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The Transcendental Role Of Women In Manipur History

Dr. M. C. Arunkumar & Irengbam Arun

10. Agitating Women - Second Nupi Lal: 1939

The Nupi Lal (Women's Agitation) of 1939 is another historical landmark that changed the mindset of the people.

"The establishment of a pseudo-bureaucratic structure in imitation of the distant Imperial bureaucracy, yet tinged with existing feudal values resulted in widespread malpractices and corruption in the State. In addition to it, the fundamental reduction in the resources of the Manipur State due to colonial exploitation by the British subjects who were mostly traders obliterated all prospects of economic development. The entire social, religious, fiscal and political system was of inhuman proportion, created by the despotic Maharaja who was all along protected by the Imperial power... The outbreak, therefore, was a spontaneous eruption of the suppressed energy of the exploited people whose genuine aspirations for justice and human dignity helped create this great upheaval." 12 On 12th December 1939 a number of women came out in the streets and protested against the economic policies specially imposed to best serve the colonial and feudal interests. The outbreak had its immediate cause in the rise of the price of rice. Foreign merchants in Imphal, who had set up rice-mills, were buying all the paddy they could get, milling it and exporting it. 13 At that time, export was done with either Cart tax or Lal pass. "Under the cart tax system, the free movement of rice after paying Cart tax, was allowed and the second one (lal pass) was made through an agreement between Manipur state and Assam. Under this second category rice were exported to Kohima and Assam Rifles stations posted in different areas." 14

The women demanded complete cessation of rice exports and the closure of all rice-mills. On 12th December 1939 several hundred women came to the State Office and "insisted upon the President of Durbar, Mr. T. A. Sharpe, to forbid the export of rice. Mr. Sharpe pointed out that such an order would require the sanction of His Highness the Maharaja who was then camping at Nabadwip. The milling women still pressurized Mr. Sharpe to send an immediate wire to the Maharaja, and they demanded to receive reply to the same effect without delay. Major Bulfield, the Commandant of the 4th Assam Rifles and Major Commins the Civil Surgeon, who came to rescue the President of the Durbar were also kept confined in the Telegraph Office compound by the crowd of women." 15 At first, "their plea was ignored. Instead the security men were ordered to attack the demonstrators. Despite injuries over twenty womenfolks in bayonet charge, the spirit of the women agitators did not die down. They braved the security action and relentlessly continued the stir." 16 Then followed a serial agitation for a month. But "the character of the movement gradually changed to the nature of the national liberation movement."

Unlike 1904 agitation, in 1939 womenfolk posed deeper questions on the colonial interest of import and export under a colonial administration. Politically, the 1939 women were more aware of the British colonial design in the state than the 1904 women. In the 1930's, Manipur witnessed:

(a) emergence of a new elite who were educated in various Indian cities;

(b) formation along modern lines of a formal association, Nikhil Hindu Manipuri Mahasabha in 1934;

(c) after dissolving the NHMM, formation of the first political party, Nikhil Manipuri Mahasabha in 1938;

(d) launching of civil disobedience movement and other Satyagraha movements; and

(e) greater public opinion formation through increased publication of journals, newspapers etc. The period also echoed with rampant cries of social reforms and demands for power-sharing in Manipur, in tune with that witnessed in India.

The 1939 agitation also proved to be an unique political outburst occurring in a serial order and in tandem. Characteristic features of the agitation were that:
(a) the agitators were only women, at least initially;
(b) violent means were resorted to at some isolated places;
(c) any physical confrontation with colonial forces was boldly faced by the women; and
(d) their immediate goal as perceived by the agitators was as sharp, loud and clear as their motto: Chaak-Hong-Nga-hongba (economic abundance & prosperity).

The confrontation with state forces meant physically facing, even handling, male strangers by agitating women in violent situations. The ability to shed inhibitions of a conservative society and engage in violent confrontation with the then exclusively all-male state forces did show their serious concern of the deteriorating economic condition and the pitiable condition to which the male population had been reduced to. It was not the pleading (help-line) voices of desolate mothers or wives who would dare not see the hungry faces of their sons and husbands; it was the voice in unison of socioeconomically proactive women with a politically bold action plan with a well-defined objective. Though unlettered and belonging to ordinary family backgrounds, these women rubbed shoulders with the educated 'new elite'. They were also politically astute. They knew the king was a mere puppet and it was the British who would pull the strings. So, they targeted the British representatives in their agitation. On the other hand, they defied the ideal image of "submissive, shy and polite" woman much to the chagrin of the ultraconservative king and his personal interest in maintaining a 'clean' Hindu society. They became violent, aggressive and assertive. An assertion for a political cause was consciously made by these women.

The Second Nupi Lal, as the Manipuris would vauntingly refer to the agitation of 1939, occurred in every part of greater Imphal where there were foreign merchants, rice-mills. The uprising lasted for about a month in which they targeted many rice-mills, rice exporters, rice transporters. Above all, what was more amazing was that:

"In the afternoon of 14 December 1939, a crowd of women which was estimated at not less than 10,000 marched to Mantripukhri where one of the biggest mills was situated." 17

The mobilization of such a large number of women indicates the level and extent of the political commitment and mass following of these leaders. Moreover, unlike 1904, this time there was a crop of women leaders. These leaders could organize the angry and excited women of their respective leikais or nodal markets. The women had very close interaction with some of the social and political leaders in finding out ways and means of the agitation. Politically, it was thus at least a notch higher than the leaders of the 1904 agitation. (See Note 2 below.)


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