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Tikendrajit: The Lion of Manipur

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By : Dr. Lokendra Arambam

“”I believe this Manipur affair must always remain a dark page of Indian history.”- Sir John Gorst,,Under Secretary of State for India, House of Commons, 16 June, 1891

On the 13th of August, 1891, some one hundred and twenty seven years ago, after a great victory in the Anglo-Manipur war in April, the soldiers of the British Empire brought out the two heroes of Manipur, the 36-year old YubarajTikendrajit, and the octogenarianThangal General to be hanged in front of the conquered public at 5 pm at a place called Pheidabung, near the women’s market. The scene was recorded by the British authorities themselves with the words,
“Gallows were erected on the Pologround and the sentence duly carried out. As far eye could see, the plain was white with women. In the Raja’s days a criminal sentenced to death was occasionally reprieved if a sufficient number of women had appeared to intercede for him, and hoping that possibly the old custom might still prevail the women had assembled in their thousands. As the drop fell and the Senapati and Thangal General were launched into eternity, deep groan went up from the assembled throng” (R.K. Sanahal, 1973, P 239).
In ancient pre-colonial times, the intervention of women on behalf of the victims of state, liable to capital punishment, could be pardoned, in deference to the high respect paid to the women of the land. The women of the land could intervene in serious matters of truth and justice, if they considered the state ignored traditional values of compassion and grace in the exercise of power. The congregation of some five thousand women on that day had held the edges of their innafi (scarf) spread in front, silently seeking pardon for the two leaders. This did not happen.
The other more dramatic detail of the scene was also that YubarajTikendrajit, the hero of the ‘rebellion’, walked up the scaffold with no sign of emotion, his face resolute and firm. The old Thangal General, however, simply refused to move. He had to be bodily lifted on the scaffold by the guards! When the ropes were tightened round their necks, and the planks underneath their feet were about to be pulled, the old man burst out in a loud laughter! Thus ended a theatrical demonstration of the power of the empire, their firm capacity to punish those who resist them.The tears in the eyes of the women and their groans ended a long chapter in the history of the freedom and independence of the Asiatic state of Manipur, which came to a close with that episode.
Not much of us till this day, could fathom the intricate workings of the mind of the old statesman and soldier which produced the resistant gesture and sarcastic laughter at a critical moment in his some fifty years of relentless sacrifice and service to his cherished motherland. It must have come from the accumulated experiential memory from a lifetime of sheer struggles and vicissitudes for the cause of the kingdom to retain its freedom and dignity amidst friends as well as enemies. He must have felt the irony of it all, when a powerful friend and ally, the British, gradually turned into a foe and emerged as a cruel conqueror at the end! Both he and his protégé the Yubaraj shared sheer intuitive suspicion of the schemes and manipulative designs of the British, and the arrogant and haughty manners of the European officials.But for the sake of friendship and obligatory gestures to their support in the anti-Burmese wars, Manipur had gone all out to help the British become the master of the ferocious tribes of the North Eastern regions. When the British Empire conquered Burma in 1885, with help from Manipur in logistics and human resources, the existence of Manipur as free country in the red map of the imperial geography was no longer tenable. In his prison cell before the hanging, Thangal must have also remembered the anecdotes of the great political agent James Johnstone (1877–86), requiring Manipur’s support in the Naga and Burma campaigns, where Thangal virtually led the expeditions. He must have also remembered the personal enmity between himself and the British political agent, that when the latter was undertaking a horse-riding exercise in the morning, the native soldiers of Manipur under Thangal was organizing a shooting practice. Johnstone nearly missed a bullet that whizzed past his neck. The furious Johnstone complained to the Maharajah Chandrakirti about the incident and for immediate booking of the criminal. When the old general was summoned before the king and the complaining arrogant agent, the old man quietly replied to him, “If you ride in the line of fire, you must expect to be shot!”
Making of a Prince Warrior
Tikendrajit, born on the 29th December, 1855, Saturday, as the fourth and only son of King Chandrakirti’sfourth queen ChongthamChanuKouseshwari Devi, revealed signs of his future potential. As a mark of the auspiciousness of his birth, a yajna was performed at the precincts of the HiyangthangLairembi (equated with the Goddess Durga), with milk from 108 cows offered to the Goddess. As a youth reared in the highest traditions of the classical polity, he was offered the best values and experiences of the Manipuri nobility. He was trained in the fighting arts of the warrior race, in the study of the HuyenLallong (art and strategies of war). Sword and spear training was given by Yengkhoiba Chaoba, a veteran soldier. At the age of 12 years, he became a champion horse-rider and an avid Polo player. His teacher in the art of horsemanship was Bedam Singh, a veteran of the SagolLanmee(Cavalry Unit, which used the poisoned sling-spear ‘Arambai’ in the wars against the Burmese in the early 18th century). The relevance of the cavalry was gradually reduced due to the increasing importance of gunpowder and musketry. But upkeep and management of the equine population were still necessary, since the horse was a status symbol of the ranked nobility, which had been institutionalised since the seventh century. Again the game of SagolKangjei (originator of Polo), which had its mythical origins in the state was still a vital spiritual engagement for martial training, health as well as chivalry. The training in horsemanship and related games were for enhancement of the culture for development of the codes for war and chivalry in the act of war. Tikendrajit’s endearment with the horse was so overpowering that not a single horse in the royal stables was left unharnessed by him.
Mr and Mrs Grimwood who were posted in Manipur after James Johnstone (1877–86), were friends of the Yubaraj. Mr Grimwood played SagolKangjei with the Yubaraj, and participated in hunting and other past-times. He was aware of the development activities the state had organized under the supervision of the Yubaraj. Both husband and wife were aware of the tremendous popularity of the Yubaraj. After an exciting and exhausting game of this horse-hockey, the Yubaraj presided over the award ceremony of the players, giving prizes to them. And at the end, a play of humour and fun named ‘Phagee’ was exposed to the public which continued late at night. The intimate relationship between the centres of power and the public was noticed under such performances.

