Two little girls run and play in the courtyard. It’s clear they are still learning to wear the phanek, the traditional women’s sarong-like garment that is wrapped at the waist and falls neatly to the ankles. One of the girls struggles to keep it tied. As they remain cheerfully immersed in their play, there is a loud sound of firecrackers somewhere nearby and they say, “bomb blast.”
The opening scene of the documentary film Bloody Phanek by Sonia Nepram instantly captures the attention of the audience, particularly of those who are from the frontier state of Manipur in India. What is poignant about the scene is the interpretation of the sound of the firecracker as a ‘bomb blast’ by the two little girls. It reveals the political climate of a region torn apart by a conflict that has often been ignored by the Indian political establishment for more than seven decades. The disruption of the girls’ play is the everyday disruption of the lives of people who have survived state-sponsored violence under the shadow of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA).
But no, they stopped; the bullets had done their duty, they had killed someone.
The subjects in the documentary film talk about the moment of elation when they first get to wear or own a phanek. This is a feeling to be cherished, until it is smashed by the discovery of the phanek’s ‘impurity’ and ‘polluting’ nature. At this time, a girl learns that this women’s cloth is no longer what she thinks it is. The cloth is now an object of men’s disgust that should not be washed or left together with men’s clothes. It is not to be hung in the front courtyard where it is visible to the men of the family when they leave the house for work, because it will bring them bad luck.
Bloody Phanek is an immensely personal and political film. It premiered in South Korea at the ninth DMZ International Documentary Film Festival in 2017. In the film, the director frequently appears to search for the meaning of phanek, especially how it is perceived as both profane and sacred. The film resonates with the social and political realities of Manipur, where Indian military occupation and persistent state violence has become both omnipresent and banal.
For me, the film also brought back memories.
On a late spring afternoon in 2004, I was playing football with my friends in the village ground. I was barefoot and could feel the blades of grass as I ran. It was at that moment that I heard gunshots.
We paused our play for a while and waited to see if more gunshots would be heard. But no, they stopped; the bullets had done their duty, they had killed someone. Becoming once again oblivious to the cruelty around us, we continued our play. As the sun set in the mountains, it became darker. When we finished our play, we were tired, our shirts soaked in sweat, but our hearts were satisfied, like those of young lovers. We had forgotten the gunshots.
I was entering puberty and learning new vocabulary – curfew, disappeared, combing operation, commando, Assam Rifles, Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), AFSPA. After dinner, a rumour spread like wildfire and everyone prayed that it turned out wrong. We all went to bed.
A day of mourning
The rumour turned out to be true. The next morning, the dead body of the neighbour uncle was brought from the government hospital in a cheap coffin in the front courtyard. As villagers crowded to see the dead man, I tried my luck and squeezed forward through the crowd. I was frightened, but something inside told me that I had to see the dead man. There he lay, handsome as he ever was. But this time, his ears had been torn off by an Indian army sniffer dog. His toes were shredded into pieces by bullets. From just below his throat down to his belly, there were stitches from the autopsy. I remember the thread was thick and black in colour. He was tortured before life was snatched away from him. He was only 22.
Suddenly, all the villagers looked towards the east. My head turned too and I saw five or six cadres of the underground armed group Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) walking in haste towards the coffin. Their uniforms made them starkly different from everyone else in the scene. They carried flowers. The only lady cadre among them had a bouquet of roses. She yelled in grief as she cried, bowed down, and placed the roses above the dead body’s chest. She addressed my uncle as Michael. His name was Sanjoy. Then they all gave a salute together and were gone. It all happened so fast, yet it was so intense.
I was entering puberty and learning new vocabulary – curfew, disappeared, combing operation, commando, Assam Rifles, Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), AFSPA.
As the mourning continued, the eldest of the neighbour uncle’s younger siblings punched the coffin with his hands and asked his brother why he had to die. The younger one held hair oil in his hand and said to his dead brother, “Here is your favourite hair oil. This is my last gift to you.” His father stood silent and watched from the veranda of the thatched roof set-up on the right where every morning my tuition teacher conducted our classes. That face with no tears would haunt me for a long time to come.
Three months after the neighbour uncle was taken away from this world, Thangjam Manorama became a household name in my state. Not because she was going to become a national icon like the six-time boxing world champion Mary Kom. I came out in the street to participate in the protest; and I pelted my first stone towards the police and Indian central paramilitary forces. All the men in the streets wore pants and the women, phanek. I was turning 12 in a few months.
