Nupi Lan : The Great Second Women Agitation of Manipur, 1939-40
- Part 1 -

Budha Kamei *

The 2nd Nupi Lal 1939 (Women agitation against British) :: RKCS Painting
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

"When the life of the people is at stake, the administrative encroach upon individual liberties by invading human dignities, the womenfolk in Manipur do not remain as silent spectators. History is the witness that they rise up in unity against such situations."

The Nupi Lan is an epoch-making event which broke out on 12 December, 1939. It may be stated that the Nupi Lan not only represents one of the popular agitation which fought against an extremely exploitative form of socio-economic and political system perpetrated by the combined feudalistic-colonial rule but also was a movement influenced and to a certain extent supported by the emerging educated elite for political reforms in Manipur. Some say that it marked a dividing line between the oppressive economic and administrative policies followed by the Maharaja and the Political Agent, and a new Manipur which emerged out of the Nupi Lan. The event also showed that political consciousness had grown among the Manipuris. The present article is a humble attempt to examine the Nupi Lan, 1939-40; its origin and significant in the history of Manipur.

Right from historical period, the Manipuri women always played a very important role in Manipur society. Unlike in other contemporary Hindu society, the Manipuri women held a key position in social and economic activities of the state. In Imphal, the state capital, there was a market, Khwairamban Bazar or Sana Keithel located in the British reserve area. It was the centre of economic activities of the state. Most of the traders had their godowns and shops at the Sadar (The term Sadar is coined by the British for administrative and convenience, which stands for Selected Area Development Administrative Region).

Maxwell bazaars were located in this complex. Inside the market complex there were a large number of vendors dealing in varieties of local products such as rice, fresh vegetables, tobacco, dry fish, salt, oil, baskets, cloth etc. (R. Brown 2001:90) Over two thousand women occupied regular stalls while an even larger number sit outside the sheds as occasional hawkers.

No man except the hill men and White men/Europeans were allowed to enter the market and indeed all the buying and selling was conducted by women. (E.W Dun 1975:64) R. Brown wrote that "A certain number of the Raja's house servants, called Haomacha, (hill men) ten in number, daily visit this bazaar, and take from the women enough food to meet the Maharaja's need for a day." (2001:91)There was another weekly market, state police bazaar which was located near the State military police line, the present campus of Manipur State Road Transport Corporation. It was however, opened only when the Khwairamban bazar was closed. The market was closely associated with the political life of this State.

These tradeswomen of bazar were known for their relatively less sophisticated but fearless and frank nature. Because of their constant exposure to various socio-economic and cultural cross currents they became a well informed and conscious group, in times of crisis they always used to respond to the problem. In other words, to them this market place served as the venue of social and political interaction. Therefore, the high status accorded to the womenfolk by the society is regarded as one of the greatest prides of Manipur. But the Khwairamban bazar was controlled by the outside traders and local businessmen, and therefore, women were always interested in developing an alternative business centre. (N. Lokendra Singh 1998:137)

Rice is the staple crop of Asia not exception in Manipur. In Manipur, rice provided a means of livelihood not merely to the farmers but also to the womenfolk. The major industry in which the women also take part was the rice trading business. Their involvement in this trade was enormous that they participated right from the time of the transplantation up to the selling of the final product.

E. W Dun wrote, "It would be difficult to find a more industrious woman in India than the Manipuri."(1981:17) Such an advantages position enjoyed by them was seriously disturbed after the introduction of the colonial system of administration. It is a fact that the only objective of the colonial administration was to strengthen their economic position by exploiting the traditional system of the people. This practice was adopted by the British in every colonial state. (N. Joykumar Singh 2002:138)

The insensitivity of colonial officials in Manipur to the people's sentiments could not but invite protests and challenges. In 1904, just fourteen years after the annexation of Manipur by the British, Colonel Maxwell the then Political Agent and Superintendent of the state attempted to reintroduce the Lallup system, force labour which was abolished by the Indian Government in 1892 and forced the male folk of Imphal to reconstruct the burnt down Bungalows of Captain Nuttal the tutor to the Raja Churachand and Mr. Dunlop the Assistant political agent. He also asked to rebuild the Bungalows with teak wood from Kabaw valley of Burma. (Kh. Sarojini Devi 2005: 62) It was a wrong step taken by the Political Agent. As saviour of the people from danger, the womenfolk of Imphal rose up in protest against the injustice demand of force labour.

