A review of the political status of Manipur

Dr. Kh.Ibochou Singh *

The Anglo-Manipuri War of 1891 was the last that Manipur had fought as an independent nation against any foreign power. After the conclusion of the first Anglo Burmese War by an article of the Treaty of Yandaboo, 1826 the independent political status of Manipur was restored with Gambhir Singh as its king. This was after the traumatic experience of the Seven Years' Devastation (1819-26) that the people of Manipur suffered at the hands of the Burmese.

In recognition of the heroic contribution of Gambhir Singh in driving away the Burmese from Cachar and Manipur during the First Anglo-Burmese War and in pursuit of the considerate British policy of maintaining Manipur as an independent buffer state, Burma and the British territory in North East India, the British authorities were most likely, prompted to guarantee the said political status of Manipur.

Before embarking on the subject I think it shall be proper to make a little clarification of what connotation can the term 'War' convey. During the course of such an event the independence of the opposing nations is at stake. Consequently, under the "right of conquest' the victor nation can dictate terms over the vanquished even for annexing territory of the latter. Thus, the defeated nation loses its independence. It is unlike the American War of Independence wherein the American colonies tried to free themselves from the British yoke.

Prior to the outbreak of the said war of 1891, the political status of Manipur did not attract attention from any quarter. But events immediately preceding it and those that follow have raised many questions of which the following arc the most pertinent:

  1. Is the British intervention in Manipur justifiable?
  2. Is Manipur to blame for the so called 'act of treachery' in killing British officers?
  3. Is it proper to annex Manipur on charge of 'waging war'?
  4. Can British laws be applied at the trial of Manipuri prisoners of war?
If the subordinate status of Manipur can be proved, then the British intervention is justifiable if other wise, such an act amounts to gross encroachment and entirely unjustifiable. Here conflicting views have cropped up and they are discussed below with an objective conclusion drawn therefrom.

The first is that of the British or pro-Briitish camp. According to them, the British intervention in Manipur affairs is justiable as Manipur was a subordinate state under the British Government of India. The second view, on the other hand, is that of the Nationalist Indian camp. They contend that Manipur was an independent state. So, the British had no juridical authority to interfere in Manipur. Such differene of views was hotly debated not only in India, but also among the British Parliamentarians themselves as it figured before the Parliament in London. To have a full perspective retrospect the historical events that led to the Anglo Manipuri War in 1891.

The British East India Company Government (later Govt. of India) and Gambhir Singh had an alliance since 1824 in lighting a common foe, the Burmese. With the defeat of the Burmese in the First Anglo-Burmese was in 1826, under Article 2 of the Treaty of Yandaboo, 1826 Gamhhir Singh was made king of Manipur which was recognised to be an independent State.

In 1833 the Jiri Treaty was signed between Gambhir Singh and the British Government. In 1834 the British and the Burmese signed the Kabo Valley Treaty, ceding Kabo Valley, a part of Manipur's territory, to the Burmese. In lieu of it, the British agreed to pay 500 sicca rupees per month to the Government of Manipur. It was also provided that payment of the said compensation would cease as and when Kabo Valley was reproceded to Manipur.

In 1835 the British Political Agency was established in Manipur. Between 1826 and 1850 there had been changes of kings on the throne of Manipur. Between 1826 and 1850 there had been changes of kings on the throne of Manipur. Between 1826 and 1850 there had been changes of kings on the throne of Manipur. The British recognised the reigning kings without expressing their likes or dislikes.

In 1851, during the reign of Chandrakirti Singh, the British declared Manipur as a protectorate on their own. Since then the two Governments had been rendering mutual assistance as situation demanded from lime to time. Even after the death of Maharaja Chandrakirti Singh the British continued their earlier policy of recognizing the reigning kings of Manipur.

In 1886 Maharaja Chandrakirti Singh died. He was succeeded by his eldest son, Surchandra Singh, But, in 1890 an unhappy dissention between the two groups of Manipuri princes occurred. Senapati Tikendrajit Singh engineered a revolt against the ruling king - Surchandra Singh. The later fled and took shelter in the British Residency at Imphal. But Mr. Grimwood, the Political Agent did not act impartially.

