The battle of Khongjom

By H Bhuban Singh *

I am tempted to write this article after attending a Two-Day Seminar on the theme "Life and Times of His Highness Maharaja Bodhchandra Singh (1941 - 1955)" organised by Manipur State Archives, Government of Manipur on July 24-25, 2010 at Kangla Hall, Imphal. I must admit that I attended the seminar on both days, since many things I did not know were revealed to me by other learned speakers. I thank Ms. Sushila, Joint Director, Manipur State Archives for organising the Seminar.

2. However, there were some controversies about the exact date/dates of the Battle of Khongjom. This controversy was compounded since the State Government of Manipur observe Khongjom Day on 23rd April every year. Therefore, a bit of background history leading to the Battle of Khongjom will be necessary to be understood.

3. Maharaja Chandrakirti Singh died in 1886 after ruling Manipur for 36 years. Before his death, he made arrangements for his eldest son, Surachandra Singh to be the Maharaja and be recognised as such, by the Government of India, which was duly done on the recommendation of Major General Sir James Johnstone K.C.S.I, the then British Political Agent in Manipur. In March 1886, but before Chandrakirti's death, Johnstone left Manipur on account of ill-health.

4. After Chandrakirti, Yuberaja Surachandra Singh became the Ruler of Manipur. He was a weak king and there were lots of intrigues in the Palace. On one night of September 1890, Prince Angousana climbed fencing wall of the Maharaja's Palace and fired a few shots. The Maharaja thinking that a full scale rebellion was forthcoming, fled to the Residency of the Political Agent, Mr. F. St. C. Grimwood, I.C.S., and requested the P.A. to restore him to the throne. The P.A. declined on the plea that he did not have sufficient force.

5. Not feeling safe even in the Residency, he requested to make arrangement for his journey to Brindaban. So, when Maharaja Surachandra Singh left Imphal, Yuberaj Kulachandra Singh ascended the throne in the winter of 1890.

6. But, the fugitive Maharaja appealed to the Chief Commissioner of Assam and ultimately to the Government of India at Calcutta for restoration of his throne. Finally, it was decided by the Government of India that Kulachandra might be recognised as the Maharaja of Manipur and Yuberaj Tikendrajit Singh who was suspected to be the main conspirator exiled.

7. The final order, after considerable correspondence and personal discussions issued by Government of India in their letter No. 360-E, dated 21st February 1891, were to the following effect:-
(a) that the Senapati (Tikendrajit) should be removed from Manipur.
(b) that the Jubraj, i.e., Kulachandra, should be recognised and that the ex-Raja (meaning Surachandra) should not be restored.
(c) that the Chief Commissioner should visit Manipur and make known on the spot the decision of the Governor General.

8. To implement the above decisions, the Government of India sent Mr. J.W. Quinton, C.S.I., I.C.S., Chief Commissioner of Assam. On the way he was joined by Lt. Col. C. Mc D. Skene D.S.O., commanding the 42nd Gurkha Rifles at Golaghat on March 7, 1891. The entire party along with troops of 42nd Gorkha Rifles arrived at Imphal on the morning of 22nd March 1891.

9. Immediately, a Durbar was ordered with a view to implement the decisions of the Government of India and arrest the Senapati, Prince Tikendrajit Singh, then and there. It was informed to the Palace that as the Durbar was an important one, the Maharaja (or Regent as far as the British were concerned) and all his brother Princes must attend.

10. The Maharaja and his brothers arrived on time but were told to wait at the Residency gate. The actual fact was that the Manipuri translation of the Government of India Order prepared by Shri Rashiklal Kundu was not ready. This should had been done at Golaghat on 7 March 1891. Chief Commissioner Quinton made a grave error. After waiting for more than half an hour in the hot sun, Tikendrajit the main targeted victim left for the Kangla Fort.

11. When the Durbar assembled a full two hours later, Mr. Quinton found that the most important prince, that is, Tikendrajit was missing. Word was sent to Tikendrajit to come to the Durbar. But he replied that he was too sick to attend.

