Nupi Lan: The amazing story of women’s wars in Manipur

The women of Manipur launched two wars – one against their own king and the other against British rulers. Both were wars against oppression

Another night has gone by
Another day has passed
O’ women! Tie your hair
They are flying in gay abandon,
Have you forgotten…
One 12 December has passed
The second 12 December is approaching,
Forget that tying your hair is necessary
Forget that this day will ever return
O’ women: Tie your hair  

– Janneta Hijam Irabot, Manipuri poet

India is a huge country of diverse cultures and beliefs. It has a long and chequered history. But when we talk of the history or culture of India, we invariably confine ourselves to the north, northwestern and central parts. At the most, we include the south. But the northeastern states, which are as much a part of India as the other states, are persistently ignored. One reason is the predominantly tribal culture of these states because of which we erroneously assume that they are untouched by modernity. However, the history of political, social and cultural movements in the northeastern states is as rich and eventful as that of any other state. In fact, in some respects, they were far ahead of the other parts of the country. For instance, nothing like the two ‘Nupi Lan’ (Women’s war) that broke out in Manipur in 1904 and 1939 took place elsewhere in India. They were totally successful people’s movements, which brought the corrupt rulers, patronized by the imperialist British Indian government, to their knees. They triggered a series of social reforms and paved the way for changes in the law.

Manipur is a very sparsely populated state. The state that has an area of 22,300 sq km is home to only around 30 lakh people. Around 91 per cent of the state’s land is hilly. But what makes the state special is that women have a greater participation in the social, economic and cultural life than the men. Manipur’s recorded history dates back to 33 AD, when Meitei ruler Nongda Lairen Pakhangba came to power. The region got its name, Manipur, from the Meitei tribe that inhabited it. Subsequently, many clans ruled Manipur but the Meitei people continued to call the shots in the government and the administration. In the 15thand 16thcenturies, Brahmins forayed into Manipur and soon became the community that was closest to and the biggest beneficiary of the ruling class. Their rituals and customs became a part of the daily life of the people. In the social pyramid, the Meitei were at the top, followed by the Brahmins. The condition of the others, including the working classes, was akin to being slaves of the two higher classes.

Imphal

Imphal, Manipur

The freedom of Manipur came under threat for the first time in 1819, when Burma attacked the region. Freedom-loving Manipuris waged a battle against the aggressors for seven long years. They won, but the long war took a heavy toll on the sex ratio of Manipur. Most of the men lost their lives in the war, forcing the women to take it upon themselves to run the households. They took up handicrafts like weaving, stitching and embroidery and started selling their ware in the markets. This lead to the emergence of unique markets called “Ima”, which had only women sellers. Manipuri handicrafts drew the attention of British traders. Marwaris joined them and soon British and the Marwari businessmen controlled the local market.

Also read: Travelling through the Northeast: At Khonoma, the oldest Naga village

 

In 1891, Manipur came under British suzerainty. The king was stripped of the right to maintain an army and keep weapons. The reins of the government came into the hands of the British agent, who enjoyed the status of the head of state. The British might have shorn the king of his power and prestige but they couldn’t kill the yearning for freedom among the Manipuris. The new rulers had to face resistance at every step. This resistance took various forms. With women dominating every sphere of life, how could they be aloof to this resistance? Thus came about Nupi Lan or women’s war. At its root were the slavery system and the bungling rulers. The priestly class and the rulers had imposed many kinds of taxes on the people and the use of ruthless force to realize taxes was very common. That left people fuming.

The first Nupi Lan began on 15 March 1904. On that day, some rebels set on fire the bungalow of J.J. Dunlop, the superintendent and a representative of the imperialist government. Before the enquiry into the incident could be completed, less than six months later, on 4 August, the bungalows of Dunlop, of the assistant political agent and of the head of state I.R. Natal, were set ablaze. Earlier, on 6 July 1904, the rebels had set Khwairamband Bazar, the biggest commercial centre of Imphal, afire. The British rulers tried their best to identify the arsonists. Dunlop declared that the fire was the result of a conspiracy and offered a reward of Rs 500 for clues on the whereabouts of the conspirators. But no one came forward with any information on the rebels. An enraged Dunlop then announced the re-imposition of Lalup, a system of forced labour that had begun during the reign of Pakhangba. Under the system, all males between the ages of 17 and 60 years were supposed to work for free for every 10 of 40 working days. Dunlop announced that the residents of Imphal would have to do forced labour to rebuild the structures damaged by fire.

