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Popular movements in colonial Manipur, 1891-1947

by williamgurumayum
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By : K. Ruhinikumar Sharma
Department of History
Ideal Girls’ College,

Manipur an erstwhile independent kingdom in South East Asia came under British colonial domination consequent upon her defeat in the eventful Anglo-Manipuri War in 1891. She formally became a part of India since 15th October 1949 which was described as signed under duress.­1 Though Manipur got defeated yet it didnot directly annexed into the British Empire. Rather she was put under the system of indirect rule by restoring the monarchy-. Under the system of indirect rule, no colonial official was allowed to undertake any major reform or changes. Through this system the British colonial authorities could extend their Influence without the economic and political costs of direct annexation. If there was any necessity for affecting changes it was done in the name of the king of Manipur. In other words the colonial authorities exercised authority without responsibility.
After the war of 1891 it was expected that Manipur would be annexed to the British-India. However the British authorities had other schemes in their mind and accordingly native rule was reestablished in the state by appointing Churachand Singh a young boy of about five years old and a great grandson of Nar Singh the late king of Manipur. During the minority of Churachand, administration of the state was carried out in his name by Maxwell, the British political agent in Manipur. The regency administration operated in the state from 1891 to 1907 and this period was fully utilized for making all major decisions and also introduced several changes in the administrative set up of the native state which the raja even after his formal installation of the gaddi of Manipur with full power would find impossible to change.2 During this regency period, Maxwell, the political agent and superintendent of the state dictated by imperial interest introduced a number of new socio-economic measures which affected the people in different ways.
People’s response to the administrative changes and policies of the colonial authority were of mixed feelings. The abolition of slavery and lallup system freed people from servitude and introduction of patty system in land enabled common people to own land however were subjected to strict payment of land tax. The imposition of annual house tax in lieu of lallup,3 the forcible disarmament of local populace, unpopularity of the new ruler which was appointed against the wishes and expectations of the people coupled with the declining authority of the Rajkumars and Brahmins made the new regime unpopular in the eyes of the people.
To worsen the situation, the free trade policy adopted by local officials under whom huge quantity of rice was exported outside the state without any restraint created an economic crisis and acute scarcity of rice in Manipur by the beginning of 1904. Thus people began to feel the impact of colonial rule in Manipur and a conflict between the people and the authority was imminent.
On the night of 6 July 1904 the women market at Khwairamband (the main market) with twenty eight sheds were burnt down by some unidentified persons. Again on the I5th of the same month the official bungalows of two colonial officials were burnt down4. Further on the 4th of August another bungalow was burnt down after midnight. Taking a serious note of these acts of incendiarism, Maxwell issued an order that the people of Imphal should make contributions towards rebuilding of the bungalows. Maxwell further announced the stationing of a punitive force at Imphal for which expenses have to be borne by the people if his orders are not carried out. However, people considered Maxwell’s order as an act of punishment under the lallup system which had been abolished long ago.
The people in and around Imphal were not prepared to accept such unreasonable orders of the authority. A big protest meeting attended by about 5000 people was held near cheirap court on 30th September, 1904. Prohibitory order was issued from the side of administration. However paying no heed to the order the meeting continued and resolved to oppose the orders of the government to rebuild the bungalows. As a reaction to this the authorities arrested six persons belonging to Rajkumar families. They were tried and charged for instigating against the government and Maxwell passed an order for expulsion of the Rajkumars outside Manipur5.
As a reaction to the actions of the administration on September 3, 1904 thousands of women at the market came out spontaneously and began to launch demonstration. Hence it may be mentioned that women of Manipur had played a crucial role in socio-economic life of the state throughout history. Having felt that the colonial authorities are acting in an unjust manner the agitation of the womenfolk continued for several days. During the days of agitation the main market remained closed and situation became so serious that the government was compelled to requisition forces from outside the state. Security forces resorted to lathi charge against the demonstrators and many got injured. On the other hand the issue became so serious that administration could not be carried out smoothly and normal life in the capital came to a complete halt. Under these compelling circumstances the government decided to withdraw order for the reconstruction of the houses. Thus the women of lmphal could achieve what their male counterparts could not accomplish. This event of 1904 came to be popularly known as Nupilal Ahanba (First women’s war) in the history of Manipur. Though short lived it paved the way for future anti-imperialist movement in the state.
