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August 13: Patriots’ Day “Freedom They Lost, But Love Of Freedom They Retained”

August 13 is an important day for the people of Manipur. It is on this day that 123 years ago the two brave sons of Manipur, Jubraj Tikendrajit Singh and Thangal General laid down their lives for the cause of their motherland. They were patriots of the first rank. Tikendrajit Singh by his martyrdom has well earned a place among the national heroes of India and his portrait is included in the National Portrait Gallery inside the House of the People in New Delhi. The present article is an attempt to delve into the importance of August 13 in the history of Manipur. The study on which this article is based has adopted a purely historical approach, the data rest on available primary and secondary materials of published works.

Manipur, once an Asiatic country is located at the extreme northeastern corner of India. With an area of 22,327 square kilometers, Manipur of today is bounded in the north by Nagaland, in the east and south by Myanmar (Burma), in the south-west by Mizoram and in the west by Assam. A very charming hilly state, which had once separated Assam and Myanmar before the creation of present Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Mizoram out of Assam; Manipur had enjoyed the fortune and glory in the past and experienced sorrow and vicissitudes of her long history. It had been witnessed the transformation from a primitive tribal state to an independent kingdom and later from native state of British India to a state of the Indian union. Three major ethnic groups, the Meiteis in the valley and the Nagas and Kukis-chin group of people at the surrounding hills occupy the state. These ethnic groups belong to Mongoloid racial stock and speak Tibeto-Burman languages.

The Anglo-Manipur war of 1891 was a short but momentous struggle between Manipur, a tiny hilly Asiatic country and the world’s mightiest empire. It was a contest between unequal powers. The war marked the closing of an era and the introducing of a new one in the history of Manipur. Manipur lost her sovereign and independent status and new rule of the British established in this little kingdom. This particular event brought a complete change in the historical process of this state. This war also marks the completion of the British annexation of Indian sub-continent.

Manipur was an independent kingdom during the whole of the 19th century. Truly speaking, Manipur was never occupied. She was not a ‘Sanad’ state like other Indian states before 1891. She of course established diplomatic level contact with British India by signing treaties now and then. The first treaty signed in 1762 was essentially a defense alliance. It was an alliance between two separate powers. As agreed upon, they helped each other during the first Anglo-Burmese war 1824-26. After the war, the treaty of Yandaboo was concluded by which British India and Burma recognized the independence of Manipur. It is true that the attitude of the British was friendly but they utilized this friendship for the expansion and consolidation of their hold over eastern India including Burma. After the third Anglo-Burmese war of 1885, which formally completed the annexation of Burma to British India, the friendly relations between Manipur and British underwent a change. By fishing in the troubled waters of frequent factional conflicts among the ruling princes, the British officials soon assumed the role of kingmakers by deciding as to who was to rule and who was not to rule. Under these circumstances, war was inevitable. Maharaja Surachandra died in 1886 and the political agency of Manipur after the departure of Sir James Johnstone, which was ‘Cinderella among political agencies’ did not magnetize any proficient political agent who was able to maintain the “fine traditions of the British frontier officers.”(Kamei 1991:49)

Chandrakirti Singh was succeeded by his eldest son Surchandra, a good, friendly man with plenty of ability, but very feeble. After his succession to the throne, the royal household was divided into two opposing camps: one camp was led by Surachandra Singh and the other, by Koireng, popularly known as Tikendrajit Singh, the flamboyant and the most popular and capable prince, who was also the hero of the masses. In short, Manipur became a divided house. During his short reign of four years, Surachandra Singh had to face a number of rebellions. On the mid night of 22 September, 1890 Angousana and Zilangamba suddenly attacked the palace. The dissensions, quarrels and mutual mistrusts and rivalry among the princes culminated in the palace revolution of 1890. But the immediate cause was the order issued by the Maharaja on young prince Zilangamba not to sit in the durbar as result of his quarrel with Pakasana, the arch rival of Tikendrajit Singh. (Mrs. E. C. Grimwood 1984:138) Without putting any confrontation, Surchandra and his brothers including Pakasana went out of the backyard of the palace and took shelter at the residence of political agency on that very night. It appears that the king and his brothers were demoralized and very much frightened at the revolution which they knew was engineered by Tikendrajit himself. According to a note written on 16th July by Mr. W. E. Ward, the successor of Mr. Quinton, the Raja Surachandra, was never anything more than “a puppet Raja the real ruler of Manipur since 1886 had been Senapati Tikendrajit Singh,” a man who had always been hostile to the British influence. (Sir Robert Reid: History of the frontier Areas Bordering on Assam From 1883-1941) In this way, with no bloodshed, the rebel party had taken the palace of Manipur. The Maharaja expressed his wish to abdicate the throne in favor of his brother Kulachandra, the Jubraj and decided to retire to Brindavan for good. Accordingly, Kulachandra and Tikendrajit Singh were informed of the decision of the Maharaja and necessary arrangements were made for the Maharaja’s journey to Cachar. Maharaja left Manipur on the same day (on the evening of 23 September, 1890); Kulachandra became king of Manipur with Tikendrajit Singh as Jubraj. On 29 September 1890, Kulachandra wrote to the Viceroy for his recognition as the king of Manipur. The British India Government at first declined his request. In the meantime Surachandra submitted an application to the British Government to restore him on the throne of Manipur. (R.K. Jhalajit1965:269) After many consultations and correspondence the British India Government on 21 February 1891 decided not to reinstate Surachandra Singh but to recognize Kulachandra as the Maharaja on the condition that Tikendrajit whom the British considered as the architect of the palace revolt must be banished from Manipur and to depute the Chief commissioner of Assam to announce the decision at the Manipur Durbar. This is a self contradictory decision. By recognizing Kulachandra as the new ruler, it accepted the revolution as fail accompli. But by deciding to send Tikendrajit Singh away from Manipur, the British Government disapproved of the revolution. (Dena 2008: 38) The attempt to implement the decision of the British Government sparked off the Anglo-Manipur war of 1891.

