“We are free people, the white man should not rule over us..”, preached the 13-year-old Gaidinliu to the people of her tribe.
Gaindinliu, famously known as Rani Gaidinliu, joined the struggle against the British at the young age of 13. Born on 26 January, 1915 at Nungkao (aka. Longkao) village in the present-day Tousem sub-division of Tamenglong District, Manipur, she belonged to the Rongmei Tribe, one of the three Zeliangrong Tribes. Her journey as a revolutionary began in 1927 as she joined her cousin Haipou Jadonang, who led the Heraka Movement, a movement for the revival of the Naga Tribal religion. At the age of 17, she led this movement against the British, which resulted in her arrest and a 14-year long imprisonment.
The Heraka Movement
At the age of 13, Gaidinliu joined the Heraka Movement under the mentorship of her cousin Haipou Jadonang. Jadonang started the movement to establish the self-rule by the Nagas and to resist the conversion of Nagas to Christianity. It was not only a reformist religious movement but also a political movement against the British. Gaidinliu described the aim of the movement as, “to reform old religious practices in order to strengthen the movement aimed at ousting the British.” Jadonang gained immense popularity among the Zelianrong Nagas, so much so that the British perceived him as a big threat to their rule in many parts of Manipur. In 1931, he was arrested and hanged after a mock trial.
The Rise of Rani Gaidinliu and Consequent Backlash
Gaidinliu was Jadonang’s heir, and the leadership of the movement was now taken over by her. At 17, she valiantly led many guerilla forces to fight against the British, and became a target for the British forces. She persuaded Zeliangrong people not to pay taxes and not cooperate with the British. They united as one and refused to assist the British which led several repressive measures imposed by the police and Assam Rifles, such as collective fines on the villagers.
Her forces engaged in armed rebellion against the British in Cachar Hills (16 February 1932) and the Hangrum village (18 March 1932). The British forces launched a manhunt for her, which forced her to go underground. She moved across villages of Assam, Nagaland and Manipur. The British Government declared monetary rewards for any valuable information about her location, including a 10-year tax break for the informant.
Threatened by her growing popularity and strong defiance, the British authorities sent a special Assam Rifles contingent under Captain MacDonald to capture Gaidinliu. They received an intelligence report stating that Gaidinliu and her followers were based in a village called Pulomi, To deceive the rebels, the Captain sent his troop in the opposite direction, and Gaidinliu and her followers were lulled into a false sense of security. On October 17, 1932, the British forces launched a surprise attack on the village, and Gaidinliu and her followers were arrested without any resistance. She was taken to Kohima on foot and later to Imphal for a trial. She was convicted on charges of murder and abetment of murder, and was sentenced to life-imprisonment. Most of her close associates were either executed or jailed.
Incarceration under British Rule
Gaidinliu remained in prison till India gained independence. From 1933 to 1947, she served time at the Guwahati, Shillong, Aizawl and Tura jails. Her imprisonment and the execution of her close associates led to the decline of the movement. The last of her followers, Dikeo and Ramjo were jailed in 1933.
Jawaharlal Nehru, on his tour to Manipur in 1937, visited Gaidinliu in jail, and promised to pursue her release. Later he published a statement in the Hindustan Times, which said: “…and now she lies in some prison in Assam, wasting her bright young womanhood in dark cells and solitude. Six years she has been there. What suppression of spirit they have brought to her who in pride of her youth dared to challenge the Empire…And India does not even know of this brave child of her hills. But her own people remember her their ‘Rani Guidallo…and a day will come when India will also remember her…” And hence, she became the ‘Rani of Nagas.’ He also wrote to the British MP Lady Astor to do something for the release of Rani Gaidinliu but the Secretary of State for India rejected this request stating that trouble may rise again if she were released.
Post-Independence and Naga Conflict of Interest
After 14 years in prison, Gaidinliu was released in 1947 on the orders of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. She stayed at Vimrap village of Tuensang with her younger brother, Marang, till 1952. In 1952, she was finally allowed to move back to her native village of Longkao. In 1953, Prime Minister Nehru visited Imphal and met Rani Gaidinliu.
She worked for the amelioration of the Zelianrong people, however she was unpopular among many Naga groups, especially the Christian converts and supporters of the Naga National Council (NNC). The Christians perceived the Heraka revival movement as anti-Christian, and the NNC disapproved of her because of her direct opposition.
Gaidinliu disagreed with the NNC insurgents, who advocated separation from India. Instead, she campaigned for a separate Zeliangrong territory within the Union of India. She went underground from 1960-66 to fight Phizo’s Naga National Council and organized a private army of about a thousand men equipped rifles to defend and press for her demand for a single Zeliangrong district. In 1966, after six years of living underground, she came out from her jungle hideout to work for the betterment of her people through peaceful, democratic and non-violent means, under an agreement with the Government of India.
In the 1970s, the view that Rani Gaidinliu was a Hindu cult promoter became stronger as the Sangh Parivar extended support to the Heraka religious movement. This added to the friction between Heraka people and the Christian Nagas.
Amidst all the resistance and criticism from the Naga groups, Gaidinliu was awarded the Tamrapatra Freedom Fighter Award in 1972, the Padma Bhushan (1982) and the Vivekananda Seva Award (1983). Posthumously, she was also conferred the Birsa Munda Award, and the Government of India issued a postal stamp in her honour in 1996. Additionally, in 2015, the Government of India also issued a commemorative coin in her honour.
She died on 17 February 1993 at the age of 78.
Today, Christian Nagas outnumber Heraka followers by a huge margin. And ironically, Gaidinliu’s kin converted to Christianity as well. Many even protested the construction of her memorial. However, the Heraka adherents, still have the highest regard for her and have blanket approval for everything she stood for, including her religious stance.
Let us all remember Rani Gaidinliu for her indomitable spirit and for the freedom that she fought for so valiantly. Let us all be brave. Let us all be fighters. Let us all be Queens. Just like Rani Gaidinliu.
- The Rani Of The Nagas, Outlook (2005)
- Rani Gaidinliu- Daughter of the Hills, Press Information Bureau GOI
- Rani Gaidinliu: A Naga queen and BJP’s spin machine, Hindustan Times
- Reform, Identity and Narratives of Belonging: The Heraka Movement in Northeast India. Arkotong Longkumer (4 May 2010).