12. So, the Durbar was postponed to 8 a.m. of 23rd Mrach 1891. Again, Tikendrajit expressed inability to attend due to sickness. Mr. Grimwood, the Political Agent who was friendly with Senapati Tikendrajit Singh tried to persuade Tikendrajit to attend the Durbar but failed, as the Senapati was really sick.

13. Mr. Quinton decided to use force. He had about 500 troops at his disposal. Though his other officers advised him to wait for the arrival of two companies (about 300 soldiers) of 43rd G.L.I (Gurkha Light Infantry) under Captain Cowley, who were expected in a day or two, but Mr. Quinton's decision prevailed.

14. Two small columns of troops consisting of 30 and 70 men under Lieutenant L.W. Brackenbury of 44th Gurkha Rifles and Captain Butcher of the 42nd Gurkha Rifles respectively with Lieutenant Lugard of the 42nd in support with 50 men were ordered to enter the Kangla Fort and arrest the Senapati on the early morning of the 24th March 1891.

15. These operations ended in complete failure. The Senapati was not found in his house and troops suffered heavy losses - 3 Gurkha other ranks being killed, Lieutenant Brakenbury was wounded fatally and subsequently died at the Residency. Lt. Lugard and 14 other ranks were wounded.

16. During the course of the day (24th March 1891) from early morning, the Residency was subjected to severe fire both from muskets and two 7-pounder guns. The existence of these considerable armaments is to some extent accounted for by the fact that during the Third and last Anglo-Burmese War (1885-86), Maharaja Chandrakirti Singh sent Generals Balaram and Thangal with 2400 Manipur troops in addition to Major General Johnstone's 50 Sepoys of Bengal Infantry. With this large force, Johnstone occupied Kendat province of Burma.

17. On the other front, Mandalay, the capital of Burma fell within 20 days of declaration of war. King Thibaw was captured and the war ended. Burma was finally annexed in 1886 by the British. Lord Dufferin, the then Viceroy of India praised Chandrakirti.

18. In recognition of the services rendered to British troops by Maharaja Chandrakirti Singh, the British Government at London conferred the title of KCSI (Knight Commander and Star of India) to Maharaja Chandrakirti Singh. Also the Government of India presented the Maharaja with four 7-pounder guns and 180 rounds of ammunition, six 3-pounders with sufficient rounds of ammunition, 200 Enfield Rifles and 60,000 rounds of ammunition and six Martinis and 1000 rounds of Martini ammunition for the Maharaja and his brothers. This background story of the military aid rendered by Maharaja Chandrakirti Singh during the last Anglo Burmese war and the presentation of mortars, 7-pounder and 3-pounders and Enfield rifles to the Maharaja can be found in GOC Assam's report dated 30th April 1891 at page 5 of E.I. (M) 1891, No. 4.

19. On the morning of 24th March 1891, the Residency was attacked by Manipur Royal Army under the order of Senapati Tikendrajit Singh. The small British force, under Capt. Butcher and Lt. Lugard (refer Para 14 above) occupying Tikendrajit's house withdrew to strengthen the Residency, which was heavily attacked.

20. Mr. Quinton called for a cease fire. He wanted to negotiate. The proposal was accepted by Maharaja Kulachandra Singh. In the evening, the following British officers left for Kangla Fort to negotiate:-
(a) Mr. J.W. Quinton, C.S.I, I.C.S., Chief Commissioner of Assam,
(b) Lt. Col. C. McD. Skene, D.S.O. Commanding Officer of 42nd Gurkha Rifles,
(c) Mr. F. St. C. Grimwood, I.C.S., the Political Agent, Manipur,
(d) Mr. W.H. Cossins, I.C.S., Assistant Secretary to the Chief Commissioner, and
(e) Lt. W.H. Simpson, 43rd Gurkha Rifles accompanied by a Gurkha orderly.

21.As negotiations failed, the excited Manipuris killed Mr. Grimwood, the main negotiator, who spoke Manipuri language. Since the P.A. had been killed, they decided to kill all the five British officers. When the Residency enquired, they were informed at midnight that the British officers might not return. But the Residency believed that they were taken as prisoners only for bargaining purposes.

