A brief note on the Anglo - Manipuri War- 1891
- Manipur's National Liberation Struggle -

Manipuri Sahitya Parishad, Assam *

Mao Zedong, the Communist Leader of China's Revolution wrote about the Asian Peoples Liberation Struggles against the white imperial powers of Europe. He included the struggle of the people of Manipur against the British Empire in the 19th century as a second phase of the Asian peoples national liberation struggles bracketed with the 19th century movements in Cambodia, the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations in the 19th century.

For Mao Zedong, the Asian peoples continually fought against domination and subjugation by white imperial forces against yellow Asian peoples since the Opium War of 1860's. Periodic risings against imperial forces helped the awakening of the Asians for liberating themselves against colonialism and imperialism. Manipur's fight against the British Empire was one such saga of the peoples sacrifice for ultimate freedom and liberty.

In 1891 Manipur, an Asiatic sovereign state in alliance with the British Empire was invaded from three sides by the British imperial forces. On April 11, Her Majesty's Government of India declared war against Manipur on the grounds of waging war against Her Majesty the Queen Empress and for murdering British Officials who went to Manipur in March 1891.

The soldiers of Manipur fought against the militarily superior forces. In the last Battle of Khongjom, in April the heroic sons of Manipur rushed out from the entrenched stockades and engaged in a brutal hand to hand fight against British and Gurkha soldiers from 8 A.M in the morning till 5 PM in the evening. The Khongjom River ran red with blood. Some 150 (one hundred fifty patriots) lost their lives including the great patriot Paona Brajabasi.

The Gurkha Regiments who succeeded in the battle still celebrate their victories, but remember the battle as one of the hardest battles they had ever fought in their chequered history as soldiers of Her Imperial Majesty. For the colonial forces It was one brilliant saga of imperial expansion with courage and bravery, while from the point of view of the people of Manipur it was a heroic sacrifice for the cause of freedom. Yubraj Tikendrajit and Thangal General were hanged on August 13, 1891, which we now observe as 'Patriots Day' .

The people of Manipur celebrate these events as great moments of the peoples revolutionary struggle though the Manipur Government's take over of the celebrations of Khongjom Day in April and Patriots Day in August, had diluted the original meaning of these events. It was a handful of young Manipuri patriots who recovered the importance of these events in the late seventies when they organized cycle rallies, did social service at Khongjom and organized Patriots Day functions as against virtual neglect and indifference by the Indian Government in their take over of Manipur's destiny by a covert annexation of the state in 1949.

Going back to those fateful events of the 19th century would remind the young generation of the current century about the struggle by their forefathers to preserve the freedom and independence of their state, country and people and of how they perceived the relentless forces of imperialism that threatened their independence. It was known that till the 19th century Manipur was an independent Asiatic state playing a meaningful role in the geo-politics of the region. The polity which they organized was based on principles of blood and kin, and through marriages of princesses in the independent kingdoms of the Ahoms (Assam), the Tripuris, the Dimasas and the Burmese.

Manipur preserved harmonious inter-state relations amongst the peoples of the northeast. However, because of tremendous rise of the forces of Burma in South and Southeast Asia as an Imperial power Manipur became a thorn in the schemes of the Burmese kings in their world ambitions of domination. The rise of Burma with an idea of expansion towards the south and the west throughout the 18th century led to a serious confrontation between Manipur and Burma. Relentless aggression by the Burmese in the middle of the 18th century led to the flight of the Manipur king Bhagyachandra (1764-1798) to take shelter in the court of the Ahom king three times.

The Ahom king Swargadeo Rajeshwar Singh supported the Manipur king to help fight the wars of liberation against the Burmese, but the creeper cutting expeditions of the late 18th century was put into difficulty in forging new routes through Angami tenitories, but Bhagyachandra managed to liberate Manipur through ethnic hill-men supporting him in the fight against the Burmese in the seventeen seventies.

