Recently a Nupi Manbi tested Coronavirus positive in Moirang and although it was a normal affair as many people had tested positive around that time, in this case the Nupi Manbis in the area were confined to their homes by the neighbours. The ill-treatment by the locality was not all they had to go through. In the following days there was a barrage of trolling on social media with accusations of the Nupi Manbis being immoral, not knowing the norms for Covid-19 and not listening to anybody. The anti-social role is what the society has coined for the Nupi Manbis, says Santa Khurai, the state’s foremost Nupi Manbi activist, and a researcher and writer by profession. The complaint is that whatever happens people laugh at them, ridicule them and put them down so that they can’t make any impression, except what the people impose on them.
Santa says their community is already an overly stigmatised and marginalised group and now the problem is twin-fold, with the financial crisis each Nupi Manbi is facing. Though her profession is different, Santa understands that the younger ones among them who have their beauty parlours and designing works are constrained as their work requires physical proximity, while the medical advisory is for social distancing. A big question now is will they be able to regain the earning option they had and when will that platform be available, if at all they recover from this crisis. Santa also rues the government negligence of not just the Nupi Manbis but the whole state, arising from absence of a regular and rational health policy and no spending on health services. She also admits that the Nupi Manbis are suffering more than the common people due to this.
Transgenders left to fend for themselves
A Nupi Manbi friend of Santa who had arrived from Bangalore was left to stay alone at the designated quarantine centre which did not even have a guard for the night. With the heavy rain and wind outside and not a single soul to even ask for a light when the electricity went out, she had a harrowing experience with bouts of fear through the night. There is no sustainable policy for food, guards etc., and while Santa says if told to do so by the authorities they can arrange the food for the inmates with the help of the 4000-odd Nupi Manbi and Nupa Manba in the state, they have not been asked to help out by the authorities. The quarantine centre is not a confinement centre; the concept is different and maybe the government has misunderstood, she says.
The Social Welfare department has a separate Transgender Welfare Board but there is no help forthcoming from them to the Nupi Manbis on Covid-related matters, although the separate quarantine centres were set up at the request of the All Manipur Nupi Manbi Association (AMANA), of which Santa again is the general secretary. The Nupi Manbis want to know why the board is not updating the Nupi Manbi organisations on the latest position and at the same time not doing the needful themselves either, asserts Santa while asking the FPSJ to put across this point to the authorities. At the last count one Nupi Manbi was positive and 20 more were at the quarantine centres, she states adding that the facts should be put correctly by the journalists. “We don’t like one-sided manipulative stories on our plight,” she avers strongly.
Santa has been organising fund drives from the very beginning of the pandemic and in the fourth phase of her aid campaign she has provided rations at two Leikais in Khurai and one in Kiyamgei with over 250 packets of rice, dal, oil, salt and fermented fish. On her initiative, over 45 Nupi Manbis were provided rations in Imphal East by the DC, Rangita Bali Waikhom, and some other people. At another time the government rice distributed at their Leikai was adulterated and people didn’t like it; so she thought of organising funds and got funds twice from an organisation in London and a few times in India from groups like the New Delhi-based Goonj. While the money was sent directly to the account of the shop from where the goods were procured, she coordinated the process acting as the interpreter.
In the first, second and third phase of her campaign aid went to Nupi Manbis and Nupa Manba numbering 1035 over the whole valley area including Kakching, Thoubal, Bishnupur, Moirang, Imphal East and Imphal West. Though she could get only one-third of the funds she was targeting in the fund-raising, she also gifted a smart TV to the Leikai library along with wi-fi, books and stationary for the children and alternative learning which can be hooked to the TV, because of which 30-40 children are benefitting. She also presented three smart phones to widows so that their children can carry on their online learning.
