Of Demand, Supply, and Hunger

A few decades should count as a small blip in the long history of human civilization. The last few decades, however, have been immensely transformative for the human race. Many objects and experiences that were a persistent part of human story in the preceding millenniums are fading away quite fast. Mass hunger was one of them. It came often, it came hard and it left some deep hollow spaces in the tree of humanity.

The story of an officer’s efforts in dealing with mass hunger in a small town in Central India in 1833, and eyewitness accounts of other famines offer us an insight into what it was like to live through a calamity like this.


The end of Anglo-Maratha wars in 1818 effectively concluded the British conquest of India, with the British now gaining control of most of India. Among the newly conquered territories a large portion was what is now known as the state of Madhya Pradesh. The ancient land of Gonds, Satavahanas, Guptas, Chandelas, Bundelas, Mughals and Marathas was now ruled by the mega corporation: the East India Company.

The company which was initially chartered to explore the “trade of merchandize” with India was now deeply ensconced not only in the matters of Diwani (Revenue and Civil Administration), but also for Nizamat (Criminal and Police Administration). People in central India who recognised their rulers through clans, now saw officers coming from far away lands as representatives of the faceless corporation. Some of these officers found themselves in a position where their actions had a very significant impact on a large number of people. Many officers were acutely aware  of the burden tied to their bureaucratic strings. Among them, there was Sir William Henry Sleeman.

William Henry Sleeman
See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Born in Stratton, in Cornwall, Sleeman had come to India in 1809 at the age of 21 as an infantry cadet in the Bengal Army. He participated in the Nepal war during 1814-16 as a lieutenant. By the end of this war he had learned Arabic and Persian and had gained expertise in the religious customs and traditions of India. He moved to a civil posting in 1820 and was appointed Junior Assistant to the Agent of the Governor-General, in the Sagar and Nerbudda territories.

Sleeman soon found himself tackling the wide array of administrative tasks in the course of his postings in the region. Among them were matters of revenue collection, law and order, Sati burnings and other social reforms, treasury and mint, agriculture, thuggie and famines.

The Hunger Spiral

Famine was a frequent occurrence. Droughts, floods, warfare, locusts, monsoon, and many other factors caused frequent famines in medieval India. The Jataka tales, Jain literature, and other ancient texts mention severe famines in India. Contemporary writings during Mughal period mention severe famines of great intensity. During the reign of Shah Jahan some three million people are said to have perished due to famines.

It often started with crop failures, which led to food shortage, and increase in the price of food grain. In those closed loop economies, without much transportation and communication links with the outside world, speculation played a vital role. Nearly every generation had seen serious famines and people relied on old tales to make significant decisions that weighed heavily on their families’ fate. One old saying went:

सावन कृष्ण एकादशी, यदि गरजै अधिराक। तुम पिय जाओ मालवा, हम जावें गुजरात।।
(If there are heavy thunders during the Krishna Ekadashi of Sravan month; oh father, you go to Malwa and I will go to Gujarat)

Malwa was seen as a more fertile land where famines were less frequent. With the spread of panic, started a trail of migrations. Not knowing what to do, poor families abandoned their farms, homes, and cattle and often moved towards the centres of authority – local rulers or the administrative headquarters. Many rulers organised charity kitchens. As the famines intensified, torrents of poor, famished people flowed to cities.

At the sight of scarcity, the agriculture economy froze like a scared animal. The value chain consisted of farmers, traders, transporters, financiers, and consumers. Traders would often hoard the grain, sensing headwinds. Shortage of cattle added to the transportation challenges. The produce was carried on bullocks, covering 6-8 miles a day. Prices doubled for every 100 miles of transportation, and tripled in a season of scarcity. Insolvency of any debtors crippled the money supply in the markets dominated by small, closed communities. With the complete shutdown of a functioning society, the focus eventually came to the one and only essential commodity – FOOD

Those Sights, Sounds and Stench

Contemporary observers of famines describe a society stricken with hunger in chilling detail.

