Rainbow resistance and freedom movement against British colonialism
- Part 1 -

Lt Gen (Dr) Konsam Himalay Singh *

The Indian independence movement was a series of events during British Raj. It is believed that revolutionary movement for independence emerged from erstwhile Bengal Province of which many parts of the North East India such as present day Assam were part of. Assam of that time included present day Nagaland (Naga Hills District), Mizoram (Lushai Hills District), Meghalaya (Khasi, Garo and Jaintia Hills) and Arunachal Pradesh (North Eastern Frontier Agency).

Manipur and Tripura were princely kingdoms under the suzerainty of the British since 1891 and 1806 respectively. Hence, these two kingdoms were not part of Assam. There were very little influence of the Indian Freedom movements in the hilly areas of the region except in the Brahmaputra and Surma Valleys of the then Assam province.

However, isolated and unorganized resistance to the British incursion into the region during early 19th century were marked by very ferocious resistance to the British by multiple tribes and the kingdoms in the region such as Manipur. In the Resistance to the British rule indigenous communities organized numerous rebellions in many parts of Eastern India during the early days of East India Company in the region. A few Naga, Kuki, Lushai tribes carried out raids and kidnapping against the British intrusion from the beginning i.e 1826 onwards.

Many wars were also fought by princely kingdoms in various parts of India against the British all over the Indian sub-continent during 18th and 19th centuries. Events in the sub-continent had its own ripples in the remote corners of the NE Region as well even though these were isolated in nature, mostly to protect their own customs and identity.

These events in the North East seldom find mention in the historical narrative of India’s freedom movement. It is a matter of debate as to whether or not these isolated resistance to the British in the region was inspired or influenced by the unfolding events during the period in the rest of India.

The aim of this article is to briefly scan the panorama of various movements and events in the NE region which contributed to the overall Freedom Movements of India.

North East is an enigma to most of our countrymen and women. With an area of approximately 8% of India land mass and a population share of about 2% of the country the region is home to hundreds of tribes and sub-tribes. A distant land connected by a narrow strip of 22 Kms in the Siliguri Corridor and is bounded by China, Nepal, Bangladesh and Myanmar.

It is a region where hundreds of ethnic groups of Indic, Mongoloid, Austric races formed a melting pot of races to make the region an Anthropologist’s delight and where the snow clad mountains, the blue hills, the riverine landscape of the vales, bamboo and tropical forests extends hundreds of miles.

It is also the region where people practice Hinduism, Christianity, Islam and Budhism uninterrupted by the evolutions of these faiths from the ancient years. Not to speak of the multiple faiths among the natives for nature worship and locally adjusted form of the mainstream religions and cultures.

According to some, Idu Mishmi tribe of Arunachal are considered to be from the lineage of Rukmini (Lord Krishna’s wife). Kachari kingdom is believed to be the ancient kingdom of the Kiratas mentioned in the Mahabharata. Hidimba, wife of Bhim in Mahabharata is also believed by some to be a Kachari . Even as far as Ukhrul in Manipur, some claim as the birth place of Uloopi, the wife of Arjuna. Be that as it may, never will anyone and anytime in future, these fairy tales will be proven or disproven. Some even claim these to be a figment of imagination.

There is no denying that Gupta empire, Ashoka empire in particular had significant impact in the western part of the North Eastern region and mingling of culture and other aspects with the Gangetic civilization. Between 4th century AD to 12th century, the region was largely free from foreign interventions. The kingdoms of Kamtapur, Cacharis, Chutias were in various stages of formation and consolidation in the region.

The Kingdom of present day Manipur is believed to have been in existence before the millenium. The arrival of the Tai Ahoms from the East (present day Myanmar) in late 12th and early 13th century resulted in the consolidation of the Ahom kingdom, further driving the earlier settlers like Koch Borok and Kacharis (Tibeto-Burman speaking people) further to the West and to the South.

However, the Ahom rulers adopted the local customs and traditions in every facet of their lives to gradually form the Assamese identity as we know today ,even though there are over 300 ethnic groups/tribes and sub-tribes in the Greater Assam of yore. The dwellers in the mountainous regions and the thick forests of the region continued to remain partly isolated from the emerging historical and social fabric.