Tikendrajit along with other princes and princesses of the court were indeed trained in the keeping of the traditions and cultures of the land from the traditional wisdom teachers called ‘Maichou’ which had their own institutions, later named ‘PanditLoishang’ in the 18th century. Those scribes and scholars were also warrior citizens selected from the administrative divisions called the ‘Pana’, which as a geographical and cultural unit were divided into six since early times. The warriors from the Panas voluntarily served in the state militia known as ‘Lallup’ to undertake public service activities like dredging and fresh digging of river courses, constructions of bridges and canals and spent ten days in forty at the service of the court for military engagements during the time of war and public activities. The royal princes and princesses were educated in the royal activities to be performed for the welfare of the land, the principles of which were four in number. First of all, they must be aware that the land should not have incidences of ailment, disease and death (Asee Ana Thoktaba), secondly, those in the realm of power must ensure that there wasabundance in rice and fish (Chak-hongNgahongba) in the land. The third factor was that the land’s door should be closed from attacks by beasts and warrior nations (SaathongLanthongthingba), and finally, the population of both sexes should enjoy sanity and equilibrium (NupeeNupaPukningLoushingThokpa).

The princes who were to be anointed as kings of the land should also perform certain other compulsory welfare activities for the land in material terms. First, it must be understood that Manipur had a unique succession system in kingship which was quite different from that of other states and neighbouring territories. There was no laws of primogeniture in Manipur’s succession theory. Three traditional factors were important for the prince to be chosen as king. First, the viewpoints of the elders in the traditional council (PhamdouHumphumaree – 64 elders of clan representatives), were an important factor considering the principle of the ancestor-veneration prevalent as custom in the practice of the indigenous Meitei culture. The second factor was the choice from the ladies of the court, who played both supervisory as well as assistive roles in the day to day governance of the land. The women had had their own court (PachaLoishang) to take care of women’s affairs in the state. The third factor was the choice of the people in general who were very pro-active in the affairs of state.

These traditional values were gradually undermined as the state expanded in the territorial acquisitions through the exegesis of war and gradual increase in the personal power of the king. The entry of the theory of the God-king borrowed from Indic traditions of kingship since the late 17th century during Khagemba’s reign (1597–1652) and the entry of new demographic and religious components in the polity brought forth new periods of strife and crisis in the health of the polity. The succession to kingship issue was one of the foremost subjects where the imperial East India Company’s views came into direct contrast with traditional notions of the Manipur polity. Increasing dependency in the balance of power equation by Manipur to the British Empirein the early 19th century was to face the crisis of encounter and test of arms between the two entities in the late 19th century on the issue of succession to kingship.

Among the public service activities to be performed by a new king for the cause of welfare, mention may be made of the following. As per tradition, the aspirant prince must ensure, with the labour of the willing public, the digging of public ponds for fresh water supply to the village households, establish markets for the exchange and flow of consumables and goods, construct mounds and erect megaliths for enhancement of fertility and the ritual symbols of the land, build houses for shelter and habitation, dig trenches and canals for irrigation networks, establish village granaries in specific sites for storage of rice grain. He shall ensure the specialised working of blacksmithies for iron, and utensil makers from other nature’s elements. He must ensure the goldsmithies for refinement of personal ornaments of the ladies of the land. He should ensure the collection of booties in gold and silver for the royal treasury in order to increase wealth as well as prestige for the polity. In fact, in the health and satisfaction of the people in the polity, the land should be a ‘Sana Leibak’, the golden country.

