E-Pao! Essays - A Narrative on the Origin of the Meira Paibis

Protection Of Indigenous Women's Traditional Markets

Amar Bazaar, Nupi Keithel *
campaign meeting 16 - 17 November 2004

After a 25-hour bus journey at last the 8 member women's group from Rural Volunteer Center, Akajan, Dhemaji district Assam accompanied by three young women from Women's Leadership Programme reached their destination at Manipur. The journey was delayed by 10 hour due to the ongoing unstable situation in Assam and Manipur. This group of women from Assam represents Amar Bazaar (our market) come forward to show solidarity and hosted by the struggle of the Nupi Keithel (women's markets) in Manipur. The two women's groups spent 16 and 17 November 2004 at the Keithel (market) keeping vigil against demolition and jointly prepared a memorandum to Ms. Sonia Gandhi and the Chief Minister of Manipur, calling attention to the importance of preserving the Nupi Keithel as a living museum of women's culture and history of struggle.

The Amar Bazaar (Our Market), in Assam started from 1998 with the concept of self-help group as the only alternative to enhance the rural economy and ensure self-reliance in this part of the country. Amar Bazaar women folk also have a micro savings and micro credit programme as a means to move from subsistence mode to surplus mode. The objective of Amar Bazaar is to promote traditional practices into successful traditional economical activities. They are progressing into a campaign to reclaim the traditional spaces of indigenous women in commerce and the economy by enforcing their rights over these areas including the corporeal spaces that have traditionally been theirs as market areas.


An Ema posing for photograph
Since 13 July 2003 women of Nupi Keithel have been maintaining a 24-hour vigil at the Keithel and agitating to retain their physical space, to defend the keithel from demolition at night by Government agencies. Nupi Keithel (Women's market) is the second largest woman market in Asia and is fighting for recognition from the deliberate erosion of the indigenous production systems and the monopoly over the local economy exerted largely by Indian trading communities with a fundamentally patriarchal ethos. Repeated attempts have been made to take over the very precincts of the Keithel by the Manipur government to demolish the Keithel and replace with modern supermarket with a promise to compensate.

Update information:
On 24 November 2004, the state Government of Manipur demolished the old district Hospital to pave the way for construction of a multi-storeyed Market Complex at Khwairamband Nupi Keithel. Women of the three markets located there are to be shifted at the hospital premises temporarily for construction of the new market complex under financial assistance from the Union Urban Development Ministry.

Group of Emas
Strong confrontations have taken place between those with a vested interest in constructing the supermarket and the women opposing the demolition of the traditional heritage of the "Keithel". Our sisters still are sitting agitation for right to preserve their heritage even under threat of the use of force by government armed forces. On 20 December 2004, the Kwairamband Keithel Nupi Marup appealed to the state Government to preserve the Nupi Keithel as a living museum since it has taken up ambitious plans to preserve the Kangla and other indigenous historical sites.

History and background:

The "market woman" of Manipur is a living legend, an inimitable figure of Imphal City. She sits, typically, in Sana Keithel, the Golden Market, and the second largest women's market in Asia. One would say, today, looking at the slush and dilapidation, hardly golden! What is this force in Manipur, the "market women"? Could she have started two wars against the might of the British if she were merely a petty trader? Or as she is described today, a vendor? Obviously not.

The Keithel of Manipur was not a vending place or a retail outlet. It was the centre of finance and commerce, rather like Bombay Stock Exchange and the Bankers' Federation rolled into one. This Market Women's Guild, like the Chambers of Commerce or like the great trading guilds of pre-industrial England, controlled prices, wages and stocks of goods. In the context of advisory and lobbying capacity with the administration also set revenue policy and maintained buffer stock for times of shortage. It also, inevitably, contributed to decisions of war and peace. It controlled all goods that went in, came out and passed through Manipur. No it was certainly not an association of shopkeepers and vendors!

Each sagei or clan had its own specialisation: rice and rice products, textiles and cotton, ceramics, fresh produce and so on. It was organised. The wealth of the clans was managed in the Keithel, by the senior daughters-in-law, who, after years of apprenticeship and initiation were accorded the right and responsibility to represent their families by sitting in the Keithel, to deal on their behalf and to influence the economic policies of Manipur, in their favour. The vast networks of Keithel over the valley were integral components of this sophisticated commercial infrastructure. East outlying Keithel specialised in a particular group of products according to their sagei-leikai. So the Lamlong Keithel was the bourse of rice trade. Literally dozens of varieties of rice, perhaps hundreds were brought and sold there. And by bought and sold I mean traded, not retailed. So Wankhei and Maibam leikai were centres of textiles, cotton and silk.

It is no wonder then, that the British, after being exposed to the ire of the "market woman" in 1904, for daring to encroach upon their preserve, and that too with disastrous effects, established "Maxwell's Bazaar". It was an integral component of the strategy to break the economic backbone of Manipur - the Market Women's Guild. This was the beginning of the engineered decline of the Keithel. With State patronage of their bourses eliminated, with new revenue laws and asset ownership patterns, with the control of finance and trade taken away by the British and their feudal representative, the Keithel withered.

The "merger" with India has, of course struck a lethal blow. Colonialization of the Manipur economy, of its trade and finance, has left the Keithel powerless. The financial support to Indian traders by Indian banks and the policy of neglect of support to indigenous trade efforts have crippled it. The deliberate erosion of the indigenous production system s and the monopolisation of assets, finance and infrastructure, largely by Indian trading families, have starved it. Not content, or perhaps with a well-founded fear of its regenerative powers, the State is busy picking over the half-alive carcass. Repeated attempts have been made to take over the very precincts of the Keithel. Bills have been chopped off and encroached unto, plans have been chopped off and encroached unto, plans have been initiated to displace it, and it has been neglected in maintenance.