At last, Surchandra Singh even feeling not safe in the Residency requested the Political Agent to make arrangement for his journey to Brindaban. Then Kulachandra ascended the throne and Tikendrajit was made Yubaraj. After reaching Calcutta. Surchandra lodged a complain to the British Govt, at Fort William staling that he had been forcibly dethroned by his brothers. He also requested or British help to regain the throne.

The Government of India, after collecting report in detail, decided to recognize Kulachandra Singh as King and to punish Tikendrajit Singh with transportation. Mr. Quinton the Chief Commissioner of Assam, was instructed to visit Manipur personally with a force and settle the issue as per decision of the Government of India. Having proved all his plans to arrest Tikendrajit without bloodshed a failure. Mr.Quinton ordered the British troops to attack the residence of Yubraj Tikendrajit Singh inside the place enclosure. Exchange of shots ensued between the British and the Manipuri troops.

As there were family quarters inside the compound, many innocent Manipuri women and children were also killed during the fight besides heavy casualties and bloodshed on both sides. Ultimately Mr. Quinton proposed a truce. The Chief Commissioner, accompanied by the Political Agent and other three officers, entered the palace for negotiation. But no amicable settlement could be arrived at. As the British officers were coming out, Kajao Singh, an infuriated Manipuri. speared Grimwood to death.

The angry crowd demanded punishment of the British officers for the unprovoked cruel attack killing innocent people. In response, the British officers were executed. On hearing the news, the British sent their forces from three directions The Tamu column under General Graham, the Kohima column under General Collett and the Silchar column under Colonel Rennick. Thus, the Anglo-Manipuri War of 1891 broke out.

The views of the British or pro-British camp were expounded in India through the Anglo-Indian newspapers like, the Englishmen, the Pioneer, etc. Vindicating the British case, they held that Manipur was liberated from Burmese by the British and Gambhir Singh was made Raja of Manipur only with British favour. So, Gambhir Singh owed allegiance to the British. Further, it had been claimed that the kings had been under British protection. So, Manipur was a subordinate state under the British and not an independent one. The British Government, therefore, had full right to intervene in Manipur affairs even to the extent of settling the succession. Any resistance to the British force was tantamount to an act of rebellion against the Queen.

Based on the above points it was contended that, on account of the rebellion, the state deserved annexation. Mr. W.E. Ward, the Chief Commissioner of Assam, recommended annexion: "I feel it impossible to recommend to the Government of India anything short of annexation pure and simple. Financial consideration should not be allowed short of annexation pure and simple. Financial consideration should not be allowed to Stand in the way".

Advocating the case of annexation, it had been argued that the Queen's Proclamation of 1858, not to annex Indian territory, should not prove a hurdle to annexation of Manipur as Manipur was outside the limits of India like Burma; and that Burma was not a part of India. Regarding the killing of British officers it was treated as an act of treachery deserving befitting punishments. They were charged with murder and were to be tried under English laws by special courts constituted for the purpose.

The Nationalist Indian camp, contrary to the above view, had the firm conviction that Manipur was an independent slate before 1891. So according to them, the British Interference was unjustified, The Indian newspapers like the Navayuga, the Dainik-O-Samachar, Chandrika, the Samaya, the Sanjitvani, the Dacca Prakash, etc. served as mouth-piece of the Nationalist Indians. They pleaded that Manipur paid not tribute and no treaty had been entered into requiring to part with her independence. The British records like the Gazetteer of India by W. Hunter, Aitchison's Treaties, the works of Elphinstone has been consulted. Nothing was found to prove the contention of the Government that Manipur was a subordinate slate under the British Government of India. Manipur on her part, had not violated any treaty.

