Nupi Lan-Women’s War of Manipur

The Nupi Lan of 1939 and the Meira Paibi movement against state terrorism since 1980, in which women have played a leading role, are crucial components of an overall anti-colonial struggle says Malem Ningthouja.

The Nupi Lan of 1939 and the Meira Paibi movement against state terrorism since 1980, in which women have played a leading role, are crucial components of an overall anti-colonial struggle says Malem Ningthouja.

The anti-colonial struggle in Manipur that began with the British invasion in 1881 and continues till today has passed through several historical phases and has varied expressions. Before I go deeper into describing the Nupi Lan, I would like to point out however painfully that the Nupi Lan of 1939 and the Meira Paibee movement (against state terrorism) since 1980, in which women have played or continue to play leading role, are crucial components of an overall anti-colonial struggle. Both the events constitute different moments of a continuous trend of anti-colonial struggle under the objective conditions of national subjugation that began with the British rule and was continued by the Government of India. Celebrating the victory of Nupi Lan, therefore, must not overshadow the ongoing movement for democratic revolution.

The outbreak
Historically the Nupi Lan had its immediate cause in the artificial famine of 1939 caused by the profiteering activities of the Mayang (Indian) traders who exported rice to colonial garrisons outside Manipur. When the ban on the export of rice was lifted in 1939 to the great advantage of the Mayangs, the price of paddy soared up, thus seriously affecting the local petty traders, mostly women, and the poor consumers as well. The atmosphere of agitation was looming with the women traders ready to take a course of action against the inflation and the starving stomachs.

On 12 December 1939 hundreds of women who were demanding an end to the free trade on rice besieged the president of the Manipur Durbar and the officials who came to the rescue of the president. In the scuffle that broke out between the women and the Assam Rifles, twenty-one women and one Indian officer and seven other ranks of the Assam Rifles were injured. In the following months, women targeted the rice-mills owned by the Mayangs, which, “with a daily turn over of 11,200 mounds of rice, absorb the entire paddy available in the state (and)… threw out of employment the bulk of the people who lived by husking”. Women boycotted the main bazaar, i.e., the hub of hoarding and profiteering that was under colonial protection, and protest meetings were held in the Police Bazar. They formed vanguards, intercepted rice carters carrying paddy for sale to the Mayang and at times threw cartloads of rice into the gutter. In January 1940 alone they held up about 150 rice-loaded carts.

In the course of the struggle, lasting several months, women besieged state thana and fought several pitched battles with the security personnel. In one of the pitched battles fought on 14 January, forty women agitators and some men were injured. Women organized against tax gathering, and the leaders advised the agitators to arm themselves with tem (a long wooden appliance used for weaving cloth) and wear two phaneks (sarong type of cloth worn by the women of Manipur) while confronting tax-collectors. In short, there was a qualitative shift of the movement towards popular struggle for a responsible government. The movement, however, subsided as a result of the approach of the Second World War in Manipur in the early 1940s.

The target 
The primary targets of Nupi Lan were the agents of exploitation and the visual manifestations that have symbolized the colonial sovereignty, e.g., the Mayangs and the Mayang owned mills. In fact, the Mayangs  infiltrated into Manipur under colonial protection and by 1939 they  enjoyed absolute monopoly rights in: cotton, tea-seed, bees-wax and agar, elephant tusk, deer horn and orchid trades; silk manufacturing, mulberry plantation or silk farming, timber felling and vehicular traffic; plantation in rubber, jade and chalmugra seed, orchid mahals (reserved area) and so on. On the eve of the Nupi Lan they were carrying out unrestrained trading to the great disadvantage of the local consumers.

Economic oppression under Indian traders had been resented as early as the Bazar Boycott (1920). An application that was addressed to the Manipur State Durbar, dated 28 September 1920 reads, “…that your humble petitioners are extremely aggrieved at the hard lot of the cart owners who owe money to the Marwari (businessmen). They are compelled to carry the goods of (Mayang businessmen) at a lower rate of annas /8/ or /12/ or even Rs 1 per maund than the ordinary market rate of hire, as they are not allowed to look to any means for their gains. Over and above this, they owe to (Mayang businessmen) according to the system of compound interest and to carry a few maunds in excess in every cart gratis. Moreover, there are the occasional insertions of fake and real accounts against their name (in the registration book) for taking some necessaries of the cart.

They even take interest on the value of the articles after turning them into capital. Thus after the end of the year when all accounts are settled and the interests are charged into capital, in spite of their hard labour throughout the year to clear the debt by occasional payment of the little savings of the wages they find to their great astonishment that about the same or even greater capital than that of the last year. Then they are compelled to write another bond (in the registration book) for the coming year. This gradually increases year by year till it is beyond their power of clearing it…”

While the administration and the economy were in the grip of the Mayang agents and traders, Manipur was garrisoned from time to time by hordes of Mayang armies such as the Assam Rifles, Gurkha Rifles, Bombay Pioneers, and Burma Military Police. Under the prevailing circumstances, the Mayangs were being looked upon with contempt as the agents of colonialism, the cause of administrative manipulation, cultural exploitation, economic drainage and underdevelopment. They, obviously, became the prime targets of attack during the Nupi Lan.