Manipur was finally. Liberated in 1770 AD. Bhagyachandra was constantly on the run some three times in his political career, but he managed to thwart Burmese ambitions towards Manipur. The constant devastations Manipur underwent through Burmese depredations led Bhagyachandra to undertake a unique diplomatic action which had tremendous repercussions in the future, namely the seeking for support for another imperial and colonial power, namely the British.

One remembers that the advent of Robert Clive and his success against Shiraj Uddaula of Bengal in 1757 was to lay the foundation for the beginning of the British Indian Empire. From an innocuous trading foreign company in Indian soil the East India Company was transformed into a military and political power. And by 1817 AD. The British East India Company became a virtual ruler of India through intrigue, war and defeat of various regional forces.

Manipur as a native independent state was aware of the military strength and resources of gun powder of the British forces, and the harsh realities of the Burmese engagements led them to think of seeking foreign support in the form on alliance with the British. Thus in 1762 AD. through the help of his Bengali officials in his court, a treaty of alliance was effected with the Government of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. Mr Vansittart as Governor General entered into a treaty with Manipur, where Bhagyachandra offered gold and precious land for effecting a fortress in Manipur in lieu of support for the war against Burma. In 1764, a military expedition was organized which reached Khaspur in Cachar, but unsolicitous climate and difficult terrain plus an imminent war with the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam prevented the British to concretize the war.

What was promised in the late 18th century, the alliance was put into fruition through changed circumstances in the first decade of the 19th century. This time Manipur was devastated by the Burmese, which was known in history as the seven years devastation (1819-1826). The majority of the population was to witness an exodus to the Barak plains and Manipur suffered a population loss at home, reduced to some four thousand souls in the valley, and tremendous suffering was induced by the Burmese occupation. Similar fate awaited Assam.

For the British in India, it was great moments of victory over native Indian forces, and victory over the third Anglo-Maratha war in 1817 made the British rulers over India. The conquest of the Indian heartland made the British desirous of consolidating the borders of their empire. The rest of the years, the East India Company sought to secure the frontiers of Her Empire both to the east and to the west. To the east, they gradually tried to secure the eastern borders which led to the first Anglo-Burmese war of 1824-26. And in the west, they secured and annexed Punjab in 1848, and sought influence in the northwest through Afgan expeditions. In the north they secured, Tibet in 1904.

The Treaty of Yandaboo 1826 signed with the Burmese brought independence to Manipur but secured lower Assam for the British East India Company. They formally annexed lower Assam in 1828, got the district of Cachar in 1832 AD. Upper Assam was secured in 1848, and the British penetrated into the hills of the Naga people, reaching Kohima in 1866. The Lushais (Mizos) were brought under British influence in 1872. Earlier slow penetration into Burma was effected and by 1852 AD, lower Burma was captured in 1852, and upper Burma in 1885 AD. Manipur was the only independent state left untouched by 1890, and there was no logic for Manipur remaining independent.

The struggle against the British Empire In 1891 was significant for other ethnic neighbours in the northeast. For imperial penetration was so overwhelming, but indigenous peoples had to fight for freedom against colonialism and imperialism alone. Certain internal as well a historical problems of the northeast helped in British expansion towards the northeast, though the native kingdoms of northeast were independent of each other and had independent relations with foreign neighbours.

Not much insight was available to understand the true character of the colonial powers Immediate enmity and hostility against regional forces like the Burmese made these vulnerable kingdoms in the northeast to seek immediate relief from the more militarily and technologically advanced western power. Manipur had some sort of friendly relation with British India since 1826 AD. A political residency was established in Imphal since 1835 AD.

Most of the British officials sent to Imphal helped In sorting out issues of boundaries of the native states, became cartographic experts exploring the difficult mountainous terrain, understanding the courses of the rivers and conditions of the water bodies, doing censuses of population and exploring the resources of the regions. The official formal duties were prevention of hostilities amongst the various autochthons, ensure security and maintain friendly relations. But the major thrust of the colonial power was to exploit indigenous resources like tea, jute, timber and forest products to embellish the coffers of the empire.

