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The Indigenous Woman With An Indomitable Spirit: Rani Gaidinlu (1915-93)

Historical figures, from marginalized backgrounds, especially women, have not been represented in the mainstream discourses. Their recognition and credits are long overdue. It is only since a couple of years, the debates around marginalization, in India have strengthened, providing a scope for discovering, writing and deliberating about figures from marginalized backgrounds. The following work is an endeavour to bring the story of one such figure from Manipur, for our readers.

Manipur has witnessed memorable resistance movements led by women. Whether we talk about the women peacebuilders, who have been crucial in negotiations with the state, or about the 'Mothers of Manipur', who walked nude as a form of protest against state repression and violence against women; all represent indomitable spirits refusing to bow down before oppression. One of the most popular Manipuri woman, with such an indomitable spirit was Gaidinlu.

Gaidinlu was a Zeliangrong Naga, born on 26 January 1915 at Nungkao/Longkao Village in Tamenglong district. Much before Gaidinlu became a historical figure, she was a legendary figure among the people, recognized for her bravery and faith. If one should define Gaidinlu, she should be defined as a defiant individual who did not wish to be subjugated by any form of foreign domination. This is illustrative when a thirteen year old Gaidinlu joined her cousin Haipou Jadonang to rebel against the British Raj and establish Naga Raj. The 1920s saw the emergence of nascent Naga nationalism in the hill areas of Manipur and the Naga Hills (Nagaland). In the hill areas of Manipur inhabited by Naga tribes, the rise of national consciousness started with the Heraka Movement led by Jadonang. The Heraka Movement was both religious and political. The movement sought to revive the traditional tribal religion to counter the proselytizing efforts of the Christian missionaries. Initiatives to revive the indigenous religion included establishing monotheism, introduction of worship house and hymnal, and emphasis on values such as truth and love over animal sacrifices. On the political level, it sought to remove British Raj and establish Naga Raj. The acts of political defiance included non payment of house tax, denial of free labour and direct disobedience to British representatives.

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Gaidinlu came to the fore of the movement when Jadonang was arrested and executed in 1931 for anti-British activities and alleged murder of some merchants. She took over the reins of the movement at the age of sixteen. One of her popular teaching was that, "We are free people, the white men should not rule over us. " The rebellion that Jadonang was preparing for by touring and raising an army in the Nagas inhabited areas in Manpur, Nagaland and Assam took form with Gaidinlu. After taking over the leadership she continued to campaign for non payment of taxes and against free labour. Her campaign gained moral and financial support that fueled her guerilla force to strike the British. Her fame and the popularity of the movement earned the ire of the British, and this led to clashes between the two. The clashes with the Assam Rifles in North Cachar Hills and Hangrum Village in Assam early in 1932. These acts of open rebellion led to a manhunt for Gaidinlu. Monetary offers and tax exemption were issued as rewards to those who provided information about her. In october 1932, Gaidinlu was arrested and was given a life sentence. She was imprisoned in various jails in Guwahati, Shillong, Aizwal and Tura. She was imprisoned for 14 years until she was released in 1947 as promised by Jawaharlal Nehru. Drawn by Gaidinlu's popularity and legendary stories, Nehru first met her in 1937 in Shillong prison. After she was released from the prison she was conferred the title 'Rani' (Queen) for her contributions and sacrifices towards the freedom movement from British colonial rule.