Therefore, Mr. Quinton, the Chief Commissioner of Assam along with four hundred soldiers arrived at Imphal on 22 March, 1891. He announced that a durbar would be held at the residency on the same day at noon where Kulachandra and his brothers including Tikendrajit Singh were required to attend. The aim of Mr. Quinton was to arrest Tikendrajit Singh at this durbar and to exile him to British India. Mr. Grimwood the man on the spot at Imphal learnt about this plan at Sekmai on the 21 March; he opposed to this plan of arresting Tikendrajit which would be a very difficult job. Not only this objective was overruled, he was personally entrusted to arrest Tikendrajit Singh in the proposed Durbar room. (J. Roy 1973: 117; N. Khenchandra: Battle of Khongjom)

Kulachandra along with his ministers including Thangal general and Tikendrajit Singh arrived at the Durbar on time. But there was no one at the gate to receive them; they were kept waiting in the sun for several hours on the alleged reason that the translation of the order was not yet ready. They were taken aback by the unusual security arrangement and the posting of soldiers here and there. Tikendrajit Singh complained of stomach aches and went back home. It was really a very ill-mannered treatment to the Maharaja and the royal dignitaries of Manipur to make them wait at the gate under the boiling heat of mid-day sun of late March. On previous occasions, the chief commissioner would come down the residency bungalow to welcome the Maharaja and the ministers but this basic courtesy was not shown this time. Mr. Quinton displayed “his complete lack of courtesy and tactlessness. The disaster which followed might have been averted and the British India government could have easily realized its object peacefully if the regent and his brothers were not kept standing at the gate in such a way.” (J. Roy 1973: 119) After a long wait, the Maharaja and his ministers were permitted to enter into residency, and they were to wait for half an hour on the steps of the residency and then for another one and half hour on the Veranda. Kulachandra felt tired and wanted to sit, only then the political agent allowed him to sit in a room. This was really a shocking and atrocious reception to Maharaja in his own capital. For this insult the white officers had to pay a heavy price.(Kamei 1991:54) With the nonappearance of Tikendrajit, Mr. Quinton could not execute his plan so the durbar was postponed on 23 March 1891 at 8 am at which Tikendrajit must be in attendance and the same was intimated to the Maharaja. Kulachandra who had suffered such humiliations and indignities did not come to the postponed durbar and informed Mr. Quinton that he could not come as Tikendrajit was still too ill to leave his house. Thus, the plan of Mr. Quinton was failed. On the same day at half past four, Mr. Grimwood and Lt. Simpson went to the palace with a letter from Mr. Quinton which declared that the British India Government was to appoint Kulachandra as Maharaja but to take away Tikendrajit Singh from Manipur because of his role in the recent palace revolt. Mr. Quinton then informed Kulachandra to hand over Tikendrajit to him at once but it was strongly rejected. Mr. Grimwood further sought an interview with Tikendrajit who met him at his residence on his sick bed. Mr. Grimwood explained the details of his exile that he would be given allowance and could come back to Manipur after the death of the Maharaja and become the king of Manipur. On the contrary, Tikendrajit questioned the authority of the British India Government to interfere in the internal affairs of Manipur. The talks could not bring any result and Mr. Grimwood returned to the residency. (J. Roy 1973: 121)