Still fresh in memory’s eye the scene I view,
The shrivelled limbs, sunk eyes, and lifeless hue ;
Still hear the mother’s shrieks and infant’s moans,
Cries of despair and agonizing groans.
In wild confusion dead and dying lie;–
Hark to the jackal’s yell and vulture’s cry,
The dogs’ fell howl, as midst the glare of day,
They riot unmolested on their prey !
Dire scenes of horror, which no pen can trace,
Nor rolling years from memory’s page efface.

~ Charles John Shore Baron Teignmouth (referring to the Bengal famine of 1770)
(Memoir of the Life and Correspondence of John, Lord Teignmouth, Volume 1)

Poor people, now homeless, without any possessions, were seen wearily dragging themselves along major roads. Those left behind in their villages, each passing day played Russian roulette with death; weighing the odds of improvement in the situation against the risk of abandoning their home, while they had the means and physical energy to do so. The definition of “food” started changing. Seed-grain was consumed, damaging the prospects of next year’s crops. Shrubs like Jharberi and many plant seeds became a large portion of diet. Grass, tree leaves were consumed. When the famines intensified, many cattle were slaughtered or abandoned by their owners.

The abandoned animals howling in agony of thirst and hunger went eventually silent. The stench of animal carcasses was felt in the air. The surviving animals, in their bare bones, scourged for food in shrubs, roots, and trees in extreme desperation. F.H.S. Merewether describes:

As we were coming back from the court-house, the Commissioner pointed out to me a few frameworks of cattle on the wayside; they were absolutely burrowing in the ground, like pigs, to get at the roots.

And it subsequently moved to humans. Younger children, in absence of prolonged absence of meals, were the most vulnerable and often perished quickly. In desperation, many children were sold into slavery. The practice of selling children during famines was an old one. Ain-e-Akbari mentions that Akbar had legalised the practice during the times of famines and distress, and gave their parents an option of buying them back later.

The malnourished children developed a swollen abdomen due to protein deficiency, a symptom known as Kwashiorkor. This was a fatal stage and very few children survived after that. The children tottered with a feebly, bereft of any childlike demeanour. Merewether describes:

One of the first objects I noticed on entering was a child of five, standing by itself near the middle of the enclosure. It’s arms were not so large round as my thumb its legs were scarcely larger; the pelvic bones were plainly shown; the ribs, back and front, started through the skin, like a wire cage. The eyes were fixed and unobservant; the expression of the little skull-face solemn, dreary and old. Will, impulse, and almost sensation, were destroyed in this tiny skeleton, which might have been a plump and happy baby. It seemed not to hear when addressed. I lifted it between my thumbs and fore-fingers; it did not weigh more than seven or eight pounds. Probably its earliest recollections were of hunger, and it could never have had a full meal. It was now deserted by those who had brought it into the world, or they were dead; its own life would be gone in a day or two. Its skin was quite cold. dry and rough. Pain had been its only experience from the first; it had never known or imagined the comforts that babies have.

As for adults, death came in many forms. Tribals wandered into forests in search of food, disoriented, and died of exhaustion there. Shortage of herbivorous animals caused wild beasts to wander into human territories and many people were killed by tigers. Many families chose to kill themselves with opium or other means after having all provisions exhausted. Pandita Ramabai, a famine survivor describes:

At last the day came when we had finished eating the last grain of rice – and nothing but death by starvation remained for our portion. Oh, the sorrow, the helplessness, and the disgrace of the situation •••• We assembled together and after a long discussion came to the conclusion that it was better to go into the forest and die there than bear the disgrace of poverty among our own people. Eleven days and nights – in which we subsisted on water and leaves and a handful of wild dates – were spent in great bodily and mental pain. At last our dear old .father could hold out no longer the tortures of hunger were too much for his poor, old, weak body. He determined to drown himself in a sacred tank nearby and thus to end all his earthly suffering ••• It was suggested that the rest of us should either drown ourselves or break the family and go our several ways.