Man intrinsically loves freedom. Whenever there appears a danger to his freedom, he instinctively begins contemplating revolt. But human behaviour is not solely guided by instinct. It is tempered by reason and is also dependent on the circumstances. Hence, sometimes, even a threat to freedom might not evoke immediate reaction. Sometimes, that augurs well for social change. Durable social transformation does not come from knee-jerk reactions but is the product of maturing of social and cultural consciousness over a period of time. It takes time for the oppressed to figure out the psyche of the oppressors and to devise a strategy to counter the latter. The Indian Independence Movement was the outcome of a long and sustained period of reflection and deliberation. In contrast, the 1857 War of Independence was a spur-of-the-moment revolt, which failed to achieve its objectives. It was the centuries-old resentment against the Varna system that led to the success of the self-respect movement, spearheaded by Periyar, down South. Sometimes, a long period of subordination weakens the man’s basic instinct to be free. Sometimes, people give in to circumstances and start perceiving their enslavement as normal or natural. But if someone reminds them of their real plight or if they discover the reasons for their slavery, they turn rebels.

Dunlop’s decision to resuscitate the forced labour system made the people angry and apprehensive. In view of the growing resentment among the people, a delegation of local headmen met Dunlop and requested him to withdraw the decision. However, Dunlop argued that the local policemen and guards had failed to fulfil their responsibilities, hence the people would have to suffer. He also warned that any opposition to the order would be treated as treason. He announced that to prevent the reoccurrence of such incidents, police outposts would be set up in the city and the money spent on them would be realized from the people. Dunlop’s stubbornness added fuel to fire.

On 5 October, around 3,000 unarmed women laid siege to Dunlop’s residence. They declared that they would not budge from the place till the order was withdrawn. Bowing to the mounting pressure, Dunlop announced that the order would be reconsidered. The women returned to their homes on the assurance of the local officials. But the same evening, around 5,000 of them gathered at the Khwairamband Bazar demanding that the assurance be met. The protestors won and the Lalup order was withdrawn. This was a big victory for the unlettered and poor women, completely devoid of resources. They made history.

Second Nupi Lan

The circumstances that led to the second Nupi Lan were entirely different but it too was a spontaneous uprising of women. This was a much wider movement than the first one. Initially, the women rose in unison in protest against the rising price of rice and demanded a ban on its export. However, gradually the scope of their demands became wider. They also sought an end to Wakhai Sel, Mega Sekhai and Mangba-Sengba taxes. After the advent of the British, the Lalup system was abolished but the new rulers imposed a tax of Rs 2 per house in the valley and Rs 3 per house in the hilly region. Agricultural land was also taxed. Coercion was often used to realize the taxes and that generated resentment among the people. At the top of the ruling set-up were the Maharaja and the British representative, who ran the administration with the help of “Durbar”. Most of the members of the “Durbar” were the kin of the King and appointed by the king himself. The Marwaris controlled big businesses. Thus, the common man was overburdened with taxes and their voice was not heard.

Statues in Imphal to commemorate the Nupi Lan movement

In 1939, Charuchand was the Maharaja of Manipur but he was only a nominal ruler. The real powers were in the hands of the representative of the imperialist government, who took all the major decisions. The spiritual and temporal authorities imposed a multitude of taxes on the people. Wakhai Sel, Mangba-Sengba, Pandit Loishung, Chandan Senkhai and Kunja Sen were some of the taxes which were used to fleece the people. Many were downright absurd. People had to pay taxes simply for conducting their day-to-day affairs. The taxation infringed on the basic rights of the people. Wakhai Sel was imposed on settlement and consolidation of land; Pandit Loishung was imposed by the Brahmin Mandal. Every Hindu family had to pay a char anna(25 paise) tax, called Chandan Senkhai, simply for putting tilak on the forehead. Kunja Sen was a tax on the attire the people chose to wear. Singers were required to pay a separate tax.

The most oppressive and obnoxious of the taxes was the Mangba-Sengba. If a person violated the prevalent social norms or challenged the authority of the Brahma Sabha or fell foul of the Sabha for some reason, he was branded as a “Mangba” (impure person). A Mangba became an Untouchable for his community and had to pay a heavy fine for his purification (Sengba). The fine for the “impure” person’s re-entry into society varied. If the subordinate Sabha declared a person impure, he could regain purity by paying Rs 50. If the Brahma Sabha did it, the fine was Rs 85.23. As head of the Brahma Sabha, the king could declare any person impure. The person was freed from the tag only after he coughed up Rs 500.

During the reign of Maharaja Charuchandra Singh, Mangba-Sengba was used very frequently to extort money from the people. Most of the victims came from the impoverished and weak classes. “Pothang”, a forced-labour system similar to Lalup, was also in vogue. Under it, whenever the king or any member of the royal family or a British official set out on a hunting expedition, the locals in both the plains and the hilly areas were required to make all arrangements for the trip, including carting loads and arranging for food and entertainment. The people believed that the Maharaja had thrust those taxes on them at the behest of the Brahma Sabha and that only Constitutional reforms could emancipate them. This modern consciousness was growing simultaneously in all the states of the northeast. The people wanted the powers of the kings curtailed. That laid the ground for the second Nupi Lan, which was supported by the Manipuri Mahasabha.

