By: Kakchingtabam Ruhinikumar Sharma
Manipur was an ancient and independent kingdom sandwiched between Indian sub-continent and South East Asia. From a very early period, Manipur was strategically located and thus received the imprints of both Indic and Sinic culture as she stood at the centre of these two great civilisations. Historically speaking, Manipur has never been a part of Indian Union till 1949. Manipur became part of India after signing a merger agreement on September 21, 1949, between the representatives of the government of India and Bodhchandra Singh, the last Maharaja of Manipur. Finally she became a part of Indian Union on 15th October, 1949 when the administration of this kingdom was taken over. However she became a native state of British Indian Empire consequent upon her defeat in the infamous Anglo-Manipur War of 1891. This war evoked widespread interest about Manipur in every major parts of the world. Manipur was the last place where the British Indian government was engaged in an armed conflict in the sub-continent. Considering the unique nature of Anglo-Manipur relationship, the vanquished kingdom was not annexed to British India, re-established the kingship under their supervision. Thus Manipur retained her own government under a system known as indirect rule. This system of government remained in the kingdom till the sub-continent got independence on 15th August, 1947.
The armed conflict between the kingdom of Manipur and British had been one of the major events widely discussed in the colonial world. A considerable amount of time had been devoted in both houses of British Parliament during the months of May-June, 1891 and was widely reported in the media. However, there was almost none to tell the Manipur side of the story except for the vain effort of the barrister Mano Mohan Ghose of the Calcutta High Court. The cause of the conflict was the undue interference of the British in the affairs of the kingdom who was on friendly terms with the former for about seven decades. Their sudden invasion at the Manipur palace on 24th March, 1891 where Manipur got the upper hand resulted in a failed parley between the two to resolve the conflict. It produced no result and led to the execution of high ranking British officials including the Chief Commissioner of Assam and the British resident in the state. The British attempt to act as Raj makers in the state got a severe rebuff from the freedom loving Manipuris who was not afraid of going into war a number of times against her mighty and neighbouring kingdom of Burma during the eighteenth and early parts of nineteenth centuries. All along Manipur had acted as a trustworthy friend and ally of the British in protecting her interests in the north eastern frontier. The Manipuris were charged with committing the heinous crime of murder and waging war against the Queen Empress of India. Yet the plain fact that was lost sight of by the general public at that time was that the Manipuris were trying to defend the freedom and sovereignty of the kingdom which they had won after so many hardships against Burma. It was the British who tried to trample upon the independence of a unsuspecting ally. This was amply shown by the statement of Tikendrajit Bir Singh, the affectionate and most popular person whom the British considered as their arch enemy- “Sahep, we do not accept a word of what you have said…you do not uphold justice. What you have done is not right, even more it was not a just and humane action in the way you carried out the whole attack. …….. We have no trust in you.” (recorded in Cheitharol Kumbaba, the royal chronicle of Manipur). Thus from the Manipuri point of view, it was the British who turned aggressor, and in such a situation Manipur had to defend her sovereignty whatever the outcome may be.
To avenge for the disaster of their own doings and to save face, the authorities of the British India government declared war against Manipur in April, 1891. A large force was sent to Manipur from three sides, viz., Kohima, Silchar and Tummu. It was a foregone conclusion for the Manipuris to face defeat as they do not have the resources to match the fire power of the imperialists. Yet the Manipuris fought gallantly knowing well that the sovereignty of this kingdom is numbered. Yaishkullakpa, Senggoisana, Paona Brajabashi and many other patriotic Manipuris went down fighting against the enemy and made supreme sacrifices for their motherland. The most decisive battle for Manipur’s independence took place at Khongjom which is now regarded as a pilgrimage by the Manipuris. The lamentable, yet the heroic saga of Manipur’s fight against the British imperialists are well recorded in a popular ballad form known as Khongjom Parva. The beauty of the Anglo-Manipur War is that many sons of the hills also took part in the war to protect the sovereignty of the kingdom. The name of Chirai Thangal who went to the gallows with head held high need to be recorded in the hall of fame of martyrs.
The invading British forces occupied Kangla, the royal palace and symbol of Manipur’s sovereignty on 27th April, 1891. In the subsequent developments the royal princes and important nobles of the country who took part in defence of the kingdom were rounded up one after another, put to trial where none of the accused was allowed to engage professional defence counsel. Some of them were awarded capital punishment and others given sentence of life imprisonment. Those awarded life imprisonment were exiled and deported to Kala Pani at the Andaman to spend the rests of their life including the deposed king Kullachandra. The trial of the Manipuris was described as mockery of justice and fair play. The manner in which the trial was conducted, and the legality in the composition of the court of enquiry to conduct the trial was questioned in media circles and in the British parliament as well. But the adage of ‘might is right’ was fully practised by the imperialists. Their media was so powerful that the Manipuris were branded as treacherous, barbaric and blood thirsty people. Thus a heroic saga of a spirited community was painted in the eyes of world as a bunch of rebellious and uncivilised trouble mongers. As such, the story of Manipur’s war of independence finds little or no mention in the history of India’s struggle for independence. The story of many of those patriotic soldiers who were forced out of their motherland remains unsung and unheard till today even in their birth place.
Even though Manipur was defeated in the war, yet the country was not directly annexed into the British Empire. She was put under a system known as ‘indirect rule’ by restoring the monarchy. Through this system of indirect rule, the British colonial authorities could extend their influence without the economic and political costs of direct annexation. If there was any necessity for affecting changes, it was done in the name of the king of Manipur. In simple words, the colonial authorities exercised authority without responsibility. Native rule was re-introduced in the state by appointing Churachand Singh a young boy of about five years old and a great grandson of Nar Singh (1844-1850) the late king of Manipur. During the minority of Churachand, Mr. H.St.P. Maxwell, the British political agent in Manipur, carried out administration of the state was carried out in the name of the king. This system of administration came to be known as regency administration. Thus, regency administration operated in the state from 1891 to 1907 and this period was fully utilized by the colonial administration for making all major decisions. Taking advantage of this position, several changes were also introduced in the administrative set up of this native state, which the raja even after his formal installation of the gaddi of Manipur with full power would find it impossible to change. During this regency period, Maxwell, the political agent and superintendent of the state dictated by imperial interests introduced a number of new socio-economic measures which affected the people in different ways. The unique history of Manipur daring to rise against the British authorities need to be told among the younger generations time and again.
(The writer is Department of History, Ideal Girls’ College, Akampat, Imphal-East. E-mail: [email protected])
Dare to Rise: The story of Manipur in 1891
By: Kakchingtabam Ruhinikumar Sharma