Weakened bodies crawled around waiting to die, trying to avoid being mauled by impatient jackals and vultures. Sleeman wrote about the famine in Sagar:

At Sagar, mothers, unable to walk, were seen holding up their infants and imploring the passing stranger to take them in slavery, that they might at least live. Hundreds were seen creeping into gardens, courtyards, and old ruins, concealing themselves under shrubs, grass, mats, or straw, where they might die quietly, without having their bodies torn by birds and beasts before the breath had left them.

The Intervention Dilemma

In 1833 Sleeman was in the middle of his famous Thuggie trials, while serving as a magistrate in Saugor (Sagar) district in Bundelkhand. The autumn rains failed, and the spring crops could not be sown owing to the hardness of the ground, caused by the premature cessation of the rains, followed by the outbreak of famine. As the famine intensified in the countryside, streams of people started migrating towards Sagar, causing the all too familiar explosive situation.

Sagar was a major cantonment centre. Major Gregory, the military officer posted in Sagar, unsure of the future supply of grain and apprehensive of discontentment among his soldiers, decided to procure a large supply of grain at high prices. Everyone, consumers as well as traders, saw this as a certain signal of an impending crisis. Soon the markets got exhausted of any known supply of food, and the trade stopped.

Hoarding compounded the problem. The merchants hid the grain in underground granaries, pits inside their homes and warehouses. The greed for profit caused the merchants to accumulate grain, and the fear of rioting or coercive action by authorities caused them to hide it. This made it hard for authorities to estimate the actual quantity of grain available in the market. Quite often the grain rotted in the traders pit without reaching the markets. This led to authorities raiding the traders storage, confiscating it or forcing them to sell it at a discounted prices. Arthashastra by Kautilya recommended making the rich “vomit (वमनं)” their wealth during harsh famine.

With the intensifying famine, shortage of food and arrival of migrants, Sleeman faced the pressure to act against the traders. The kotwal of Police declared that a crisis was impending and the police and others would be unsafe unless such action is taken.

Sleeman had been a long advocate of free trade. His concern was that the forcing a trader to sell his stock deprived him of his cash flow. In absence of incentives and the fear of such actions discouraged the traders to import grains from elsewhere, which in the ensuing period made things much worse.

But was there any grain from other districts to import? Sleeman got an estimate of stock in Jabalpur and other places, which indicated that there was stock.

Graphic Famine Natives Buying Grain 1897
By F. C. Dickinson (drawn) from sketches by Lieut. C de W. Crookshank (The Graphic, March 27, 1897) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
With that confirmation, Sleeman issued a formal proclamation, with a pledge that a trader’s right to sell his grain whenever and wherever will be respected. He expressed hope that people will be assured that his solemnly pledged word would never be broken, and that people would sell what stores they had, and apply themselves without apprehension to the collecting of more.

He showed his pledge to Major Gregory, assuring that no amount of clamour should ever make the administration violate the pledge given to the traders, and he was prepared to risk his situation and reputation as a public officer upon the result.

This proclamation was issued in the city in the afternoon and further police force was deployed to provide assurance to the traders.

As Sleeman had hoped, the markets started to open. Grain started to appear in the market, and traders, with their apprehensions reduced and cash flows operating again, sent out to import grain from other districts. The high prices attracted more people to venture into the trade, and soon the prices started coming down.

The crisis, at least for a while, was avoided.


A lot of water has passed under those medieval bridges crossed by Sleeman in the 1800s.

Ruins of the Old Collectorate, Sagar. Sleeman’s headquarter
Ruins of the Old Collectorate, Sagar. Sleeman’s headquarter

He went on to become the Commissioner for the Suppression of Thuggee and Dacoity, and later a resident a Gwalior and eventually at Awadh, with Wajid Ali Shah. After spending 47 years in India, he died in February 1856 near Ceylon (Sri Lanka) at the age of 67, on the way home. He was buried at sea.

Sleeman’s footprints can be traced across the landscape of central India. Among them, a bounty of literature describing the world he saw. Statistical records of his time, a variety of sugarcane he brought from Fiji, first Dinosaur fossils in India found by him, the modifications he made in the Indian penal code, the institutions he establishe and a little village called Sleemanabad near Jabalpur.

