by Prof. MC Arunkumar

(The author is from the Department of Anthropology, Manipur University)

Image: KanglaOnline

Image: KanglaOnline

Tirtha pumbadei athoibi, Meiteigi Khongjom tirthani
Nilbir Shastri

What is the relevance of remembering a defeated war which was fought one century ago? Why should one remember a defeated war of a nation today? One can think of many more questions on war and nature of war, even the importance of war or a particular war. War is not just a violent fight between a group of people and another group of people. War has different social and cultural connotations so also political. It gives energy to the nations or countries involved in the war.

Peoples shed bloods in the war; these blood baths give a new meaning of the parties. Though violence, killings and bloodsheds are regular scenes in war, war is not always unnecessary engagement of hatred and fighting over meaningless issues. Though the etymological meaning of war, derived from German language word, Werran is ‘to confuse or to cause confusion,’ war is not confusion in itself nor makes confusion to the warring groups – may it be sovereign states, rival political or social factions within the same state.

To Mao Tse Tung, War is the highest form of struggle for resolving contradictions. War is one of the driving forces of history. It brings a change in the society and helps it in adapting to the changing time. It helps the people in overcoming the most confusing situation of the parties, engaged in the armed conflict. It is a way out to resolve antagonistic positions in both political and social senses. War has something special among the human conditions that there are endless numbers of war throughout the history of mankind. And great wars are celebrated or remembered by both defeated and victorious groups. They are the lessons to be learned and source of knowledge.

The Anglo-Manipuri War 1891 and its battles in the history of Manipur are well remembered by the people of Manipur; people pay tribute to those who fought the War. Because it has a great lesson linked with a wider Manipuri wisdom. The lessons from Anglo-Manipuri War of 1891 teach us how a war was inevitable to resolve several contradictions in the State. The contradictions were between the imperialist expansion and protection of historical and political identity, world power and country’s esteem.

The contradiction was between the foreign rule and patriotic spirit of the people. The contradiction was between world system of capitalism and integrity of state system. The people of Manipur had to resolve the ever growing contradiction over a century. Literally, War of 1891 is a war between a country where sun does not take much time from morning to evening and the empire where sun does not set. However, the War was not merely a fight between unequal war-technologies.

It was continuation of politics of colonialism and a diminishing sovereignty of Manipur in 19th century. It was the choice of life of colonized people or keeping the national pride. In this sense, the war is not ‘to confuse or to cause confusion’ rather it is a means to overcome the confusion in history. The Anglo-Manipuri War of 1891 was not a manifestation of Manipuri confusion rather it is a conscious resistance to an imperialist force. It was fought with a rightly taken decision, not to surrender to external forces which tried to engulf the sovereignty of the State and to threaten to the very existence of the people.

Fighting British at the fag end of 19th century was, thus, a strong demand of history. At this cross-road of history kept the people of Manipur to face the test of time. The State had no other option but to fight the British whatsoever mighty it might be. The Anglo-Manipuri War of 1891 was thus response to British colonization of North East India and Burma in general and of Manipur in particular. Manipur wanted to show the world its high spirit of patriotism and their courage to fight for the sovereignty of their country.

The State could not tolerate the insult by Mr. James Wallace Quinton, Chief Commissioner of Assam when he crossed the line and killed a number of civilians in an undeclared search operation of Tikendrajit Singh, Yubaraj of Manipur. It understood the British had already conquered all the surrounding states and countries. Moreover, bad times were those days for Manipuris; after the Seven Year Devastations (1819-26), Manipur had highly reduced population due to exodus. Burmese soldiers killed several hundred persons and captured thousands as prisoner of war.

Every day in the 19th century, Manipuris had to choose British or Burmese as their first enemy. The Burmese, at that time,wanted to defeat British and also to take revenge on Manipuri for King Garibaniwaz’s military expedition deep into Burma in the first half of 18th century. On the other hand, the expansion of British rule in India and Burma was almost completed by first decade of second half of 19th century. The British did not need keeping Manipur as buffer state in between India and Burma after the Third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885.

Broadly speaking, the British wanted to change Anglo-Manipuri relation to colonial relation afterthe third Anglo-Burmese War of 1885. Manipuris did not like to Live like a puppet in the hands of colonizers. They started reacting to every British move. At that time, there were a series of palace intrigues, British tried to interfere Manipur’s internal affairs.

Moreover, high handedness of Chief Commissioner of Assam was obvious in the eyes of the people. People’s inherent quality to resist to external force was the ulterior motive of the people to stand against any British military actions. All these Led to the Anglo-Manipuri War of 1891. The antagonistic contradictions of colonialism and national defense would have to be resolved through a war. That was the Anglo-Manipuri War. Thus it was an unavoidable war.

Historically speaking, the 1891 War was fought after the third Anglo-Burmese War of 1885 and after the East India Company affairs were took over by the British Crown in 1857. It was not war between Manipur and East India Company;indeed it was between State of Manipur and British Crown. The Anglo-Manipuri War was a declared War of the British Government.

Considering poor weaponry, not much modernized and less sophisticated warfare in comparison with those of the enemy, the imperial force, the courage of Manipuri soldiers stood against the British sepoys was commendable. They did not hesitate to do or die. We can remember here what Chiang Kai-Shek said of war: War is not only a matter of equipment, artillery, group troops or air force; it is largely a matter of spirit, or morale.