Tikendrajit though he inherited the best traditions of royalty in the continuity of the concepts of the golden country in the worldview of kingship, was not personally ambitious for power and exercise of power. He was simply raised in the ranks of post-holders within the families of the royal household, that he was given the post of supervisor of the affairs of the police, which was termed Kotwal, a sort of jurisdiction over the cases of crimes and keeping of the peace. Yet as a prince warrior always ready to extend his hand over military affairs, he joined the expeditions of the Manipur army in its support to the high officials of the British Empire to gain experience in war and statecraft where he became associated with the experienced elder statesmen and warriors like Thangal General, General Balram and other distinguished veterans of the Manipur army. His association with Thangal major were evident in the latter period of MaharajahChandrakirti’s life, when he became more and more concerned with the rapid acceleration of the powers of the British Empire amongst the princely families in India.The promises of the British crown no longer to annex territories in South Asia were suddenly overturned when the opportunity arose, and the post-mutiny overtures of the British to secure more effective control over the tribal inhabited territories surrounding Manipur, and their hunger for bigger control in the affairs of Burma after the accession of lower Burma in the second Anglo-Burmese wars of 1852 became critical matters of geopolitics of the time. Though Manipur was an Asiatic State in alliance with the British Empire, the Manipur monarchy extended full hearted support to the extension of the British imperial geography in the north and the south of Manipur. The settlement of the boundaries of the Manipur territories in the north which became contiguous to the British territories which came existence in the 1860s created irritations in the relationship between the two entities. The Manipur monarchy was suspicious of the land hunger of the imperial power and their meticulous insistence on sheer graphic knowledge of the hills, mountains and rivers, their hunger of conquest of routes, villages and ethnic settlements to ensure security and safety to the future healthof the empire, their postures and manners of their military officials towards the native aristocracy of Manipur became indeed sour notes in the relationship between the powerful empire and their officials with the elder warrior statesmen of Manipur. Though in the later stages of Maharajah Chandrakirti’s rule in 1870s, most of the warrior tribes like the Angamis and the Lushai were being pacified through force of arms as well as renewed pledges of trust and ritual. Even though in 1874, there was a historic moment of British and Manipur friendship through the famous meeting with Lord Northbrook by Maharajah Chandrakirti over a yacht on the Barak River at Cachar, the latter days were not healthy days for Manipur-British relations. A political agent like James Johnstone could utilize the service of the Manipur Army for his pacification of the Angamis in 1878, as well as help in the final conquest of Burma in 1885, it could be noticed that the martial energy of the Manipur army and the service of men like Thangal, Balram and Col. Shamu Singh were utilised to suppress dissident tribal communities, clear jungles and routes for the imperial army for the ultimate conquest of Burma, and the last few years in the life of Maharajah Chandrakirti Singh, the services of the native army were maximally utilized for the sheer cause of the British Empire without any substantial returns for the cause of the state. The enormous tribal migrations from Burma to Manipur in latter periods of the 19th century were sympathetically settled in the southern and south western hills of Manipur. The suppression of the Angamis in 1878 by the Manipur army by Major Thangal and Major Shamu were accompanied by the eldest son of Maharajah Chandrakirti, Surchandra Singh, theYubaraj of the state. Tikendrajit himself participated in this expedition.

James Johnstone was no admirer of the young talent in the princes of the royal family. His concerns for British subjects in Manipur at the expense of the native sons of the soil were matters of cultural and demographic related tensions and the silent activities of companies like the Bombay-Burma Trading Co-operation in their extensive exploitation of timber and other forest resources of Burma, and their deals for connectivity and profit making concerns became matters of deep suspicion by the patriotic native elite. They encouraged surveillance over the activities of these British subjects. The sense of cultural difference developing under the practical processes of empire making, the frictions in boundary issues and difference of British Indian subjects, their culture and economic practices with those of the natives were conflictual in the freshly expanding networks in human movements, migrations and flows of goods and services, which the traditional Manipur nobility experienced as irritable and disturbing of their cherished equilibrium of life. The quantum of Manipur activity in connection with movement of soldiers and suppression of tribal disturbances in Manipur’s eastern frontiers which were necessitated by British requests for help in arms and logistics, which were not considered difficult in the heydays of Manipur independence were felt to be wearisome and suspicious in the latter periods of Maharajah Chadrakirti’s life. Rebellions amidst clan aspirants for the Manipur throne were too not infrequent, and immediately after the death of the king in 1886, his eldest son Surchandra had to suppress the rising of Sana Borachaoba, and Tikendrajit took a prominent part in suppressing the rebellion. Tikendrajit’s post in the new hierarchy rose, and he was made the Senapati or Commander of the army when Surchandra reigned (1886–90).

Contemporary historians of Manipur did not ponder the reality of the British occupation of the entire sub-continent of Burma through Manipur support in 1885 and its impact on the nature of British relations with native states in South Asia. It must be mentioned that the post 1885 British conquest of Burma and the fall of the Konbaung dynasty had its impact on the defeated psyche of the Burmese patriots and there were furious resistances in upper Burma for nearly four years, and the British took harsh measures to quell them. The Burmese insurgency after the annexation of Burma lasted till 1890, and the British took severe measures like massacres, hangings of leaders of the rebellion in the roadsides, and women and children were not spared. The insurgents too murdered Scottish doctors, the hanging of the rebels on the roadsides did not receive international attention, but it became a scandal at the end of Anglo-Manipur war through the sacrifice of Tikendrajit and his freedom fighters.