The British administration presided over many severe famines, causing several millions of deaths. India gained independence in 1947. The Food Corporations Act of 1964 resulted in the establishment of Food Corporation of India in 1965.

In 2012, Madhya Pradesh became the second largest wheat-producing state in India, much of the wheat comes from the region around Sagar. There has not been a single large-scale famine in India since independence. That stench, those shrieks and groans, howling of animals and that stench of death have been largely forgotten.

Sleeman’s collectorate in Sagar was demolished in 2016 to make way for new construction. Few other relics of that era survive.

Etched in the DNA of humanity, there are traces of events that created major voids in the genealogy trees. Somewhere around them there are also markers of a day in a bygone era when some hungry people were able to eat.


  1. Memoirs on the History, Folk-lore, and Distribution of the Races of the North Western Provinces of India Link
  2. Rambles and recollections of an Indian official
    by Sleeman, Sir, William Henry Link
  3. Indian Famines: Their Historical, Financial, & Other Aspects, Containing Remarks on Their Management, and Some Notes on Preventive and Mitigative Measures Link
  4. The Starvation Process: Dearth, Famishment and Morbility. Link

OpenSource Books | Bal Gangadhar Tilak

Today is the 160th birth Anniversary of Bal Gangadhar Tilak — Lokmanya, or, as the British chose to call him — Father of the Indian Unrest.

In an introduction to Tilak’s writings and speeches, this is what Sri Aurobindo had to say about Lokmanya Tilak.

Two facts of his life and character have to be insisted on as of special importance to the country because they give a great example of two things in which its political life was long deficient and is even now not sufficient. First, the inflexible will of the patriot and man of sincere heart and thorough action which has been the very grain of his character; for aspirations, emotion, enthusiasm are nothing without this; will alone creates and prevails. And wish and will are not the same thing, but divided by a great gulf; the one, which is almost of us get to, is a puny, tepid and inefficient thing and, even when most enthusiastic, easily discouraged and turned from its object; the other can be a giant to accomplish and endure. Secondly, the readiness to sacrifice and face suffering, not needlessly or with a useless bravado, but with a firm courage when it comes, to bear it and to outlive, returning to work with one’s scars as if nothing had happened. No prominent man in India has suffered more for his country; none has taken his sacrifices and sufferings more quietly and as a matter of course.

~ Sri Aurobindo

Download the full book here. [446 pages, Various Formats]

Photograph in Featured Image:By Madras : Ganesh & Co. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

OpenSource Books | Rani Laxmi Bai of Jhansi

Today is the 158th death anniversary of Rani Laxmi Bai of Jhansi. We found this short poem by Michael White, written in 1902.

Within no peerless Taj Mahal her body lies,
No gilded dome, nor fairy minarets against the azure skies,
Proclaim the place, where she, called by her foes, the “bravest and the best”
Was laid by reverential hands to her victorious rest:
But in the eternal sanctuary of her race,
The holy river, holy Mother Ganges, that coveted embrace,
Doth hold her ashes, and for a monument to her name,
Sufficeth it, that in the people’s hearts, her fame,
Doth shine immortal. For she was deeply loved, this Queen.
The beauteous, valiant Rani, India’s great heroine.

~ Michael White, in Lachmi Bai: Rani of Jhansi, 1902. Download the book for free from archive.org, here.

Featured image: By Lala Deen Dayal (1844–1905). [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Marketing, Museums and Curation: A Cross-disciplinary Perspective

Recently, I had the wonderful opportunity to take Mr. Bhat, of Tata Sons, and his wife on a short tour of the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum. Since both of them were quite interested in the collection and were very observant, the conversation we had was quite enriching. Anyone who has ever worked in museums or spaces where visitors are encouraged to engage with the arts knows that the most rewarding moment is when the visitors connect to the objects and their stories. It is equally thrilling when someone tells you that they keep coming back to explore more.

After his visit to the Museum, Mr. Bhat published a lovely article describing his visit and offered a fresh perspective by drawing parallels between the world of corporate marketing and that of Museums and its curators. In India, museums and its workforce is slowly waking up to the idea of hiring specialists and experts to curate high-impact temporary and permanent exhibitions. Museums are non-profit organisations but do desperately need good business models to increase visitor engagement.