While his two steps were not successful, Mr. Quinton became desperate and determined to use force to arrest Tikendrajit in his house at crack of dawn on the following day, 24 March 1891. The British force suddenly attacked the palace without declaration of war against Manipur, then an independent and sovereign state. Kulachandra declared war against the British; the fighting continued the whole day resulting in heavy causalities on both sides. It is stated that the British army committed atrocities on men, women and children and even they destroyed the idols in the temple. (N. Khenchandra Singh: Battle of Khongjom) As the operation was failed, Mr. Quinton decided to have a truce and ordered cease fire by a trumpet call. The Manipuris too stopped firing after an exchange of letters, both sides agreed to talk about the term of ceasefire. Then, the ill-fated five white officers, Mr. Quinton, Grimwood, Col. Skene, Cossins and Lt. Simson went to the palace without escort and they were unarmed. They went inside the gate and had a discussion about the truce for half an hour but the discussion produced no positive result. At that time, a crowd was also assembled outside the Durbar to hear the progress of the meeting. When the British officers returned and moved towards the gate they chased them and immediately Mr. Grimwood was speared to death by one Kajao Singh and Lt. Simson was severely wounded by sword. The remaining surviving officers rushed inside the Durbar and were detained for about two hours. They were then taken to the green space in front of the dragons and were beheaded by the public executioner. (N. Khenchandra Singh, Thangal General) Due ceremonial rites were observed and the heads were buried at Nungjenghonbi inside the palace. Hence, an old prophecy which says, “Heads of white men will roll before dragon” comes true. Their bodies were buried near former site of Majorkhul village, at the present Indira Park and Assembly secretariat. The execution of the five British officers without proper trial was unjustified, though as per the laws of little country what they had committed was the cause or waging war against Manipur and thus liable to be punished by death. But the execution was one of the incidents of a greater phenomenon of the contest between Manipur and mighty empire. (Sarojini Devi: British Political Agency in Manipur, 1835 -1947) One can say that the events occurred from 22-25 March, 1891 were really tragic. The friendship between the two countries had been destroyed by tactless and arrogant Mr. Quinton. It was also the disaster for the British prestige in India and tiny Manipur did not comply in the foul play and pressure threats of Mr. Quinton.

The execution of British officers was the immediate cause for the outbreak of Anglo-Manipur war. Thus, the outbreak of internal quarrel among the royal princes, the attempt of the British to arrest Tikendrajit, and execution of British officers had laid the unavoidable basic foundation for this terrible event. Due to this accumulating wrong policy of the ruling elite, the people of this state obtained such type of bad luck. (Singh 2002: 70-71)

When the news of the execution of five British officers reached Calcutta, the British government sent three columns of troops to Manipur. They advanced simultaneously by the first week of April 1891 from Kohima under Major General Collet, Silchar under Lt. Col. R.J.H Rennick and Tamu under Brigadier General T. Graham. Major General Collet was the commander of the whole invading army. It appears that Manipur was not psychologically prepared for a big war against the British Empire. But the war was forced on her and she had to fight it out. In the war that followed the Manipuris fought bravely to defend the honor and independence of their motherland. Learning the news of the advance of British force from three directions, the Maharaja sent eight hundred soldiers towards the north to check the advance British column coming from Kohima. Another one thousand soldiers were sent to resist the British forces coming from Cachar and seven hundred soldiers sent to oppose the advance of British column from Tamu. The main theatre of the Anglo-Manipur war was in the south east of Manipur, where was fought one of the battles of the war of Manipur’s independence which was a saga of heroism and patriotism of the great warriors of the country who fought against heavy odds, the outcome of which was a foregone conclusion. At this critical time, the Maharaja promoted Paona Brajabasi and Chongtha Mia Singh to the post of major and reinforced the Manipuri forces with another four hundred soldiers under the command of the two majors. The greatest battle was fought at Khongjom on 25 April, 1891. The Manipur camp at Khongjom was defended by majors Paona and Chongtha Mia who earned immortal fame in the famous battle of Khongjom. (Dena 2008:42) The Manipuri forces were outnumbered and the enemy was superior in arms too. Those were the days when the sun never set in British Empire. A little Kingdom like Manipur could not hope to meet the resourceful of the British located in their Indian Empire. (R.K. Jhalajit 1965:286) It is a historical fact that the Manipuris fought bravely against the British forces for their motherland. According to local version, about 400 Manipuri warriors were killed and the British too suffered very losses. The fall of Khongjom is the turning point in the history of Manipur. On 27 April the British entered Imphal and occupied the palace, sounding the death knell of whatever sovereign power Manipur had enjoyed. On the day itself the union jack flag was hoisted over the palace of Manipur. As a mark of victory, the British soldiers had blown up the masonry dragon which stood at the entrance of the Durbar hall.

All the wanted men including Jubraj Tikendrajit Singh and Thangal General were arrested by 23 May 1891. Then, they were put to a farcical trial and charged with waging war against the Supreme Government and murder of white officers. Thus, on 13th August 1891 Tikendrajit Singh and Thangal General were hanged at Imphal at 5 pm in presence of Chief political officer, Manipur field force before an open space of about eight thousand Manipuris. After hanging for one hour, A. Coleman, surgeon, the senior medical officer examined the body and pronounced life to be extinct. (N. Khelchandra, Documents of Anglo-Manipur War, part-II) Kulachandra and Angousana were transported for life to the island of Andaman. (J. Roy 1973:133) Niranjan Subedar, Kajao and Charang Thangal (Chirai) were also hanged on various charges. The war ended. Gangmumei Kamei observes thus: “Manipur independence and sovereignty which were so long preserved throughout the centuries had now lost. One need not enter again the justice or injustice of the British action; it was application of the old adage that might is right which was the foundation of the British imperialism throughout the world.”

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*The article was written by Budha Kamei

(Courtesy: The Sangai Express)

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