Story of Manipur from Independence to Merger
The dream remains a dream
- Part 1 -

Shantikumar Moirangthem *

Exactly, when the clock struck midnight, a lanky British officer stood up and announced to Maharajah Bodhchandra Singh of Manipur, "Your Highness, from this moment, Britain has ceased to have any authority in India. Goodbye". He was Mr Jerald Pakenham Steward, the last Political Agent of British India in Manipur.

It was the intervening night of August 14 – 15 of 1947, during the transfer of power ceremony at the British Residence at Imphal (now Raj Bhavan). They shook hands. Seconds later, Stewart stood up again to announce, "Good morning, your highness. I am the first Dominion Agent of India". The incident marked the beginning of an exact 26 months' turbulent reign of Maharajah Bodh Chandhra, also known as "Bubble" because of his short reign (Down the Memory Lane—M.K.Priyobrata), till Manipur finally merged with Indian Union on another 15th day in October 1949.

From 1947 to 1949 - in Manipur, events moved superfast: Independence from Britain, Interim Government, Enactment of the Constitution of the Sovereign State of Manipur, 1st Election of independent Manipur and then, the merger with the Dominion of India. These events which could be landmarks in the history of a nation were squeezed within a period of 791 days.

One day, in December, 1946 a group of Manipuri students gathered at Calcutta. They were on their way to participate in the All India Students' Congress session, Delhi. The delegates were H. Ranbir, L. Achou, Chandrakumar Sharma from Manipur; E.Yaima, R.K.Jhalajit, R.K. Sanahal and Phanjoubam Gourahari from Calcutta. They boarded Kalka mail, reached Delhi and participated in the All India Student Congress Session - 31 months before Manipur joins the Indian Dominion.

Were the Manipuri students a little over-enthusiastic to join the Indian Dominion or did they anticipate the merger with India?With independence knocking at the door, they witnessed the difference of opinion in the Indian National Congress as regards the India-Pakistan controversy and the status of India during independence and after. After they returned back to their respective places, the Manipuri students were hounded by the uncertain condition of their small kingdom which they dearly loved: they discussed the issues heatedly.

Some raised the issue of unviability of a stand-alone Manipur and wanted to join Assam and others preferred the creation of (1) "Purbachal" with Tripura, Cachar, and Lushai Hills or (2) a "Frontier Hill State" with Naga Hills and Lushai Hills. Some others with communist leaning preferred merger with Burma. It was a very critical question, which would have far reaching consequences in the history of Manipur which their young mind - brilliant but without experience - had to work out.

Time waits for none. It was 1947: the summer was over and autumn rolled in. The dateline set by British cabinet's decision to let the British Empire lapse had arrived. Prepared or not, the British decided to leave Manipur. Mr Pearson, the PMSD was really concerned when he called on Captain MK Priyobrata at the latter's place of posting at Shillong and said " Things are moving very fast and you should take over". M.K. Priyobrata reported at his Imphal office on 6th August, 1947.

The gradual transformation of the ancient principality of Manipur, during a period of a century since the days of "Seven Years' Devastation", from an independent medieval feudal state to a modern political entity under Indian Union, had taken several twists and turns. The antiquated "sword and Arambai" based Meitei battle craft had taken a drubbing from Bagyidaw's firearm-equipped Burmese army, to be redressed only when the Manipur Levy was armed with modern equipment by the friendly colonial British who were equally on war with the Burmese.

The resultant Anglo-Burmese Treaty of Yandaboo in 1826, guaranteed an Independent Manipur state. Now, a system of agreements, treaties and sanads had become a necessity for the survival of a state. As a corollary, the literacy of the people too had become a yardstick for measuring the status of a modern state. Though an informal education with an indigenous script had been in existence since the 13th century and gainfully used in keeping records like Cheitharol Kumbaba, a sustainable formal education only started as late as 1885 when the then Political Agent Sir James Johnstone founded the eponymous school at the Residence.

Illiteracy was a curse in the state, so much so that in 1907 when Maharaj Churachand came of age and ready to take the reign of government of Manipur, "the entire administrative staff for the conduct of Government under the new regime had to be imported from India".

This scourge of illiteracy remained a bane of the people of Manipur even after the merger of the state to India. No sooner had they signed the historic Merger Agreement, than Manipur, the sovereign principality with centuries of unique history, was ignominiously dumped as a centrally administered Part C state without any provision for a representative government.

In response to peoples' continuous agitation for a responsible Legislative Assembly, the Home Minister replied on the floor of the Parliament on 22nd November, 1954 that "the time was not ripe for the creation of" Legislative Assembly in Manipur and that - "the people are still comparatively politically backward and the administrative machinery is still weak (India after Gandhi: Ramchandra Guha). "

On the eve of merger, Manipur was on a take-off stage to modernisation. When the foundation was laid by a decent beginning in western education at the fag end of 19th century and further exposed to the wartime ambiance during the 2nd World War, Manipur was ready for a rationalised march into the 20th century. In the turn of the Century, countries across the world had given highest priority to road improvement in the wake of mass production of automobiles in Europe and America.

The Chingnga road at Imphal between the hillocks were constructed by excavating the ridge in 1892. Segalambi (Segaroad) starting from Nityaibat through a bridge over the Nambul river was also completed. The condition was further improved with the opening of Imphal Dimapur Road in 1897. Later, Geoffrey, the State Engineer, laid WBM at Uripok road up to Eroisemba.

Before Geoffrey, it was paved with bricks up to Eroisemba only, beyond which it was all muddy road overspread with straw-bundles during wet season to facilitate bullock cart movement. Bullock cart came to Manipur for the first time from Assam in 1896 to transport military logistics. Locally known as "San Gari", it had come to stay as the most popular form of transport in Manipur with increasing popularity as a means of mass transport; and it became a lucrative enterprise when profitably used for export of local rice outside the state.

The colonial administration encouraged rice export as the most convenient resource for revenue collection. In the colonial and the immediate post-colonial period "San-Gari" industry flourished in Manipur. After sometime, enterprising Marwari families started regular Lorry services between Imphal and Dimapur.

In the earlier days before 1929-30, as the state did not have any metric examination centre, the students had to ride Lorries to give examination at the centres outside the states like Gauhati, Shillong and Syllet. They had to make similar journeys for post matric studies as no institution was available for further study in Manipur after metric till the opening of D.M. College in 1946.

Speed of mobility was tremendously increased as the motor vehicle could cover the distance of 211 km in Imphal-Dimapur stretch in a day whereas the travel by Bullock cart almost took a month to cover the same distance. In 1941, my father paid half-a-rupee to a lorry driver to reach Dimapur from Imphal on his way to Jorhat for the post metric study.

Churachand Maharajah, some of his family members, a few British officers including Mr Blackie and other well-to-do families possessed personal vehicles. One Hijam Tomba's Imphal to Sugnu passenger service was the only bus service running in the state before the war.

To be continued...

* Shantikumar Moirangthem wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is a retd IPS
This article was first published on 11 Oct 2018 in the Souvenir, 94th Birth Anniversary of RK Maipaksana
This article was posted on 03 November, 2018 .

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