Nupi Lan - the historic Manipuri women's war for a better life | Milaap

Nupi Lan - the historic Manipuri women's war for a better life

Throughout India, Manipur is renowned as a matriarchal society. Having taken an active role in shaping the history of the state, women in Manipur have enjoyed a special status in Manipuri society. The women in Manipur are progressive and their liberal and forward viewpoint stems from the Nupi Lan movements. These were powerful movements against British imperialists.

Loosely translated from Manipuri it means ‘Women’s War’, and the first war first broke out in 1904. It was against the British who had consigned Manipuri men to forced labour to restore a burnt-down police shed. The struggle, in which more than 5,000 women took part, lasted a week. The British eventually succeeded in suppressing the uprising but had to rescind the order.

Meeting for the first Nupi Lan. Photo taken from Manipur State Archives

In 1939, a second Nupi Lan occurred against a famine created by excessive export of rice right in the harvest season. This, too, was eventually suppressed by the British, though it took several months and the emergence of World War II. What was significant about this second movement wasn’t the number of women who protested, but rather the reaction of the British. They deployed both military and police forces against unarmed female protesters. The brave women who fought, may have lasted several months but lost many lives in their battle.

Decades later, the movement lies in a corner of history, collecting dust. “The teachers don’t understand the importance of it, so the children don’t care,” said Geeta Devi, a 23-year-old teacher. With two elder sisters, she was told first-person stories of bravery from her mother and grandmother. “I didn’t care about it when I was young, but as I got older, my grandmother made sure I understood what she went through.”

Women in a Meira Paibi rally against drugs 

Geeta’s grandmother was one of the hundreds of women in Manipur who in 1977 took inspiration from the Nupi Lan movement and started their own social cause against alcoholism.
Nisha Bandi emerged as the next Nupi Lan, where women took to the streets of Manipur carrying flaming torches, often at night, protesting alcoholism. Women, in groups, patrolled the streets after dark and extorted a fine from men who had been found drinking or beat them up. They raided breweries and forced closures, ensuring that future generations didn’t succumb to similar tendencies.

Time and time again, it seems that women rise up to take on Manipur’s problems. Meira Paibi (women torchbearers) has become a strong grassroots movement against drug abuse, crimes against women and human rights violations. Nelson Chongtham, a 27-year-old worker, said, “It’s kind of a revolution by the women. They helped to start the fight against other issues as well.” Women are the ones unafraid to raise their voice in a society that encourages them to do so.

The Mother's Market in Imphal is a reflection of women's solidarity in Manipur

For the last Olympics, Manipur sent six representatives from India to Rio. Mary Kom, one of India’s most famous athletes, is from the state. So too is Kunjarani Devi and Devendra Singh, the latter having been touted as one of India’s brightest boxing talents. The majority of Manipur’s famous athletes are women, who yet again show how subtly progressive the state is in terms of gender equality. And it all could stem from that initial “women's war”. They resorted to collective action against forced labour conscription and an arbitrary tax laid by the British. It’s no wonder then that women are the ones who seek micro-finance loans. They are the ones these microfinance organisations trust to receive the money and pay it back on time.

For work, I’ve met tribal women who can’t write their own names but have saved up enough to send their children to good colleges in south India. Their children are engineers, nurses and doctors - highly prized professions in a state devoid of these professionals. In today’s world, computer science and degrees in programming, IT, and coding are highly sought after. Most high-schoolers I’ve met want to work with computers whether it’s through IT, AI, coding or something of the ilk.

Nupi Lan memorial in Imphal

Beneath these ambitious dreams, are opportunities afforded through the grit and hard work of their grandmothers and their mothers before them who fought for recognition, and were pioneers in the fight for statehood. They ensured that their children were able to secure the kind of future they were never given.