I reached Imphal and my heart sank. The roads were deserted, there was hardly any building that was fully constructed, there was filth and mosquitoes in every corner of the streets. I looked at Urja, my team mate from Simply Sport and asked her, “Is there a curfew? I hope we are going to be safe.” She tried to look back at me reassuringly, but I am sure she was a little tense too. This was just the first day of Imphal and we still had four days to go.
Urja and I were in Imphal as part of research for our ‘Women in Sport’ paper that we are writing in association with Sports Authority of India. For this research we are doing a comparative study between the two best states for female participation- Haryana and Manipur and the two worst states, Bihar and Rajasthan. The progress we have made since we started this project has been substantial and Manipur had to be the state with which we started our on-ground study. We were looking to get inspired, but our first few hours in Imphal was not exactly that.
Five days of Holi celebration in Manipur
Once we reached our hotel, we decided to take a ride along the city after a few hours of rest. We striked a conversation with our driver and slowly started making sense of things. We reached Imphal on 20th March which is right in between the 5 days holi celebration in Imphal. Our ride took us to a renowned painters house in Imphal. His museum told us stories of history of Manipur through paintings. His great grandson who managed the museum told us this,
“We celebrate Holi for five days here. Nobody works, not even the waste pickers. All we do is dance, play, sing and eat for these five days. Also the government doesn’t care much about us in Imphal. No private investment whatsoever, neither public investment. We as a community stand up for each other here. Our communities is all we have.”
So it wasn’t the curfew, it was just Holi. Also the garbage on the streets had an explanation too now.
The Importance of Community
Community is an important word in Manipur. Everything they are, everything they do is for each other. When Imphal’s youth was drowning in drugs and alcohol or violent revolutionary acts due to lack of employment opportunities and cluelessness, the elders, especially the elder women in their communities immediately started taking steps to engage them in better activities. They realised nothing could be better than sports to get the youth to spend time productively and put their minds and bodies to good use. Thus started the amazing journey of sports clubs in Manipur. There are around 1000 registered sports clubs in Manipur. Each club is funded and run by volunteers, community donations, ex-athletes and coaches. The clubs are involved in conducting various inter club leagues in various sports, NOT JUST FOOTBALL.
The Culture of community led Sports Clubs
Fortunately, Urja and I reached Manipur during Holi which is the most important time for all the sports clubs. In these five days all these clubs come together to do various sports competitions including sports like football, kabaddi, volleyball, marathons etc. In these five days you would see the ‘Annual Sport Meet’ banners in very corner of the city and their villages. These club matches are organised for all age-groups ranging from the age of 10 yrs- 25yrs and for men and women. Also, all these games are serious in every form- there are volunteers who officiate matches, ex-athletes serve as chief-guests also coaches, and there is AUDIENCE, a fully packed ground cheering and shouting for their clubs. The audience has as many girls and women as boys and men. For a girl coming from Pune (like me) to witness this kind of energy while nobody is watching (no selectors, no sponsors, no advertisements, no tv crew, no media, no other possible external reasons) was quite a special experience. Manipuris play because they love to play. Sport is a part of the lived experience. It is not a rich man’s occupation. The rich don’t play sports in Manipur, they study. The poor play sports in Manipur, they live and breathe through sports.
The Nupi Lan Movements led by women
Also the sports story in Manipur, is ruled by the women in the state. Manipur, is a tiny state with an area of 22,327 sq km in the Northeastern part of India, and is home to diverse ethnic groups and sub-groups. Even then it is a state that has produced 18 Arjuna Awardees, out of which majority of the awardees our women. In our interviews with different stakeholders in SAI National Centre of Excellence in Imphal, we asked almost every stakeholder be it coaches, administrators or athletes they all told us the same stories. Stories of how Manipuri women fought battles on the field, when their men were wounded or dead, be it against the Mughals, the Britishers, or any other insurgents. The Manipuri women have also been the founders of every important ‘Nupi Lan’ (agitation) as they call it. Be it the 1904 and 1938 agitation against the British, or be it the Meira Paibi movement in the 1970s against drug abuse and alcoholism or the 12 women standing nude in 2004 against AFSPA. There have been other women-led movements across the country as well, but Nupi Lan remains a strong testament to the power of women’s voice in India.
These stories and narratives of Manipuri women being strong, beautiful and fierce is etched in the minds of every athlete, coach or administrator from and in Manipur. I realised the importance of narratives through their stories, in how it affects women and men in our societies. The stories that are passed on year after year by our ancestors basically play a pivotal role in the way the present generation of girl and women define themselves. The narratives we hear in other parts of the country about women might be very different and that affects the way girls look at themselves and at playing a sport.
Women rule the world
In Manipur women are tremendously strong physically too. There is of course a genetic and DNA advantage, in the ways their bodies are built. In addition to this, the rural life in Manipur is hard. It is also majorly dependant on agriculture. Men, women and children are involved in farming much more than in education. To be a farmer is not easy. It is a hard job, more so physically and demands a lot out of you. Rural girls in Manipur have to play a part on the agricultural field with their parents. There is no choice, you eat only if you make enough food. Food also involves a lot of fish. The Loktak lake in Manipur is a major resource for fish. In addition to this all the markets in Manipur are run by women and girls too. In the city our sight-seeing guide was a woman, the woman on the roads asking people for donations during Holi were women, women were also a huge part of the audience watching sports as well as playing sports, and women were also bus and cab drivers. In Manipur women are everywhere. They refuse to hide behind closed doors. Why should they?
They demand tremendous respect in their matriarchal societies, may be that translated into me and Urja never feeling unsafe in Imphal. We were not even looked at a second time for looking different, talking different, or not knowing the language. We felt safe, almost comfortably invisible, though still respected. Can the same be said about how a Manipuri girl feels when she is roaming the streets in Delhi or Pune? I did wonder.
SAI NCOE Imphal and lessons from there
The other most important factor is that there is no lack of female role models for sports in Manipur. The banners of sportswomen can be found everywhere in the state. The women athletes in SAI are in awe of the glamour and the opportunities that these athletes have got for themselves. Majority of the girls in Manipur including all our sporting stars come from the rural parts of the state. Also a lot of women athletes in SAI Imphal come from really poor backgrounds and sports becomes an opportunity to get out of the poverty cycle. Also every woman star athlete is a part of their community clubs, access to greatness is easy and reachable. For a lot of athletes in Imphal easy accessibility to champions is an added advantage.
The story of Manipur’s mothers
Manipur is a sports heaven. It is a movement led by its own people, in which both men and women play an equal role. Girls here are blessed with the physicality but also a history of warriors and heroines has helped them develop a warrior mindset. It is like the women athlete told me, ” I don’t need to look at Mary Kom for inspiration, my mother plays football every Sunday at the club. I and my father watch silently by the sidelines. She doesn’t play professional football, she plays because she loves to play. She doesn’t have the right shoes and she plays in her saree. To see her do that every Sunday is inspiration enough for me.”
It should be inspiration for us too. Sports should be a way of life for every woman, medals are secondary and will then come. Within all the filth, the rotten smell, the un-built buildings, the mosquitoes in the Imphal city, this is the lesson I was able to learn from Manipur.
I will never forget the sparkle in the athlete’s eye when she told me about her mother. She was genuinely proud, medal or not. We need to do everything in our hands to change the narrative of women sport in India. We could really do well to learn from Manipur, especially the mothers!