22. Here, one can almost predict that Manipur lost her independence on 24th March 1891 since British Imperial Power could not be challenged by any power on this planet Earth except for the United States of America. The impending British conquest of Manipur was a matter of time only.

23. As the situation was worsening, Mrs. Grimwood escorted by Lieutenant Gordon with 160 Sepoys evacuated from the Residency at 2.00 a.m. of 25 March on their way to Cachar, taking 17 wounded persons. The Residency was still guarded by some 280 men under the command of Major Boileau of 44th Gurkha and Captain Butcher of 42nd Gurkhas.

24. On the way near Laimatol Hill ranges, Mrs. Grimwood's party met with a detachment of 43rd Gurkha Light Infantry under Captain Cowley, who were marching upto Manipur from Cachar in the ordinary course of relief (refer para 13). Possibly on the request of Mrs. Grimwood, Captain Cowley and his sepoys joined her escorts.

25. Very heavy fire from Kangla Fort came on 25th March at the break of dawn, to the Residency compound with shelling by 7-pounders and 3-ponders, and also small arms Enfield rifles. The Residency guards under Major Boilaeu and Captain Butcher choose to withdraw since they did not have artillery support. They were count-martialled and cashiered from military service.

26. At that time, the British maintained a Garrison at Langthabal, which was the capital of Manipur during the days of Maharaja Gambhir Singh and Maharaja Nara Singh. The capital of Manipur got shifted to Kangla during Nara Singh's time.

27. The Langthbal British Garrison was commanded by Jemandar Birbal Nagarkati of 43rd Gurkha Rifles. Displaying great gallantry and power of leadership, the Jemandar cut his way through to Tamu with his little force of 33 men, covering 60 miles in 48 hours and brought to Lieutenant J.W. Grant, commanding the Tamu Garrison, the news of Imphal.

28. Grant at once asked for and obtained orders to march to Imphal and did so with 50 men of the 12th Madras Infantry and 30 of Jemandar Nagarkati's detachment. They were challenged by a big force of Manipur Army at Athokpam near Thoubal. They fought a most gallant action for ten days until ordered to withdraw and join the Burma column, which they did with the loss of one Indian other rank (Sepoy) killed and three wounded. For this action Lt. Grant received the Victoria Cross and Jemandar Birbal Nagarkati was decorated also.

29. The British reacted with full scale invasion of Manipur. A three pronged attack was planned. Major General H. Collett commanding the whole operation marched from Kohima on 20 April 1891. Cachar column was under command of Colonel R.H.F. Rennik while the Tamu column when was commanded by Brigadier General T. Graham. All the columns were to converge on Imphal on the morning (8:00 a.m.) of 27th April 1891.

30. The Battle of Khongjom commenced on 23rd April 1891. My grandfather took part in the Battle of Khongjom as an irregular sepoy. There were no regular Manipuri troops with Enfield Rifles, no 7-pounder guns, no 3-pounder, no mortar, no Martinis. It was a one-sided battle. (Refer to para 18 for artillery guns and Enfield rifles available at Kangla Fort).

31. My grandfather (b. 1866 - d. 1934) told us stories of independent Manipur's last battle. When he related that Meiteilon-speaking Indian soldiers were present in the British Indian Army, we children used think that grand-pa was fooling us. But as I grew up and read stories of Subedar Khelendra Singh of Silchar in Cachar District of Assam taking part in the Khongjom war on the British side, then I realised that grand-pa was telling the truth.

32. On the first day i.e 23rd April, 1891 of the battle of Khongjom, Paona Brajabashi died and became a martyr. His descendants now living in Keishamthong Top Leirak, Imphal, used to observe the annual death anniversary of their grandfather by offering Tarpan at the Khongjom river.

33. Gradually, more Imphalites and local Khongjom inhabitants joined the annual shradh function. So, 23rd April became a big day in the history of Manipur. Hence, the then Government of Manipur, probably under the Chief Ministership of Yangmaso Shaiza (June 1977) made 23rd April as a State function, with His Excellency the Governor of Manipur as Chief Guest, always and everytime. The Hon'ble President of India, Shri V.V. Giri laid the foundation of the monument at Khongjom.