A British captain wrote a poem on the hangings in post-annexation Burma and its message was very clear.

Under a spreading mango tree

A Burmese Chieftain stands

His hour has come; a captive he

Within the conqueror’s hands

And they fasten around his sturdy neck

A noose of hempen strands.

Under a spreading mango tree

A lifeless body swings

Though bound its limbs a soul is free

And spreads on joyful wings

To solve the perplexing mysteries of

Ten Thousand hidden things.

Under a spreading mango tree

A Buddhist chapel stands,

Where children pray on bended knee.

Amidst the simmering sands.

That the seeds of Western culture may

Take root in eastern lands!

(Quoted by MaungHtin Aung, 1967).

Conflict of Symbols in the Anglo-Manipur War 1891

Manipuri scholars, following the attitude of their British masters in their analysis of the character and behaviour of the Manipur princes in their struggle for power of the throne, often spoke of the hatred and spite amongst the aspirants of the throne. They write about the animosity, hatred and factional disputes between the sons of Maharajah Chandrakirti and point to Tikendrajit as being the mastermind of the palace revolution of 1890, the coup against the eldest son Surchandra’s occupation of the throne, and thereby leading to the intervention of the British on the issue of succession to the throne. Not much of studies are done by Manipuri scholars on the issue of what it is to occupy the throne, and how the throne represented a sacred energy bequeathed by the ancients which empower the occupant to serve the basic unity of the cosmos and the earth, and to effect the regulation of the course of the seasons to provide welfare and equilibrium to the citizens, that the court and palace of the king should represent an exemplary centre, a model of the heavenly abode of human ancestors who provided the life and continuity of the race, and the vivacity and joy of living. The throne was indeed a sacred power which the incumbent received through a complex ritual of coronation whereby the spirits of the ancestors empowered the occupant the right to effect force to govern the state and model the polity towards a spiritual attainment which was sacred, sanct and pure. The ancient capital Kangla was therefore a sacred ritual centre which should never be contaminated by profane human acts, and attack on the sacred space should be punished by capital punishment. By tradition of the absence of the law of primogeniture, the princes had a moral and spiritual right to succession, but the wishes of the elders, the women of the court, and the desire of the populace would be important factors to succession. But the changes of perceptions and precepts in association of new values that penetrated the realm in the wake of a new world religion and practical pragmatic influences of the secular western ideas would have had a dilutic effect on matters of politics and exercise of power later in history.

The conflict amongst the brothers and cousins amidst the sons of Chandrakirti no doubt has poignancy and thrust in the scramble for power, but at the same time we have to be aware of the contemporary experiences in the history of the Burmese polity in the 18th and 19th centuries which had similar refrains in those of Manipur, who shared valuable culture and traditions of the courts. We must be aware of the fratricidal conflicts and massacres in the Konbaung dynasty amidst the successors to Alaung Zeya (Alompra by Manipuris, 1750–60), and BodawPaya (1782–1819), who was the fourth son of Alaung Zeya effected a murder of some eighty three princes and princesses in 1789. This sort of fratricidal blood-letting was also effected during the reign of Thibaw, the last of the Konbaung dynasty (1875–85), who massacred some seventy to eighty brothers and kinsmen in Mandalay in 1878,which was known as the Massacre of the Kins. In Burmese tradition it was in fact a purging of the realm according to custom, and the body of the king was homologous with the body of the polity. This was so in Manipur too. Manipur had an autonomous, independent attitude to kingship and occupation of the throne according to ancient beliefs and traditions. The British authorities had a mundane, earthy notion of holding of power as a source of control over people and resources, and they claimed the right to intervene in all aspects of succession to kingships all over India, thereby gradually depriving political authorities of the princes the exercise of their own sovereignty. For Manipur it was a challenge to their civilizational symbols and beliefs. The midnight attack in the capital by Quinton and his co-hosts was a severe trampling upon the sacred space of the Kangla, the sacred navel of the universe of the Meitei. ‘Heads of white bodies shall roll in front of the KanglaUttra’ was a prediction of the soothsayers.

The story of the visit of the Chief Commissioner of Assam along with a military escort and the subsequent developments leading to the massacre of four British officers and the confrontations led to the defeat of the Manipur state is known to one and all. But not much is known about how the native state of Manipur responded to the visit of the British dignitary from Shillong, and the gestures of the officials and military representatives of the Asiatic state towards the visitors reflect the attitude of the traditional Asiatic power towards the foreign dignitary worthy of respect and honour. A contingent of the Manipur army with seven hundred soldiers under General Thangalwent to Mao in the northern hills to first receive the visiting British dignitary. Later, the Senapati Tikendrajit himself with fifty soldiers met him at North Sekmai. The Commissioner, as head of the military contingent reached the capital, at every nook and corners of the highway, the citizens erected banana plants, with sugarcane and lighted lamps to give blessings to the visitor. The Maharajah Kulachandra who was now king of the land, followed by the palatial officials received the Commissioner with four hundred soldiers with a thirteen gun salute at the western gate of Kangla. The Commissioner was ushered into residence of the Political Agent, at KonthoujamIfam(the present Governor’s residence).

