Imphal, Apr 11 : Some high-backed chairs and a few dim lights may be all that restaurants in Manipur offer by way of a romantic rendezvous. However, it’s enough for a group of mothers, who have been going around the state threatening couples and restaurant owners to “mend their ways” on what goes therein.
Apart from sticks, the “imas” as they are known come armed with camera persons — all the better to shame the youngsters with. Their parents are informed, sometimes the police called in, and in most cases, an agreement enforced to ensure there is a marriage as early as possible.
In its campaign to ensure that “the moral and social fabric of the community is not eroded”, the powerful Keithel Fambi Apunba Lup doesn’t differ much from similar directives issued by underground groups.
However, the Lup insists on its “cause”.
The drive against “seedy restaurants” was launched on March 19. On the 26th, they “apprehended a couple red-handed” at an Imphal eatery. The Lup didn’t just object to the relationship, but that the woman was a Meitei (Manipuri Hindu) divorcee seeing a Mayang (non-Manipuri outsider), who was a personnel of the 33rd battalion of the Assam Rifles. Their photographs were given to the local press and the case given to the police for “investigation”.
Laishram Memma, the Lup secretary and the brain behind the movement, claims they have conducted “surprise raids” on at least 50 restaurants in Imphal, Thoubal district and in some areas of Ukhrul district so far. Over the next few months they plan to cover most of the state. There are over 1,000 women members and every day, a team of 25, armed with torches and wooden rods, scouts the eateries curbing “immoral activity” — going for the love seats and the tables draped with curtains. Most of the couples targeted by them are between 15 and 22 years old.
Manipur DGP Ratnakar Baral said this form of social vigilance was fine as long as it remained within the law, and adds that his hands are tied. “This is the kind of moral policing which takes place in Manipur. We have received no complaints from anyone... so there is no question of us stopping this campaign. Of course, if we received a complaint, that would be different,” Baral told The Indian Express.
Defending the action against the Meitei woman and the Assam Rifles personnel, Memma says: “It is bad enough that the two had physical relations. What makes it worse is that the man was a non-Manipuri and therefore it was so much more difficult to make him accountable for our society.”
Memma sees nothing wrong in using the video clips of the couples either. According to her, their intervention in case of unmarried couples, when they call in the parents, was “maternal”.
“We have found scores of young people at these seedy restaurants doing what they shouldn’t be doing. After we locate them, we first give them a warning and then call in their parents. We ensure that the families agree to the couple being married. Pre-marital sex is not acceptable,” she says.
Such is the clout of women’s groups in Manipur that, the Lup says, not a single family contacted by them has so far refused the marriage diktat.
In the case of extramarital affairs, the Lup extends no such “niceties” — going straight to the press and police. Memma calls “rising” extramarital affairs “a very dangerous trend” and attributes it to TV serials and movies, especially from South Korea. “Korean cinema and serials are foreign — it is not our culture. We cannot ban Korean TV but what we can monitor the behaviour of our children,” she says.
The provocation of the drive, the Lup claims, was an affair between a Muslim girl and a boy in Imphal. The girl got pregnant and the boy’s family reportedly made her abort the baby. The girl apparently told the imas about how they would meet at restaurants.
A few have tried resisting the moral drive, but they don’t stand a chance. “Some of the restaurant owners did try to bribe us. But we beat them black and blue with our rods. I don’t think anyone will mess with us again. Of course no one says anything to us on our faces. But if we find anybody speaking against the drive or against us too, we will go trash their places,” she says.
Among those who fell in line was the owner of Imphal’s Aries restaurant, Ph Hellaba Sharma. His eatery is little more than a shack, but the small door leading up to a well-hidden first floor didn’t escape the Lup’s watching eyes.
Towards the end of March, the imas came in and asked Sharma to make structural changes to his restaurant, including introducing low-backed chairs, to make it “more open”. He was also told to deny entry to anyone below the age of 18. Sharma claims the directive hasn’t affected his business much as “my eatery is quite open”.
Next on Lup’s target list are the other cause for “rampant immorality” — mobile phones. “We will be announcing a second drive soon. We haven’t figured out how exactly to go about it,” says Memma.