Nupi Lan was a crucial part of a series of organized anti-colonial struggles such as the First Women War (1904), Anti-Pothang Movement and Anti-Water Tax Agitation  (1910s), the Thadou- Kuki Resistance (1917), Bazar Boycott (1920), and the Zeliarong Movement under the leadership of Jadonang (1920s). However, it took the movement to a qualitatively new level, as it not only targeted the colonial free trade on rice and the Mayang control of the economy but also paved the way to the movement for establishing a responsible government in Manipur.

The valiant role that women played in it has left a historical legacy while inspiring thousands of women to play an active role in the ongoing Meira Paibi movement. On 15 July 2004 a dozen Manipuri mothers stripped in front of the Assam Rifles headquarters at Kangla demanding an end to state terrorism in Manipur. In other words, the Nupi Lan of 1939 is an event of the past, yet the objective conditions under which women waged the struggle remain more or less unchanged till today. If neo-colonialism has to be continuously superimposed upon Manipur, history will be an eyewitness to a series of Nupi Lans in the years to come.                                 


The author Malem Ningthouja is a research scholar in Delhi University

Perils of writing history
History might have been a closed event but historical writing is an open process, subject to revisions and rejections in the light of constantly changing source material, says K Raghavendra Rao.

My reflections on history and historiography were provoked by two recent publications in Kannada and the bitter controversies surrounding them. One is an attempt at revisionist history, challenging the received wisdom about the birth and original caste of Basaveswara, the great social, religious and cultural reformer of medieval Karnataka and the founder of the sect of Lingayats. The other is outwardly a work of fiction but actually an attempt to narrate the atrocities committed by Muslim invaders, especially focusing on their systematic destruction of temples during the period of the Vijayanagara empire in Karnataka. The first work is “Anu Deva, Horaganava”, by a Dalit scholar, Banjagere Jayaprakash, and the second, the novel entitled “Awarana”, by the popular and prolific Kannada novelist, S.L.Byrappa. Jayaprakash questions the prevalent idea that Basaveswara was originally a Brahmin, and tries to suggest, largely with oral-cultural evidence, that he could have been born a Dalit. I do not think that he makes out a strong case for his revision of history, but he does raise some questions about the dominant version. The controversy seems to be centred, not so much on his thesis per se, but on the alleged insult involved to Basaveswara, which has prompted orthodox Lingayats to demand that the work be banned by the government. Byrappa’s novel has provoked the ire of self-styled secularist intellectuals who are worried about anti-Muslim implications of the work more than either its validity as history or it quality as a novel.

What are the issues raised by these controversies? Basically they seemed to be not concerned with history or fiction but with contemporary politics. In other words, the controversies have clearly political reverberations. This is because the sane and sober reaction should have been to dismiss Jayaprakash’s work as a lively and interesting work but not convincing as hard history, and dismiss Byrappa’s work as a poor novel and potted history. But this has not happened. Jayaprakash’s work does raise theoretical issues and methodological issues about historiography. At least he makes two valid points. The first is that the nature of historical writing is politically constrained by who writes the history and methodologically constrained by adequate data. As for the first point, he suspects some Brahminisation of Basaveswara’s revolutionary movement, and as for the second point, he suggests that, in the Indian conditions, historiography must resort to some extent to oral historical data. Byrappa operates with a naive liberal notion of historical objectivity. His argument that he is concerned with objective history misses the point that historiography is also a subjectively mediated process involving the historian’s or the source’s subjectivity. Byrappa’s position that truth is a phenomenon independent of its subjective and political context leads him to divest history of its moral and political responsibility.

Underlying both the controversies, there is the virtually intractable question of the relationship between macro-history with its inclination towards grand narratives and micro-history with its commitment to local narrative. I recall a seminar in which a distinguished subaltern historian referred to something that happened in a small street in a small town during the colonial period, without referring to imperialism or colonialism. I suspect the framework of Cambridge historiography on India, by concentrating too much on the internal Indian situation, seems to absolve imperialism of its historical crimes. After all, both macro and micro are ultimately matters of drawing the boundary. Where one draws the boundary between the two is a necessarily ideological and political decision.  The best historical work, which maintains a delicate balance between the grand and little narratives, that I know of, is Shahid Amin’s classic work on Chauri Chaura. In these matters there can never be universally acceptable answers and positions, perhaps even questions. The best thing one can do is to keep an honest and open mind, and avoid dogmatic assertiveness. History might have been a closed event but historical writing is an open process, subject to revisions and rejections in the light of constantly changing source material.

In conclusion, it must be emphasized that, no matter how or why one draws the boundary between the macro and the micro, they are mutually implicated in each other, and that their relationship is governed by a dialectical process.  Finally, I was intrigued by learning from Penrose’s, “The Emperor’s New Mind”, that physics is also faced with the intractable problem of connecting the macro and the micro. I quote from the preface to the revised edition 1999- “… Hence, we must look for a relevant place where there is an important gap in our theories. This gap, I claim, lies in the bridge between the ‘submicroscopic’ world where quantum physics holds sway and macro- world of our more direct experiences, where classical physics works so well….” (p xxxi) I leave it to the readers to puzzle out the relevance of the problematic of physics to social epistemology!  


K Raghavendra Rao a well known political scientist and academician, author of several works including “Imagining unimaginable communities” is also an accomplished translator of modern Kannada poetry into English.

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