Orfalea Center Thematic Research Cluster
Global Genders and Sexualities
Indigenous Queer and Trans Activism on Indo-Myanmar Borderlands - Part 3
By Maisnam Arnapal
Santa Khurai, activist-author, and founder of the All Manipur Nupi Maanbi Association (AMANA).
Photo credit: Eliza Ngangom (Left) and Rajeeb Sakhawat (Right).
This activist oral history interview with Santa Khurai dated September 8, 2022, was taken by Maisnam Arnapal, in Imphal, the capital city of Manipur, on the Indo-Myanmar borderlands.
Santa Khurai is an Indigenous Nupi Maanbi (transwoman) from Manipur, Northeast India. She is an activist, scholar, and writer. She is the secretary of the All Manipur Nupi Maanbi Association (AMANA) and is also associated with Solidarity and Action Against HIV Infection in India (SAATHII). She has been working on gender and sexual minority rights-based issues for the last twenty years. She represented her organization at the 48th United Nation Human Rights Council Session in 2022 and was a fellow at the Asia Pacific Trans Network (APTN) and RFSL Sweden. A few of her published works include Pheida – Gender at Periphery (2020), two poems – “My Father” and “Nupi Maanbi Thabal” in The World that Belongs to Us: An Anthology of Queer Poetry from South Asia (2020, Harper Collins), “Visibilizing the Invisible” and “The Forbidden Prophecies”.
Maisnam Arnapal: Our readers first want to know about you and your organization.
Santa Khurai: My name is Santa Khurai, and I’m from Manipur. So, Manipur is located between the southeastern Himalayas and the Indo-Myanmar border and is a part of India, politically. And I prefer my gender pronoun as ‘she’ and ‘her’ and I belong to a Manipuri indigenous community which is called Meitei, and I associate with the state-level apex body called the All Manipur Nupi Maanbi Association [AMANA]. So, the loose English translation of Nupi Maanbi is transgender women.
MA: When was AMANA established? With what objectives, give us an overview of its history?
SK: Actually, activism has been in my blood because before I joined AMANA and started working, started taking the role of a secretary, I used to write a lot of articles. It was a time that I was not aware of the term ‘transgender’. So the term that was used during those days by the community to identify ourselves was like ‘B’, then ‘Nupi Sabi’, ‘homo’, a very derogatory term, and then we did not accept that term. It was in 2008 that AMANA had its inception. Then it was not registered, at that time I was not involved in AMANA’s work and I even was not aware that it existed. That was the time in 2008 I was running my own beauty parlor in Khurai Lamlong Bazar and that was also a part of my activism work. Actually, I did not intend to take that as a part of my activism work but lately, I realized it also contributes to the visibility of transgender people to call ourselves Nupi Maanbi in Manipur. 2010 I got an invitation from Babloo Loitongbam, who is a renowned anti-AFSPA activist from Manipur, then I got this opportunity to participate in a meeting organized by the UN. When I returned back from there, the founder members of AMANA invited me and then they held an election. I got the maximum vote and then I became the secretary of AMANA. And that AMANA got legally registered in society in 2010. Then, since then we have been getting technical support from Solidarity and Action Against The HIV Infection in India (SAATHII), they already had a very close connection with the founder members of AMANA. The whole idea was, it was a time that many community-based organizations and NGOs were focusing on the HIV prevention program. There was this Maruploi Foundation based in Imphal doing projects on HIV and MSM programs. Then these people, came together as suggested by SAATHII to form a state-level apex body so that this body can look after the community services which cannot be provided by this NGO, and other HIV programs. So that was the entire idea behind the formation of AMANA. And you know like, it basically started focusing on the social protection and human rights of the Nupi Maanbi community. Then after I officially join AMANA, I started getting experiences from my participation in the outside forums, meetings, and everything, I was always left out, I mean like, I felt alone. And that was the time I questioned my ethnic identity, why I was always cornered and then why my voice was so minimal, and why people were not, you know, interested to listen to our stories. So like a new objective has been put there in AMANA to claim the rights of indigenous Manipuri, Manipuri indigenous transgender in both the domestic and international fora because earlier it was not there. Between 2008 to 2010, was a big turning point for AMANA. And 2008 all these founder members, came together and then discussed the term that, what term should we use, appropriate for us. Then Nupi Maanbi was coined and we became The All Manipuri Nupi Maanbi Association.
MA: You mentioned HIV?AIDS prevention program? Apart from that, what are some of the focus areas of your organization?
SK: AMANA’s focus area is now centered on indigenous people’s rights, not only for Manipur, the entire Northeast region. People talk a lot about Section 377 [anti-sodomy law]. But when I came back to the region, I was not able to find a single case that was lodged under Section 377. But at the same time, I’ve seen the community’s challenges because of this curfew, blockade, bombing, and insurgency. So that was more important. That really affects our lives. For example, the [trans] community in Manipur resorted to beauty parlors for their livelihood. This bandh blockade, everything, has really affected them. There were times when people had to suffer for six months because of this economic blockade, and the parlor was not able to run properly, So there is this whole reality that we face in the Northeast. And then the other thing is that people will be talking about Dalits, the intersection between Dalits, and trans. When I try to relate with our indigeneity, how do we address this reality and how do we make people understand the situation, the human rights situation of queer people in the Northeast. Somehow this whole narratives of mainland India often overshadow what is happening in the region. So this was the entire thing that AMANA stood up for the rights of indigenous peoples’ right.
MA: What would you say about the critique of NGOization? Have you been approached by any corporations, say, corporate social responsibility funding etc.?
SK: I have never worked with the corporate sector number one and this NGOisation has been dividing the community. They will come with some amount of money, then they will break the solidarity that the community makes, the huge effort for a long time because we come from a very deprived environment. The community members do not have the competence to make good proposals, we do not have very good communication skills. This is where we often find difficulties to approach big funds. And the other thing is for this funded project, they will cater to people who got higher education, who have degrees, social work masters. These are all people coming from privileged positions like cisgender people. And then they will hire community members as lower-position staff. For example, in the HIV program, they will hire the community as peer educators, at minimal salary and maximum work. So there is the whole reality. And then people like me who have certain privileges as I can communicate with people. And 99% of my people do not have the same privilege.
MA: So the trans community is, of course, not a homogeneous community. There is diversity in this region. Until and unless we look into those factors, can we have holistic and inclusive trans activism? Like talking about living under military rule. Of course, Manpur is in a slightly better law and order situation now.
SK: It’s not the same as it used to be ten-twenty years ago in terms of armed conflict and full violence and so on and so forth. What do you think, let’s say the different generations of trans activists and community? Leaders, those of those who lived earlier during those days, and the LGBTQ folks, the young ones, like, let’s say, the generation, the GenZ, right? Those who haven’t really had any kind of first-hand experience or encountered any kind of armed conflict. I’m also talking about trauma. There is also a generational trauma. Like, your generation has definitely seen it. My generation has definitely seen it, but the upcoming generation has only heard of it in stories, right? So to what extent does this generational trauma and military operations and so forth sort of shape your politics, your activism also what you see in terms of the future of the LGBTQ movement in ManipurPeople who were born after 2020, I think they are lucky. The conflict that I face personally was not only for my gender identity. It has intersected with other social disturbances.
The project was funded by Orfalea Center, UC Santa Barbara. The interview was bilingual, in English and Meiteilon, the language of the Indigenous Meitei people. The interview has been transcribed, with minor editing, from a longer version.