A historical introspection : The Manipuri Women's struggle of 1939
(Nupi Lan)

Kh Surchand *

 Nupilan Ningshing Numit : Nupi Lan Observation :: 12th December 2012
Nupilan Ningshing Numit : Nupi Lan Observation on 12th December 2012 :: Pix - Jinendra Maibam

The historic Manipuri Women's revolutionary struggle of 1939 was a great political event in the 56 years of British Colonial rule. The struggle was inspired by the great Marxist revolutionary Hijam Irawat. The intrinsic cause of the militant movement was directly related with the colonial and feudal exploitation.

With the reign of British colonial rule, the nonManipuri business sharks gradually began to dominate trade and commerce that was earlier under feudalism and was at the hands of the Manipuris. The colonial creations and its fallouts: In order to fatten their exchequer, the colonial authority introduced free trade in Manipur.

Under their disastrous free trade policy, the British authority began to export huge quantum of local rice produced by the peasantry. If we have a glance at the then data of rice export, it can be seen how much of rice was aggressively sold outside by the colonial master.

Year wise -export quantum 1897-98-25,230 maunds of rice;
1898-99-36,436 maunds of rice;
1922-23- 80,000 maunds of rice;
1925-26 -1,55,014 maunds of rice.

As such, till 1925, the plundering of Manipuri rice had assumed an agressive proportion. It certainly affected the local market, the internal consumption of rice could not be met due to the export of rice. Hence, the price of rice was bound to hike and people suffered a lot as they could not afford the steep price. The Manipuri people began to oppose and demanded that disastrous free trade policy be abandoned.

The British authority handed over the rice export to the trading community which had huge capital investment and shared the profit with the British. In such subtle colonial practice, the Britishers could enjoy the colonial exploitation. The permissible duration of rice export of six weeks meant one and half month. In the initial stage the load of local rice was carried by the bullock carts.

But with the use of motor vehicles the rice export business expanded immensely with rapid pace. The rice export was done with two different slot-"Cart Tax" and "Land Pass" System. The free movement of Manipuri rice was allowed by paying cart tax under the first system and the latter system was made through contract between the colonial administration of Manipur State and Assam.

With the second slot the unlimited quantum of rice can be exported to the Kohima Civil Stations of Naga Hills and Assam Rifles battalions posted all over Assam. Through the cart tax system the colonial administration could earn huge revenue but after some time the revenue was radically transformed to fatten the trading community.

Earlier the revenue accumulation was pursued through an administrative order of the Political Agent (colonial ruler). However, with the new policy in 1932, the sole responsibility of collection was given to a powerful trading community and a certain revenue was shared with the State.

The new system gave great impetus to the growth and concentration of private capital as well as the quantum of rice export reached a new height-2,77,389 maunds as against 1,05,287 maunds in the previous years. In the meanwhile, the area under paddy cultivation did not increase considerably, as only 10,672 acres could be enhanced.

A comparative study can be made regarding the expansion of area under cultivation and push of the huge volume of rice export. In the mid 1920s, the grand total paddy cultivated land was 1,75,537 (acres) and in the late 1930s the total area could expand upto 1,85,213 (acres) only. The increase was minimal ie only 10,672 (acres).

The expansion was in the fertile valley only, though the cultivation was wet-cultivation, but very primitive and subsequently, the rice harvest per acre was utterly low. The Manipuri peasantry used bio-fertilizer only that too not in appropriate quantum. In vast hill areas, rice productivity was much more lower than the valley due to the geographical reality.

The peasantry in the hills could practice terrace cultivation only. The helpless peasantry could not expect the paddy harvest more than their subsistence. Even own produce could barely meet daily consumption. Other available crops, vegetables, bamboo shoot, pumpkin, gourd, etc. supplemented the food shortage. This was how the tribal people survived in the hills.

In Manipur valley, the annual rice harvest could meet the domestic consumption, as the production was self-sufficient but not abundant. No concern for the people–British and Manipur authority : In such a situation, with no concern for the people, the British colonial administration colluded with puppet feudal ruler of Manipur State, and pursued the free trade policy, particularly rice export.

The trade volume of rice export had inceased tremendously reaching upto 3,72,174 maunds in 1938 (one year before the outbreak of the Nupi Lan) as against the 1,55,014 mounds of 1925-26. It caused the artificial scarcity of rice in the local market.

The Manipuri prefer rice as their staple food item. Therefore, whenever the rice output was scanty owing to natural calamities like flood, drought etc they were not accustomed easily to any other optional food instead of the tasty Manipuri rice. Along with this problem of Manipuri food habit, the colonial policy of rice export brought down the agarian economy of Manipuri people particularly the economy of the peasantry.

