As we celebrate the valour and courage of Manipuri women every year on December 12 Nupilal Numit, we are drawn to the question whether women are truly emancipated in present day society? Leaders and scholars talk about the role played by women in the socio-economic front and how trade and economic activities are run and managed mostly by women, besides being the torch-bearers of the human rights movement in the state and the lead role played by market women in two Nupilals against the British Raj in 1904 and 1939.
On the occasion of Nupilal Numit, we celebrate the courage of those women who stood steadfast against the British. But, never did we ask where all the men had gone when the women were faced with the bayonets of soldiers under British command nor did anyone care to ask why the men-folk was not in the forefront of anti-colonial movements.
Even when the armed forces powered by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) were riding roughshod over the general population in the valley, it was the women Meira Paibis who were in the fore-front confronting the armed forces, and not the men-folk. In many of the anti-AFSPA rallies and movements against the fake encounters, it was the Meira Paibis who were in the fore-front. When did Manipuri men, known and dreaded for their ferocity and bravery in this part of the world throughout history, became so timid as to be hiding behind skirts or ‘phanek’ to voice their protest. This is an area which has not been researched and studied so far.
It may be said that, a maternal instinct runs deep in the veins of Meitei women. In 1904, they were up against the British as the British tried to engage the men-folk of Imphal and surrounding areas in force labour and unjustified punitive action. In 1939, the hunger and starvation among men and children caused by artificially induced food scarcity as a result of colonial policy was one of the major factors leading to the Second Nupilal.
In the 80s, it was the umbilical strain caused by widespread cases of arrests and torture, enforced disappearances, rape and staged encounters of their sons and daughters. Despite the constant face-offs in the hey-days of insurgency movement and counter-insurgency operations in the valley, the Meira Paibis were once held in awe and respect borne either out of fear or otherwise by the security forces. All along, they had always adopted a conciliatory approach towards the Meira Paibis in an effort to win them over. It was indeed strange to see a change of attitude among the security forces.
Yes, they must have been disappointed at the mistrust shown to them in the present ethnic conflict. But when two parties are at war and their role is of a peacemaker, they must not only be non-partisan but also seen as non-partisan. And it is for them to take corrective steps to gain their trust once more. In the meanwhile, as the Meira Paibis feel their sons and men are unjustly treated and security forces are siding with the other party they will remain defiant.
Now, we need to have a deeper look at how the present generation is observing or celebrating the historic occasions of Nupilal or Women’s War of 1904 and 1939. Of course, the state government began observing it on December 12 every year from the mid 70s as Nupilal Numit which was more of a remembrance of the event and celebration of the valour of women who took part in the war. The descendants of the brave women have been observing it with plays depicting mostly the Second Nupilal. Many other women organisations are also observing the event.
But, there are differences in how one chooses to remember the occasion. While the government and most organisations observe it as Nupilal Numit, an organisation had been observing it as Nupigi Numit (Women’s Day) till lately. Now, everyone is observing it as Nupilal Numit. It is alright as long as the role and status of women in Manipur’s political and socio-economic history is put in the right perspective.