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The Transcendental Role Of Women In Manipur History

Dr. M. C. Arunkumar & Irengbam Arun

1. A Glorious Track Record Immortalized by Manipuri Womanhood:

If through serial victories the chivalrous male Manipuri conscripts (arambai-wielding cavalries) led by their brave and outward-looking Manipuri kings exhibited their unflinching ('never-say-die') sterling qualities whether westward in Cachar, Tripura, Khasi Syiem, Sylhet and Ahom, or eastward in Shan and even in the neighbouring Chinese states on a mission of aggrandizement to create a Greater Manipur firmament, could the gentle home-tending womenfolk be left far behind?

While the indigenous conscription system known as Lallup (See Chpt 11: Note 3.) had its direct objective in mobilizing services of adult males for polity formation and consequent consolidation of the Manipur monarchy, its unintended benefit ran in terms of keeping the otherwise tender and home-caring females fit as the first fiddle in the traditional Manipuri households to replace the male at short notice and undertake the householder's role in the latter's continued absence from home in war campaigns or otherwise. Much more than the role-reversal tradition under 'lallup', it is the heritage and mythical inspiration that have modelled Manipuri womanhood as a replica for that high pedestal in current estimation indexed as gender empowerment. Even in mythical history female outreaching (or otherwise performing on par with) male in certain areas had been eulogized. Hence quite unsurprisingly even ordinary females could have created such brilliant anecdotes throughout its history, still so refreshingly passed down from generation to generation as granny's tales. And yet in her ordinary business of life she would recoil back to resume the role of weaker gender vis-a-vis her better half.

Thus, the glorious track record of Imoinu and Panthoibi have transcended down the history of Manipur right from the pre-Pakhangba or the half-mythical era as juxtaposed models of female blisshood on the one hand; and of the forthcoming and independent feminism breaking down the shackles of the rigid patriarchal Manipuri society as a rallying point for female independence on the other. Most gratifyingly, the two otherwise contradictory roles have gone down in the long history of Manipur, as the coaxial core around which the qualities of the present womanhood had been forged. So much so, within almost a decade of their own administration (1891) in Manipur, the Britishers were vanquished in 1904 by the lay (unlettered but market-oriented) females (Photoplate 12:1) forcing them to cancel the specific order reimposing Lallup forcing the Manipuri males to reconstruct the official residence of the Assistant Political Officer, earlier torched by miscreants right at the heart of the British Reserve only within a stone's throw from the Imphal Police station. (See also Chpt 10: Note 5.)

The 1904 event would in fact remain as the highest water mark of Manipuri womanhood when those unlettered females, by dint of their single-minded determination, undeterred tact and sheer grit could prove themselves as the saviour of their male counterparts from the lowly servitude and humiliation in British hands, and retrieved Manipur polity from an imminent return to feudalism through reimposition of Lallup. That by itself dealt the real telling blow and a befitting lesson to those Britishers, who perhaps had an altogether different impression of the humanscape in the northeast of the Bengal frontier.

This concerted act by itself proved sufficient to lift the portent image of the Manipuri womenfolk sky-high, among others, on the following counts:

a) For keeping the determined British administrators, out to punish some male miscreants, at bay at a time when the Sun would never set in the then British Empire;

b) What infuriated the Manipuri women would seem to be the retrograde British action to reimpose conscription system (abolished in 1891) and directing the males to fetch teak etc. from Kabo valley and then hew materials into required shapes and sizes to reconstruct the residency of the British officer;

c) The apparently revenging attitude on the part of the Britishers was thus met quid pro quo;

d) Britishers were taken completely by surprise at so defiant an attitude of the Manipuri womenfolk, or else looking not only innocent but harmless;

e) Oriental history might have recorded some stray cases of female chauvinism, but all such cases were isolated cases involving queens defending the throne in the absence of their consort or kings (killed in action or otherwise disabled); and

f) Britishers were virtually snubbed by the Manipuri womanhood, within just over a decade of the Britishers having forced themselves in Manipur polity by overpowering the brave patriots of Manipur, like Thangal General, although the British still suspected the disgruntled royalists to be behind the torching of the British Residency in 1904.

As if to tell out to the whole wide world that the 1904 instance was not a golden exception and that it was all in their very gene, the womenfolk set out to repeat history, again and again. For, the female activists revelled at yet another British defeat on 12 December 1939 when a group of unarmed women forced Mr. Sharpe, the President of Manipur State Durbar to send out a telegram to the Manipur Maharaja, then in Nabadwip, soliciting approval to stop export of rice, and holding the same officer hostage in the Telegraph Office till a reply was received from the Maharaja (Photoplates 12: 2 & 3). On that eventful day when the British army dispersed the assembled women so as to retrieve Mr. Sharpe and some more junior British officers from the Imphal Telegraph Office, many activists were injured, which incident has since become the memorable and evergreen icon of Nupi Lal Memorial at Imphal, exactly where the activists were bayonated and struck by rifle-butts, for the benefit of futurity.

Just to complete the story, on the following day (13 December 1939) the agitation had come to such a head that the seniormost British officer (the then Political Agent: C. Grimson), who hurried back from a tour, was forced to personally go and see to it that the electric fuses of the rice-mills be removed and brought along in his custody, so as to ensure that the non-Manipuri traders forthwith stop milling of rice for purposes of export. They were forcing an immediate decision on the British administration for redressal of the escalating rice-price, as also acute rice scarcity in Manipur. Needless to add, such 'rogue' means were then orchestrated by the pragmatic agitationists, more or less as a result of some quick thinking just on the spur of the moment or a sharp presence of mind as to how best deal with the then 'rogue' administration run by the Britishers in the name of a weak-kneed Maharaja on the Manipur throne.

Such retrieval of a crisis point into a 'win-win' situation by 'gheraoing' or forcing an immediate decision must have quite surprised the British administrators. And the Manipuri women need be accredited for having used the element of surprise to their best advantage and outwitted the British. Only worldly-wise people endowed with a sharp intellect could have resorted to such instant solution. But it must be cited on behalf of the women agitators that, but for that quickfix solution there was no other worthwhile alternative which would then sound both 'face-saving', as well as 'passing the buck' to the opposite side. It would sound fascinating as a handy weapon in the hands of the agitators because they could not have frankly expected, at the best of time, that by granting more than even a reasonable time to the British administration to take a positive decision, the then government would concede even a fraction of their demand. And that would mean that the entire Manipur would be starved as the non-Manipuri profiteers would always find some underhand means, irrespective of the sufferings of the people. That brings the analysis face to face with the agitationist _ the isolate female who had become unusually desperate to find a quick, effective and steadfast solution to a social evil which had been outstanding all these years and still looming large to the point of threatening (say, modern pilots) like a nimbus-cumulus cloud. If one looks for the 'driver' of such desperate actions in the software mindsets of these desperados, one need not look away from the same desperado.

Her daily meal would come from the market, and if all the rice-stock in the market had been procured by the traders in the morning itself apprehending rice scarcity, she well knew that the entire family would go without meals: at least tonight as well as tomorrow morning. Because like many of those woman agitators, she lived from hand to mouth. During these lean months, rice became so costly that their daily profit margin would hardly suffice to procure rice for two square meals. She also knew fully well that her family would have to forego meals for quite a few days together because these very traders would procure all the fresh rice stock daily in the morning as long as there was acute rice-scarcity. And the same would be true of the tens of thousand women agitators who bandied the problem with the British administrators. The 'driver' would thus seem to lie in the agitationist herself, but collectively.


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