Historical Background of Women’s Movements

Women of Manipur have held a central position in management of household, agriculture and trade. They played prominent roles in public protest, individually and in the collective: “The ancient and medieval period of folk oral literature of Manipuri language was the literature of protest. The protagonist was always a woman . . . The nucleus of female power in the group form is intact.”

Ordinary women of Manipur had a right to collectively present grievances to the king. In response to women’s demand, a king sometimes granted reprieve to a person sentenced to death. Women often used their right of appeal to correct state policies. During British regime, women waged two Nupilans, women’s wars, against unjust and exploitative policies.

The First Nupilan was fought in 1904 when Government issued an order for Manipuri men to go to Kabow, cut timber and build colonial offices and bungalows. Thousands of women demonstrated in Imphal, demanding withdrawal of this order for forced labour. Women vendors led the movement, including Sanajaobi Devi, Leishangthem Kethabi, Dhaballi Devi and Laishram Ningol Jubati Devi. The British summoned army reinforcements from neighbouring areas but were unable to quell the movement, and ultimately withdrew the order.

In 1917–19, Kukis rebelled against forced labour recruitment. In the mid- 1920s, a movement in Tamenglong district mobilised people towards Naga unity, against unjust laws, compulsory porterage and exorbitant house tax. Gaidinlieu, a thirteen-year old girl of Ningkhao village, joined the movement in 1928, and took over leadership in 1931 after the British executed its leader, Jadonang. British forces captured her in October 1932 and sentenced her to life imprisonment. She spent most of her life in prison, in the Mizo hills and Meghalaya. When Jawaharlal Nehru visited Shillong in 1937, he met Gaidinlieu in jail and gave her the title `Rani’. After 1947 she was awarded a pension but kept in exile in Nagaland; in 1972 she was awarded a freedom fighter award, and in 1987 a Padma Bhushan.

The Second Nupilan took place in response to artificial famine in 1939, created by the British policy of exporting paddy which, coupled with hoarding, led to severe shortages. Women of Manipur petitioned the Political Agent for a ban on rice export. A women’s delegation confronted the President of Manipur State Durbar, T.A. Sharpe, and forced him to send a telegram to the Maharaja, who was out of Manipur. Leaders during this Nupilan included Chaobiton Devi, Ibemhal Devi, Tongou Devi and others. Women protesters gathered at the Telegraph Office, and by evening 4000 agitators surrounded the office.

Policemen and sepoys attacked the women, about thirty of whom sustained injuries inflicted by batons and bayonets. On 13th December the Maharaja sent a telegram ordering immediate ban on export of rice, signalling a major victory for the people of Manipur.

The Second Nupilan burgeoned into a demand for democratic government. Women leaders Rajni Devi and Wangkhem Kumari advised women to confront officials who demanded exorbitant taxes. When Sawombung forest officials tried to collect tax from local women carrying forest produce for sale in Imphal, protesters confronted the corrupt officials, even ransacking their offices. Many similar incidents took place. Each woman would arm herself with a tem (stick used in weaving) and wear two phaneks (sarong), before going out. The authorities imprisoned several leaders, including Wahengbam ongbi Tonkhombini, Nonghtombam ongbi Khongnangne, Khetrimayum ongbi Oinam, and Thongom ongbi Amubi. Widespread unrest continued, and women traders shut down markets for as long as three years.

Later in the 1970s women organized themselves as a force against government policy of liberally licensing liquor vends. They formed `Nisha Bandh’ or anti- alcoholism groups, in different parts of Manipur. Walking in groups at night, they carried torches or lanterns, caught drunken persons and imposed fines on them. Their motivation was to protect young people from drugs and alcohol addiction. These women’s groups were dubbed Meira Paibis (literally, women who carry flaming torches).

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