We've all heard the magnanimous tales of kings and emperors who are realised as the epitome of bravery. Women have always taken a back seat in the vehicle of history, despite their leadership and contribution in social and political movements. Long before the Shaheen Bagh protests or the Chipko movement and the Narmada Bachao Andolan, the women of Manipur came together and created a movement that sowed the seeds of economic and political reforms for a new Manipur in the early 40s.
This is the story of the Nupi Lan which means 'women’s war' in Manipuri. During the colonial period, women were the primary breadwinners and caregivers of the family because the men would either be sent away as soldiers or they would go through forced labour known as 'lallup-kaba'.
As a consequence of this system, women had to support their households by cultivating their fields or weaving textiles and then selling the products on improvised markets which slowly organised and established as the Khwairamband Bazar, also known as the Nupi Keithel or Ima Keithel (women’s market or mother’s market) in Imphal. It still remains the only market in the world run entirely by women.
First Nupi Lan (1904)
In 1891, Manipur came under British rule and the anti-colonial protests that followed led to the burning down of two bungalows of British officials. In order to rebuild these houses, Colonel Maxwell reintroduced a forced labour system known as the lallup-kaba. Under this measure, men were obliged to provide free labour for ten days after every thirty days of paid work.
To fight this, thousands of women rallied together and marched towards the colonel’s residence in September that year. The administration promised them that it would reconsider its decision, but when nothing changed, more than 5000 women gathered at Nupi Keithel the next month to protest the colonel until he finally rescinded the order.
Even though the administration was handed over to Raja Churachand Singh and his durbar by 1907, a British political agent was employed to oversee the functioning of the region who still had a say in the trade and economic policies of Manipur.
Manipur was primarily an agrarian economy and rice trade was its only means of getting cash from the outside which meant that the economy was severely impacted as a result of commercial reforms like mandating large portions of locally cultivated rice to be exported to outstation British battalions. This left supply shortages for locals and adversely impacted the market’s turnout. The British also increased imports of cheaper goods and brought in Marwari traders to buy out swathes of land, both of which caused harm to the local cottage and rice industries.
Second Nupi Lan (1939)
Left with just a fraction of the harvest, a famine-like situation incited uprisings and protests against the durbar. Opposing these brutal reforms, on December 12, thousands of women marched to the durbar’s office to demand a ban on rice exports and closure of the rice mills. Upon hearing that the Maharaja had gone out of town to Nabadwip, and that only he had the power to authorise their demands, the women held TA Sharpe, the president of the durbar captive and made him send out a telegram to the Maharaja. By then, nearly 4000 women had camped outside the office, refusing to leave.
In an attempt to diffuse the situation, a platoon of Assam Rifles was brought in which only made things worse. The soldiers tried to disperse the women attacking them with bayonets. The women did not flail and in return, pelted stones at the soldiers. Their voices and slogans of "Manipur Mata ki Jai" were heard by the Maharaja who sent a message the next day asking for rice export to be stopped.
Shabi, Tongou, Chaobiton, Leibaklei, and Khongnang, were some noteworthy leaders who spearheaded the movement.
December 12 is celebrated as Nupi Lan Memorial Day in the state to commemorate the valour of these women who led the two movements that forever changed Manipur's future. The Nupi Lan movements are a watershed moment in history and a testament to women's will in fighting for the right of their people against all the odds of injustice, violence and oppression.