There are some interesting facts Santa Khurai elucidates regarding the Nupi Manbis in Manipur. First of all she does not like the Nupi Manbis to be equated with the westernised concept of LGBTQ, transgender and transsexuals. Away from the state and the Northeastern region gender is fixed to gender binary or fixed stereotyping of Nupi (female) and Nupa (male), and persons wanting to be identified as a man or woman can go for a surgery and bring a certificate to substantiate the claim. Plurality in Manipur and Northeastern region, she says reflects gender inclusive society and is not a matter of getting a sex change.
She also cites the example of photos of Nupa Amaibis taken by the political agent of Manipur, Mawbray Thompson, in the latter half of the 19th Century to bring home the point that Nupa Amaibis have a spiritual existence in the indigenous Manipuri community. Importantly, Nupa Amaibis showcase Manipur’s diverse community and they are not to be confused with the Nupi Manbis. The Nupa Amaibis perform the female role in the ritual occupation of the Sanamahi religion’s Lai Haraoba and are well-known in the South East Asian region. Also, while Nupi Manbi is a term used in the Manipuri linguistic community, other communities like Kuki and Zou, for instance, have their own terms for addressing members of this community, she informs.
Regarding the Transgender Rights Act which was passed in 2020, she says it needs to be reviewed for anomalies. For instance it is stated there that Nupi Manbis should be kept in rehab, whereas she insists the community is not mentally ill and it is not a medical requirement for them. In cases of rape too rape of biological women gets a hefty punishment but rapists of Nupi Manbis rarely get punished beyond two-and-a-half years. Santa has also been involved since 2013 in advocacy to bring about a gender inclusive church in Meghalaya, Nagaland and Churachandpur under an apex body of churches, the National Council of Churches in India.
Also, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment has just last week constituted the Transgender National Council with five members from five regions the country has been divided into. The Northeast region is represented by Tripura but the fact is the ministry did not take into confidence anyone from the state. The policy and programmes right from the beginning will lack transparency as there is no representation, says Santa, also asking how the financial disclosures will be available to their community. It does seem the council is only for the benefit of those who will toe the Centre’s line and one can guess why the Centre pushed it through during the lockdown.
On events like the Pride Walk which was held for the first time in Manipur and the Northeast in 2014, she says though it is a landmark event Manipur has its own Nupi Manbi Thabal (festival for Nupi Manbis). Also, apart from holding events, since the Nupi Manbis are underrepresented and almost second class citizens, she is asking Nupi Manbi allies in the state to give solidarity in the Nupi Manbi movement. If the Nupi Manbis get representation in mainstream politics through the local bodies they can push for a quota in education and workplace, she says.
The mental health of Nupi Manbis also becomes an issue sometimes. Some Nupi Manbis drink every evening as a traditional way to escape from stigma and the mental problems they are associated with by others. A clinical psychologist, Paonam Thoibi, is popular among the Nupi Manbis and she also refers them to other doctors known to her. They also have no expectations at all from their families traditionally. The Nupi Manbis give their families a lot of support so they can live with them and have a place in their homes. They help with earnings and during difficulties, but expect nothing in return. Same is with society. Recently in the Lai Haraoba festival the Umang Lai Kanba Lup disallowed them at the festival for wearing female clothes. “Under the circumstances what do we expect from them,” says Santa.
Poverty too affects the Nupi Manbis as they are born usually in poor families. They also have no opportunity for earning in government or private jobs. Only if they disguise themselves by getting their hair cut short they might get a job, but not if they come out openly and strongly as Nupi Manbis. A little success would mean starting a beauty parlour and this is something that they go well with though it is a stereotypical role. Outside this they lose their spirit to look for other avenues because of societal pressure, says Santa. However, in spite of all, some people do surely find the Nupi Manbis interesting, stylish, flamboyant and even humorous. Instead of being thwarted by societal commentary people here do want them to live their own lives freely. As Santa rightly put it, Manipur certainly allows the Nupi Manbis a different tradition, and many people do believe the Nupi Manbis are meant to flourish here as much as anybody else.