Nupi Lan: Second Manipur Women’s Agitation, 1939-40

Dr Budha Kamei
Contd from previous issue
Therefore, on 12 December 1939, the womenfolk came out in several hundreds and began to organize demonstrations in Imphal streets demanding the cessation of export of rice and closure of all rice mills immediately. The most prominent personalities of the agitation were Aribam Chaobiton Devi, Tombimacha Devi, Mongjam Leima Devi, Tongbram Sabi Devi, Ibemhal Devi etc. (Singh 2002:141) They marched to the office of the Durbar and demanded for immediate ban on export of rice. Despite such pressures the members of the Durbar could not take a decision because two members of the Durbar including Sharpe, the president of the Manipur State Durbar (MSD) for export whereas the remaining four were for putting a ban. To compound the problem Raja Churachand Singh as well as Mr. Gimson were unavailable for any sort of advice. All the Durbar members excluding Mr. Sharpe fled through the backdoor of the office in order to avoid crowd. Mr. Sharpe was new to Manipur and the women appealed to him to stop the export of rice. Mr. Sharpe told them that such order required prior approval of Maharaja who was then away to Nabadwip in Bengal. The womenfolk then dragged out physically and accompanied him to the nearby Telegraph office to wire to the Maharaja for stoppage of the export of rice. Not satisfied with this action, the white officer was made to wait the Maharaja’s reply then and there. The commandant of the 4th Assam rifle, Major Bulfied, and the civil surgeon, Major Cummins, who came to the rescue of Mr. Sharpe were also kept inside the compound of the telegraph office. The Telegraph office was in the British Reserve. The siege continued for a number of hours till quite late in the evening. In the meantime some people started throwing stones. It was in such a situation, a platoon of Assam rifle arrived and attempted to clear riotous multitude. At this moment one of the women from the crowd repeatedly shouted Vande Matram and Manipur Mataki Jai. This raised their morale and they became more aggressive and countered the violence of the Sepoys. In the confrontation, twenty-one women were injured by bayonet and gun butts. Out of the twenty-one women, five were seriously injured and later on taken to the Civil Hospital for treatment. (Manimohon 2006:167-169; Tarapot 2005:163-164; Jamini 2009: 48-50) The magnitude and intensity of the women’s agitation can perhaps be judged from the facts that troops had to be called to disperse them and maintain law and order. The firmness of conviction and single mindedness of the women who agitated that day cannot be underestimated, especially in view of the fact that this was achieved without male leadership or participation. This very incident was the beginning of the women’s agitation in Manipur. From the above facts it can be stated that it was a spontaneous uprising carried out by the market women who had the high degree of consciousness about the economic hardship from the feudal and colonial masters.
The next day a reply came from the Maharaja who authorized Gimson the Political Agent, to prevent the rice export and then passed an order for the purpose. The women then turn their attention to the rice mills owners extorting written promises that they would not run their rice mills again. In spite of this promise, a mill owner had soaked and boiled some paddy to convert it into par boiled rice at night. On hearing this, the angry women of about ten thousand went to one of the biggest rice mills at Mantripukhri which was beyond Reserve area to see that the electric switches were removed by an order of the political agent. Only then, the agitated women could be persuaded to go home. The women succeeded in banning the export of rice to outside Manipur. However, they continued their agitation. From 13 December they called a complete hartal of the Khwairamban Bazaar as an expression of protest against violence meted out to them. The Khwairamban Bazaar was empty and since that day the boycott continued for almost about a year. The entire business activities of the traders were thoroughly paralyzed.
Meanwhile Neta Irabot who had been to Cachar for campaigning of the Mahasabha returned on 16 December and reviewed the overall situation particularly the role of the Mahasabha in it. During those days, the Mahasabha was like a divided house; one group led Neta Irabot and the others by Madhop Sharma. The former was more active politically whereas the other group was quite passive and was hardly interested in confronting the State authorities. (Lokendra 1998: 141) Therefore, Neta Irabot opted out of the Mahasabha and formed a new political organization called Praja Sanmelini. Nevertheless, with the involvement of Praja Sanmelini men began to take prominent part in the agitation. The main objectives of the party were abolition of colonial and feudal rule and establishment a responsible government in Manipur. A prophecy which stated that “The appointed time had come for the arrival of the new king riding on a white elephant” not only famed the agitation but also increased the popularity of Neta Irabot Singh because he was seen as the new king of the prophecy.