In 1938-39, heavy floods inundated Manipur. The Durbar sanctioned Rs 16,000 for the repair of properties damaged by the floods. But the amount was grossly inadequate to compensate for the loss of the crops. Due to large-scale destruction of the crops, the price of food grains began rising rapidly. The state was in the grip of a famine. To remedy the situation, the Durbar brought the export of rice and flattened rice under its control. An order was issued according to which if necessary, only the food grains stored in the state’s warehouses would be exported. Though the ban on the export of rice and its products was not imposed by the king, the political representative of the British government ordered its lifting, declaring that the king was behind the ban. The king had no option but to comply and the ban on export of rice and its products was lifted. That enraged the people, who felt that they would be starved. Their anger knew no bounds.

The lifting of ban on export of rice and paddy squeezed supplies to the local market and the price of rice shot through the roof. All kinds of rumours began circulating. The first target of the non-violent movement of women was the Khumukhem rice mill, which was the leading exporter of rice. The agitators forced the closure of the mill. Then, they approached T.A. Sharpe, the assistant to the political agent Christopher Jimson, and demanded a ban on the export of rice. Seeing their anger, Sharpe promised that the requisite order would be issued the next day. The women relented but their struggle did not end. The next day, the women running the bazaar, captured the vehicles loaded with paddy and gathered at the office of the Durbar, demanding an immediate ban on export of paddy and rice.

Gauging that the women were extremely furious, the members of the Durbar left the place one by one. Only the political agent remained. The women continued their siege, insisting that their demand be fulfilled right away. The political agent, who was trapped inside, expressed his inability to issue the order in the absence of the Maharaja. The women, in turn, demanded that a telegram be sent to the Maharaja. The angry women forced the political agent to accompany them to the telegraph office. The aggression of the crowd prompted the political agent to send a message to Bulfield, the commander of Assam Rifles. Bulfield arrived with an army detachment. That angered the agitating women even further and skirmishes broke out between the soldiers and the women. The women who were injured in the confrontation were admitted to the Imphal hospital. The next day, the Maharaja issued an order banning the export of rice. It was ordered that there would be a complete ban on the export of rice, except to the Kohima and Imphal cantonments of the Assam Rifles.

A postal stamp issued by the Government of India 

The same day, the women visited the office of the political agent and the government engineer to get the order enforced. They accompanied the two officers to the rice mills and forced the disconnection of power supply to the mills. Khwairamband Bazar remained closed for seven days due to the strike by the women sellers. The agitating women damaged the shop selling rice. But despite all this, the price of rice did not fall. The women discovered that the shopkeepers were still transporting rice from one place to another in their greed for profits. To stop them, on 28 December, a group of women visited a place called Kesampet near Imphal. There, they saw nine carts laden with rice. They took the carts under their control and asked the cart drivers to sell the rice at the rate of one rupee and 12 annas per quintal. The traders wanted to sell their stocks at a higher price to the shopkeepers, so the cart drivers refused the agitators’ orders. That enraged the women, who dumped the rice on the road and attacked the cart drivers. Till then, the protests by women were non-violent. But the Khwairamband Bazar and Kesampet incidents gave the government an excuse to use force against them. Police intervened and the agitating women were arrested.

The second Nupi Lan lasted around 14 months. In this entire period, the market saw little activity. When the women went to the market to sell their ware, policemen also arrived there. That created a rift among the agitators. But the second Nupi Lan did not fail in achieving its objectives. A ban on exporting rice, except to two cantonments of Assam Rifles, was put in place. The movement also brought about a change in laws pertaining to Wakhai Sel, Mangba-Sengba and Chandan Shekhai. It roused the Manipuri society and paved the way for legal reforms. The agitating women had no leader, they marched shouting slogans of “Manipuri Mata Ki Jai”. It was during the second Nupi Lan that the “Vande Mataram” song first resonated in Manipur.

The biggest success of the second Nupi Lan was in forcing the government to bow to their demands. That became possible only because of the unity, organizational capacity and acumen of the women. Not a single woman was punished for participation in the movement.

On 12 December 2018, the Manipur government celebrated “Nupi Lan Day” with great fanfare in Imphal. The state government decided that the road leading linking Kesampet with Imphal would be called Nupi Lan Road in memory of imas (mothers) and icchs (sisters) who participated in the agitation.

Translation: Amrish Herdenia; copy-editing: Anil

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