The spirit, however, lives on strongly in the indomitable person of the "market woman". Even today, striped of her traditional, rightful power and role, she is struggling to survive. She has fearlessly, quietly and persistently refused to be displaced. Despite threats, cajolery, bribery and promises, she has forced concessions out of a tardy and corrupt government. The agitation to retain her physical space, the Keithel itself, has received far too little recognition. She has been in the forefront of agitations for the restoration of Human Rights.

Beleaguered as she is, she still stands for the benevolent and provident spirit of Manipur, for the ethic of self-determination and self-sufficiency. In her capable hands the economy of Manipur prospered. She is not dead yet. If we revive and restore her, the people will surely prosper again.

All over the North East the forces of globalization, privatization and liberalization backed by the Indian States hegemony over local economics and self-sufficiency are ousting the revenants and fragments of indigenous women's markets and production. Poverty is being created, intensified and deliberately entrenched. Will you help?

Planned activities:
Development planning must not weigh only immediate and short term benefits much less for the few but aim at equity, protection of human rights, long term and intergenerational impacts on economy, environment, subsistence and indigenous culture and traditions to assure sustainability. Clearly, the unified and consistent voice of these women is the strongest, most reliable monitor of these principles and aims.

We seek the support and solidarity of all regional and international networks and organizations, in particular those of women, for the success of this struggle.

You can 'Spend nights for solidarity':

strengthen the market women's movement by mobilizing women to join the campaign for voices of women in the economy:

pressure Governments of the North East region of India, the North Eastern Council, DONER and the Union government to protect and promote the traditional and indigenous women's markets including with proper and participative planning and sensitivity to tradition. demand by sending letters to the Chief Minister of Manipur,
Proper protection from violence for the women who spend nights at the Keithel
Proper maintenance of the women market in accordance of the demands of keithel women including drainage, garbage and waste disposal, water supply, power, sanitation and child care facilities

spend nights for solidarity
May be organized at the markets in your own home town, with photographs and brief write ups to be sent to the contact address below (so that we can share them at the keithel) and where possible, to join the women at the Keithel in Manipur itself.

Small donations to support the struggle may be sent to the bank account of the Nupi Keithel Marup. Amounts up to 50 USD only from individual donors will be accepted. Bank information may be requested from the WLP programme, CORE.

On behalf of the market women we seek support from all regional and international networks and organizations from the entire world requesting to organize groups of women to spend nights in solidarity with the women of the keithel and other traditional women's markets in north eastern India.

  • The Government of Manipur should protect and preserve the traditional and indigenous women's market. This market is more than 300 years old, in the world this is the only market of Nupi (Women's) it should be preserved as a Historical place instead of construction super market.
  • It should be recognized as a traditional Institution.
  • The Manipur Government should take proper prevention and steps for the women's who still spends nights at the Keithel from any unwanted event.
  • The Manipur Government should preserve the identity of the market by not mixing with male shopkeepers.

CORE, Women's Leadership Programme Kipring Koireng, Kumari Naorem and Rita Boro
The ancient people of Manipur, the Meitei, established and developed at 'Kangla' their seat of governance and spiritual center. Being a site of political and religious centre 'Kangla' was the most important Historical and Archeological site and ancient capital of Manipur from the ancient times down to the year 1891 A.D. All Meitei are emotionally and spiritually attached with "The Kangla" as the ancient sacred place for worship and the seat of our traditional leadership. It is a centre of pilgrimage for all the Manipuris who are residing in Manipur, Assam, Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Bangladesh and Myanmar etc. It is also believed that there are 360 important holy/sacred places in 'Kangla'.

The British occupied the Kangla as a cantonment from 1891 onwards. The conquered 'Kangla Fort' were publicly executed by the British. Since then, 'Kangla' has been under occupation by the Security forces/Assam Rifles. The gates of the historic Kangla fort was thrown open to the people of Manipur, with the DG of Assam Rifles formally handing over the symbolic key of the fort to Chief Minister, Manipur in front of the Prime Minister during an emotion charged public meeting inside Kangla on 27 November 2004.

From Amar Bazaar (with two men escorts)
Ms Gyennanda Gogoi, Dhemanji Assam
Ms Monika Doley, Dhemanji Assam
Mrs. Hirnya Doley, Dhemanji Assam
Ms Pushapa Jaye, Dhemanji Assam
Ms Rupawoti Jaye, Dhemanji Assam
Ms Reepa Kuli, Dhemanji Assam
Shri. Dipon Saikia, Dhemanji, Assam
Shri. Shashi Dihingia, Dhemanji, Assam
Ms Chandawati Padi, Dhemnaji Assam
Miss Mina Kutam, Dhemanji Assam

From Nupi Keithel Marup, Manipur
Mrs Moirangthem Bidhu, President
Mrs. A. Binodini, Vice President
Mrs Laishram Ibempishak Devi, Convener
Mrs Heisnam Radharani Devi, Joint Secy
Mrs Pukhrambam. Ibemu, Secy
1470 members of the Keithel Marup

For updates and other information, please contact
Kumari Naorem -
Rita Boro -

Centre for Organisation Research & Education
Tel: +91 385 2444845, 2441319 --- +361 2228709, 2228730
Telefax: +91 361 2228730
This article was webcasted on Jan 14th 2005.

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