Contextualising Bloody Phanek
As the film progresses, we see a discussion of the sacred power of phanek to thwart evil spirits. For those adorned with phanek mapaan naibi, this includes protection from being possessed. Here, there is no mention of the ‘impurity’ of the phanek, rather the focus is on its functional utility in certain rituals and its sacred power to resist evil spirits. As another woman weaves a phanek, showing the audience the handcrafting process, she says “Men do not see phanek weaving as a respectful job… they consider it a woman’s job,” revealing the gender bias associated with the garment.
The Sahitya Akademi awardee, writer Sagolsem Lanchenba Meetei, lays out a complex historical and cultural narrative of the phanek, which was historically known as kanak phanik (kanak meaning bridging gap and phanik implying the regulation of something that’s about to overflow). The shape of the club, parrot and cucumber seeds adorned in the phanek has links to the Meetei cosmology, as Lanchenba explains in the film. The cucumber seeds symbolise the soul that was transferred to the sun by the Supreme Being. The concept of ‘purity’ and ‘impurity’ associated with the phanek has to do with the restrictions on male desire and behaviour. Men are not allowed to touch the phanek in the daytime in front of people – touching it was thought to bring them misfortune.
I came out in the street to participate in the protest; and I pelted my first stone towards the police and Indian central paramilitary forces. All the men in the streets wore pants and the women, phanek.
At the Ima Keithel (Mother’s Market), the historic market run exclusively by thousands of women, the imas give different explanations for the taboos associated with phanek. It is only the used and old phanek that is profane to men. The old ones are worn during childbirth and menstruation and are therefore impure. For one ima, it can never be ‘impure’ since it has always been the phanek-clad women who led all major mass movements against the state in Manipur. If phanek was impure, women would have never taken the lead.
The filmmaker highlights the deeply patriarchal discourse surrounding the protection of identity and culture when, in 2002, a student body ‘imposed’ phanek as uniform for girls in the last year of secondary school and at high school. The phanek as an artifact of indigenous Manipuri culture and tradition is elevated in the hierarchy of traditional attire. Women are expected to uphold this elevated status without compromise; the moralising gaze usually prevails over women’s agency.
The Phanek in protest
On 5 October 1904, thousands of phanek-clad Meetei women gathered outside the Residency of the British Political Agent, Lieutenant Colonel H St P Maxwell. Just a decade into British colonial rule, popular opinion and sentiment had started to turn against them, and in 1904, the first Nupi Laan (women’s agitation) started. The immediate cause of the uprising was the resuscitation of the Lalup, a forced labour system, which was brought back as a collective punishment on the male population after several official British buildings were burned down. The local population showed signs of resistance, and Maxwell made several orders to bring in British troops to Manipur. After the women’s protest on 5 October, Maxwell wrote in his diary:
It is very difficult to know how to treat a mob of wild cats like this, but I shall take care to disperse them next time before they become numerous.
The phanek-clad “wild cats” of 1904 would again be a significant force that the British had to crush down in the second Nupi Laan of 1939.
What made the present day protests a radical departure from earlier ones was the use of phanek. In public defiance of state authority, phaneks were tied on rope and bamboo and hung across the streets, forming a blockade. In doing this, the phanek’s ‘impurity’ was displayed in the open to hinder the state, where symbolic masculine power resided. At the same time, through the public display of phanek, the women protestors defied masculine control over a garment that is intrinsically associated with Meetei womanhood – by extension, resisting the patriarchal code that keeps women in their place.
The phanek in the public is the inversion of the domestic; it is the creation of the spectacle of women’s agency. Later on, the phanek would re-emerge as a symbol of protest in the face of paramilitary violence.
Manipur and militarisation
Manipur, like India-administered Kashmir, has been under the rule of India for a long time. On 21 September 1949, the forced Merger Agreement took place in Shillong between Maharaj Bodh Chandra and the Government of India. When told Manipur might be reluctant to merge with the Indian union, India’s deputy prime minister Sardar Vallabhai Patel asked, “Isn’t there a Brigadier in Shillong?” Empowered, the Governor of Assam, Sri Prakasa, was ready to use any force necessary. The ‘merger’ was never ratified by way of popular vote.
The occupation heralded an era of militarisation in Manipur. Resistance to the occupation gave birth to an armed movement in the late 1970s led by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The suppression by the Indian military that followed claimed thousands of lives and led to dozens of disappearances. Torture, fake ‘encounters’ (a euphemism for extrajudicial killings) rape and massacre became the language of Indian counterinsurgency.
Later on, the phanek would re-emerge as a symbol of protest in the face of paramilitary violence.
The 1958 Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) gave Indian armed forces operating in the region the power to shoot to kill any person deemed to be acting in contravention of “any law or order” and barred prosecution, suit or any other legal proceedings against them. Simply put, the people now live in a political climate where the law is suspended by what is termed a ‘lawless law.’
