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Mainstream, VOL LX No 7, New Delhi, February 5, 2022

Remembering Rani Gaidinliu: Tribal Woman Freedom Fighter from Northeast India | Ajailiu Niumai

Friday 4 February 2022


by Ajailiu Niumai *

January 26, 2022 marked the 73rd Republic Day of India and also marking 107th birth anniversary of Rani Gaidinliu, North East India’s tribal woman freedom fighter who was born in 1915 at Nungkao village, Tousem sub-division, Tamenglong District, Manipur. I had an opportunity to have met her as a young girl during the 1980s at Tamei, Tamenglong district, Manipur when she visited. My late grandmother Mrs. Ajonliu Niumai used to be her ardent follower until she converted into Christianity in the 1950s. We don’t have much written documents about Gaidinliu’s early life. But, we came to know that she did not have any formal schooling since there was no educational institutions in her area during her time. Rani Gaidinliu’s life changed at the age of 12 years after she and her elder sister Kiuliamliu met a goddess who resembled Gaidinliu in the paddy field. After the initial reaction of fear, she had several other encounters with the same goddess. Gradually, she became inclined to listen to the voice of this goddess and felt that the goddess helped her in her everyday life and acted on the promptings of the spirit. When she was a political prisoner at Shillong in 1937, Jawaharlal Nehru visited her in the jail and was impressed with her and he named her as the “Rani – Daughter of the Hills” and she was widely known as Rani Gaidinliu and Rani Ma.

When the British Anthropologist Ursula Graham Bower visited Magulong village in Manipur after Rani Gaidinliu was imprisoned, the Zeme Naga people believed that Rani Gaidinliu has returned to them as a fair-skinned lady. In her initial journey of spirituality, she came to know of Haipou Jadonang through dreams that lead her to visit him when she was 13 years. Both of them are related through their clan ‘Pamei’. She became Jadonang’s trusted lieutenant. Jadonang was the founder of Heraka movement (religious cult) which focused on the freedom of his people and challenged the oppressive British regime. Jadonang dreamt of his people living together in one geographical state and he mentored Rani Gaidinliu. She rose as a spiritual and political leader after the British hanged Jadonang on 29th August 1931 at Imphal, Manipur on charges of murdering four Meitei (Manipuri) traders in Longkao (Nungkao) village for violation of an important social taboo in which he had no role. Under the leadership of Rani Gaidinliu, Heraka became an influential tool to reach out and thrived among the Zeme and Rongmei Nagas in Manipur, Assam and Nagaland. Heraka is a tool of ‘cultural revivalism’ which attempts to act as a charm to unite these cognate tribes but could not achieve its goal as the majority have been converted into Christianity. This period can be contextualised as an ‘open moment’ when different religious possibilities were available: Christianity was one possibility and it was a success. Heraka was also another possibility but did not succeed.

Rani Gaidinliu was deeply distressed and became aggressive after seeing the British used their authority, power and patriarchal privilege to continuously exploit and suppress her community. The British officers used even girls and women as porters or Pothang Bekahri/Pothang Senkhai - equivalent to forced labour and coerced every household to pay revenue tax of Rs. 3/- per annum. The oppressive methods of the British of using forced labour, collecting revenue taxes per house in every village, feasting at the expense of the poor villagers, constructing inter-village roads and bungalows made of bamboo and thatch roofs for Britishers to stay for a single night in the village free of cost had a profound impact on Rani Gaidinliu. In 1924, the British official Mr. William Shaw visited Konphung village in Tamei sub-division, Tamenglong district, Manipur. Whenever the track to the village was rough to walk on foot, the villagers who accompanied William Shaw made a bamboo palanquin and carried him on their shoulders. Seeing such rampant oppressive practices of the British in villages, Rani Gaidinliu managed to send across the message to her people that achieving freedom from the British was a larger goal than educational, economic, cultural, and social equality with men. She understood the power of confrontation and successfully mobilised people (including girls and women) to join her army. Rani Gaidinliu and her women warriors learned to wield the dao (sword), spears and the like. Her act of arming girls with the dao is another example of taking from the cultural resources of her community; and this is relevant given the singular lack of political participation of Naga women in post-colonial society. A peculiar trait of Rani Gaidinliu was engaging young ‘virgin girls’ as her close aids. She believed that her deity would not accept her freedom movement unless her aids are virgins. It was believed that she knew whether the young girls were virgin or not because her dream would verify it. She had conviction that unless the girls are virgins, she would be defeated in the fights against the British. She managed to convince her followers that the British guns would turn into water while facing her. She often camped at a huge cave in Mount Kisa which could accommodate around two hundred people near Magulong village, Tamenglong district, Manipur. Her army smuggled arms and ammunition from Cachar, Assam by carrying it on bullock carts covered by racks and dead cows or bulls and passed over Jiri Ghat. In 1932, she was arrested and jailed as a political prisoner for 14 years. She was released after India’s Independence.

Under her influence, the Zeliangrong movement was strengthened. However, she passed away in 1993 at her village without achieving her vision. She was honoured as India’s freedom fighter and awarded Tamra Patra Freedom Fighter Award in 1972, Padma Bhushan in 1982, and Vivekananda Sewa Samman in 1983, Birsa Munda Award posthumously and Stree Shakti Puraskar award in 1997. She was also honoured with a postage stamp by the Government of India in 1996. In 2010, the Hindustan Shipyard Ltd launched a shore patrol vessel named after her at Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh. In 2015, the government of India launched a commemorative coin of 100 rupees and a circulation coin of 5 rupees to mark her birth centenary celebrations. Majority of the Naga tribes who were animistic earlier but have been converted to Christianity excluded her mainly due to her animistic Heraka religion. She championed the cause of Zeliangrong state for her cognate tribes viz; Zeme, Liangmai, Rongmei and Npuimei in Assam, Manipur, and Nagaland under the Indian Union. She became more courageous, realised the shortfalls of the British rulers and reacted to the enormously patriarchal character of the colonial authority’s approach towards her community. She strategically combined the Heraka religion with politics to fulfil her goals in fighting against the British regime. Remembering Rani Gaidinliu for her indomitable spirit and a quest for her community’s statehood under the Indian union reveals that when the charismatic leader passes away, routinization follows, taking from the idea of German sociologist Max Weber.

* (Author: Prof Ajailiu Niumai, is Professor of Sociology & Head, Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion & Inclusive Policy, University of Hyderabad)

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