Nupi Lan: Women's War For Rice In Manipur
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"Anybody who knows anything of history knows that great social changes are impossible without the feminine ferment. Social progress can be measured exactly by the social position of the fair sex," wrote Karl Marx in a letter to Ludwig Kugelmann in 1868. A great example of women leading the charge and bringing about a revolution took place closer to home, right here in our own Manipur. This is of course the Nupi Lan, literally ‘Women’s War.’  

Rice was an important reason for how this transpired.

Manipur is a state of proud women. That it is also the state that gave us Mary Kom and Kunjarani Devi should not come as a surprise. There is a rich history of Manipuri women being involved in how families are run and affairs are taken care of. Manipuri women have long been involved in trade. In fact, Khwairamband Bazaar, or Ima Keithel (Mothers’ Market or Women’s Market), one of Imphal’s sprawling market areas and a major tourist attraction, is run exclusively by women—over 4000 of them, according to some estimates. While there is some disagreement about when this market began, the earliest records appear to date back to the late sixteenth century. It was the women who traded their wares in these markets who were the force behind the two Nupi Lans.

In July 1904, Colonel Maxwell made a decision to reinstate the Lallup System, which involved compulsory unpaid work for 10 days every month for the men of the region. This move backfired after two British officials' dwellings were torched and the women of the village unified in outrage against this unfair practice of free labor. The site of their demonstration was Ima Keithel, and they managed to achieve what the men could not.

The second Nupi Lan was triggered by rice. Following the Anglo-Manipur War of 1891, the region was placed under direct British rule in 1907, after which it was handed over to Raja Churachand Singh, albeit with a British agent to oversee the state's affairs. Rice was (and is) an important component of Manipur’s economy. Although the export of rice to neighboring parts was well established even before British interference in the region, with the advent of British rule, the practice escalated with no regard for the internal requirements of the grain for the consumption of the people of the region. Machine deployment for the transport of rice also diminished employment opportunities for bullock cart drivers. As if that were not enough, the British saw an opportunity to hack their wares from faraway England here as well. Manipur’s brine wells provided the salt required in the region, but the British started selling Liverpool Salt at a subsidized price, resulting in the erosion of the cottage salt industry in the region. Besides, richer trading communities from other parts of India started settling in the region and buying up large tracts of land to grow rice, and along the way they set up rice mills, effectively putting the husking industry out of business.

The combination of these factors—primarily the issue of rice—resulted in the second women’s war, the second Nupi Lan. In 1939, excessive rain and hail caused a huge destruction to the paddy production. Subsequently, the farmers requested that the durbar stop exports in order to meet local demand. Initially, the durbar accepted the request but soon reversed its decision after facing immense pressure from the exporters. This hit the local population, especially the poorer classes, hard.

On the 12th of December, hundreds of women marched to the durbar office in Imphal to demand a prohibition on rice export and the closure of rice mills. As Maharaja Churachand Singh was away, they were told no decision could be made. Therefore, they abducted TA Sharpe, the president of the Manipur state durbar, and held him and the other officials captive at the telegraph post until they got a response. The gathering of women increased to around 4,000. Shortly after, a group of Assam Rifles came to the scene and started shooting. The women retaliated by throwing stones, and many of them were hurt. This scene is depicted in the Nupi Lan Memorial in Imphal. Even though they were overpowered by the show of brutality, their voices were heard by the maharaja, who sent a message to put an end to the rice export. Consequently, the women shifted their attention to other issues.

What began as an agitation protesting the rise in rice prices soon led to a movement for constitutional and administrative reform in Manipur. It remains a stellar example of how food can result in revolution, especially when led by determined, powerful women with strong voices.