There is no distinction between the roles of the military and the police. The traffic is controlled by the armed forces with loaded rifles and AK-47s. You visit Manipur University for the first time only to be greeted by bullet-proof vehicles at the entrance; it is one of the only universities in the world that houses the army. Manipur puts Kashmir to shame in this respect. The military itself comes to represent abstract oppression, and the relationship between itself and the wider population can only be oppositional.
Over time, the oppression would be far from abstract. It would erupt in instances of real violence. In responding to it, protesters once again shed their phaneks, challenging a patriarchal system and aiming to subvert notions of shame that often impact survivors of sexual violence.
The radical imagination
In her search for the meaning of phanek, Sonia Nepram also tells us its story.
Early in the morning on 11 July 2004, the 17th Assam Rifles unit of the Indian armed forces barged into the house of Thangjam Manorama, a Meetei lady who they suspected of being in the People’s Liberation Army. While she was gagged and dragged by the hair to the courtyard, her mother and brother were forced to stay inside the house. The paramilitary forces slapped her and stabbed a knife under her phanek, pulling it down to her knees. After she had been slapped and kicked, her mother and brother were told that she would be taken into custody. Hours later, her mutilated lifeless body was found around two kilometres away from her house. The post-mortem report revealed that apart from chest injuries, she had 16 bullet wounds around her genitals. Forensic analysis revealed semen stains on her phanek, indicating that she may have been raped before her death.
Did those bullets, above the act of rape, add to the Indian paramilitary’s triumph over a woman’s body?
Four days after Thangjam Manorama’s killing, one of the biggest uprisings in Manipur’s history occurred. What made this starkly different was the naked protest of 12 imas on 15 July 2004 outside the Western Gate of Kangla Fort, the headquarters of the 17th Assam Rifles. The Sangai Express, a Manipur-based newspaper, reported that the protest made history in the state of Manipur, and exposed the atrocities committed by security forces in Manipur before the whole world.
In the final scenes of Bloody Phanek, Heisnam Sabitri, who portrayed the titular character Draupadi in the eponymous play by theatre director Heisnam Kanhailal, talks about the outrage the Meeteilon-language version provoked when the public first saw the play in 2000. Draupadi was an adaptation of the story authored in 1976 by Bengali writer and activist Mahasweta Devi, set against the backdrop of the peasant Naxalite revolt that emerged between the late 1960s and early 1970s in the Naxalbari region of West Bengal. To some, the play spoke of their everyday reality, to some it was outrageous, and it left many speechless. It was eventually banned due to its overtly ‘sexual’ display.
In the play, Sabitri says her character moves like an animal able to arouse fear in its prey, and stresses the fearlessness of womanhood. After being raped and assaulted, she declines to be clothed in phanek, and instead, with powerful physicality, covers the body of the Indian army soldier who is now cowering, an act that would be perceived as stripping the man of his masculinity.
In the offending scene, her back is to the audience as she holds the edges of the phanek around her and advances towards the Indian army threateningly as she says “Eigi ephi nakhoida sethalloi” (I will not allow you to clothe me). This is when she not only transcends but also dismantles the patriarchal script of shame associated with women’s nudity and thus ‘modesty.’
As she opens her phanek and screams with an expansive rage “Eibu ‘counter’ touru lao” (Come and ‘counter’ me), she refuses to be disciplined within the system that ensnares her. It is here that the phanek functions as the symbol of women’s shame and impurity that is subversively exercised upon the body of a male; a moment where the victim resists victimhood. The Indian soldier is stripped of the masculine power bestowed upon him by state authority.
You visit Manipur University for the first time only to be greeted by bullet-proof vehicles at the entrance; it is one of the only universities in the world that houses the army.
The 2004 protests after Thangjam Manorama’s death came to be read as a re-enactment of Kanhailal’s play. In spite of the white banners they held in their hands that read “Indian Army Rape Us!” or “Indian Army Take Our Flesh!” in red, the nude bodies of the imas spoke for themselves, revealing the vulnerability of Meetei women to rape and violence. The protest brought international attention to the Indian state’s brutalities in Manipur that even activist Irom Sharmila’s hunger strike after the 2000 Malom Massacre, in which the 8th Assam Rifles paramilitary unit shot dead ten civilians, was unable to achieve. Immediately after the 2004 protest, the Indian government set up a committee to review the AFSPA.
Phanek is deeply entrenched in the cultural psyche of the people of Manipur. Its meanings are uncommonly abstract yet real. In her search for the meaning of phanek, Sonia Nepram also tells us its story. In doing so, she narrates a story of women who have endured and resisted the wrath of colonial and postcolonial domination.