The agitations and demonstrations of the women had to be dispersed by the use of force but ultimately, the order of rebuild was withdrawn. The womenfolk of Imphal urban area thus achieved what their male folk could not do. The most prominent leaders of this agitation were: Smt. Irengbam Ongbi Sanajaobi Devi of Naga Mapal, Lamabam Leikai; Smt. Leishangthem Kwathabi Devi of Thangmeiband; Smt. Irungbam Ningol Leimapokpam Ongbi Dhabali Devi of Wangkhei Ningthem Pukhri Mapal and Smt. Laishram Ningol Juboti Devi of Naga Mapal. (Lal Dena 2008:55-57)

This incident was viewed by colonial rulers on a wrong line and they concluded that the Rajkumars who had been reprieved by their right and privileges under the British rule, were the authors of the movement. J. B. Fuller, Chief Commissioner of Assam expressed unhappiness over this incident arising out of action of Political Agent. Maxwell was transferred from the Political Agency. (Gangmumei Kamei 2012:86) The agitation was better known as the First Nupi Lan in the history of Manipur.

According to N. Joykumar, "The movement of 1904 was a great landmark in the history of Manipur. Although the duration of the agitation was very short, yet it produced a very good impact on the political and economic life of the state and also paved a way for the future and anti-imperialist movements in the state." (2002:118) In 1925, it was again womenfolk of Manipur that started widespread agitations against the rise of water tax. Here, it may be pointed out that the tradeswomen of the Khwairamban bazar led all these agitations, similar to those were to take a leading role in the women's agitation of 1939-40.

After Anglo-Manipur war of 1891, Manipur came under direct British rule and it continued up to 1907 when the administration was handed over to Churanchand Singh the Maharaja of Manipur. After the Kuki rebellion of 1917-19, British administration got two main elements which were:
1) The Maharaja was responsible for the administration of the state and was assisted by a Durbar, the president of the Durbar, an I.C.S officer of which was selected by the Governor of Assam. The Durbar had at least three Manipuri members. The Maharaja could veto any resolution of the Durbar; but his orders vetoing a resolution of the Durbar had to be submitted to the Political Agent. The Political Agent could refer any matter to the Governor of Assam.
2) The Durbar was the highest original and Appellate court both in civil and criminal cases. (Robert Reid 1997:77-78)

The Hill areas and British reserve area was under the control of the Political Agent which was beyond the jurisdiction of the Durbar.

The Political Agent continued to rule the hill areas of Manipur after 1907. In 1913, there was a reorganization of the State Durbar and the president of the reconstituted Durbar, an ICS officer was entrusted the administration of the whole hill areas of Manipur who was overburdened with his usual duties in the Durbar. The hill area of Manipur was made separation from the general administration of the state on the plea that the hill tribes were not Manipuris and had entirely different customs and languages. It was the ulterior motive of British administration to create a 'barrier of a wall' no only between the hill men and plains men but even among the hill people themselves.

The true of the matter was that the people irrespective of case, creed and religion, belonged to the same Mongoloid racial stock and their languages were dialects of the Tibeto-Burman. By carefully emphasizing inter-tribal disharmonies and superficial differences in term of religion, the British employed the well known policy of 'divide and rule,' a policy that played a crucial part in ensuring the stability indeed, the viability of nearly every colonial system.

The British officers, however tried to justify their action on the grounds of so called humanitarianism that the dealings of the state with the hill tribes had been in previous years so cruel as to cause several remonstrance from the Supreme Government and much fiction was caused between political Agent and the State authorities by the efforts of the former to protect the hill tribes. In short, such a system the Britishers argued was to save the hill tribes from the long reign of tyranny and oppression perpetrated by the King of Meitei.(Lal Dena 2008:72-73; N. Lokendra Singh 1998:39) Thus, in regard to the hill administration, the British assumed the role of saviour minus a redeeming power.

Manipur had a self sufficient agrarian economy during the pre-colonial period. The advent of British rule after 1891 brought about major structural changes in the economy, which became subservient to the interests of the colonial power. The introduction of private real estate and the monetization of the economy through commercialization of agriculture and taxation strengthened the colonial grip on Manipur. With the opening of links to Cachar, Assam and Dimapur, present Nagaland, large quantity of agricultural and forest produce were exported, effecting prices and local consumption.

Alongside, there was an influx of cheap consumer goods manufactured in industrialized Europe and other parts of British India along with the arrival of a trading class, Marwaris. These colonial economic trends and their perpetuation played a crucial role in native deindustrialization. (Gangmumei Kamei 2012:73-74) In addition to the obvious economic cause, there were social, political and religious causes. The system of Mangba and Sengba (purity and pollution) did become quite rampant after 1920's when Maharaja Churachand, in collusion with the Brahma Sabha sternly enforced it in Manipur.

According to the system any man without any ground or on the flimsiest ground could be declared as Mangba (polluted) by any of the religious authority in the State. The victim along with his family members then would become outcasts. The family would not only be socially boycotted but would not also be allowed to perform any of the customary religious rites and rituals during the period of Mangba. If the excommunicated person was to be taken into normal life, he would have to spend a huge amount in purification (Sengba).

Because of the system of Mangba and Sengba, the gaps between the hill men and the plain men were also widened during the first half of the 20th century. The system was so rigid, even the white men were treated as Mangba.

To be continued ...

* Budha Kamei wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was posted on January 09, 2013.

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