The situation was calm and quite for sometimes. But, towards the end of December, 1939 the tempo of this movement particularly among the women was further revived. Some carters were seen carrying rice for export. The carts were unloaded and rice bags were thrown into gutters by the women agitators. The carters then lodged a complaint in the court of the political agent with proper identification of the women involved. The office of the political agent then instructed the state police to produce the women for recording their statements. The women leaders mobilized the people who surrounded the police station for several hours. The women alleged that the police Inspector kicked one elderly Brahmin woman and demanded for the punishment of the Inspector. (Administrative Report for the State of Manipur 1939-40:2) In spite of their continuous demand for the punishment of the Inspector, the Maharaja, who happened to be the father-in-law of the police Inspector, turned a deaf ear and the Inspector was set free. The following days the Khwairamban Bazaar was not opened and public meetings were held to discuss the emerging situation. With the participation of male folk particularly the members of the Praja Sanmilan under the leadership of Neta Irabot, the agitation began to assume a political colour. Neta Irabot finally transformed the agitation into a movement of civil disobedience for political reforms which aimed at the democratization of the political structure of the state. On the 7 January, 1940, a public meeting was organized at the police line bazaar. In the meeting, Neta Irabot whipped up the mass emotion by saying “Remember the telegraph office incident we begged rice and in return received bayonet wounds and wounds from the gun butts.” On 9 January, 1940, Neta Irabot was arrested under section 124 of the Indian penal code for his inflammatory speeches and a prohibitory order banning all sort of public gathering was imposed on 13 January. (Manimohon 2006:201-205) It was indeed an extremely wise step on the part of the colonial authority to arrest Irabot, because with his charisma, the movement would have become much stronger. After his arrest, the movement was carried on by his followers. A form of civil disobedience movement then followed, and many people began refusing to pay the feudal dues and taxes. Robert Reid observed, “Though the export of rice was stopped and the mills ceased working, the movement which was fomented by congress elements in Assam, persisted for many months in 1940. (1997:91) Thus, the character of the movement gradually changed to the nature of the freedom movement. In spite of all this, there was no sign of improvement in the law and order situation of the state. There were no economic activities in Khwairamban Bazaar and due to the long absence of market activities the financial position was greatly effected. Mr Robert Reid the then Governor of Assam asked the Maharaja of Manipur to introduce considerable reforms so that the intensity of the movement could be stopped. On 18 May, 1940, Robert Reid again wrote another letter to Maharaja Churachand Singh and the Durbar in which he mentioned that Maharaja and Durbar could not do much for the welfare of the state. Accordingly, he further had suggested that in order to remove the misunderstanding between the administration and people the Maharaja should make a determined effort to control the situation before it worsened. He also advised the Maharaja to make an attempt to regain the confidence of the people. (Singh 2002:143) In the meantime, the political agent threatened the womenfolk by saying that if they refused to come to the market he would allot the seat to anyone he chose. But the women just ignored his threat and submitted a petition to the political agent elaborating their grievances and requesting to fulfil the same. The grievances were specified as: a) unfitness of present Durbar members, b) unfitness of police, c) illegal action of police Inspector, d) conviction of four women beyond constitution, e) unexpected assault to the innocent public on 14th January 1940 and f) illegal assault by Dulop Singh, Amin. They made assurance that as soon as these demands were fulfilled they would attend Khwairamban Bazaar. (Yambem 1976:330) It is thus cleared that the women gradually coming towards a compromise with the authority.
The grievances of the women were not immediately redressed. But the women certainly made themselves felt. And the boycott itself came to an end with most of the population of Imphal valley fleeing for safety as the World War II approached Manipur and stopped all talks about constitutional reforms in Manipur.
To conclude, it can be stated that the Nupi Lan, which began as an agitation of rice directed against the economic policies of the king and Marwari traders, later changes its character to become a movement for constitutional and administrative reforms in Manipur. However, the uniqueness of the agitation does lie in the fact that in the emergence of a new Manipur after the war; it was the Manipur women who were vanguard of change. Prof Lal Dena writes thus: “On many occasions the Manipuri women had always demonstrated a rare example of conduct and sacrifice before their male folk.” Concluded

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