Civilizational connections was to educate the natives in the knowledge of the world and provide moral life through the religious teaching of the Bible, but the actual agenda of the colonial empire was to ensure more and more revenues to the empire and subjugate native states and peoples towards this end. The desire to help the Manipuris in 1760's was not altruistic reasons to support independence of Manipur, but to seek a route overland to China to pursue the sinister tasks of selling opium to China from the opium fields of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. The expeditions to the Naga hills were for providing security to the enormous number of the tea plantations being established in the Brahmaputra regions, and enforcing order of the British empire amongst recalcitrant tribes in the northeast.

Here Manipur, by virtue of it's own internal weaknesses fell prey to the insinuations of the officials of the British Empire. In order to secure the stability of the lineage rule, and to secure prolongation of Gambhir Singh's dynasty, pretenders to the throne had to be eliminated and numerous rebellions in the state had to be suppressed . This kind of periodic troubles along with threats from the eastern directions, the Manipuris tended to become supplicants to the British Empire.

In order to secure legitimacy of occupants to the throne, the British Empire's recognition and protection became compulsory. This sort of military and political power of British which was rapidly transforming the political and demographic scenario of the northeast led to most of the independent states of the northeast becoming dependents to the colonial power and becoming slave of the Empire.

Thus the British were empowered to play a sinister game of providing ethnic division in the northeast. Manipur was also witnessing a deep social and economic explosion through tribal movements in the 19th century. Diasporas and migrations of various tribes were subjugated by the British in the name of security of the empire. Manipur became a willing ally to the British scheme because of British help in the liberation of te state from Burmese. Manipur helped in the war against the Burmese in 1852 and 1885 AD.

Manipur helped in the subjugation, if the Naga tribes in 1833 AD 1879 AD, and also the Lushai tribes in 1871-72 A.D. Most of the neighbouring tribal communities had an uneasy relationships with the Manipur state, though the state had an indigenous way of dealing with the indigenous communities through traditions and custom. Earlier wars were fought and mutual depredations were the norm. But, there were plenty of room for peace pipes and mutual settlement of conflict. The Manipur state took active measures to regulate incoming tribal populations, chastised them for disobedience to the state, but tribal communities were given lands in the valley geography, and officials who had blood and other sanguinary relations with the tribal communities were given tasks of controlling and regulating tribal affairs. The indigenous nobility were deeply suspicious against major British dignitaries. Native spies were kept to do surveillance against their activities. There were suspicions of their attitudes towards Manipuri women. Also they objected to arrogant behaviour by British dignitaries.

Once Col. Johnstone remonstrated against Manipuri soldiers who in firing practice nearly shot Johnstone while riding a pony. When asked to explain such in-discriminatory fire by the Manipuri sepoys. Thangal General retorted to the Sahib, "If you ride in the line of fire, you must expect to be shot". Indeed throughout the sixty or seventy odd years of Manipur British friendship, there were disputes, disagreements and objections to activities of the British subjects (notably Indians), and the activities of officials of the Bombay-Burma Trading Corporation dealing with teak and other forest resources of Burma were suspiciously treated by the Manipur nobility. Though Manipur officials had plenty of patriotic love for the state, it became impossible to resist manouvres by the British Empire compromising the dignity of the native state.

Kabo Valley was gifted away to the recalcitrant Burmese in 1834 AD. Ethnicity as a conscious political resources was deliberately played upon by the British to keep the natives divided which as a legacy was played upon in more sinister fashion by the successor state India. Christianity as a religious liberating principle, though good for modernizing values, however was associated with distrust for indigenous and other religions. Hindu religious orthodoxy from the Manipur population in the valley also left the state isolated in more sinister political developments in the coming years. Manipur was to reap vast insurmountable tragic legacies as a result of relationship with and dependency on the colonial empire. Loss of independence and freedom created the historical need for recovery of the ancient values of freedom and self-rule which shall open vast avenues of indigenous development without external control and subjugation. The Anglo-Manipur war of 1891 left this valuable lessons for posterity.