Regarding the killing of the British officers in Manipur, it had been seen that the British officers ended their lives for their own misdeeds killing innocent Manipuri women and children. Manipur had not revolted or waged war against the British. They look up arms only in self defence, the birth right for any people. Referring to the application of English laws while trying Manipuri prisioners, it was argued that in the absence of any proof that Manipuris were British subjects, it was improper to apply English laws.

They also expressed that there would have been better justice shown had the Manipuri princes been tried by a justice of the Calcutta High Court, instead of entrusting it to the military officers unfit for the purpose. On the annexation issue, they contended that Manipur had not committed any offence to suffer annexation. The 1891 ease of Anglo-Manipuri fight was referred to the case of Mysore wherein the British invaded Mysore and Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan defended their State, Tikendrajit was compared with Hyder Ali.

Even among the members of the Governor General's council in India opinions differed on certain issues. While the general inclination was to award death sentence on charge of revolt, some members expressed the doubt if death sentence could be passed on charge of revolt alone. They preferred the change of murder to that of revolt for awarding death sentence to the Manipuris. As regards application of English laws, it was observed that though the Manipuris were convicted of revolt, The offence was not punishable under the laws of British India. Hon'ble P.P. Hutchin may be quoted: "The Penal Code has no legal force in the matter. It could be simple guide in exercise of purely arbitrary power".

The Manipur events were the subject of discussion in the two Houses of the British Parliament in June,1891. Sir William Harcourt and Lord Cross, the Secretary of State of India, had expressed disapproval to the plan of arresting Tikendrajit at a Durbar without informing of the Government's intention to arrest him. Lord Ripon. the ex-Viceroy, criticized the decision of the Government of India and called it an unsatisfactory compromise between two courses. There was inconsistency in recognizing the revolt by deporting Tikendrajit. There was opposition on the issue of annexation as well. Lord Northbook. Lord Ripon, Lord Kimberley and Lord Derby had argued against annexation.

On the other hand, the official side was bent upon forfeiting the right of Manipur to exist as a state, and consequently, annexing it. The final outcome was that the state was regranted to a Native Raja as a mark of Clemency with a Sanad and an annual tribute of Rs. 50.000/- was imposed. It follows from the above discussions that Manipur was an independent state before the 1891 War with the British. It is clear that Manipur did not pay in 1891. No Sanad was issued to any ruler of Manipur. There is no document that might prove subordinate state of Manipur.

It may here be recalled what Capt. Durand, the Officiating Political Agent after the death of Dr. Brown in 1875 said: "The Political Agent is dependent on the will and pleasure of the Maharaja for everything, His very word and movement are known to the Maharaja. He is in fact a British Officer under Manipur surveillance. If the Maharaja is not pleased with the Political Agent he cannot get anything......The court is openly hostile, though they have pliancy enough to pretend to a great regard for the Political Agent and the Sirkar".

However, the British, by dint of their sheer might and power, encroached upon the right of Manipur state. Manipur, being a comparatively weak State, tried to avoid confrontation as far as possible. The British misunderstood it as a mark of yielding to subordination. When such interference went beyond the limit of tolerance. Manipuris exhibited their wrath and exerted their right by challenging the mighty British power.

