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The Transcendental Role Of Women In Manipur History

Dr. M. C. Arunkumar & Irengbam Arun

9. Agitating Women - Nupi Lal: 1904

When the Asiatic kingdom of Manipur was brought under colonial subjugation by the British in 1891, the king was naturally reduced to a mere puppet. Thus the divine lineage started by Nongda Lairen Pakhangba was interrupted and a distant cousin was placed on the throne. There was widespread resentment over the appointment of Churachand Singh, a minor boy belonging to a distant Rajkumar lineage as the new king. But, the aura of divine legacy was already lost to the people. In the process, the social institutions and associations of the traditional society slowly disintegrated. Britishers, after the de jure occupation of Manipur in 1891, abolished the lallup system. But the colonial authority disarmed the Manipuri army and imposed forced labour on the defeated army personnel.

They were divided into four squads and each squad made to carry rations for the British troops to Khuzuma, a village in Naga Hills. Each squad shall go there once in two weeks. This was rendered free without any payment whatsoever. The society, on the other hand, was systematically exploited through various political and economic policies. The puppet king Maharaja Churachand Singh was given a free hand in the valley while the British colonial representative directly administered the hill areas of Manipur. Within a short span of time (1891-1904), the society witnessed drastic changes in every aspect of the then society. Introduction of a new revenue system to the economy of Manipur too sowed the seeds of discontent and rebellion among the general population.

In the month of July 1904, Manipur saw a series of burning of houses (bungalows) belonging to British officers right in the heart of Imphal (the then British Reserve). Some of the notable cases were those recorded on the 6th July (Kwairamband market sheds) and on the 16th July (bungalows of Captain Nathal and of Mr. Dunlop). The British officers were quite naturally suspecting the hands of some dissenting princes. Mr. Maxwell, the Political Agent and the Superintendent of the State issued an order on 30th September, 1904 asking all the ablebodied men of Imphal to reconstruct the bungalows with teakwood from Kabo valley. It was an extra burden on the already harassed and overworked populace. So, they pleaded with the Superintendent to reconsider the order. But the plea was denied.

Despite the Government's prohibitory order, a public meeting was organized on September 30 against Mr. Maxwell's order. The police arrested the six princes and banished them from Manipur under a trial conducted by Mr. Maxwell on 10th November 1904. The general population was perturbed and awestruck. But the market women of Imphal Khwairamband market started an agitation. They stopped the ablebodied men who came to build the bunglow and threw the building materials into the river. They were protesting the expulsion of six princes, which they consider an act of extreme injustice. The defiant women took upon themselves the task of challenging the colonial policies of the British and in the process remotivate the male population who were nursing the humiliating defeat at the hands of the British and cringing under the exploitative policies of the British masters. Hodson records such a reaction: "The movement continued for several days. As a result of this, the market activities of the Khwairamband market were stopped. The women of the market became a serious concern to the government, as it affected the day-to-day life of the State. " 10 Likewise, Brown would also cite how with the help of reinforcement the British could quell the uprising: "Finally the protest had to be quelled with reinforcement of force from outside the State. It can be said that the movement was partially successful." 11

The pioneering mood was thus set for the emergence of the 'agitator-woman' and for her flowering and fruition in the coming years of colonialism and armed conflict. The general population was suffering because of the classic exploitation of a western colonial ruler as well as the initial pressures and counter-pressures of maladjustment caused by the newly introduced structural changes in the society. The male population could not revolt against the British because of the serious and systematic repression of public opinion and associations. But the market women from different leikais and villages converge daily in the central Khwairamband market and have a close networking relationship or regular women contacts (ingais) in not only other peripheral market places like Singjamei, Lamlong, Kongba, Kwakeithel, etc. but even in the foothill markets like Yaingangpokpi, Kangchup, Bishnupur, etc. Hence an inherent opportunity becomes available to them for close interaction with cognizable elements of business professionalism, mutual trust, self-respect, unquestioned solidarity and single-line hierarchy.

It must also be cited to the credit of such market-oriented females that their perception of the market-changes would be better focused, more calculative and much sharper than their counterparts, who would devote their afternoons in either listening to legendary and religious stories or remaining bound down to the food-supply chain. As a matter of sheer habit, therefore, the menfolk would be much less concerned with any impact of price-rise or any market scarcity on the household consumption, while their counterparts, whose bounden duty used to be to provide cooked meals, would bear the incidence of changes in price or yet other factors like scarcity in the market.

Thus for the first time in the history of Manipur, the womenfolk could forge a collective opinion without any dissension and agitate for a common cause. And, unlike their counterparts, they could have easily hoodwinked even the British intelligence personnel and mobilized in unison against the exploitative policies of the colonial masters and defied an order of the state. This marked the emergence of Panthoibi-consciousness among the Manipuri women, at the collective level. From a society chained to patriarchy, the 1904 agitation was a defining moment for the Manipuri women. While it shocked the British colonialists, it also caused a small tremor at the patriarchal foundation of Manipuri society.

The intrinsic power and volatile nature of Manipuri women in collective action was noted by both the colonial masters and the upholders of patriarchy in society. Women gained a new respect in the social realm. And the collective action led to the moulding of women leaders in the society. Among them, mention may be made of Irengbam Ongbi Sanajaobi of Nagamapal Lamabam Leikai, Imphal; Leisangthem Kwathabi of Thangmeiband, Imphal; Leimapokpam Ongbi Dhaballi of Wangkhei Ningthem Pukhri Mapal, Imphal; Laishram Joboti of Nagamapal, Imphal. All of them were ordinary traders in traditional markets, run by women only (locally called Keithel).The 1904 agitation was not a women's movement seeking liberation from patriarchal chains. But the agitation opened two new vistas simultaneously:
i) awakening of national consciousness in colonial situation spurred by collective gender action and defiance;
ii) women empowerment in the political domain.


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