Visit any museum in India and you’ll surely see hoards of local and some foreign visitors. But Museums haven’t fully exploited its potential to become a tourist and cultural hubs of the cities they are situated in. Museums in bigger cities, for example Mumbai, are slowly working in that direction. The two museums in the heart of Mumbai host creatively curated ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions and tie-up with major museums abroad to facilitate exchange of ideas and exhibitions.

This article strikes the chord and pinpoints the hidden opportunity of cross-disciplinary dialogue and mutual benefits. How many schools offering marketing and branding specialisations or museum and curatorial studies in the country speak about this cross-disciplinary action? Arts and humanities are relegated to the “unnecessary” categories for those opting for MBA or Technical/Professional diplomas. On the other hand, an understanding of how businesses and financial worlds work is inaccessible for those who do not opt for a full majors in Economics in Humanistic or Liberal Arts disciplines for their undergraduate or graduate degrees.

Water-tight compartments in terms of education is worst deterrent to creative thinking, an indispensable skill in any career path. The focal point of Mr. Bhat’s argument is that the two worlds can offer a lot to each other in terms of engagement and creativity. As a person who works in the cultural sector and a confessed Museum-hopper, I was very happy to read this article and very flattered by his generous praise!

Thank you, Mr. Harish Bhat, it’s interested audience like you who make the story-telling fun! Read the full article here: “Why Marketers Should Visit Museums” (published on 18th Dec 2014 in Businessline, The Hindu)

Historians: Dr. RC Majumdar

Dr. RC Majumdar was the series editor of (and a contributor to) “The History and Culture of the Indian People,” a definitive collection, of history and culture, right from the Vedic Age to the Indian freedom struggle. The eleven-volume series started in 1951, which took 26 years to complete. Dr. Majumdar was 88, when the final volume was published.

Dr. Majumdar has many other books to his credit. [Wikipedia]. Dr. Majumdar was interviewed by Dr. Jyotsna Kamat (of Kamat’s Potpourri) shortly before he passed away, in 1980.

Ramesh Chandra Majumdar was born in 1888 in East Bengal (present day Bangladesh) in the village of Khandarapara of Faridapur District. His talent knew no bounds, like the Padma (Podda) river that flows there. The story of this famous historian is also interesting. In East Bengal, there are rivers, lakes, and streams everywhere, and children grow up with water. In Majumdar’s house, even to go from one room to another, he had to walk in ankleful of water! When it poured, the whole house was flooded. When he was an infant, one day he was about to be swept away in the floods in the night. “Somehow my aunt was woken up, and I am alive today to tell you my story.” — He laughed.

Read the full interview here: Kamat’s Potpourri: India’s Greatest Historian

Link | Monson’s Retreat: India,1804

An interesting account of the disastrous retreat of Lieutenant Colonel William Monson, at the The Battle of Mukandwara Pass (July 1804), often called “one of the greatest and most disgraceful setbacks to the British military reputation in India.”

“Lieutenant General Lord Gerald Lake (1744-1808; commander-in-chief in India from 1801 to 1805) and Arthur Wellesley (1769-1852; the future Duke of Wellington), in command of the British forces in the Deccan, received letters from Holkar which they found impudent with oriental braggadocio. At the same time Holkar was in communication with the vacillating British allies, Sindhia and Bhonsle, urging them to rise up against their British overlords. Lake, complaining to governor-general Richard Wellesley (1760-1842) that it would be impossible to dictate terms to Holkar without resorting to force, wrote, “I was never so plagued, as I am with this devil; he just, nay hardly, keeps within the letter of the law, by which means our army is remaining in the field at an enormous expense … ” Lord Wellesley, although already in trouble with the governors of the East India Company over the expense of his aggressive territorial ambitions, decided nonetheless that a quick victorious campaign would be cheaper than paying for an army of observation. It “…was manifestly a measure not only of just policy and necessary security, but of ultimate economy with reference to the finances of the honourable company,” he wrote to the government in an exercise of self-justification. Hostilities against Holkar commenced in April of 1804.”

