Irawat and 1939 Women's War

L Sotinkumar *

 The 2nd Nupi Lal 1939 (Women agitation against British)
The 2nd Nupi Lal 1939 (Women agitation against British).
Warning: These images CANNOT be reproduced in any form or size without written permission from the RKCS Gallery

It was the month of December, 1939. Early paddy (anganphou) was available at that time. That is to say that new harvests started coming into the market to improve the rice situation. But the monopoly businessmen sent out too much rich and paddy outside Manipur. Rice husking mills also were being installed and started functioning.

All the rice husked in all these mills was sent out ceaselessly only for profit instead of selling it to the people of Manipur. There was famine in Manipur. Cries of woes from starvation echoed everywhere.

Under these circumstances, in the morning of December 11, the women of Manipur, without any sort of invitation or instigation, happened to assemble in front of the shops in Khwairamband Bazar and blocked the lorries lined there loaded with full of rice and paddy.

This was the beginning of the agitation. But the export of rice was not yet banned. At daybreak of the next day, December 12 morning, the starving women automatically gathered at Khwairamband Bazar without any sort of intimation or calling or appeal from any quarters, All cart-loads of paddy and rice taken for sale to the Marwaris were seized by the women masses.

All the carts with rice or paddy were seized by the womenfolk coming from various and different sides. All the seized loads of paddy and rice were taken to the Imphal Police Station by the womenfolk. The method of Dehoarding Campaign of to-day was actually utilized with success by the womenfolk of Manipur in 1939.

On December 12, 1939, when several hundred women came to the State Darbar and insisted the president of the Darbar Mr. T.A. Sharpe to ban the export of rice Mr. T.A. Sharpe informed them that export of rice couldn't stopped without the permission of the king who was at Nabadwip at that time and that he would be sending a telegram to him.


The leaders of Nupilal (Women's War) were Tongou Devi, Shabi Devi, Chaobiton Devi, Leipaklei Devi, Khongnang Devi etc. The women leaders came to telegraph office with President Sharpe to send telegram to Maharaja Churachand Singhji who was at Nabadwip.

The telegraph office was gheraoed by thousands of women. While the women were gheraoing the telegraph office from 12 noon upto 1 p.m. waiting for the reply of the telegram, suddenly the sepoys of the Assam Rifles came to disperse the mob. At that time Sri Laishram Kanhai, the co-worker of Irawat addressed the womenfolk to continue the agitation. The mob shouted slogans to ban the export of rice.

The sepoys being small in number could not control the mob. More armed sepoys were reinforced. The gathering was ordered to disperse. However, the womenfolk did not stop pressing their demands. After a while the sepoys began charging over the unarmed women. They were charged with lathis, butts and bayonets.

Twenty women were wounded, five seriously. Although the women were dispersed with cruel tortures of the British they did not retreat from telegraph office. They proceeded direct to the rice mills in a huge procession and pulled down the mills.

It seemed as if all the women of Manipur came out on to the roads. It is a historical fact that in an agitation some march ahead of others and some run away. At this critical juncture, while Irawat was outside Manipur, some members of the Nikhil Manipuri Mahasabha began to run away.

Some began to leave the Mahasabha and some women also sided with them. On the other hand, some of the sincere friends of Irawat and relentless workers of the Mahasabha including Laishram Kanhai, Longjam Bijoy, Laishram Kullabidhu, Takhellambam Ibotombi, Laishram Ram Singh and a host of others continued the agitation.

Irawat was called out through a telegram to lead the agitation. At 2:30 p.m., the sincere workers gathered in a public meeting at Police Line and protested against the bayonet charge on the women and shedding their blood at the telegraph office and further resolved to proceed with the agitation.

It also proclaimed the formation of a party under the name and style of Praja Sammelani. Thus, when Praja Sammelani had started its agitation, Irawat came back from Cachar as soon as he received the telegram and returned to Manipur without any delay to take the lead in the agitation.


With the arrival of Irawat in Manipur the women and masses of Manipur got a new impetus. Immediately a Working Committee meeting of the Mahasabha was convened by Irawat, the President of the organisation. There arose a great difference of opinions in the meeting.

A faction no longer wanted to continue the agitation. They did not want to continue for fear of Government oppression. They began to look to their selfish ends. Some resigned from the Mahasabha. In this way the Mahasabha was in a difficult situation to revive. On the second meeting of the Praja Sammelani. Irawat was elected President.

The Praja Sammelani organised the Manipur Mahila Sammelani, an organisation exclusively meant for women. As a result of the agitation all the eighteen mills in Manipur were banned. Export of rice outside was also banned.

People won the battle. However, the Manipur Government did not remain silent. I.P.C. Section 144 was enforced in and around the Imphal town, prohibiting the gathering of five or more people together. But the women masses gathered together defying the prohibitory order under Section 144. Near Police Line Bazar at Haying Khongbal, the people holding lathis clashed with the police armed with rifles.


The agitation spread far and wide from Imphal town to a number of villages. The Praja Sammelani and the Krishak Sabha joined hands. Over and above this, Irawat started the Non Co-operation Movement adding fuel to the fire of women's upheaval. A number of public meetings were held at various places.

The masses plucked the kapok fruit (meant for the Government), felled trees from the Reserved Forest without permission from the Government and used those and straw without paying duties. They also caught fish from lakes and rivers without paying taxes (known as patsel). Taxes for ferry were not paid and ferry-huts were pulled down.

Lilies, its roots, thambou and lotus fruits were collected without paying taxes. Honey was collected by the people and eaten up instead of the usual practice of offering it to the king. Fooding for peons and amins (Surveyors) were not supplied.

Actually the peasant masses could launch the non-co-operation movement as they assembled themselves and established the Krishak Sammelani in 1936 at Nambol. In this agitation Okram Ibomcha Kaviraj, Secretary of the Krishak Sammelani and Maimom Madhumangol, Mongjam Subol and many other workers opposed the king's oppressive measures ceaselessly and with great enthusiasm.

Various old practices and laws such as portership by turn, supply of fooding for the peon, palanquin carrying, fines in the name of religion etc, were exempted. Irawat was leading the agitation addressing various public meetings and travelling from village to village.

Irawat spoke thus, "The women of Manipur are charged with bayonets when they demand a handful of rice to keep off starvation. Handful of women's blood are shed. The blood of Meitei women is shed for the sake of rice. Please remember the event of the Telegraph Office.

In Russia and Japan people have agitated unitedly. Why should we not have their courage ? We should not be afraid of entering into the jail." (The very speech of Irawat delivered on the 7th January, 1940 at Police Line in a Public Meeting organised by Praja Sammelani as contained in the judgement of the State Darbar declaring him guilty according to the trial).

In this way Irawat began to mention about the Russian Revolution of 1917. Unable to bear the ceaseless struggle of Irawat the Manipur Government arrested Irawat and tried by the State Darbar on March 21, 1940. Irawat was tried and sentenced to three years imprisonment under the Indian Penal Code Section 121 (a).

Not only Irawat, Shabi Devi; Tongou Devi, Leipaklei and the other leaders of the women's uprising were sentenced to imprisonment terms invariably of six and nine months. Thus Irawat was put in jail for a long time with a view to suppressing a great political revolution in Manipur.

The enraged women folk, in protest, did not attend Khwairamband Bazar and boycotted it keeping the market totally defunct for the whole length of one year.

* L Sotinkumar wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is State Secretary, CPI Manipur
This article was posted on December 07, 2019 .

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