The Struggle and Plight of The Rongmei Tribe During The British Era

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When most of the Naga tribes are busy engaging themselves in inter-village tribal warfare and headhunting, in 1891, the Rongmei people were rising against the British colonial power. Before 1891, the people of Tamenglong were free from the administration of Manipur and never paid any tax. In 1891, house tax was imposed upon the people of Tamenglong by the British. The Rongmei in defiance of the house tax refused to pay any tax (1891-1894). In response, C.L. Crawford, the Assistant Political Agent of Manipur, used force in collecting the house tax from the Tamenglong hills in 1894. The Manipur Administrative Report, 1893-94 states, “Good work was done by Mr. F.L. Crawford, when on special duty on Kabui tract on the northwest of the state; no less than 7,000/- having been realized by him from villages which had neither paid a rupee nor furnished a colie since the occupation of the state in 1891.”

The refusal to pay the house tax by the Rongmei was taken as a lightning strike to the pride of the British colonial rulers that had ego at its peak at a time when “there was no sunset in the British Empire.” As a result, the Rongmei tribe was targeted by the colonial rulers and treated them badly by imposing forced labour for construction of Cachar Road (the only line connecting Manipur and Cachar) making them porters and sweepers. Many villagers were kidnapped and never returned home. Maximum humiliation, ill-treatment, harsh punishments were perpetually meted out to the Rongmei during the expansion of British rule and this was highly commended and recorded as “good work”. In this manner, their agricultural life which was their source of income and livelihood were hampered. But this was only the beginning of their suffering.

Defiance of the house tax payment for four years by the Rongmei aroused national consciousness. Eventually, in the early 1920s, when Haipou Jadonang blew the call for national movement against the British rule, in no time, it became a mass movement especially in the Zeliangrong region. The British government called the movement of Haipou Jadonang as “The Naga Raj Movement”. The British colonial ruler arrested Haipou Jadonang and hanged him to death on 29th August, 1931 at Imphal, Manipur. The death of Haipou Jadonang angered the people more and the movement spread furthermore under the leadership of a young Naga girl, Gaidinliu (later known as Rani Gaidinliu). The British were hunting for Rani Gaidinliu, which in the words of Ursula Graham Bower, was “comparable to the hunt for Prince Charlie” and as the “Joan-de Arc of the Nagas”. She was captured on the battlefield on 18th October, 1932 by the British colonial soldiers at Pulumi Village, Nagaland.

After the arrest of Rani Gaidinliu, the deputy commissioner of Naga Hills, Mr. J.P Mill made a secret note cautioning the British administration that the real danger of the Naga Raj Movement has spread to the other Nagas (Assam Secretariat Political, June 1933). The policy of the colonial government did not come to an end with the arrest of Rani Gaidinliu and the hanging of Haipou Jadonang to death. The British’s wrath felt towards the tribesmen of the two leaders. Punitive fine was imposed upon the Rongmei. If a Rongmei offered one Mithun to Haipou Jadonang, he had to give two Mithuns to the colonial government. Money offered to Haipou Jadonang had to give double amount, any kind of service rendered to Haipou Jadonang had to render double to the colonial British government. This punitive punishment was imposed upon the Rongmei villagers and hundreds of people were imprisoned and some of them died in jail.

The British officers also marked the Rongmei living in Imphal valley and Silchar town as a soft target and started a new strategy to torture and suppress the Rongmei. With a cruel policy against the Rongmei, Baro-Sahib summoned Khullakpas (village chiefs) of all Rongmei villages of Imphal and Silchar town and ordered them to do the work of sweepers in the residential bungalows of political agents, cantonment areas and police lands, as well as public places in the town areas. They were also ordered to dispose the dead bodies from the hospitals and to bury them. The Rongmei flatly refused to do it and defied the orders. Consequently, the armed Assam Rifles were deployed to suppress and torture the Rongmei living in the town areas until and unless they took the Sahib’s order to do the job of sweeping and cleaning. The Assam Rifles personnel rounded up the Rongmei villages and forced them to vacate their villages. Sometimes all the properties and belongings were thrown out of the houses by the soldiers in their attempt to evict them. Sometimes the villagers were kidnapped into the Assam Riffle camps.

In the later stage, the order for the entire villages to sweep was changed to recruiting of 2 persons from each village for the sweeping job and the Khullakpas (village chiefs) of every village had to obey the order. Besides this, the British officers took many Rongmei, one after the other, to other towns like Kohima, Shillong, Silchar, Dimapur, Dhaka (Bangladesh) and Quetta in the extreme western corner of British-India to employ them as sweepers. This was the genesis of how the Rongmei living in the towns were made sweepers. After a few years of forced sweeping profession, the Rongmei sweepers were given a nominal salary which was later increased in order for them to support their livelihood. Rongmei living in Imphal and Silchar town and others who were sent to different towns as sweepers was not a God-made but it was British-made. This was the price the Rongmei had to pay for their uprising against the British rule, and the movements led by Haipou Jadonang and Rani Gaidinliu. Some of the Rongmei living in towns are reluctant to become Christian even today is because of the atrocities of the British who were Christians. Today the Rongmei tribe remembers this dark era of their history with a sense of pride and honour for what their ancestors struggled and suffered for their freedom.

By Puanthanh Gangmei with inputs from G. Gaingam, Former Vice President, Naga Hoho.

White Paper On Naga Integration, Naga Hoho, 2008.

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