“Don’t ask any questions. You’ll be shot dead.” This is a common refrain in Manipur state in India, where Ashoka Fellow Binalakshmi (Bina) Nepram grew up. Yet Bina asked questions. And despite currently living in exile, she continues to ask with conviction.
As a child, Bina wanted to understand the many wrongs and atrocities she witnessed. Her questions eventually led her to a deep understanding of what fuels the violence plaguing her home state in Northeastern India. Since martial law was enacted in the region in 1958, the resulting 72 rebel groups and 300,000 Indian military troops have led to more than 50,000 deaths and one of the highest disappearance rates in India and the world.
The under-reported conflict paired with banned travel to the region leads to isolation of the mostly indigenous communities, as well as protection for perpetrators of the rampant crime ranging from narcotics running to human trafficking to sexual violence.
But Bina, her inner drive enthused by generations of female-driven activism before her, continues to form organizations and alliances to not only end the violence, but seek justice, while supporting those most affected: the women and children.
First, Bina co-founded Control Arms Foundation of India (CAFI). Its research determined that more than 58 types of weapons from 13 countries are accessible and available in Northeastern India. Understanding the forces behind the region’s mass weaponization has become a focal point of Bina’s work and one that fuels her activism and awareness efforts. Currently, Bina and her dedicated team work in more than 300 villages across more than eight states of Northeast India.
In an attempt to assist the tens of thousands of widows in Manipur, Bina then founded Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network. Through this organization, she creates economic opportunities that are desperately needed by these resilient survivors. In addition, she assists women in filing legal complaints to seek justice.
It was one of these complaints that led her into exile. In 2017, a mother came to Bina when her 19-year-old son was shot dead by a local politician’s son. Not long after Bina and a lawyer moved into action, the threats began. When heavily armed Manipur police personnel entered her home, Bina was forced to seek safety and security abroad.
She landed in the United States, but uncertainty followed. She could not stay long term. Ashoka’s network, well-versed in supporting its Fellows at risk, connected Bina to a university where she received a visiting scholar fellowship and the opportunity to remain safe.
Working with human rights defenders since its inception with about 150 security incidents reported by Ashoka Fellows since 2006 alone, Ashoka’s network of Fellows tap into their deep, often experiential, expertise to lead efforts in supporting the safety and wellbeing of their peers. One of the most profound and initial outcomes began in 2004 when Ashoka Fellow Baseer Naveed’s son was murdered. The determined and generous support Ashoka Fellow Basil Fernando and others provided Baseer and his family led to the launch of Ashoka’s Changemaker Security Initiative and more recent Wellbeing Initiative.
Fortunately, these initiatives could assist in keeping Bina safe. Her time in the States has been proactive, and she continues to work remotely, thankful at the ability to penetrate the perceived walls of her homeland from anywhere in the world. Her exiled home has also become the focus of her most recent research, as she applies her endless curiosity to America’s weaponization. The more she learns, the more her mantra remains the same: “Follow the money.”
Bina intends to make every governments accountable for the resources they spend in a world where $1.4 trillion USD is spent on the military-industrial complex. As long as hundreds of arms manufacturing companies in more than 98 countries continue to produce arms and ammunitions every day, according to Bina, “Wars, conflicts, violence against women and children, poverty will continue endlessessly in this world. The world needs proper directing of our precious resources for sustainable development rather than in machines of wars and conflict and women will need to lead this process to make this happen.”