Binalakshmi Nepram attends a candlelight vigil.
Binalakshmi Nepram, a Fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, is an indigenous scholar and human rights defender from Manipur in northeast India.
As the founder of three organizations — the Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network, the Control Arms Foundation of India, and the Global Alliance of Indigenous Peoples, Gender Justice, and Peace — Nepram has worked to bring women to the forefront of the peace process, championing security and disarmament to bring about conflict resolution in northeast India and South Asia at large.
We recently spoke with her to learn more about her efforts in disarmament, the importance of including women in peace processes, and her current fellowship with the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.
Can you tell us a little about yourself and your background?
I am an indigenous scholar and human rights defender from the state of Manipur in northeast India. It is a part of India that is home to about 45 million indigenous people, and borders five countries. So, it’s a very geo-strategic area that is connected to India by only two percent of land, which is known as the Chicken Neck Corridor. This is the part of India that I come from.
Historically, some of these areas were independent territories until, for example, Manipur joined India in the year 1949. So, we are a new entry to the Indian national state. While we now carry Indian passports, we have a history of being an independent Asiatic nation, like Bhutan or Nepal.
Your latest books delve into democracy, diversity, and gender-based violence. Are these all inspired by issues that you’ve personally witnessed in South Asia?
Absolutely. Originally, I wanted to become a physicist. But the region that I grew up in is home to South Asia’s longest running armed conflict. More than 50,000 people have died in this conflict, and martial law has been imposed in my area since 1958. I saw so much armed conflict in this part of India, and it impacted me growing up. I couldn’t just walk away thinking that I’ll be a scientist and spend the rest of my life in a laboratory or become a professor.
When I moved to New Delhi, I learned more about the political conflict and started researching why this much conflict in northeast India exists. Who is causing that conflict? Who is arming our territories with all of this weaponry? For me, it was a way to find answers to the violence I had seen since I was a child.
So, stepping from my path to becoming a physicist, I turned my life around and started mapping all of the conflict in this part of South Asia and wrote my first book, “South Asia’s Fractured Frontier.” It mapped armed conflict, small arms infiltration, and narco-trafficking along the Indo-Burma border, which is the part of South Asia that borders Bangladesh, Myanmar, China, Bhutan, and Nepal.
All of my books, as you mentioned — particularly the last two — were informed by the work we did at the grassroots level. In 2007, I set up an organization called the Manipur Women’s Gun Survivors’ Network to help the 20,000 women who have lost their husbands or children to war. We started doing a lot of humanitarian work in India near the border areas of India and Nepal, India and China, and India and Bangladesh, reaching over 300 villages. While working in that area, we realized that there were seventeen peace talks occurring in this part of India, and not a single woman was included. That’s how our book, “Where Are Our Women in Decision Making?” came about. For ten years we were on the ground, and the book evolved from asking that question: Why are there no women at the peace talks in northeast India?
We came to realize that we have a very strong indigenous women’s movement, but when women wanted to be in politics, the men said, “This is not your place. You make tea and bring it for us when we have our meetings. We’ll go to Delhi and negotiate with the Prime Minister.” We realized that women were left out of decision-making at every level. So, we researched, held peace congresses, and convened groups of people. Then, we were actually guided by the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security, which guides how to make plans for women’s peace and security.
Nepram convening a meeting with women in northeast India.
The latest book, “Democracy, Diversity, Gender, and Racial Violence,” also stemmed from the fact that when people from northeast India visit New Delhi, we are always asked which country we are from — and the reason is because we are very racially distinct from the rest of India. During COVID-19, a lot of us were told to go back to China. A lot of our young people have more East Asian features. There’s a lot of racial violence that has happened to the young people of northeast India when they were living in Mumbai and Delhi. Particularly, Delhi and Bangalore became the epicenters for a lot of racism.
When I was working with a team in Delhi, there was a spate of attacks. A 19-year-old boy, Nido Taniam, was beaten to death in the streets of Delhi in January 2014. I became one of the people leading the protest against this racial violence, and we were able to get the Government of India to create a committee to look at racism for the first time in India’s history. In that committee, we looked into scholarship on racism and multi-racial policies, and realized there were none in independent India. So, over a period of two years, we trained scholars in India on gender, race, and democracy. How do you deepen democracy without the inclusion of racial justice and gender inclusion? So, our latest book stemmed from this 2014 movement, where we realized that enough is enough — we should be treated like equal citizens of an equal country.
How does leaving women, indigenous people, and minorities out of the peace process impact a society and its people?
When you leave out half the population, how can you negotiate a more sustainable peace? A lot of peace talks have floundered because women and indigenous people have not been included in decision-making. India, as a country, has not recognized the existence of indigenous people. We have so many challenges — just like how India did not recognize racism until we protested for six months. Now, we are asking India to acknowledge that it is a multi-cultural country, and we can make our policies better by creating an anti-racism law.
Inclusive policies that involve women in decision-making are really important. In India, women comprise only 12 percent of Parliament, 4 percent of journalists, and less in the judiciary. How can you have a true democracy in India? India is lauded by the world as the world’s largest democracy, but its government does not represent half of the population. And this is unacceptable in today’s world and age. Don’t tell us that this is a democracy when you’ve excluded women and indigenous people in decision-making.