The next episode in the history of popular movement in Manipur came from the southern hills of Manipur which was more widespread and more violent was the Kuki rebellion. The rebellion of 1917 is an act of open challenge to British imperialism in the state which successfully exposed the shallowness of British control over Manipur. The immediate cause of the movement was the forced labour recruitment policy of the government to raise a labour corps for the allied forces during the First World War. The economic hardship of the people faced during the colonial rule, penetration of monetised economy in the hills, coming of Christian missionaries under colonial patronage, the decreasing power and authority of the traditional chiefs and dubious power and authority of lambus (a mere interpreter) pertaining to hill affairs caused lot of discontentment among the Kuki tribes.
It is worth mentioning that in early 1917, 22nd Manipur labour corps was raised with a strength of 2000 Nagas and Kukis and they were sent to France. Much against the wishes of people, authorities again made arrangements for raising a second labour corps in September 1917, which was strongly objected by the Kuki chiefs and they were even prepared to resist the actions if continued, with force. Having sensed such an adamant attitude of the Kuki chiefs, Higgins, the political agent warned the chief’s that they had either to supply recruits within a fixed period or submit to punishment. Ngulkhup, chief of Mombi village, as a challenge to the warning sent around message to the Kuki inhabiting villages that if they sent coolies, their village would be burnt and their women and children killed. Higgins on failure to arrest Ngulkhup burnt down his village. Meanwhile, Chingakham Sanajaoba, a Meitei who claimed to have possessed messiahnic powers spread a message that the days of British raj are numbered and went to Wakha, mobilised ten Kuki villages then attacked and looted the forest toll station on 19 December, 1917. Attempts by the Assam Rifles to subdue them proved ineffective and suffered heavy casualties in attempting to take the strongly fortified Kuki stockades. The Thadous (a sub-tribe of Kuki) destroyed telegraph lines and cut the road to Burma. Alarmed by these developments the state government started sending in more force but without much result. However by the end of 1918 the government started getting an upperhand and by March 1919 they were able to take the sting out of the movement. The Kuki rebellion, though short-lived brought far reaching changes in the history of Manipur. The most significant result of the rebellion was the overall reorganisation of the administration of Manipur. The most significant result of the rebellion was the overall reorganisation of the administration of Manipur hills.
Reactions against the British rule in the hills of Manipur continued in the form of Kabui rebellion under the leadership of Haipou Jadonang, a Kabui Naga of Kambiron in Tamenglong District. Jadonang’s movement was primarily anti-British and revivalist in nature and character. Some historians prefer to call, Jadonang’s movement as Zeliangrong movement. Zeliangrong is a generic term denoting a conglomeration of three kindred tribes of the Kabuis, viz. Zemi, Liangmei and Rongmei. The spread of Christianity and extension of colonial administration in the hill areas of Manipur greatly undermined the internal structure, traditional institutions and old values of the Kabuis. There was tension and frequent conflict between the new converts and traditional elite represented by the village council members. The chiefs and village elders started feeling that their privileges and powers were being undermined by the new converts who had the patronage and backing of colonial officials and missionaries. Another feature of the movement was the attempt to revive and revitalise the Kabui traditional religion against advancing Christianity. This fact was amply supported by the importance given to their worship of Tingkao Ragwang (God of the Heavens or Universe). By doing so Jadonang abolished a number of irrational taboos and superstitions. To realise his belief more popular Jadonang initiated construction of a number of temples as places of worship and centre of religious discourse. He also introduced hymns in the local language. Even before this Jadonang had carried recognition and fame as a result of his healing and soothsaying activities. Through these activities Jadonang was able to earn and command respect among his people. Very soon people from the surrounding areas including Cachar and Naga hills started visiting Kambiron village to meet and seek advice and blessings of Jadonang. It is against such socio-religious revival movement that Jadonang started his political movement.
During the course of’ operation against the rebelling Kukis, the hill people suffered a lot as a result of the tightening administrative control over the hill areas of Manipur. They were subjected to severe harassments like strict enforcement of payment of hill house tax and forced labour of pothang system. To launch his movement Jadonang made an elaborate preparation.
He along with his close followers first spread the idea of a Kabui Raj7 which would replace British rule. Youths were given training in the use of arms. Girls also received training under Gaidinliu, lieutenant of Jadonang, who continued the movement during his incarceration and subsequent execution on 29 August, l931.
