The Nupi Lan
By Vaishnavi Pallapothu
Source: Archives Manipur / CC BY-SA 4.0 / Wikimedia Commons
Centuries ago, the northeast Indian state of Manipur was a sovereign princely state known as the Kangleipak Kingdom. Like typical kingdoms from that era, Kangleipak was inhabited by people from different ethnic groups. Since the kingdom was at war with hostile enemies most of the time, most of the men from the society would serve the monarchy as soldiers or go through lallup-kaba (forced labour) far away. This left the women to become breadwinners and caregivers, managing both the household and trade, moving away from traditional gender roles. Around 1580, in Imphal, the monarch established the Khwairamband Bazar, also known as the Nupi Keithel or Ima Keithel (women’s market or mother’s market) and designated it as a trading center exclusively for women. 
Over the course of its existence, the market has evolved beyond a central trading point. In addition to being a beautiful example of women’s empowerment and autonomy, over the course of the 20th century, Nupi Keithel has become a hub for information exchange and a conduit for social and political mobilisation. As the women became economically empowered, they found solidarity and became a powerful voice against oppression and injustice on more than one occasion. The market represents a powerful act of subversion and a reclamation of public spaces in areas such as trade and dissent, that women are often denied. Today, this ‘market of matriarchs’ is not just a way of life for thousands of Manipuri women but a representation of their status as sentinels of an equitable society. [1,2]
First Nupi Lan – 1904
In 1891, Manipur came under British suzerainty and the anti-colonial protests that followed led to the burning down of two bungalows of British officials. In order to rebuild these houses, Colonel Maxwell reintroduced a forced labour measure known as the Lallup system. Under this measure, men were obliged to provide free labour for ten days after every thirty days of paid work. It was after this order that the first Nupi Lan (women’s war) broke out. At this point, women were already used to taking the reins in society, whether politically, socially, or economically. To fight this cruel measure, they protested the colonial administration by conducting demonstrations in public spaces, including in Nupi Keithel, stirring public outrage and encouraging women from across the state to join in the movement.
In September, thousands of women rallied together and marched towards the Colonel’s residence. While the administration stated that it would reconsider its decision, these women were not satisfied. Refusing to give up, upwards of 5000 women gathered at Nupi Keithel to protest the Colonel until he revoked the order. The demonstrations eventually turned violent and the women were dispersed using force. Nonetheless, their cries in unison led to the removal of the Lallup order and the British authorities had no choice but to rebuild their bungalows on their own. These courageous women took matters into their own hands and spoke for their community. They planted the seeds for widespread political consciousness in future generations of women, as well.
Source: Twitter/Naorem Mohan
Second Nupi Lan – 1939
In 1907, even though the British handed over the administration to Raja Churachand Singh, the former still had considerable power in determining the trade and economic policy of Manipur. It was during this time that many commercial reforms were introduced, including mandating that large portions of locally grown rice be exported to outstation British battalions. This left supply shortages for locals and adversely impacted the market’s turnout, and even caused significant harm to Manipur’s society and economy. The British also increased imports of cheaper goods and brought in Marwari traders to buy out swathes of land, both of which caused harm to the local cottage and rice industries.
Excessive rains, closing rice mills, and a famine-like situation led to widespread uprisings and protests against the durbar. Opposed to these brutal measures and keen on voicing their contempt against the status quo, on December 12, thousands of women marched to the durbar’s office to demand a ban on rice exports and to reopen rice mills. Upon hearing that the Maharaja was out of town and that only he had the power to authorise their demands, the women held the president of the durbar captive and made him send out a telegram to the Maharaja. By then, nearly 4000 women had camped outside the office, refusing to leave until they got what they wanted.
In an attempt to diffuse the situation, Assam Rifles soldiers were brought in to disperse the women. Nupi Keithel was shut down for almost 14 months. The British administration even tried to sell the marketplace to foreigners, but the women fought hard and strong to prevent it from happening. The Manipuri women were undeterred and continued to stage demonstrations and protest against traders and the local rulers. Eventually, a ban on the export of rice was put in place and the rest is herstory. 
“Manipuri Mata Ki Jai!” This famous slogan calling to the power and strength of Manipuri women is a timeless reminder of Manipur’s herstory. Both the Nupi Lan movements were leaderless and driven purely by a community of women who wished for the best of their own people and fought tooth and nail against oppressive policies. In both cases, it was the women who took charge, rose up in protest and kept the momentum going until they emerged as vanguards of change and reform. To commemorate the valiant ways of these women, December 12 is celebrated every year in Manipur in remembrance of the resilience and grit of the women of Nupi Lan.
Sanamani Yambem famously wrote, “The Nupi Lan, which started as an agitation by Manipuri women against the economic policies of the Maharaja and the Marwari monopolists, later on changed its character to become a movement for constitutional and administrative reform in Manipur.” Indeed, since then, Manipuri women have stood at the forefront of countless protests in the state, including the Meira Paibi (women torch bearers of Manipur) movement in 2004, when twelve middle-aged women protested naked against the gang-rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama and called for the revocation of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act.
Post-independence, the women who have inherited Nupi Keithel continue to carry the torch that was lit by the women of the Nupi Lan. To date, it remains a hub for social organisation, mobilisation and agitation and a symbol of resistance against oppression and injustice. In fact, it is neither uncommon nor surprising to see placards with slogans such as “we won’t stay silent” and “we demand justice” tucked away in the shops between the goods. Displaying such immense solidarity, it is apparent that the sisterhood that brings together Nupi Keithel, is always ready to speak up against anyone who threatens Manipur’s best interests.
1. S. Pal, (2016, November 3), Exploring Ima Keithal, a 500-Year-Old Market with over 5000 Traders – All Women!, The Better India, https://www.thebetterindia.com/73948/ima-keithal-all-women-market-imphal-manipur/
2. T. Mohanty, (2020, October 5), A Portrait of a Market in India Run Solely by Women, New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/05/travel/india-womens-market-imphal.html
3. R.B Wangchuk, (2020, March 12), When Their Men Demurred, Here’s How 1000’s of Manipuri Women Battled the British, The Better India, https://www.thebetterindia.com/219526/manipur-women-nupi-lan-movement-british-raj-freedom-india-history-nor41/
4. S. Chakraborty, (2020, March 8), Women’s Day: Remembering Manipur’s historic ‘Nupi Lan’ movements, Scroll.in, https://scroll.in/article/955381/womens-day-remembering-manipurs-historic-nupi-lan-movements
5. O. Kashyap (2019, May 20), Nupi Lan: The amazing story of women’s wars in Manipur, Forward Press, https://www.forwardpress.in/2019/05/nupi-lan-the-amazing-story-of-womens-wars-in-manipur/
6. S. Yambem, (1976, February 21), Manipur Women's Agitation, 1939, Economic and Political Weekly, accessed here: https://www.jstor.org/stable/4364388