The postcolonial period was more challenging for Gaidinlu when it comes to religious and cultural practices. This period saw the mass exodus of the Nagas to Christianity. As mentioned above, the emergence of nationalistic fervour started in 1920s among the Nagas. Parallel to to the movement started by Jadonang and subsequently led by Gaidinlu, a new political aspiration was developing among the Nagas in present day Nagaland led by the Naga Club. This club gradually evolved into the Naga National Council (NNC) when India was at the threshold of independence. When India won its independence, the NNC declared the Naga inhabited regions as a sovereign independent nation, a declaration which India refused to acknowledge. The NNC embraced Christianity and sought to establish a Christian nation state for the Nagas. The political vision and religious ideology of the NNC contradicted Gaidinlu's aspirations to revive indigenous religion and establish separate administrative unit for the Zeliangrong Nagas within India. The relationship turned acrimonious, as the NNC leaders saw the activities of Gaidinlu as anti-christian, who preached "Loss of religion is the loss of culture, and loss of culture is loss of identity". She went underground in 1960s to protect and preserve indigenous cultural practices and establish a separate administrative unit. This period lasted for six years, and in 1966 she surrendered to the India government in agreement to work through democratic means to fulfil the aspiration of the Nagas.

The brief reflection on Rani Gaidinlu highlights one thing and that is she possessed an indomitable spirit that refused to be governed by an exploitative foreign government and transformed into a subject of foreign religion. Her resistance movement is part of history today, and it will be proper to see the popular imagination of her in today's world. In what follows, I will provide some reflections on how people remember Rani Gaidinlu.

Mr. Dimrei Riamei, a senior leader of TRC community, said,"The Heraka movement has been instrumental in reforming the indigenous practices of the Zeliangrong Nagas. The concept of monotheism introduced by Heraka has shaped and influenced the indigenous religion Tingkao Ragwang Chapriak (TRC). Although TRC community does not completely follow monotheism and continues to pray to their ancestors, I think its a common practice across religions to pray to saints or spiritual leaders. Today monotheism is the most popular and powerful form of religious practice, we are fortunate to have had a spiritual and cultural leader, Rani Gaidinlu, who has put us on par with other religions in the world."

Jasmine Maringmei, a practing Christian, commented, "Rani Gaidinlu was someone who was much ahead of her time. For me she continues to be an inspiration that women are not just home makers. Its through her effort that we continue to see some aspects of our culture in its glory. For example, Gaan Ngai festival is one of the biggest indigenous festivals in Manipur that is celebrated by all. Rani had done enough in her lifetime. And for our culture to flourish, both Christians and indigenous religion followers should find a common ground. Christians should not look down on indigenous religion as backward and Christianity as modern. Indigenous people should not consider Christians as merely duplicating western culture and completely eradicating their own tradition and culture."

Gonjenhemlui, a female youth of Chingmeirong Village that practices indigenous religions, stated, "The foundation of Heraka movement by Haipou Jadonang and followed by Rani Gaidinlu has led to the establishment of strong inclination among the people of Zeliangrong towards their indigenous religion Tingkao Ragwang Chapriak. If there was no Heraka movement, there would be no indigenous religion. It would have died long back. Rani Gaidinlu is a true leader who practiced that indigenous faith as the way of life of the Nagas. Her struggle has instilled a feeling of preserving and propagating indigenous practices among the TRC community."

Flora Dagmei gave a popular image of Gaidinlu. She said, "Rani was a household name when we grew up. I vividly remember a photo of her in our family album. She had a pair of glass on, a headwear and the traditional attire resting on her shoulder. Although we didn't really understand her achievements as kids, we surely agreed she was the most fashionable then. We barely saw people dressed like her in complete traditional attire. People rarely do that even now. If I have to look back and describe her, I would say she was the living manifestation of our culture, for which she lived and fought."

The popularity of Rani Gaidinlu is not limited to Manipur, Nagaland and the Northeast in general. The history of her resistance against foreign domination has captured the national imagination, and her popularity is growing from strength to strength. The naming of an important road in Jawaharlal Nehru University as Rani Gaidinlu Marg, and the foundation of Rani Gaidinlu Tribal Freedom Fighters Museum in Manipur laid by the Union home minister in 2021 are some of the instances that highlight her popular and her importance for nation building and unification. It is not only important to celebrate her achievements, but it is equally important to put into practice what this indomitable individual has demonstrated through her lifetime and that is women are not the second sex.

About the author: Boniface G Kamei belongs to the Rongmei Naga tribe of Manipur, India. He is currently a research scholar at the University of Hyderabad.


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