The Anglo-Manipur War of 1891 - a Reflection

Dr. Kakchingtabam Ruhinikumar Sharma *

 Heikat-Leikat : 129th Patriots' Day  at Kangla  :: 13 August 2020
Heikat-Leikat : 129th Patriots' Day at Kangla on 13 August 2020 :: Pix - Lamdamba Oinam

How does one assess an event that took place at the closing decades of the nineteenth century ? Today marks exactly 129 years since the momentous event of the Anglo-Manipur War of 1891.

A small Asiatic kingdom went down fighting the mighty British imperialists in an unmatched fight but she still came out holding her head high. This story is about Manipur, an erstwhile ancient kingdom in South-east Asia, now the easternmost state of India Union and its engagement with the British Indian empire, whose echoes reverberated in both the Houses of British parliament during the months of May and June 1891, where the high and mighty members sitting in the treasury benches were forced to swallow criticism after criticism for the ill-advised actions of sending a punitive expedition which ended disastrously.

Even in the school textbooks of Britain, they admitted the folly committed by the dramatis personae and questioned 'the wisdom of the attempt to change the Government, and the conduct of Mr. Quinton in planning the secret apprehension of the Minister (Tekendrajit), were severely criticised ... '.

Since the events of the Anglo-Manipur war has been told many a time, it is not the intention of the writer to dwell on the issue but what concerns us is the perception of the event. Both apologists and critics of British imperial rule dwelt at length regarding the cause, course of events, nature and character and aftermath of the war or uprising.

To the imperialists, Manipur was a subordinate ally of the Queen Empress of India who rebelled against the Empire by mercilessly killing high ranking British officials at a single instance which, according to the British called for immediate justice and revenge, hence the reason for invading the kingdom of Manipur as a befitting reply.

To the Manipuris, it was the repeated interference on the part of the British authorities in the internal affairs of the kingdom which not only needed to be checked but also to teach a befitting lesson to those who betrayed the trust reposed on them by invading the Manipur palace, desecrating places of worship, and also for killing innocent persons including women and children.

This narrative founds ready acceptance among a large segment of people since it was popularised through art forms like theatre, courtyard plays and a new genre of folk ballad popularly known as Khongjom Parva touching upon valour, sacrifices and subsequent defeat of the native people in an unmatched fight with the mighty British Empire. Generation after generation of Manipuri nationalists have drawn their inspiration from the 1891 saga.

From the 70s of the 20th century Manipur and Manipuri diaspora has been observing the events' of 1891 with religiosity at the institutional and civil society level. Since our younger days it has been made to understand that two important events that shaped the course of Manipur history viz, Chahi Taret Khuntakpa (Seven Year Devastation, 1819-1826) and Anglo-Manipur War, 1891 were the results of lust of power within the royal family resulting in disunity ultimately leading to the defeat of Manipuris in the hands of Burma and British respectively.

These simplistic explanations have in the long run undermined the narrative of the entire history of this mountain kingdom which has a glorious legacy of being a historically evolved entity unlike some of her neighbours and other native states of India.

Here, it may not be out of context to state that the first half of eighteenth century witnessed the zenith of power and glory of Manipur kingdom and further consolidation of the polity while the latter half of the century was marked by the beginning of the structural decline as a result of the internal dynamics of the power structure which continued in the nineteenth century till the British conquest of Manipur in 1891 A.D.

External factors like the growing imperialist and expansionist interests of the Burmese rulers on one hand and strategic and commercial interests of the British India government on the other also played crucial roles in her eventual decline.

The emerging geo-politics of Southeast Asia coupled with the Burmese nationalism under the successive Konbaung kings which was xenophobic in character was able to fish in the troubled waters of Manipur by giving shelter to a fugitive Meitei prince having high political ambitions and subsequently placing him in the throne of the land thereby converting the kingdom into a tributary state of Burma.

However the short-lived cosy relationship established between the two turned sour as the latter was not prepared to accept Burmese suzerainty while Burma had larger political ambition of establishing control over the entire north eastern frontier of India.

Thus from 1891 onwards Burma embarked on a grand plan of conquering the entire region in which Manipur was the first country to face the onslaught of Burmese imperialism. Because of the Burmese depredations Manipur was not only devastated but also depopulated that resulted in large scale depopulation.

Despite these setbacks in her history the kingdom was able to restore her freedom due to the efforts of Gambhir Singh and Nar Singh by obtaining material support from British East India Company aided by Herachandra's sustained campaign through guerrilla warfare.

By the Treaty of Yandaboo, 1826 signed between Burma and British East India Company the international personality of Manipur as a sovereign kingdom was restored. Yet, therein lay the crux of the problem of shaping Manipur-British relations.

To the British, Manipur was a dependent state which enjoyed its entity on their protection while the Manipuris felt her indebtedness to the British for the assistance rendered in her war of liberation. Such a feeling of gratitude goaded Manipur to come to the rescue of the British whenever they encountered troubles in its dealing with the frontier tribes like Khasis, Lushais and Nagas in the Naga Hills.

The official business between Manipur and British India was formally conducted through the British Political Agent based at Imphal and Manipuri agents posted at Calcutta and Lakhimpur. The status of Manipur just before the outbreak of 1891 war is best summed up by Surendra Nath Mitra in his 'The Manipur War' (published from Calcutta, September, 1891).

He wrote;
"This beautiful little state was virtually independent of the Government of India. It has never paid a single cowrie as tribute to the Paramount Power. But being very close to, and in fact, surrounded by British India, it has always sought to win the good-will, and cultivate the friendship of the British. Its political status was far better than that of any other Native State in India.

Hyderabad with its vast resources does not enjoy one-tenth of the independence which this country enjoyed until the entry of British soldiers in Imphal on the 27th April 1891. It was as independent as the State of Nepal or of Afghanistan.

The British authorities were taking up a unilateral role of big brother to intervene in the affairs of a country which had been in friendly terms for which they had to face ignominy from the public even in their father country. The colonial and imperial policy of 'one size fits all' fails to work in the case of Manipur in 1891.

* Dr. Kakchingtabam Ruhinikumar Sharma wrote this article for Imphal Times
The writer can be contacted at kruhinikumar(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on August 15 2020 .

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