'Rani Gaidinliu' By Som Kamei. (Image by arrangement)
We know Rani Gaidinliu as a well-known freedom fighter today, remembered fondly by the people and given recognition and honour by the Government of India. Her struggles and legendary exploits against the mighty British Empire in Northeast India are well documented. Her contribution to the freedom struggle is being taught as part of the history syllabus in schools and colleges in India.
Some years ago, on 26 August 2015, the Government of India commemorated the birth centenary of Rani Gaidinliu culminating in a year-long celebration all over India. At the inauguration of the birth centenary celebrations at New Delhi’s Vigyan Bhavan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi issued a commemorative coin of one hundred rupees and a circulation coin of five rupees featuring Rani Gaidinliu (p. 233). The Prime Minister credited Rani Gaidinliu with spreading the message of Mahatma Gandhi in Northeast India. Referring to her as ‘Rani Maa’, the Prime Minister said that it is our misfortune that people such as Rani Gaidinliu are not remembered adequately.
Chief ministers of Nagaland and Manipur, T.R. Zeliang and Okram Ibobi Singh, respectively, were present on the occasion and paid rich tributes to her memory. Minister of State for Development of North East Region Jitendra Singh announced that as a tribute to Rani Gaidinliu, the DoNER ministry intends to create a library-cum-museum at Kohima. Unfortunately, this announcement set off a chain of events back in the small state of Nagaland where social organisations representing various tribal groups, tribal councils and even religious organisations vehemently protested against the setting up of the library-cum-museum at Kohima. A war of words started in the local newspapers condemning the proposal to commemorate and honour her in Nagaland. The basic arguments against the move were based on the premise that Rani Gaidinliu was ‘pro-India’ and therefore ‘anti-Naga’ as she worked against the interest of Naga nationalist political groups who wanted an independent sovereign Nagaland. Also, since Gaidinliu promoted her own version of indigenous religion known as the Heraka in an otherwise Christian majority state, she was seen as working against the interest of the majority religious groups. Vilification campaigns against Rani Gaidinliu followed this announcement by various pro-independence writers and retired bureaucrats egged on by vested interest groups. This continued for months. Most views expressed were jaundiced and biased, based on the writings of British colonial authors and on information passed down from social milieu based on hearsay and rumours. One interesting allegation was that it was a conspiracy by the rightist RSS to promote Hinduism and proselytise Nagas. Nothing could have been farther from the truth.
I began to wonder why the personality of Rani Gaidinliu aroused such extreme reactions from different sets of people in Northeast India? These reactions from different quarters have confronted me as an author as I started to read more and delved into the enigmatic life of Rani Gaidinliu.
Gaidinliu was simply known as ‘Apei Rani’ or Grandma Rani amongst her people, the Zeliangrongs, a proud and conservative tribe inhabiting the once-contiguous geographical area of Manipur north and west districts, Cachar district, parts of Barak Valley of Assam, and Peren district of Nagaland.
Around December 1937, Jawaharlal Nehru while touring undivided Assam as president of the Indian National Congress, as it was his wont, threw himself into the affairs of the state. To understand the problems besetting the state of Assam, he started meeting all the stakeholders, representatives from different communities, tribal groups and various splinter groups. It was during such interactions with some Congressmen from Cachar in the Surma valley that Nehru first heard about the heroic deeds and struggles of Jadonang and Gaidinliu. He was very impressed by the fact that Gaidinliu was recognised by her Naga people, especially the Zeliangrong tribe, as their saviour and leader. A visionary freedom fighter and a romantic writer, Jawaharlal Nehru was greatly impressed by the exploits of Gaidinliu and was shocked that a young Naga girl should suffer so much at the hands of the British.
While Nehru was in Sylhet in December 1937, he wrote:
"In Sylhet also, many Nagas from the surrounding hills came to visit me with greetings and gifts. From them and others, I heard a story which India ought to know and cherish. It was a story of a young woman of their tribe belonging to the Kabui clan in the Naga Hills. She was of the priestly class and she had the unique opportunity to receive her education in a mission school [this was probably misinformed to Nehru as Gaidinliu was unlettered], where she reached the ninth or tenth class. Gaidinliu was her name and she was about nineteen six years ago when the civil disobedience movement blazed over the length and breadth of India, news of Gandhi and the Congress reached her in her hill abode and found an echo in her heart. She dreamt of freedom for her people and the ending of all restrictions they suffered from; she raised the banner of independence and called her people to rally around it. Perhaps, she thought rather prematurely that the British Empire was fading out. But that Empire still functioned effectively and aggressively and it took vengeance on her and her people. Many villages were burnt and destroyed and this heroic girl was captured and sentenced to transportation for life. 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 torment and suppression of spirit they have brought to her, who in the prime of her youth dared to challenge an Empire! She can roam no more in her hill country through the forest glades, or sing in the fresh crisp air of the mountains. This wild thing sits cabined in darkness with a few yards of space in the daytime, yearning her heart. And India does not even know of this brave child of her hills. A day will come when India will remember her and cherish her, and bring her out of her prison cell."
Excerpted from Rani Gaidinliu: Legendary Freedom Fighter from the Northeast (Niyogi Books)
By Som Kamei
pp. 230, Rs.299