34. The Battle of Khongjom was fought for three days and ended on the evening of 25 April 1891. Brigadier-General T. Graham, commanding Burma column, marched towards Imphal after resting for one night at Khongjom. All the columns converged at Kangla at 0800 hrs of 27 April 1891.

35. The British blew up the Kangla Gate and the two Kangla Shas and the Royal Manipuri flag was pulled down and the Union Jack was hoisted. Here again, I will provide an eye-witness, like my grandfather did on the Battle of Khongjom. The eye-witness was the late Kongrailatpam Abhiramsaba Sharma, then of Nagamapal Imphal. There were no high-rise buildings in Khwairamband Bazar (Paona Bazar) before British conquest. The entire Paona Bazar was an empty space.

36. So, from Nagamapal, one could see the Kangla Fort. Abhiramsaba Sharma was born, circa 1885 and thus he was about six years of age, and saw the blowing up of the two Kangla Shas and Kangla Gate. I became close to him since one of his sons, Lt. Col. (Retd.) K. Guneshwar Sharma became an Army officer after the Chinese Aggression of 1962 and I met with Aigya Abhiramsaba many a times. The willy-nilly young man died in 1998 and lived for 113 years!!!

37. Consequent to the British conquest of Manipur, my grandfather and all Haobams were evicted from Haobam Leikai, now known as Babupara. So also the Angoms from Sanjenthong. This was done to house the Babus (Clerks). So, Haobam Leikai became Babupara. On the eastern side of Imphal river at Sanjenthong near Nongmeibung, we can still find remnants of Angom families. The Haobams and Angoms were close to Manipuri Royal families and hence, they occupied higher hierarchy in Meitei society, and were to stay near Kangla.

38. After eviction from Haobam Leikai without compensation, grandfather took his family of one daughter aged five and my father aged two and grandmother to Ningthoukhong. He stayed for one year over there and then came to Keishamthong, where my uncle, the late Haobam Amuba Singh was born in 1892. Grandpa then bought a huge residential plot, north of Pishum, Hao Ground (Lampak) and we are now living there. Angoms who were also evicted from Sanjenthong area, still they have some remnants at Nongmeibung.

39. In exactly the same manner like Khongjom Day being observed by Paona's descendents, (refer para 32) 13 August was observed by the late Rajkumar Madhuryajit Singh and his sons headed by Rajkumar Ranendrajit and others with Kirtan party at the spot where Vir Tikendrajit and Thangal General were hanged. Thus 13 August is now known as "Patriots' Day" and the function has became a State Government affair with holiday. These two landmark and historical days are important days to all the Manipuris. I humbly offer my obeisance to our departed leaders.

40. To complete the story of Khongjom War after the British occupation of Manipur, the question of annexation of Manipur very hotly debated in the British Parliament. On account of strong argument in favour of preserving native rule by a Raja, particularly by (a) Lord Cross, the Secretary of State, (b) Lord Northbook, ex-Viceroy, (c) Lord Kimberley and (d) Lord Derby, ex-Viceroy, Manipur retained kingship. Only, Mr. Ward, the Chief Commissioner of Assam was in favour of annexation.

41. The main thrust of the debate in the Commons and the House of Lords was that the Kingdom of Manipur was loyal ally of the British during the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-26) and Maharaja Gambhir Singh pushed out the invading Burmese Army upto Kabo Valley and Ningthi Turrel (Chindwin river). In the Second Anglo-Burmese War (1852), Chandrakirti was busy consolidating his throne and did not take part. During The Third and last Anglo-Burmese war (1852), Maharaja Chandrakriti Singh helped the British as already stated in Para 16, 17 & 18 earlier. So, on 18 September 1891, Raja Churachand Singh, a young boy of about six years became the Ruler of Manipur. He ruled Manipur for fifty years.

