Ramtharmawi sat outside her house in Moulvaiphei village in Manipur’s Churachandpur district. It was dusk and a cooking pot bubbled over a fire next to her. She has to cook for a family of five – three sons and a daughter, apart from herself. Her eldest son is 21 and still completing his education. Her daughter is the youngest,13 years old and struggling with mental disabilities.
In April, 43-year-old Ramtharmawi was called by the secretary of the local village council. He said her husband, who worked as a peon at the Regional Institute of Medical Sciences in Imphal, had been found dead and was in the morgue. He had been shot down by unidentified persons, believed to be from one of the many armed groups that range Manipur.
“My first thought was that my sons are teenagers, they should not go out and get into a fight over their father’s death,” she said. “So I called them to me and told them to remain calm.” She then went out to identify the body. When she saw her husband in the morgue she lost consciousness. Ramtharmawi was now a gun widow.
There are thousands like her in Manipur, women who have lost their husbands to the violent insurgencies that have divided the state or to the army crackdown that came with them. The state is largely absent from the process of rehabilitating these women. A report from 2011, jointly published by four human rights organisations and financed by Cordaid, states that the Indian government does not extend support to the widows and children of those branded as militants. As for fake encounter killings, in most cases the state simply does not recognise unlawful violence by its own forces, whether police or military.
Since Ramtharmawi’s husband had worked on contract, she was not eligible for a widow’s pension from his employers either. And there are no relatives who can help. A neighbour sponsors her eldest son’s education but that is the extent of financial support she gets. She is the only earning member of the family.
Ramtharmawi weaves phaneks, the swathes of cloth worn rather like a wraparound skirt by Manipuri women. If she works day and night, she can finish two phaneks in a month and earn Rs 4,000. Finances are a constant source of stress. “When it’s time to pay the tuition fees for the children, I sometimes can’t eat for worry,” she said.
The day starts early for her. “I get up at four in the morning to cook for the family. If the children help me with the cooking then I can finish the housework and start working by seven or eight. When they have their exams they can’t help. Then the day is too short.” Losing an hour or two of work would mean she is that much farther away from meeting her monthly target.
The joy of work
Ramtharmawi weaves till ten at night. During the day, work is often disrupted by her 13-year-old daughter, who stays home with her and gets restless sometimes. She cannot do anything for herself and has to be washed and dressed, her mother says.
But Ramtharmawi enjoys her work. “I’ve been weaving phaneks since before I was married. It’s the only skill I have. When I’m trying out new patterns and doing embroidery, I can’t think of anything else. When I’m able to meet my target, it gives me great joy.” She displayed the phanek she was weaving at the moment. It was black with an intricate multicoloured pattern on it.
It took Ramtharmawi some time to come to terms with her new life. “But now I have accepted it. I have told myself that they might have killed my husband but they cannot take away his soul. The children have also come to understand that revenge will not solve anything. We can now think about the future.” The evening had darkened around her as she spoke. The lights came on inside the house. Outside, the light had shrunk to the cooking fire where the evening’s meal was still bubbling away.