(Via. The Napoleon Series; read the full article at Monson’s Retreat: India,1804)

Image from Wikipedia Commons. Arthur William Devis [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Nupi Lan: The Women’s War in Manipur, 1939: An Overview

Guest post by Ibotombi Longjam

I. Introduction

Nupi Lan—which means Women’s War in Manipuri—is one of the important movements in the history of Manipuri women. It sowed the new seeds of economic and political reforms for a new Manipur in the early 40’s. It was started in 1939 as an agitation by Manipuri women against the oppressive economic and administrative policies ruled by the Manipur Maharaja and the Political Agent—Mr. Gimson—of the British Government (1933-45) in Manipur, and later on, evolved into a movement for the constitutional and administrative reform in Manipur.

How Nupi Lan broke out and how it motivated the people of Manipur to start a new political revolution are the important questions that have been addressed over the years. To know the issues related to the movements of Manipuri women, it would be worthwhile to understand their status in the then society. The role of Manipuri women in the agrarian economy of Manipur is a crucial one to reckon, right from the involvement in the production, to the selling, and marketing of food grains. They manage most of the internal trade of food and clothing and they hold a free standard of living in the society. They were the most important buyers and sellers in the main market Khwairamband Bazar – a bazar which was founded by Khagemba Maharaj around in 1580 AD and which is also known as Ima Keithel. This bazar was also ‘the place’ where the out-breaking of the Nupi Lan took place (Lamyanba, 1973).

However the status of a Manipuri woman was not very significant, individually, despite their main contribution to the economic prosperity. The practice of polygamy which was quite prevalent at the time, made them as un-emanicipated and unsatisfied participants in the society. Perhaps, outbreak of two big wars—one against the Awas (or the Myanmars) in 1817 which led to the Seven Years Devastation and the other against the British Empire in 1891, which led to a great reduction of the male population—made them to a greater acceptance to have the practice of polygamy (one can, even now, see in a family which has very few boys, the boys are much more cared for than their sisters). After Manipur lost its independence, the women started to play important role in seeking political and economic independence. It was the women who protested against the then Political Agent—Mr. Maxwell—against the forced labour—lalup kaba, in Manipuri—on Manipuri men. Under their aggressive pressure amounted, the British had to withdraw the use of forced labour in 1904. They were also involved in the wide-spread demonstration against the increase of Water-Tax by the British Government (Sanamani, 1976). The point made here is that women played important roles not only in the economic activities but also, in the political reforms of Manipur. The rest of the writing is organised in the following manner: In Section II, we see how the policy of rice trade especially the rice export was the main cause the outbreak of Nupi Lan. Section III gives a brief summary of the incidents of December 12 and the developments of various political movements after the Nupi Lan is analysed in Section IV. The overview ends with a small conclusion on the overall survey of Nupi Lan in Section V.

II. The Export Policy of Rice and Nupi Lan

As Manipur lost in the Anglo-Manipuri War in 1891, she was put under the British Administration by installing the young boy Churachand as the Maharaja in 1907 and by giving him the responsibility for governing the state. A Durbar headed by a President chosen by the British assisted the Maharaja in the state’s administration. The Durbar had the highest original and appellant court both in civilian and criminal matters.

Though there was some trade between Manipur and Assam governments before 1891, it became significant when Manipur was merged under the British Empire. Consequently there was a large-scale export of rice to its neighbouring states. But considering the limited amount of rice produced in the valley, exporting of rice was regulated the state government by the turn of 1930’s. Nevertheless, the rice export continued to a large extent. One of the factors that had made the export of rice to a large degree was the introduction of the motor vehicles. Before the motor vehicles came to Manipur, most of the major means of transport were by bullock, horse, or handcarts, and local people were able to control the exporting of rice easily. But the introduction of the motor vehicles and the increase of the Marwari Traders (also part of the so called Mayangs or foreigner by the local people), the export policy started changing. The outflow of rice by motorised vehicles, by then, had increased substantially, completely unaware of its limited stock, and hence the price of rice started soaring. The problem of price rise and the dwindling of rice-stock was seen because of the high correlation between the increased of the number Marwari traders and the volume of rice exported outside the state. The Marwaris started their business early in the 1900’s and were settled in the British Area in Manipur, which was not administered by the State Durbar. They slowly captured the trade of cotton and handloom products and also excelled in the rice trading since the arrival of the motor vehicles.