  27th Nupi Lal Ningsing Lamjel from Nupi Lan Complex to Singjamei Super Market on 12th December 2018
27th Nupi Lal Ningsing Lamjel from Nupi Lan Complex to Singjamei Super Market on 12 December 2018 :: Pix - Shanker Khangembam

The rice business tycoons exploited the Manipuri peasants through forward trading and did not give the remunerative price to farmers when they procured the paddy and rice for exporting outside the State.

The unlimited rice export policy of British authority brought unbearable economic hardship to the life of the common people. This was the dangerous coalesce of politics and economic condition of colonial Manipur just before the outbreak of the second Manipuri women's struggle.

The immediate causes :

The immediate cause for the outbreak of militant women's agitation was explicitly related with exploitive free trade policy of colonial ruler and the nefarious milling and trading activities of the crony capitalists-the trading community. The devastating economic hardship due to the plundering and looting of the British colonialist was already piled up in Manipur and the artifical rice scarcity further intensified the economic hardship of the common masses.

On other hand, the ruling elite and the feudal class were enjoying the comfortable life with nothing in their mind about the suffering of the masses. In the meanwhile, nature also was not kind to the people. One was the excessive rain in the last week of July and first week of August and again another heavy rainfall in the last part of September and early part of November 1939.

The heavy rain of July and August had destroyed standing crops and vegetables. The latter rainfall repeatedly affected the early paddy harvest. In mid November again hailstrom damaged the standing crops ready for harvesting. Due to this unexpected natural calamities, rice production was very much low.

As a consequence , the price of rice was hiked considerably from one rupee and four annas to the tune of two rupees per maund. Even the costly rice was not available in the market. In such critical situation, the food crisis became acute. The magnitude was similar to some extent with the tragic Bengal famine of early 1940s.

The struggle began and its tremendous effect :

The hungry womenfolk who had to manage the day's meal went from pillar to post searching for rice, but none was available. The womenfolk could not forget her child who had starved since yesterday.

Instead of returning to their respective home without a handful of rice, they marched towards the office of the political agentMr Gimson. On 12 December 1939 at forenoon several hundreds women of Khwairamband Keithel (Imphal Market) were in the forefront.

The agitated womenfolk raised the slogans against free trade and the rice export policy. Urging the colonial administration to abandon export of rice and the rice mills run by the trading community, the militant women encircled Mr Sharpe, then, the President of the Manipur State Darbar, asking him to issue an effective official order to halt both the working of the rice mills and the export of rice.

The number of women increased in and around the State capital, Imphal. Then the colonial official asserted that the British administration could not abandon the free trade and rice export policy without the approval of the Manipur King Sir Churachand. Accordingly, Mr Sharpe came to the Telegraph office to send urgent telegram to Nabadwip (West Bengal) to get the consent from the Maharaja who was on pilgrimage.

But the women stood their ground and said that approval of the King was not necessary. However the British official insisted on it which annoyed the womenfolk who then confined Mr Sharpe, Major Cummins, the Civil Surgeon, Major Bullfield, Commandant of the 4th Assam Rifles along with some others officials in the Telegraph office, even refusing to allow them to go for lunch.

At around 2 pm a platoon of the Assam Rifles rushed with 303 rifles and fixed bayonets. But instead of retreating, the Manipuri womenfolk confronted the colonial forces. As a consequence , the historic clash broke out between the sepoys and women agitationists. The blood of Manipuri women was shed to confront the brutal charges of lathi, bayonet and butt of the colonial forces. A large number of agitationists got wounded and some were hospitalised.

The historic militant women struggle for food gave a profound political impact and awoke the anti-imperialist stance and also the women resistance shook both the colonial and feudal rule in the State. The great Marxist revolutionary Hijam Irawat inspired the 1939 women struggle. For his headlong involvement and guidance of the women struggle, he was imprisoned for three years and deported to Sylhet jail.

Other women leaders - Shabi Devi, Tongou Devi, Chaobiton, Khongnang, Leipaklei Devi etc got jail terms. The Leftist women organisation-the Manipur Mahila Sanmelani was the product of this struggle.

On 7th January 1940, the Manipur Mahila Sanmelani was formed under the initiative of comrade Irawat. The nomenclature of Mahila Sanmelani changed to the All Manipur Nupi Marup of present day.

* Kh Surchand wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is Asst. Secretary, MSC/CPI
This article was webcasted on December 13 2020 .

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