my stocks behind since I could not carry them all the way. By the time the bandh was over and curfew was lifted, the vegetables were all spoilt," says Usharani, who lost about Rs 1,500 in the process.

Sitting next to her, Memchoubi adds that she lost more money than her friend. "That is because I had not been able to sell off the vegetables that I had in stock earlier. Not only had I brought a fresh lot but I had to pay more money for my return home." She had to leave behind everything she came with, as there was no space in the auto she managed to hail. "What mattered then was that I reach home safely. The losses sank in later," she says, agreeing that protests in Manipur end up affecting the common people while the government and political groups do not seem to be concerned. "The most unfortunate aspect of the situation is that until the people erupt in violence, no one takes notice. In the process, we are affected," chips in Usharani.

Some rows further away, two women who sell fresh fish say that the continuous closure of the Ima Keithel due to strikes and curfews has set all the women fish-sellers back by several thousands of rupees. According to them, their friends selling clothes and utensils did not have to suffer such major losses since their goods are not perishable. But Ibemcha, who is hoping that she will be able to recover her losses, points out that curfews and strikes affect the cycle of life in many other ways. "Though almost two persons are killed in political violence every single day, Kishen's death has angered a lot of the youth because his reputation for sincere and honest work was well-known. Whenever my sons went out to take part in protest rallies during the general strike, I would pray that they would come back safe," she says.

Memchoubi adds that curfews and general strikes affect her and other women at another level, too. "The market is our resting place, despite the hustle and bustle around. Our lives have revolved around it for so many years -- when we have to stay at home, we simply cannot get used to it." She says that curfews and strikes affect life in severe ways: "The total of five days of closure meant that we could not earn our daily amount of money, on the one hand, and that we could not get out to buy any rations for the house on the other hand." At the same time, she says, although the recent protests have affected the lives and livelihoods of the women in the market, their losses do not compare with the loss of lives in the ongoing violence in the state.

To the women the market is not only a means for economically sustaining families but also a common ground for social interactions. Most of the women have had their spaces in the market handed over to them by their mothers and other female relatives. So there is considerable continuity in their relationships. The prices of commodities and other products have been regulated over the years through a code of consensus.

Of course, although the women present the most visible face of the Ima Keithel, there are others whose lives also revolve around the market. Ravi, a migrant labourer from Bihar who stays in the vicinity of the market, says he sells tea and snacks to the women. "The curfew meant that I could not sell anything. Also, I could not buy my daily requirements of vegetables. But the odour of the rotting fish was the worst part," he says, wrinkling his nose at the memory. As the women get ready to pack their things in trunks to be stored till the next day, Ravi sums up the mood saying, "Till the next round of curfews or general strikes, it will be the mad rush of people that sustains us."

(Chitra Ahanthem writes on issues around HIV/AIDS and drug use, gender and conflict. She is based in Imphal and writes for The Imphal Free Press (Manipur) and the Health and Development Network (HDN, based in Chiang Mai, Thailand))

InfoChange News & Features, March 2009