Yet, many of these tribes were very much part of the one kingdom or the other from time to time with a kind of confederacy and loose sharing of powers. Such arrangements existed due to the remoteness, hostile terrain and the nature of the social structures among the tribes.

The Khiljis and the Moghuls (who were in power in parts of the then Bengal province) carried out 17 attacks between 13th and 17th century to capture the Brahmaputra plains to expand their territory. However, the Moghuls were decisively defeated in the battle of Saraighat (Near Present day Guwahati) by the Ahom Army led by Lachit Borphukan in 1671.

On the other hand, a great rivalry for domination and power play between the Burmese and the Kathes (Manipuris) between 14-19th century led to numerous wars between the two kingdoms, the final of which was fought in 1819 and led to the defeat of the Manipuris and the Ahom Kingdoms. Thereafter, Burmese occupied the Ahom and Manipur kingdoms. This led to untolerable suffering to the people of the Kingdom of Manipur and most parts of present day Assam.

In the modern times, it all began with the arrival of British and their interests to control the frontiers of British India that, exploratory expeditions were launched in Sikkim, Bhutan, Arunachal, Manipur and the Assam &Arakan Hills. The aim was to keep an eye on the Chinese and Russian activities in Tibet in the North and Burmese empire to the east and south.

The British, on the request of the Manipuri and Ahom Kingdoms intervened and were successful in driving away the Burmese from the region which led to the signing of the Treaty of Yandaboo 1826 between the British and the Burmese. The treaty effectively ended the Ahom Kingdom in Assam and limited the powers of the King of Manipur thus a beginning was made for a British administration.

Discovery of tea and oil in the region further added to the colonization efforts of the Britishers. Coal industry and huge natural resources including teak in the region gave further impetus to their efforts. With the commercialization of the region, railways and other transport systems to sustain the commercial activities were brought in.

Their policy of keeping a large tract of the land of the “Frontiers” largely unadministered thereby facilitating the proselytization of the population residing in these areas also led to further alienation among the various ethnic groups in the region over a few centuries. The identity and the culture of hundreds of tribes were threatened with the arrival of Christianity.

The legacy of various laws to isolate most tribes from the regular administrations persists even today. The monarchs of Ahoms, the Meiteis, the Dimasas, Tripuris and other local chieftains in the region ruled with iron hand in the yesteryears to consolidate the ever divisive identity conscious population in the region. The arrival of British in the region and the subjugation of many tribes and their territories by them further accelerated the arrival of the modern era.

The rise and fall of the kingdoms through the ages in the region tell the story of the ethnic cauldron in the region. The early history of British relations with the indigenous people of North East were one of perpetual conflict. To control the tribes the British had to undertake many expeditions to the tribal areas. The British coined the terms such as, Backward Tracts, Excluded and Partially Excluded tracts in order to extend their scheme of administration in these areas.

The British sooner than later consolidated their grip on the existing kingdoms of Ahoms, the Manipuris, Tripuris and Jaintias who were the rulers in their respective geographical regions through carrot and stick policies. Ahom kingdom was dismantled soon after the Treaty of Yandaboo in 1826 and the entire kingdom was merged into the British India with little resistance.

The Kingdom of Manipur fought the British in 1891 at Khongjom, a village about 34 Kms from the capital Imphal. The Manipuri army was defeated thus bringing the kingdom under British suzernity. Similarly the other smaller kingdoms like Tripura and Jaintia were also brought under indirect control of the British.

The frontiers of these kingdoms were inhabited by hundreds of tribes of whom many were at some time or the other subjugated by these rulers and exacted tributes even though they were not fully integrated to the mainstream. The Britishers found that “civilizing”(?) and developing these tribes were best achieved through proselytization to Christianity. Today one finds that 95% of these tribes follow Christianity.

To be continued...

* Lt Gen (Dr) Konsam Himalay Singh wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is a Manipur based army veteran and former Chairman of Manipur Public service Commission.
Saw action as a Commanding Officer in Chalunka and Siachen during the Kargil War.
Was GOC and later Corps Commander in J&K during 2011-2015.
Authored 'Romancing the Line of Control' 2011 and 'Making of a General, A Himalayan Echo' 2021.
Presently, a Visiting faculty in Central Manipur University and Member of Consultative Group on Naga Talks
This article was webcasted on June 13 2022.

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