42. During the Governorship of Lt Gen (Retd) Vijay Kumar Nayar, he rang me up and desired to know the exact location and structure of Kangla Gate. I told Tubby (General Nayar's nickname in Para Regiment of Indian Army) to contact Shri Ningthoukhongjam Khelchandra Singh of Ahanthem Leikai, Uripok, Imphal. Tubby was commissioned into the Para Regiment in June 1951 and was senior to me by exactly one year in Army service. Tubby was responsible for re-building the Kangla Gate and also for re-digging and beautifying the Kangla Moat. He is leading a retired life at Noida, near New Delhi, when I met him about four years ago.

43. Now, let us have a look retrospectively on events leading to the Battle of Khongjom and its aftermath keeping the then prevailing history of India as backdrop.

44. By the end of 1850, when Maharaja Chandrakirti Singh just ascended the throne of the Kingdom of Manipur, the British Indian Empire became known as Paramount Power. This was true because Tipu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore died fighting in the battle of Seringapatnam in February 1799, the Maratha Empire had disintegrated after the Third Maratha War in December 1817, and the Sikhs, after the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, had been humbled in the battle of Gujrat (now in Pakistani Punjab) in February, 1849.

45. Over here, one may argue that North West Frontier province (NWFP) was not conquered by the British as yet then. Well, the situation in NWFP is different. They (Pathans) were conquered hundreds times and revolted hundred times. Even our Major Bob Khathing M.C., MBE and recipient of Padma Shri, had seen anti-terrorist service in NWFP during 1942, soon after commissioning. Even now, regular killing of Taliban fighters by Pakistani Army and also regular attack or suicide bombing by Talibans are common occurrences. It does not mean that Pathans are free and independent of Pakistan.

46. Let us now assume that rather than revolting, Senapati and Yuberaj Tikendrajit Singh voluntarily attended the Durbar at the Residency and laughingly surrendered to Mr Quinton, what could be the reaction of Mr J W Quinton, the Chief Commissioner of Assam? My guess is that the Chief Commissioner would be pleased beyond limits and would grant anything and everything which were demanded by Tikendrajit. For example, Tikendrajit could have demanded a monthly allowance of Rs. 500/- (Rupees five hundred) which was a huge sum then for support of his family members at any place in India, chosen by him. Tikendrajit, the Patriot of Manipur could have been allowed by the British Indian Government to come back to Mother Manipur when death was approaching, like Maharaja Sir Churachand Singh, K C S I, C B E, died at Nabadwip, his selected place of dying.

47. The ultimate result may be that Manipur will be still an independent country like Bhutan whose complete defense and limited external affairs are the responsibility of Government of India. Bhutan manages her own small Army, Postal services, coinage and currency, civil airlines, transport, etc., etc., and the per capita income of the Bhutanese is much higher than Indians. Well, with this dream of historical 'if', I conclude my article for future guidance.

* H Bhuban Singh wrote this article for The Sangai Express.
This article was webcasted on August 12 2010.

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  • From Dec 8, 2016 to July 29, 2019
  • Of faith and failed justice
  • Neli Chachea: Doll Maker : Gallery
  • Traditional Practices of the Kukis: Book
  • Ibudhou Thangjing Haraoba #4: Gallery
  • CMHT cards to journalists : Gallery
  • Twinkle Twinkle Scientists Star
  • Rohan Philem Reception @Pune : Gallery
  • General strike on Babysana : Gallery
  • Trekking to Dzukou Valley #2: Gallery
  • Nupi Pali @ Kang festival: Gallery
  • Sanamahi Cheng Hongba #2: Gallery
  • Weaving at Nongpok Sanjenbam : Gallery
  • Featured Front Page Photo 2019 #3: Gallery
  • Social service @ Moirang : Gallery
  • World Music Day @Yaiskul #3: Gallery
  • 3rd Singcha Wuyawon Festival 2019
  • seL tiHZakaNdta nuHZa_Iba :: Seireng
  • Cracks at Thong Nambonbi : Gallery
  • Yumnam Shamu : Natbhusan (Duhar)
  • The Great June Uprising #5: Gallery
  • Tolloi, Ukhrul :: 360 Panorama View
  • Manipuri Calendar for 2019 : Download