The Commissioner ordered the Durbar to be held on that day itself at the Residency of the Political Agent Mr. Grimwood, and the native ruler and his retinue was forced to wait at the gate of residency for hours, since the Government of India’s proclamation was to be translated and it took quite long. The military preparations surrounding the residency became an object of suspicion to the native officials, especially Tikendrajit, who sensed the dubious preparations and absented himself from the Durbar, pleading ill-health. It led to the immediate postponement of the Durbar, since it became clear that the Durbar should be held with Tikendrajit himself to be present. The next day, the 23rd of March, the matter became more complicated since Tikendrajit refused to attend the Durbar. The failure to hold the Durbar, where Tikendrajit was to be arrested, led to Mr. Quinton scheme the attack at the Kanglaat dawn the next day with force of arms which led to the reprisal by the native soldiers and the subsequent tragedies.

New documents that had now become available had revealed that the Chief Commissioner Mr. Quinton was pre-determined to remove Tikendrajit from Manipur, and he was already in consultation with the Government of India, represented by the Viceroy’s Council in Simla. The British authorities had been completely informed of the entire history of the political developments in Manipur and the details of the palace revolution in 1890. Instead of deciding to support the eldest brother Surchandra who requested British help to restore his throne, the Government decided to support the cause of the usurper Kulachandra, and at the same time see to it that Tikendrajit, the real power behind Kulachandra’s throne be deported from Manipur elsewhere in India. The logic of the empire was of paramountcy to interfere in matter of succession, and the British interests that had perennially climbed since its conquest of Burma, and an absolute necessity to remove any potential enemies to its hegemony. Mr. Quinton and the Viceroy’s Council had earlier mulled over the necessity to increase the strength of the military garrison posted at Imphal even, and Mr. Quinton was also aware (in his own way) that the Senapati (Tikendrajit), the most popular of the brothers, the present head of the Manipur Army, a man of bold and turbulent character may be expected, when driven to desperation, if he does not openly resist, to use these utmost efforts to stir up disaffection and rebellion. Mr. W.J. Cunningham, the officiating secretary to the Government of India, Foreign Department in his confidential letter to Mr. Quinton on the 21st February, let it be known that “The Governor General in Council considers that it will be desirable that the Senapati should be removed from Manipur and punished for his lawless conduct. I am to enquire where you would recommend that he should be interned, and what steps you consider necessary for carrying out his removal without affording him the chance, which his position as head of the Manipur forces might possibly given him, of making any forcible opposition” (Fort William No. 360 E.).

The stealthy raid to the sacred capital, the unprovoked violence to women, children and ethnic residents in the night of the 23rd March 1891, and the hand to hand combats with the attacking soldiers, the devastation and fire to households, death to ethnic citizens and Brahmins and the burning of property and loss of lives to both sides were indeed an unpardonable crime perpetrated by the alien power to a historically trusted friend and ally. The so-called ceasefire and attempt at negotiation after the violence of the whole day of the 24th failed because of the refusal by the British authorities to surrender their arms, as demanded by Tikendrajit. The tense night witnessed the arousal of the masses affected by the provocation and those citizens earlier who had lost their near and dear ones, those who had nursed silent grievances against British officers for misbehaving with their daughters, rose in one fell swoop and punished those perpetrators of the crime. In the eyes of the indigenous patriots, the attackers on the sacred capital of the land had perpetrated an unpardonable crime, and the capital punishments was deserved, sanctioned by tradition.

In the reckoning of the powerful empire, the murder of the four British officers was a severe insult to the might and prestige of the Victorian Empire.The Asiatic state was attacked from three sides. The warriors of Manipur, aware of their inferiority of arms and superiority of the enemy in technical aspects of warfare, retreated from the three mountain strongholds, but finally made a resolute stand at the fields of Khongjom, some 22 miles at the south of the capital, and from 8 am till 5 pm engaged in hand to hand combat, swords and shields against bayonets and cannon ball fire and the river Khongjom ran with blood! The Gurkha regiments who fought with the Manipur army later recognized that the Khongjom battle was one of the hardest and toughest they had ever fought for the prestige of the British Empire.

