LONDON (TrustLaw) - Four years ago Renu Takhellambam and her husband Mung were celebrating their wedding anniversary in a picturesque region of Northeast India. Mung popped out to buy a roll of camera film. That was the last time his wife ever saw him. He was shot dead in the street by government security forces.
Renu, in her early 20s, was left with a baby son. Her parents had disowned her for marrying someone from a different religious background and caste. On top of that, she had been branded the wife of a terrorist. Life couldn’t have looked much bleaker.
But Renu, now 28, has transformed herself into a community leader, setting up an association for the widows of victims of armed violence.
Renu lives in the Indian state of Manipur, where a multitude of armed groups are fighting troops, and sometimes each other. Some are battling for independence and others for political autonomy.
Her story is told by Manipuri filmmaker Chandam Netraj in his documentary April 6th. The film was one of the finalists in Oxfam’s Shooting Poverty competition aimed at exposing the impact of armed violence on poor communities.
“April 6 is our wedding anniversary,” Renu says in the film. “Exactly two years after our wedding my husband was killed. We came together and we parted on April 6. This day is a landmark for me because it gave me the push to organise this important association for victims of armed violence and to create strength to fight for the peace and justice we deserve.”
Some 300 to 400 women are widowed every year in Manipur as a result of the armed violence, says Netraj, 35, who talked to about 50 widows while researching his film.
“I wanted to share the issues and problems the widows are facing here and let the rest of the world know what’s happening in Manipur,” he told TrustLaw.
“One main problem is that the security forces - the state - kill innocent people and then brand them as terrorists. And these widows cannot get any state benefits from the government because their husbands have been branded terrorists.
“They are not eligible for any grants, any money. That’s the big problem. These widows are struggling to earn a living and provide an education for their children.”
Most of the women are in their 20s and 30s. Netraj says many try to make ends meet by running small cottage industries such as washing clothes, making soap or weaving.
Renu set up Extra-Judicial Execution Victim Families' Association, Manipur (EEVFAM), with the help of Human Rights Alert, to help women like her deal with the emotional and practical problems of widowhood.
Among other things, the organisation tries to find the truth behind extra-judicial killings and seek justice and compensation for victims’ families, including education for their children.
EEVFAM is also campaigning for an end to India’s draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act which gives members of the military sweeping powers and legal immunity. The act has been in force across Manipur for more than 30 years.
The government says the law is necessary but civil society groups say it has led to gross human rights violations by the army.
Human Rights Alert says more than 500 people are executed in Manipur every year in the name of counter insurgency measures. And many, like Mung, leave behind young families.
Renu says her husband, who ran a clothes business, had nothing to do with armed groups. He was on his scooter when he failed to obey a police order to stop. She believes he probably didn’t hear them. Renu heard the shot that killed her husband from their home.
The widows have tried unsuccessfully to register EEVFAM with the government.
“The government says if they want to register they have to remove the words “extrajudicial killing” from the name,” Netraj says. “But the women will never do that.”
His film also highlights how the international arms trade is contributing to the violence in Manipur.
“People in the United States may never have heard of Manipur but its M16s are a favourite with our insurgent groups,” says Binalakshmi Nepram, Secretary General of the Control Arms Foundation of India and founder of the Manipuri Women Gun Survivor Network.
Many of the guns and grenades seized by police come from neighbouring Myanmar, which shares a porous border with Manipur. But these weapons are not made in Myanmar.
Nepram says 88 percent of the world’s weapons are produced by the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council – United States, Britain, France, Russia and China.
“It’s these governments that are responsible for this irresponsible arms trade and it’s there that we should make the difference,” she adds.
“Women like Renu and countless others in Manipur and in different parts of the world are suffering as a result of the fact that nobody at the international level is taking any steps to control this.”
Netraj’s next project is a film about Irom Sharmil, a Manipuri poet and human rights activist dubbed the “Iron Lady”, who is on hunger strike to demand India repeal the Special Powers Act.
Irom and her sisters – Tehelka magazine (stories of the gun widows)
Why Nitan Devi took her first ever train ride – The Hindu (interview with EEVFAM’s treasurer)
The mayhem in Manipur – The Economist