The State Durbar controlled the export of rice under two regulatory actions:

  1. the Cart Tax which was levied on the rice exporters, and
  2. the Lal Pass which was a contract between the Manipur and Assam governments.

In a statistical study by Sanamani Yambem, the rice exported per unit acre of cultivated land increased quite phenomenally from 1921 to 1938. A precarious situation was reached in 1939, when there was a record of the highest export of rice and any failure of rice harvest in the following year would bring a huge shortage of rice, and might bring forth a near famine. Then, lo! The inevitable happened! In 1939, there was the outbreak of the World War II which swept over the world, and there was excessive rain which continued well beyond the monsoon season—till October—which affected the harvest to a great extent.

Sure enough, with the hailstorm that followed in mid-Nov, the state faced a severe shortage of food. On 13th September, the State Durbar, in apprehension of the food shortage as rain still continued beyond the usual monsoon season, passed a resolution to ban rice export by denying any license for export to any person (Lamyanba, 1973). However they had to still commit the export of rice to the Kohima Civil Station in Assam as per agreement to the supply for the battalions of British soldiers. But soon, the rice export was resumed after the Maharaja’s order. This reopening of rice was directly responsible for creating additional shortage of rice and hence to the outbreak of Nupi Lan (Lan Dena, 1990).

As the war broke out and the harvest became low, the price of rice soared by nearly 80 percent. Since the stock of rice produced was the only source of income and livelihood for the peasants, they were forced to sell their limited stocks of rice to the Marwaris who were wooing them by offering to buy at a lower price than the local traders. This made a huge amount of rice to be in the hands of these ‘foreigner’, and the local women who were traders in rice and paddy were deprived of their means of livelihood by then. Meanwhile, the Marwaris set up their own mills and still continued to export rice to the neighbouring states.

III. Incidents on Dec 12

As usual, on Dec 11, the women traders had arrived at the Khwairamband Bazar to do their business, but there was nobody to sell an even a morsel of rice. Totally disappointed, they gathered and were all ready for an agitation. Meanwhile there was another group of people campaigning against the price-rise of rice. These two groups joined together and started looking for ‘foreign’ traders to check if they were buying rice from any local people. On Dec 12, thousands of women gathered around the State Durbar Office asking for the immediate stoppage of rice export by shouting slogans and threatening various consequences. While the Durbar Members fled through the back door, but Mr. Sharpe, the President of the Durbar could not escape and had to face the agitated women alone (Lamyanba, 1973). Meanwhile, the number of women going on rampage kept on increasing; all directed towards the Durbar Office. When the President told that the order of banning the rice-export couldn’t be done without the order of the Maharaj—who had gone to Nabadwip on pilgrimage—the women took him to the telegraph office and confined him there till there was a response from the Maharaj. Hearing the news of the confinement of the Durbar President and other officials, a platoon of Assam Rifles arrived then to control the situation.

The women raised their moral by shouting slogans like “Manipur Mataki Jai” and became more aggressive. The situation had become fierce as the soldiers tried to clear the place around the office. However, the women did not disperse totally as they remained on the road till they received a positive reply from the Maharaja. In the charge of the soldiers, some 21 women got injured from the bayonets and butts of the soldiers’ weapons. Here, the reader’s attention is drawn, to note that the firmness of conviction and unity of women cannot be undermined especially in view of the fact that, this occurred without any male participation or leadership. This incidence made it clear that once the Manipuri women were convinced of their purpose, they never lacked courage; like sleeping on the road in front of the lorries—similar kind of reactions that can be seen at present, when their children fall prey in the hands of soldiers.