As for Tikendrajit, for his personal leadership in the conduct of the war, in his heart of the hearts, must have felt it as an avoidable engagement. He saw to it that Mrs. Grimwood, in her flight to Silchar was not pursued by the Manipur army. He saw to it that those who had been captured in the early confrontation should no longer be kept in prison. Those fifty one soldiers who had been imprisoned due to the Quinton attack on the sacred capital were released and given rupees five each for their expenses on the way back. When the war became unavoidable, appropriate measures were taken for all defence in the three hill routes, yet attempts were made to have negotiations at the Thoubal battle in early April. But it was impracticable. The disaster at Khongjom in late April which was the last resistance, led to the final decision to leave the capital. There was a serious discussion whether YubarajTikendrajit should lead a final confrontation, but realistic appraisal felt it was better for the prince to think of a resistance seeking the support of a foreign power i.e. China. The prince along with the Maharajah and some fifty armed men left the capital on horseback on the 26th April, and attempt to reach the Chassad region in the northeast where the Kuki friends of the state awaited. Unfortunately, the help of the Kuki chieftain Tonghu, at Chassad could not succeed, since the British forces had sealed all routes, since Burma had earlier been conquered. Tikendrajit, his brother king and the group returned in hiding, each on their own. He was later in May arrested from the home of his mother’s elder sister and it was a Manipuri Subedar, Khelendra of the Konthoujam family, who was himself a distant relative from the line of prince Nar Singh, a colleague of Tikendrajit’s grandfather Gambhir Singh, the heroes of the Manipur freedom struggle against the Burmese was of 1824-26. It was secretly rumoured that the prince Tikendrajit let himself be arrested by none other than a Manipuri soldier from the Surma valley military police, who had accompanied the British invading force from Silchar, under Lieutenant Col. R.H.F. Rennick, the Commander of the Silchar Column, who reached Imphal and entered the capital Kangla on the 27th April, 1891.

A Dark Page in ‘Indian’ History

After the occupation of the sacred capital, the British forces organized a systematic destruction of the legacies of the kingdom. The sacred caves of the ancestral serpent dragon were filled up with sand and clay. The brick lion figures at the gate of the KanglaUttra were blasted with dynamite. The space of the female deity of Nungoibi where human and animal sacrifices were held was also blasted. The brick walls surrounding the capital site were destroyed. The occupying army started looting the villages for forcing the collection of paddy. The citizen representatives of the four territorial divisions (Pana) were forced through whip-lasses to carry salt and flour for the occupying forces beyond the frontiers of the state. The domestic animals under the former care of the princes, namely the elephants, horses, cows and buffaloes were sold in auction and were purchased by British Indian subjects and traders. The ancestral properties in land and private homesteads of the princes were confiscated. Fisheries were leased out and there was a period of artificial famine when salt, fish and grains were not available. Thefts and burglaries abounded.

The heroes of the Manipur war were tried summarily through a military court manned by British military and civil officials and British Indian laws were enforced on the conduct of the trial and systematic hangings till death for the murder of the British officials were meted out to direct perpetrators and those who abetted the murders. A British Indian Subedar named Niranjan, who sympathized with the Manipur cause was hanged. A native ethnic called ChiraiThangal from the northern hills who massacred two British telegraph officials was also hanged. So also a patriot from the village of Kangmong speared the Political Agent Mr. Grimwood to death. PukhrambaKajao, his charmed spear is still worshipped in secret in his native village.

As regards the trial of the more important leaders of the struggle, namely the YubarajTikendrajit, the octogenarian Thangal General, the king Kullachandra and other princes and higher officials, the entire conduct of the trial and punishments were severely criticized by later scholars, lawyers and historians. To cite a few; John Parratt and SarojNaliniParrat, in their study of Queen Empress Vs Tikendrajit Prince of Manipur : The Anglo Manipur Conflict of 1891 (1992), revealed that the special court was in no way a court established on the basis of British law in India, nor were the procedures of the British law followed. None of the prisoners were represented by counsellor by anyone at all familiar with the law. Indeed the request of Tikendrajit to call a defence counsel from Cachar were peremptorily rejected. Furthermore, each of the accused was subjected to a cross-examination of a kind wholly at variance with normal legal practice. Again, the trials were conducted in three languages English, Manipuri and Urdu, and the records were kept only in English. In the case of the Manipuri witnesses for the prosecution, each witness was allowed to state his evidence, speaking for two or three minutes at a time, and it was then translated in summary into Urdu. The quality of the translation was poor, and was several times corrected by the trader, and on occasion, even the President of the court himself found fault with the Urdu interpreter. The statements signed by witnesses were thus in many cases not in the language in which they were given, and the accused princes were also induced to sign statements in English, a language which none of them understood. There is, as we shall see subsequently good reason to believe that at points especially in the trial of the Yubaraj – these written records did not always accurately represent what the accused wished to say. There were also occasions on which it is clear that the prisoner did not understand the questions put in cross examination. The method of the trial was also peculiar, and in this respect similar to those presided over by Political Officer Maxwell, in that the court first heard the evidence for the prosecution before stating the charges against the prisoner and receiving his plea. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that as far we can tell neither Col. Mitchell nor Major Ridgeway, nor even civil officer Davis (who should surely have known better) had any knowledge whatsoever of legal matter. This was indeed “a special court”, set up without reference to due penal procedure and which (as far as one can tell from the transcripts) made up its own rules as it went along. This does not argue well for its impartially (John Parratt&SarojNaliniParratt 1992, p. 132–33).