Jadonang, because of his frequent visits to Cachar was well aware of the Indian National movement and Gandhiji’s mass based movement and political ideology. According to Lal Dena, Jadonang and his followers on the patterns of Gandhiji’s civil disobedience movement instructed the people to disobey unjust laws and to stop payment of taxes to the government8. They so sang in praise of Gandhiji’s and his movements as follows9:
Kabui/Rongmei    –    English
Apou Gandhi Puno     –    Oh!  Lord Gandhi
Heigwang lamkhang    –    Become our king
He pati lcheizo    –    Come forth
He pati kheizo    –    Come forth
Jadonang’s activities came to the knowledge of authorities. He was arrested and charged with creating social unrest and foretelling the people of establishment of a Kabui raj replacing the British raj. As soon as the authorities released him Jadonang started preparations for a struggle against the British. As the movement was about to enter its crucial phase and gain momentum, four Meitei traders were murdered at Kamiron village in the spring of’ 1930 which misfired the whole game plan of Jadonang and ultimately caused his martyrdom. Though Jadonang was not personally involved in the incident as he was staying at Nungba, the authorities did not let go the opportunity wasted and he was charged for conspiring the murder and later arrested under section I80 of IPC on 19th February, 1931. He was brought and lodged at Imphal Jail on 19th March, 1931.
Mr. J.C. Higgins, the political agent who launched the whole operation to arrest Jadonang also acted as the prosecutor and judge, delivered the judgement, Jadonang was found guilty of instigating the murder and sentenced to death with five years rigorous imprisonment, though the evidences proved otherwise. The judgement of the political agent was pronounced at Imphal on 13th May, 1931. The sentence was carried out on the early morning of Saturday, 29th August, 1931. A cursory look at the proceedings of the trial of Jadonang, it could be very easily concluded that the trial is nothing but a mockery of justice and fairplay.
After the execution of Jadonang, his movement was carried forward by Gaidinliu, a young girl of seventeen years old. Her area of operation and revolt was Tamenglong District of Manipur, Naga Hills and North Cachar Hills of Assam. As her movement was gaining strength, the government of Assam launched a centralised operation against Gaidinliu and her people under the direct control of J.P. Mills, Deputy Commissioner of Naga Hills. As a result of the sustained and continued operation she was captured at Pulomi village in the North Cachar Hills on l7th October, 1932. She was brought to Imphal where the political agent Higgins sentenced her to deportation for life in 1933 for rebellion, murder and abetment of murder. Though the movement continued for sometime, it could not sustain longer for want of good leadership.
While the hills of Manipur appears remain calm for sometime, another movement which have far reaching consequences for the future history of Manipur broke out at the fag end of 1939. Started spontaneously by the women folk of the market due to acute scarcity of rice and escalating costs, the movement came to be known as Anishuba Nupi Lal or Second Women’s War which almost paralysed the economic activities of the state for quite sometime and particularly the urban areas of Imphal. It is already mentioned that Manipur was put under the colonial system of indirect rule. This system of indirect rule encouraged the penetration of outsiders in the state, particularly Bengalis, Marwaris and Sikhs, etc. these outside traders were allowed to settle at British reserves in the heart of lmphal and was beyond the jurisdiction of state durbar.
Manipuri rice, because of its high quality and nutritional values are of great demand outside the state. Through the business of rice the Marwari traders in Manipur began to play a crucial role in the economy of the state and almost monopolised the export of rice from the state for quite sometime. The state also earned revenue from the export of rice. However, the volume of export suddenly increased from 105,287 mounds in 1931 it increases 277,389 mounds in 1932. This trend kept on increasing and by 1938 the quantum of export of rice increased to 372,174 mounds. In such unrestrained increase in export of rice there is a distinct possibility of scarcity in case of any natural calamities. And such a scenario actually prevailed in 1939. There was an excessive rainfall during the last week of July and first week of August 1939 and caused extensive damage to standing paddy crops and vegetables. There was also another heavy rainfall in late September and early October. Again in mid November, hailstorm damaged standing crops ready for harvesting.
(To be contd. )

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Imphal Times is a daily English newspaper published in Imphal and is registered with Registrar of the Newspapers for India with Regd. No MANENG/2013/51092


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