The sinister interventions of colonialism's relentless violations of native values and principles, the divorce of ethnic values in political decision making which came into conflict with native wisdom and dignity, and the rash and arrogant disrespect to native traditions brought the inevitable clash between the native state and the colonial power. The over-bearing and haughty attitude of the imperial officials and subjects and their ruthless defiance of native traditions and custom led to the confrontation leading to physical violence and war. The Manipuris is fact were never thinking in terms of a war with a mighty power like the British. But , once challenged, the patriots of Manipur never shied away from responsibilities of patriotism, in-spite of internal differences they willfully laid down their lives in the struggle to preserve their freedom and dignity.

Let us go back brietly to the historical events that led to the Anglo-Manipur war of 1891. Here the Manipur patriots experienced the deep anxieties and uncertainties from events which they could no longer regulate and control. But they lived up to the challenges to their dignity and gave the sacrifices which future generations to uphold. Events unfolded when in September 1890, the sons of the late Maharaja Chandrakirti (1850-1886) became divided into factions, and a palace coup engineered by Senapati Tikendrajit led to the overthrow of the regime of his uterine brother and successor of Chandrakirtl Maharaj Surchandra (1886-1890).

The Maharaj Surchandra took shelter in the Political Residency of the British Empire (the Governor's Residency) under the auspices of the British Political Agent Mr. Grimwood. The Maharaj pleaded to Tikendrajit to allow him to make the religious pilgrimage to Brindavan, for which provisions were made by the new incumbents. He along with his other loyal brothers left for Calcutta, and instead of proceeding to Brindavan pleaded to the British power to help him regain his throne. Meanwhile at home, Rajkumar Kulachandra was crowned king through the support of the council and the people. Official appointments were made for the new Government, Senapati Tikendrajit being promoted to Yubraj.

Official letters were written to the Governor General in Council Lord Landsdowne to recognize Kulachandra as Surchandra had abdicated, life and efficient governance went on, amidst rumours and uncertainties. For some six months nothing of importance occurred, except that in March a contingent of British soldiers and sepoys under Chief Commissioner of Assam was reaching Manipur on the 22nd March 1891. Some Tikendrajit supporters from Calcutta sent telegrams that a large tiger was about to be bagged from Manipur.

However, all dignified arrangements were made to receive the British dignitary. A contingent of Manipuri soldiers under Thangal General was sent to Mao to receive the guests and escort them to Imphal. Another contingent was sent to Sekmai, with the Yubra Tikendrajit himself participating in the reception. Little did he know that Chief Commissioner Quinton had a sinister plan to arrest and deport him outside of Manipur. The visiting dignitaries were received with customary honour, with incense, sugarcane and banana plants adoning the routes. A guard-of-honour received him at the western gate of Kangla. Mr. Quinton greeted the princes and asked them to be present at the Durbar at the British Residency at 12 noon.

When the princes arrived there was no Durbar. Feverish translation was attempted to translate the order of arrest of Yubraj Tikendrajit, and the recognition of Kulachandra as the Maharaj. Yubraj Tikendrajit sensing troubles excused himself and went back to the palace. When the Manipuri princes and ministers were allowed in the Residency, there was no Tikendrajit and the Durbarr was postponed. The next day no Durbar could be organized since the Yubraj was unwell. Mr Grimwood was sent then to negotiate with the king to surrender Ttkendrajit, but nothing materialized. It was in this not consider some very serious questions about our common destiny because of our habitat, geography, blood and ethnic connections and our common cultures.

The sinister role of imperialists and then: hidden motive for subjugation and exploitation of our common peoples and economies were unknown to us by those days. But one should learn from our historical mistakes, we must know that quarrels, suspicions and ethnic rivalries only weaken us small nations against powerful enemies who would oppress us equally. Global forces now are more insidious and more dangerous than the imperialists of the 19th century. Centuries of our struggles had made us brave, but knowledge of our struggles should make us wiser and stronger to unite and to face common enemies\ together.

* This article was Issued by Manipuri Sahitya Parishad, Assam (Nagaon District Committee, Hoaji)) and published at Hueiyen Lanpao (English Edition)
This article was webcasted on March 30, 2011.

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