The contention that Manipur was an independent state before 1891 maybe reinforce by (the documents enumerated below :
  1. On the eve of the Anglo-Burmese War in 1824, the British Government decided to establish Manipur as an independent buffer........between Burma and the British in make British interests more...........letter to David Scott, Mr. Swinion..............the Govt, of India wrote: His Lordship in Council is decidedly of the opinion that the favourable opportunity should not lose for enabling a friendly Chief like Gambhir Singh to establish and regain independent Government between us and the assisting Gambhir Singh to recover Manipur........we should impose most powerful and effectual check on the Burmese.
  2. In 1826, just after the Treaty of Yandaboo Mr. Crawford, the first British Resident at Ava (Burma), had declared before the Court of Ava that In respect of Manipur, Gambhir Singh is declared by the Treaty to be sovereign thereof.......Manipur is therefore an independent courtry.
  3. The British Political Agency in Manipur was opened under the Government of Bengal in 1835. But, soon after, in 1836, the same Political Agency was transferred under the Government of India on the ground that it was connected with a foreign and independent state.
  4. While "prosecuting Kaifa Singh for his attempted revolt against Chandrakirti Singh, Manipur has been referred to as an "Asiatic Power in Alliance with the Queen".
  5. On the request of Sir James Johnstone, Political Agent in Manipur, Dr. George Watt, Medical Officer, Manipur Survey, wrote a letter to the D.P.I., Bengal requesting for financial assistance for establishing schools in Manipur. In that letter the independent status of Manipur is clearly mentioned as he wrote, In requesting your aid, the Political Agent is aware that (Manipur being an independent slate) this educational scheme might be considered beyond Your power.
  6. In the published works and reports of C.U. Aitchison, Colonel McCullock, Dr. R. Brown. James George Scott, had been mentioned that Manipur was an independent state.
  7. In his report to the Chief Commissioner of Assam, Major J. Shakespear, Political Agent in Manipur, wrote in 1905 that Manipur was independent before 1891.
In spite of these facts, the British had tried to impose on many occasions, rules under terms of their own choice. British Paramountcy. Protectorate, Recognition. Doctrine of Lapse, etc.. were words coined by the British and interpreted them to their advantage. While applying these terms they always ignored International Law. But one need not be bound by the terms only because the British adopted them as laws. The righteousness and propriety of introducing and applying such terms should be properly examined.

Obviously the terms smack of the claim of "Might is Right". Interference in the state affairs on grounds of Protection and Recognition was quite unjustified and unwarranted as there was no precondition attached at the time of initiating such terms.

To sum up, Manipur was an independent state before 1891. She had her own defence force under the traditional Lallup system. She had her own currency in circulation called 'Sel". Its circulation was stopped only in 1893 by an order of the Political Agent in Manipur. Manipur did not pay any tribute to the British authority. No Sanad was issued to the rulers before 1891.

Sanad was issued and treaties imposed on Manipur Only alter the 1891 War. The murder of the British officers was a step to teach the super powers a lesson that a mighty nation cannot, with impunity, interfere in the affairs of another independent nation, however meek and feeble it might be. Commencing on the event in Manipur a local paper in Bengal wrote.
"There had been events in Indian history since 1857. The lesson which the English Government had been taught by the Manipur disaster had no parallel". Marking the defeat of Manipur in the war, another newspaper wrote, "The Sun of independence which had been shining in the Manipur sky since the Dwapur Yuga went down forever on Monday last" (27 April)

References :
  1. Foreign Dept. Proceedings, Secret E, Oct., 1891, No. 133, note by the Chief Commissioner of Assam.
  2. ibid
  3. State Archives, Imphal,C ollection of Native News Papcrs, Bengal 12 April, 1891 to 25 June, 1891. Dainik-O-Samachar Chandrika, 10 May, 1891.
  4. ibid, Dacca Prakash, May31, 1891.
  5. ibid, the Sanjivani, May 30, 1891.
  6. ibid
  7. F.D.P.m Secret E, April,1891, No. 270-287. Observation by Mr. Harvey James
  8. F.D.P., Secret E, Oct. 1891, Letter from Hon'ble P.P. Hutchins to Lord Landsdowne, dated May 17,1891.
  9. Reid Robert, History of the Frontier Areas Bording on Assam, 1883-1941, Delhi, 1983, P.P. 65-70
  10. J. Clark, Précis of Correspondence regarding Manipur affairs, P. 23

* Dr. Kh.Ibochou Singh ( Retd. Addl. Director (U), Govt, of Manipur & Former Selection Grade Lecturer, Modern College, Imphal) wrote this for a Souviner called "Chahi Taret Khuntakpa Ningshing Numip".
This was released by Sanajaoba Leishemba - His Highness the Maharaja of Manipur.
Organised by : Chahi Taret Khuntakpa Ningshing Numit Celeberation Comittee, Hojai ( Sponsored by Manipur Shaitya Parishad, Hojai, Assam.)
This article was webcasted on October 03 2010.

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