ManomohanGhose, born in Dhaka and educated at the Lincoln Inn, appealed to the Excellency, the Viceroy in Council on behalf of Kullachandra Singh, Maharajah or regent of Manipur and TikendrajitBir Singh, Yubaraj or Senapati of Manipur having been pleased to permit a submission of the written representation on behalf of the princes on the 25th July, 1891. The two prince brothers had been charged along with others as waging war against the Queen Empress of India and abetment of murder of four British officers as well as murder, and had been sentenced to death. After the sentence had been announced, a final representation in writing was allowed, which was taken up by this advocate of the Calcutta High Court.

The vital aspects of the legal defence raised by ManomohanGhose was:

The Manipur Princes were not, and could not have been tried under the Indian Penal Code, or any other British law. Nor was the court which tried them constituted under any legal authority derivable from any act of parliament, or any legislative enactment of the Governor General of India in Council. I, must therefore take it that in creating this special tribunal at Manipur, the government of India was simply exercising the rights of a conquering sovereign power, for the purpose of bringing to justice persons accused of committing grave offences but who, not British subjects, are not triable by British courts, and are not governed by the municipal law of British India ….

There can be no treason under the English law by a person who is an alien, unless he happens to owe temporary allegiance by residence in the country. A person who is not a British subject, cannot be guilty of treason so long as he resides in a country which is not British territory.

Is Manipur British territory, and do the ruler of Manipur and his subjects in Manipur owe allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen in the sense in which that expression has been understood under the English law of treason and the Indian Penal Code?

The English never acquired Manipur by conquest, but that our government entered into certain treaties with the former rulers of Manipur whereby certain amount of protection was promised in Manipur on certain conditions. Manipur paid no tribute to the English. The state has all along been governed by its own laws; the raja of Manipur exercising sovereign authority over its subjects. The state has its own executive, which is independent of the British Government. No doubt the Government has by treaty protected the ruler of Manipur from foreign invasion, and since the time of Chandrakirti Singh accorded to the Raja support, to enable him to resist effectively any internal rising.

Do these facts tend to destroy the character of Manipur as a sovereign state? It is scarcely necessary to point out the sovereignty of a particular state is not impaired by its occasional obedience to the commands of other states, or even the habitual influence exercised by them over its councils. It is only when this obedience, or this influence, assumes the form of express compact, that the sovereignty of the state inferior in power is legally affected by its connection with the other.

Treaties of unequal alliance freely contracted between independent states do not impair their sovereignty. Treaties of unequal alliance guarantee mediation and protection may have the effect of limiting and qualifying in the sovereignty, according to the stipulations of the treaties.Manipur was not a lower level then the semi-sovereign states of which Eurapean History furnishes several instances (“The Appeals of the Manipur Princes” by ManomohanGhose, Manipur State Archives, 2005).

Manipur: A Geo-strategic Victim of the Operation of Empire

The Manipur episode of the defiance against the pride and glory of the world’s biggest empire hurt Britain deeply. The disaster of the sudden murder of four British military officials at a strange, exotic enclave contiguous to the imperial territory, was followed by the symbolic destruction of the vestiges of the empire i.e. the existence of telegraph lines and offices being destroyed. The telegram officers being murdered, a sanatorium burned down and British graves desecrated. As reprisal the Government of British India sent three columns within a fortnight, destroyed opposition on all three fronts, looted the royal palace, razed it to the ground to make way for a permanent military camp. The empire restored its authority, but the event became a scandal in the nooks and corners of the empire. The House of Commons and the House of Lords debated the event in all their heat and temper. Charges and counter charges were mutually exchanged in all the interstices of the Empire, of the values of western civilization, of the roles and responsibilities of the representatives, their action and behaviour in times of crisis, of all intents and purposes, the sole defence of the Government of India in the sordid episode was succinctly put in the House of Commons by Sir John Gorst, Under-Secretary of State for India who spoke that the Senapati was removed for the simple reason that he was ‘an able man intriguing against the Paramount Power’. In the words of Caroline Keen ‘In an extra-ordinary critical statement for the second most senior official at the India office, Sir John maintained that the Government of India was merely acting in accordance with their customary policy of cutting down the tall poppies, setting aside the man at ability and strong character in native states in favours of the mediocre or incapable’ (Caroline Keen 2015, P 140).