You’ve represented Indian civil society in conflict resolution at the UN in both Geneva and New York. What inspired your efforts in disarmament?
Manipur has seen armed conflict since the 1940s — it continues to this day. Today, for every twenty Manipuris, we have one Indian soldier. That is the level of militarization. We still have martial law imposed in this part of India, long before it was imposed in Kashmir. So, I grew up in a very, very violent area. We’ve now all experienced lockdown through COVID, but as a child, I had already experienced that. I couldn’t go to school for a hundred days. We had lockdowns after lockdowns. We are experts in lockdowns, because of this conflict.
I had a very scientific mind and a very questioning mind as a young girl. I grew up with that element of fear: fear of when the Indian military will come to our house, and fear of when the insurgents will come to our house. We are fearful, basically, of men in fatigues carrying guns. For me, I had this trait during childhood that if I was scared of something, I would read about it, and the fear would go away. There’s a saying that even in the dark, a rope looks like a snake. What I feared as a child was guns.
So, I started researching guns. I’ve never held then a gun in my life and I’m non-violent. I truly believe in non-violence. But I was literally possessed with the idea of finding out who is supplying these guns to our people. Why are there so many guns in our society? Most importantly, as a young girl, I was always told, “Bina, don’t ask questions, you’ll be shot dead.”
For my Master’s thesis at Jawaharlal Nehru University, I actually backpacked across the Indo-Burma border, looking at the types of guns, learning how they are reaching our area, and determining who is arming and training people. I found 58 types of weapons from 13 countries flooding northeast India. America may have never heard of Manipur, but M-16s were a favorite with many of the armed groups as early as the 1980s.
Nepram at Wokha Village at a community consultation.
In my research, I mapped small arms and light weapons proliferation. The United Nations grew to learn of my work because at that time, in the mid–2000s, the UN had realized that it is not nuclear weapons that kill people every day — it’s small arms and light weapons, guns, that kill more than 500,000 people a year. In America, more than 100 people were shot dead each week before COVID. Because of the pandemic, it’s stopped a bit, but there’s rampant gun violence across the world, including in Manipur.
I came to the UN at the age of 26 and joined a meeting where countries were debating these issues. Suddenly, from Manipur to the UN, I learned that what was happening in Manipur was also happening in Afghanistan, it was happening in Rwanda — in Rwanda, you could buy an AK-47 for the price of a chicken. In the illegal arms bazaar in Manipur, when you purchase an M-16 you get a landmine free, and a bullet costs something like ten rupees. You have a katta, a gun, which costs about 15–20 dollars, and people have been killed with these guns.
So, that’s how I became involved in disarmament. I’ve learned that the world spends about 1.3 trillion dollars in armaments every year, and then there are peanuts for health, peanuts for education, peanuts for the wellbeing of our citizens. India is the world’s second largest importer of weapons, but in the Global Gender Index, we are 104th. Look at this skewed nature where governments put stress on militarizing our lives, but not on the safety and security of women and girls in India. Every 22 minutes, a woman or girl in India is raped. My office works with a lot of survivors of sexual assault as well as armed violence. So, for us, the cusp of gender and disarmament became a really important part of our work. We are now becoming a global voice for it, and we will continue to be, because it’s so needed.
What is your own personal vision or hope for the future in South Asia?
I think the countries of South Asia are like a series of brothers and sisters. I understand Urdu, and the Pakistani people understand Hindi, because we are so similar. It’s such a beautiful, connected region that was divided by colonial powers. When I go to Nepal, I feel like I’m in northeast India. It’s so similar, this part of the world, that I think we can achieve a lot by cooperating. Right now, the South Asia Association Racial Corporation is like a lame duck, and the tension between India and Pakistan — which were one nation at one point of time — continues to be a barrier that stops this region from fully flourishing into a very important part of the world.
South Asia is a land where a lot of different faiths have originated, and we should celebrate that. Even in my region, there are more than 272 beautiful ethnic groups. It’s a cause for celebration, not for fighting and cross-border insurgencies. I have been studying South Asia my entire life, and it really is unfortunate that these things haven’t changed.
I think that South Asian nations must go above their own petty border disputes and work toward synergies that will pull one another up. As a region, we have a lot to contribute to the world. So, my dream is to have a South Asia where these long-simmering conflicts are resolved, not through a top-down approach, but where those who have experienced violence are at the negotiating table. Women should be a strong part of the contingency that decides how to resolve both border conflicts and internal conflicts.
What do you hope to accomplish as a Carr Center Fellow at Harvard?
Here at the Carr Center, I’m working on research that is looking into indigenous people in northeast India, as well as forming a global alliance of indigenous people across Asia and around the world that will work to incorporate indigenous methods into conflict resolution and peace-building in Asia.
Asia is home to the largest number of indigenous people in the world, and South Asia has a large amount of indigeneity. But it is not recognized, it’s not studied, and the history of indigenous people is not recorded. So, I will be working on that during my time with the Carr Center. ☆
☆ All opinions expressed by our interview subjects are their own and do not reflect the views of the Mittal Institute and its staff.