07 / 2011
I arrived in Imphal, the capital city of Manipur state in Northeast India, during the monsoon. Between June and August, the Northeast almost feels submerged due to heavy rainfall and the region’s peculiar sub-Himalayan geography. For three months, Imphal is subjected to a constant drizzle that becomes part of the normal hustle and bustle of city life. In the paddy fields, the monsoon creates ideal conditions for production of rice, or cha as it is called in Meiteilon, the language of the Meitei tribe (1). According to a friend from Imphal, cha is the most important word in Meiteilon. For despite living in the era of globalization, the diet of the inhabitants of Imphal is still constituted mainly by local products and traditional recipes that have been passed from generation to generation. Nandini, a women’s activist, was teaching me how to prepare pork with wild mushrooms when my friend Ram said to me: “the reason why God doesn’t like us, is because we eat almost everything, we don’t leave anything to go back to the nature… we eat even dogs!” There was a second of silence and then laughter. And yes, one of the traditional dishes from the Northeast is in fact well-seasoned stewed dog.
All ingredients, utensils and traditional items from the Manipuri cuisine are easily available in the most representative market of Manipur: the women-run Ima Keithel or Mother’s Market. An exploration of the market’s past and present reveals the turbulent history and the brave struggles of Manipuris, especially Manipuri women.
The Market’s Early History
Evidence suggests that the market was founded in 1533 AD. One factor contributing to the establishment of the market was the Lallup-Kaba, an ancient forced labour system in Manipur that sent male labourers to cultivate faraway lands. The women stayed back in the villages and worked on their own paddy fields, taking care of their household and then going out to sell the products in improvised markets. Thus markets like the Mother’s Market were born. The creation of such markets, and the central role of women in Meitei tribes, was also partially a result of the numerous wars in this strategic region, which lies between Southeast Asia, China and India. During these wars the men again had to leave their homes, which left women in charge of village tasks.
Although the Lallup-Kaba system was abolished in 1892, other forms of forced labour continued until the twentieth century, including the Potang, a system to forcibly recruit men for war. After wars such as the Sino-Burmese War (1765-1769) where Manipur was the center of the clashes between the expansionist Qing Empire (China) and the Konbaung Empire (Burma), many exiles, soldiers and refugees from both sides stayed in Manipur, transforming it into a land of freedom for those escaping slavery and war. The scholar James C. Scott has used the name “Zomia” for the region of inaccessible hills and valleys stretching from Vietnam to Northeast India, a place where people resisted outside rule and were thus described as barbarian tribes by those eager to exploit them. After the end of the Sino-Burmese war, the Burmese kingdom took control of Manipur, and forced the inhabitants to fight in their expansionist wars.
The Market and the British Empire
With the arrival of the British Empire in the region, the geopolitical scenario changed, resulting in three Anglo-Burmese Wars (1819-1886), in which control over Manipur was crucial. But in the Anglo-Manipur War in 1891, the Manipuris sent a clear message to the British Empire that they wanted autonomy. During all this turbulence the Mother’s Market continued to exist as a legacy from ancient times and as a symbol of Meitei culture. And in spite of new waves of invaders and conquerors, the women continued to control the local economy on their own terms.
The British administration nevertheless attempted to change the commercial relations in Manipur by imposing aggressive economic and political reforms. These reforms were furiously opposed by the women of Manipur in a conflict called Nupi Lan (Women’s War), starting in 1939. The main causes of this conflict were the colonial practices of the British, who exploited the natural resources of the region and allowed external traders to operate in Manipur. The local trade in rice was heavily affected due to the massive exportation of the grain to various battalions stationed around Manipur, which was done without considering the local needs. Further, the growing power of the recently established merchants, who speculated on rice prices, made it impossible for local women traders to buy or sell their main product and their staple food, cha.
During Nupi Lan, the women traders belonging to the Ima Market organized agitations, meetings, rallies and blockades to demand changes in the economic policies of the local Maharaja (princely ruler), who was under the thumb of the British. This movement was organized by women, while the Manipuri men remained quiet. The climax of the confrontation took place when the women occupied the Presidential building in Imphal, requesting the presence of the Maharaja. In spite of an attack by the Assam Rifles military battalion, which left many women wounded, the movement continued to resist the government. This disproportionate reaction of the army fuelled the confrontation, and now the Manipuri men joined the women. Soon the uprising became a struggle for autonomy and independence. In an effort to stop the Nupi Lan, the British (represented by the Maharaja) tried to sell the market’s sheds to foreigners and men from other parts of India. But during the whole uprising, the women defended their market as a sacred place in which family, politics, economy and identity were interwoven. Nupi Lan is a milestone in the history of the social movement in Manipur during the twentieth century, and the symbolic value of this women-led struggle is enormous.
When the Second World War broke out, the Nupi Lan largely stopped. This happened not only because of changes in British priorities, but also because of the exile of many Manipuris, who fled to other regions when they realized that their land would again become a battlefield. In 1944, Japanese armies assaulted Allied battalions stationed in Imphal. Shortly thereafter, the city was devastated by U.S. air bombings, as well as attacks by Japanese tank regiments. The British eventually got the upper hand by recruiting natives, who formed guerrilla units that eroded the Japanese defense. The tribes were the only ones who could manage the region’s intricate geography during the monsoon season of 1944 (2).