Tikendrajit, therefore, was the sole motif for the imperial action against Manipur. He was to be hanged in front of the public, along with his mentor the old General Thangal, with whom Tikendrajit was reported to have quarrelled on the decision to execute the Sahibs. The Queen Victoria, the empress of India was an avid follower of the Manipur story, as reported in the newspapers and debated in the two houses of Parliament. She gave a private reception to Mrs. Grimwood in the Windsor castle on July 1, after her escape from Manipur, sympathized with her plight in the loss of a fond husband, and heard her admiring estimate of the character of Tikendrajit. She was not happy with the actions of ignorance and imprudence of the authorities of Calcutta in the whole affair.

ManomohanGhose’s ‘The Appeal of the Manipur Princes’ was published in July in London in 1891, along with a transcript of the trials of the Senapati and the Regent, and when the findings of the court were communicated to Queen Victoria, she immediately despatched a telegram to Lord Cross, the Secretary of State for India, “Trust Senapati will not be executed. He was not found guilty of murder and the effect is sure to be bad in India” (Calorine Keen. Ibid p. 158).

This was on the 1st of August 1891, twelve days before the hanging of Tikendrajit at Imphal. On the 8th of August, Lord Cross informed her of the Government of India’s decision that the Viceroy (Lord Landsdowne) had commuted the sentences in the case of the Regent and Angousana, but the sentence in the case of Tikendrajit had been confirmed. On the 12th August, ManomohanGhose himself appealed directly to the Queen for clemency. The Queen was reported to have sent a telegram to Lord Landsdowne if it was possible! Lord Landsdowne replied on the same day. ‘Your Majesty’s telegram on 12th I entertain no doubt commutating of sentence would be a grave public misfortune, and I regard as now absolutely impossible’ (Quoted by C. Keen P. 159).

Caroline Keen quotes again the letter that Lord Landsdowne wrote back to the Queen after the telegram, ‘the case was not one for the extension of your Majesty’s clemency. The Senapati was the prime mover, both in conspiracy which led to the downfall of the lawful ruler of the state, and in the rebellion which led to the massacre. Your Majesty will have noticed that while the fighting was in progress on the 24th, and at a time when it was impossible to contend that the Senapati was merely acting in self-defence, he brought up guns from their position inside the palace, to a position on the outer wall, from which, at a distance of a few yards, fire was opened up on the British Residency, a defenceless building, which at the time contained several wounded men, and a English lady ……. it would be impossible to show mercy to one convicted of these crimes without greatly endangering our supremacy in this country’ (Ibid P. 160).

The correspondences between the Queen Empress and the Viceroy Lord Landsdowne reflect the inner dynamics of the operation of the British Empire, that Manipur was geographically in the Indian sub-continent, but it was in fact an independent Asiatic state, not politically dependent on the same. However the geo-politics of the Empire over-rided all considerations, and Lord Landsdowne’s was the voice of the real politik of the empire, though the Queen represented the conscience of the western civilization. Lord Landsdowne was hell bent in safeguarding the territory of British India by maintaining a firm hold on frontier states such as Sikkim, Kashmir and Manipur to be used as buffer zones against foreign aggressors. Any unrest within Manipur was perceived as a threat to such a strategy (C. Keen 2012 P. 147).

Many scholars, mostly foreign and the international media reported that Manipur was a province of British Assam. Indian newspapers like the Amrita Bazar Patrika differed, and noticed Manipur’s independence in the 19th century. As a princely state, Manipur did not belong to the family of the princely states of British India. The formal entry into the scheme was only in 1921, when the Chambers of the Princes were constituted in that year. Manipur issued Passports to Indians or Nepalis till 1950.When Manipur became a part of India since 1949, it was removed.


Caroline Keen 2012 – Princely India and the British – Political Development and the Operation of Empire – L.B. Taurus, London.

Caroline Keen 2015 – An Imperial Crisis in British India: The Manipur Uprising of 1891. L. B. Taurus, London.

ChanamHemchandra Ed. 2017 – Mashilne (in Manipuri), Ching-Tam Press, Uripok, Imphal.

Dr. Laishram Suresh 1998 – The Man who rocked the British Empire – 107thBirTikendrajit Celebration, Natun Bazar, Hojai, Asssam Pradesh Manipuri Association.

Gangmumei Kamei 2015 – A History of Modern Manipur Vol. – I, Akansa Publishing House, New Delhi.

GunachandraKakchingtabam 2016 – The Manipur War of 1891: A Media Narrative, International Printers, Thoubal.

John Parratt&SarojNaliniParratt 1990 – Queen Empress Vs Tikendrajit, Prince of Manipur: The Anglo-Manipur Conflict of 1891, HarAnand, New Delhi.

Lal Dena Ed. 1990 – History of Modern Manipur 1726-1949, Reliable Book Centre, Imphal.

ManmohanGhose 1891 – The Appeals of the Manipur Princes, Manipur State Archives – 2005.

MaungHtin Aung 1967 – A History of Burma, Columbia University Press, New York and London.

Rajkumar Sanahal Singh 1973 – BirTekendrajit Singh, Friends Union Press, Imphal.

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