Tikendrajit – The Lion of Manipur

(An excerpt from the writings of Dr. Lokendra Arambam)
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, 1750-1760), and Bodaw Paya (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 (1875-1885), 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 Kangla Uttra’ 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 Thangal went 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 Konthoujam ifam (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 Kangla at 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 Yubaraj Tikendrajit 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 Kangla Uttra 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 Chirai Thangal 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. Pukhramba Kajao, 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 Yubaraj Tikendrajit, 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 Saroj Nalini Parrat, 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 & Saroj Nalini Parratt 1992 P. 132-133).
Manomohan Ghose, 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 Tikendrajit Bir 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 Manomohan Ghose was that ‘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 Manomohan Ghose. Published by Manipur Archives 12 Aug. 20…. P. 1-10)
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.
Manomohan Ghose’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, Manomohan Ghose 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.
This article is a revised and updated version from a talk given by the author in the All India Radio Imphal on the 23rd March 2017.

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