The Market Since Independence
At the end of the Second World War, India achieved its victory over British colonialism. Independent India soon occupied Manipur, calling it an ‘isolated area.’ This designation belied the role of Manipur which was an important center of military confrontation and a long-established passageway for trade. Since the Manipuris resisted the domination of the Indian mainland, their state became a site of Indian military occupation. The Indian government’s fear of secessionist movements in Manipur led it to target the entire civil society and to accuse the women of complicity. Again the Ima Market was threatened, this time by militarization and the taxation policies of the Indian government. With the Indian entrance into the traditional Manipuri economy, the region once again became exposed to new models of taxation and trade regulation, threatening tribal economic relations.
The many wars and transformations during the last two centuries have affected the social composition of Manipur and changed the structure of the Ima Market. Yet the traditional organization of the market has remained more or less intact. One important thing has changed, though: the name of the market. More and more people call it the Women’s Market rather than Mother’s Market. This represents a transformation of how women are imagined in the market, suggesting a substantial change in women’s representation and roles in society.
The Market is divided into four parts: the southeastern corner, where metals are sold; the northeastern corner, where the rice traders dominate; the southwestern corner, where fishmongers set up shop; and the northwest, where paddy is sold. In addition, there is a long section crossing the market with stalls selling cloths and fabrics. Each section used to be occupied by specific clans and ruled by the senior woman of each clan. This structure is still the basis of the market’s current organization, but nowadays there are elections for the secretariat of the Nupi Kheitel (literally “Women’s Storehouse,” the shortest name for the market). The organization is one of the most respected in India’s Northeast, and it is connected with other social movements in Asia. Nupi Kheitel in total represents 6,000 vendors and is the biggest and oldest women’s market in Asia.
Today Nupi Kheitel is confronting new challenges as a result of the “developmental” discourses and the effects of armed conflict. On the one hand, the women are resisting the abuses of the soldiers and the hyper-masculinization generated in a militarized zone. On the other hand, Nupi Kheitel is opposing governmental policies that promote international trade agreements with Asian neighbours (3).
In 2003, the local government – without consulting the women vendors – decided to construct a supermarket complex on the site of Nupi Kheitel. Governmental meetings took place behind closed doors in an elegant hotel, while the women stood outside protesting. Women stayed in the market day and night, worried that they would lose sheds once construction began.
The past eight years have been a constant struggle against the construction of the supermarket complex. During this time, Nupi Kheitel has been supported by many local organizations, students’ movements, humans rights groups and NGOs, who all agree that defending the market is a matter of justice and cultural identity, as well as a way to thank the women’s movement of Manipur, which has always aided other people’s movements. As a 72-year-old woman selling leirum (a traditional cloth used in festivals) told me, ‘We always have supported other protests because we are the mothers, sisters, daughters and wives of our people’. R. K. Jarmine has been selling in the market over the last 25 years. She got her shed through the matrilineal system of heritage, in which the owner of the shed gives it to her daughter or sister-in-law according to her preference. On many occasions, people have tried to steal Jarmine’s place through corruption and power games, but she is still fighting and selling.
In the various letters that Nupi Kheitel has sent to the Central Government of India and to Sonia Gandhi (head of the ruling Congress party), the women express their major fear: that during the process of relocation into the new supermarket complex, they will lose their sheds due to the corruption of local government officials. According to the vendors, such officials are selling licenses and sheds to people not belonging to the Nupi Kheitel system. This harmful situation could erode an important women’s institution in Manipur and also increase unemployment among the Meitei tribe.
As a result of a coordinated work with supporting groups and the pressure of the women’s movement, Nupi Kheitel vendors are slowly returning to their original sheds, but many are still waiting to get their licenses and places back. Others, accused of being unlicensed, were thrown out; the government has used such bureaucratic methods to interfere with indigenous autonomy.
Just as before, Nupi Kheitel continues its struggle, just like other indigenous women around the world. These are women who are fighting for their rights and identity and who do not give up despite numerous attempts to undermine their struggle. Nupi Kheitel is today facing new problems, but the women are drawing on their long history as well as developing new strategies of resistance, such as local and regional alliances with social movements, tribal organizations, student and academic groups, and many others. In fact, many of these groups have themselves been inspired by the example of Nupi Keithel. Through such mutual support, Nupi Keithel and its allies continue fighting for women’s rights, indigenous autonomy and justice.
This article is available in French: Manipur : la lutte des femmes indiennes du marché Nupi Keithel
Ibotombi Longjam, “Nupi Lan – the Women’s War in Manipur, 1939: An Overview.”, in The Manipur Page
James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed, An Anarchist history of upland Southeast Asia, Orient Black Swan, India, 2009
Richard Jung.« The Sino-Burmese War, 1766–1770: War and Peace Under the Tributary System ». Papers on China, 1971
Singh, R.K.J. A Short History of Manipur, New Delhi, 1975
« Nupi Lan, 1939 » Lamyanba, vol. 5, no 51, December 1973
R. Brown, Statistical Account of Manipur. Calcutta (1879), Reprinted, New Delhi, 1973
Website of the Commonwealth Wars Graves Commission
Draft on Tourism Policy 2010, Manipur Tourism Development Corporation
Interviews with women’s activist and researchers from Humans Rights Alert–Manipur