Then a message came from the Maharaja on Dec. 14. But the women were still around many mills overnight as they heard of some people converting rice into par-boiled rice and they urged the Durbar to ban all rice export completely as the Maharaja’s message did not give any clear sign of banning all the various groups of exporters or recipients of rice.

IV. Nupi Lan and New Political Movements

Photo of Manipur freedom fighter and politician Hijam Irabot
Photo of Manipur freedom fighter and politician Hijam Irabot (Courtesy Wikipedia: Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.)

It’s important to see how Nupi Lan helped bring political reforms to move away from the then form of British Administration to a more democratic new Manipur. As Nupi Lan broke out, young political activities like L. Kanhai and T. Ibotombi of Nikhil Manipur Mahasabha started to discuss the issues of the women’s agitation. However they could not do much as most of the Members of Mahasabha were rigid to do anything in the absence of Hijam Irabot who was away to Cachar by that time. When Irabot arrived on Dec. 16th, the Nupi Lan entered a new phase as the women received male support, which was so far dormant. Irabot formed a new political party—Manipur Praja Samelini—as most of the members of Mahasabha did not agree supporting the women’s movement. Large public meetings were held with Irabot being the principal speaker. But on Jan. 9, 1940, he was arrested under section 124 of IPC on the grounds of inflammatory speeches (Lamyanba, 1973). After Irabot’s arrest, his followers like Kanhai and others took up the cause of Nupi Lan and organised several meetings. Many people started following a sort of Civil Disobedience by refusing to pay feudal dues and taxes. Thus the movement initiated by the women received active support from their male counterparts at a later stage.

As the boycott of Khwairamband Bazar, which started since the outbreak of Nupi Lan, continued almost till the end of the summer of 1940, the economy of the state suffered badly. Facing the situation, the administrative authority tried all means to force or convince the women to attend the Bazar. They arrested four women leaders and even threatened to sell off the empty places of the Bazar to outsiders, which however did not happen. In August 1940, the Manipuri women filed a petition signed by Kumari, Rajani, Maipakpi, Sanatombi, and Nganbi pointing out their main grievances as given below (Sanamani, 1976).

  1. The unfitness of the Durbar Members,
  2. The unfitness of the Police Members,
  3. The illegal action of the Inspector of Police,
  4. The illegal action of conviction of four women,
  5. The unexpected police assault on the Public on Jan 14, 1940, and
  6. The illegal action of Dulap Singh, Amin.

They assured that once their grievances were redressed, they would attend the Bazar. The handling of the women’s boycott of the Bazar had some appreciation of the militancy of Manipuri women, as there was a great change in the degree of handling the crisis from that of Dec 12 incident (Sanamani, 1976). Though the grievances of the women were not immediately redressed, the women certainly made themselves felt. But the boycott itself came to an end with most of the population of Imphal fleeing for safety as World War II approached Manipur.

V. Conclusion

The Nupi Lan, the Manipuri women’s movement of 1939 was a result of the trade policy of the state Maharaja, which was more export-oriented irrespective of the limited production of the food grains. As the production of rice declined because of the excessive rain in that year, and the uncontrolled export of rice by the Marwari monopolies continued, the price of rice soared which was prohibited local people to continue trade. Then the women who were more vocal and volatile than their male counterparts—because they were directly involved in the market activities—initiated the agitation and sustained it, till a new political movement of Irabot and his followers took over it. While the original demand was confined to the banning of rice export, their later demands also included the changes of Durbar and Administrative set-up. Thus there is little doubt that Nupi Lan which started as a rice agitation against the policy of Maharaja and Marwari Monopolies, later evolved into a movement of constitutional, political, and economic reforms in Manipur.

VI. References

  1. Nupi Lan, 1939″ Lamyanba, vol. 5, no 51, December 1973.
  2. “Manipur Itihasta Nupi Lan” Lamyanba, vol. 5, no 52, January 1974.
  3. Sanamani Yambem. “Nupi Lan: Manipur Women’s Agitation, 1939″ Economic and Political Weekly, 21 February 1976.pp 325-331.
  4. Dr. Lal Dena (1990) History of Modern Manipur (1826-1949)

Header Image: Courtesy Manipur State Archives. Link.