The high spirit of patriotism was the driving force of those Manipuri soldiers who fought the mighty enemy with their light weapons. This reminded the world of Tennyson’s poem, Light Brigade. The courage and fighting spirit of the Manipuri soldiers were of high military discipline. The fear inflicted on the British after the War was the evidence how seriously Manipuris took the value of the War.

The nature and quantum of penalties, after the War, given to the Manipuri prisoners of war by the British, indicated that the militarism of the Manipuris in the War cannot be taken lightly in history. Moreover, Manipuris had a deep rooted faith in fighting enemy; combat itself became a moral duty. So every Manipuri fought the enemies courageously as a part of their moral duty towards their land and its esteem.

Here, we can see the War was not merely a political response; it was motivated morally and religiously. Manipuris performed their duties in battles, to kill or be killed in the battle. The coward is the one who lets his fear overcome his sense of duty. Duty is the essence of manhood (George S. Patton). Even if one dies, all Manipuris deep in their hearts believed, he would go to heaven directly. This faith dimension of war was the strongest point on the part of the Manipuri soldiers.

The 1891 War was one of those remarkable events in the history of Manipur. People remember with a pride that Manipur fought a war against colonial power. Manipuris are still learning the lesson of those soldiers who fought and died in battle fields. The observation of the Day is around their courage and moral duty to fight. The people of Manipur are still proud of those Manipuri soldiers who fought as a duty in resistance.

The resistance was manifested ideologically and physically. Physically, the Manipuris were defeated by the colonial forces on their own soil with sophisticated warfare; but the forces could not break down the high spirit of those soldiers.They fought to protect jealously guarded historical pride which was the backbone of the historically evolved people of Manipur and sovereignty of their country.

Down the lane of history, the same historical pride is echoed in Nilbir Sharma’s poem, Khongjom Tirtha. The poem is the reflection of continuity of the national pride. A few lines of the poem read like:

Swadhin Leirang Keltamdai,
Pattern Charei Honglamdai,
Meitei Lanmigi Eetana
Ithak Ipom Houkhibi
Meiteigi Khongjom Tirthani.

The poem is not just a tribute to the soldiers who died courageously in 1891 War but a thread of the patriotism of the past and present. The poet as representative of the present day joined himself in the tune of patriotism. The whispering sounds of Manipuri soldiers in the battles are still loud and clear. The spirit of patriotism is embodied in the collective mind of the people. Every blood drop shed from Manipuri soldiers is respected and given due historical value as every drop oozed towards freedom and Independence. In the collective mind, the blood is still oozing out of the wound.

Among the battles of the War, Khongjom battle has its own importance because of the intensity of the combat and heavy casualties. At Khongjom, Manipuri had a close combat with the British sepoys of Tamu column. The British column, commanded by Brigadier General T Graham met the stiffest resistance from the Manipuris here, No retreat, no surrender, but to perform the duty of a patriot to defend the esteem of the country which is more than sovereignty. All the soldiers controlled their own feelings and performed their duty. This may be the reason why Nilbir Sharma considers Khongjom as a Tirtho.

Khongjom is not a religious place, is not even a part of Manipuri cosmology. The place becomes a sacred place, tirtha where Manipuris want to go on a pilgrimage to. It is a tirtha of patriotism and patriots. A secular tirtha, above the ethnic and religious groupings is such Khongjom. The secret of sacredness of this battle field is that Manipuris did not surrender to the enemy whatsoever the mighty it might be. Patriotism is the guiding principle to safeguard the national pride for which one is not tire to fight, nor afraid to die for it. Every blood drop counts.

Depicting the battle of Khongjom and heroic actions of Manipuri fighters a new genre of narrative art form, Khongjom Parbo was added to the treasure of Manipuri performing arts in the early part of last century. The ballad narrates the battle field and praised the Manipuri soldiers who fought, died, wounded. It is said that one Leinou started this narration of Khongjom battle as if the singer is eye-witness of the war. The style of narrating as eye-witness added thrilling to the audience.

Gradually, the ballad became accepted by the general people and gained its momentum very rapidly. The reason is simple; peoples love all those fighters and liked to hear everything of the battle. They involve themselves in every step of those brave sons of Manipur. They wanted to know what had happened to their heroes. In the narration, though of defeated war, one would notice, the narrator accounts the British as inferior to Manipuri, in spite of their superior weaponry.

The words, lyrics and rhythms are all around the bravery of Manipuri soldiers in the War. The ballad is just the War in words. Fighting and dying in the battle field are so praised that people are strongly motivated to get ready for any war to defend the country. It is noteworthy that the Khongjom Parbo originated during the British colonial period and invoked the nationalist feelings of a colonized people.

Now we cannot do the Khongjom battle again. We cannot rectify our mistakes, if any, in war tactics; we cannot send our cannon, on which seriously dramatized in some Manipuri plays,to the battle field. We cannot re-examine the trial of James Wallace Quinton (1854-1891), Chief Commissioner of Assam that took place in March 1891. We cannot camp at the top of Kheba hill before British army reached there. We do not have a new chance to defend the cases of prisoners of war in the imperial court. We cannot undo anything now. We do remember the War and those fighters today.

The State still stands with the words and deeds of the patriots and respects the high spirit of patriotism. We are proud of them and their fighting in all the battles of Anglo-Manipuri War, 1891. That is why the people of Manipur do observe the Day and learn the irreplaceable lessons from the War. Manipuri people are not confusing while celebrating the battle of Khongjom, are they?