The Political Affairs Of Manipur, in Retrospect From 1946-1952 As I Knew It
I was asked by K Sushila, Deputy Director of Manipur State Archives, Imphal to write an article on the above subject, my mind wandered back to my childhood. Where my mind wanders my intellectual curiosity compensates.
Author in mid-1940s [photo credit: M Gojendra]
The halcyon days of my childhood were just plain fun. Contradictions do arise when I try to remember the details of a far-away time. The good thing about ageing is that the distant memory of my young days still lingers in my reminiscence. I am writing this bit of history by avoiding scientist-style writing in passive voice. Thus I insert myself into my recollection and conclusion to lend a sense of subjectivity.
Author in 1953
I recall the day when Jawaharlal Nehru humoured the Manipuris by describing Manipur as the “Jewel of India” to divert attention from what he was about to do, which was to hand over the Kabaw valley to U Nu of Burma at the Polo Ground in Imphal in 1953. I was there, having come back from college in Bombay. I met Nehru in Darjeeling and Delhi. I found him quite short-tempered.
Pandit Nehru, First Prime Minister of India in 1953
Nehru hardly knew Manipur. He once tried to come there just
before 1947, but was refused entry as he did not have an
“Entry permit”. He had to go back to Delhi from Dimapur. During the British time, any non-Manipuri who wanted to come to Manipur had to have a permit. It was a small piece of paper but I do not know who issued it.
The entry point to Manipur was at the railhead at Manipur Road Station at Dimapur, Assam, where a passenger had to catch a bus for Imphal. The permit system was still operational after Independence. When I returned home from college in 1953 by air from Calcutta, a police officer I knew, from Nagamapal, was checking a mayang for his permit at Koirengei airport.
U Nu, First Prime Minister of Burma in 1953
Nehru’s first visit after independence on October 23, 1952 was for one day, when the Loktak Electric Project was initiated. During his second visit on 29-30 March 1953, he voluntarily handed over Kabaw valley to U Nu, the Prime Minister of Burma, as he wanted to have a “peaceful relationship with Burma”. A one-sided goodwill gesture, but shortchanging on Manipur’s territory.
To assuage the profound distress that his lovely souvenir to the visiting Burmese Prime Minister, caused Manipuris, he empowered the state government to establish the present Jawaharlal Nehru Dance Academy, after he had watched a performance. Indeed, Manipuris are very thankful to him for it.
In Nehru’s 17-year leadership as prime minister, he made three very big mistakes: (1) taking the first Kashmir war to UN; (2) giving away Kabaw Valley to Burma; and (3) his Chinese diplomacy of ‘Hindi-Chini bhai bhai’. The last one was the cause of his ill health to which he succumbed. After U Nu, future Burmese governments did not reciprocate his weak-hearted gesture. Rather, it gave refuge to all anti-India insurgents.
Pandit Nehru is rightly accused by Manipuris for giving away our Kabaw valley, which is nearly the size of Manipur, without consulting the people of Manipur. On the other hand, we should be grateful to him for keeping Manipur intact against the advice of his fellow politicians who wanted Manipur integrated into Assam.
But this is not a ‘full balance equation’ of what he did or did not do for Manipur. This is not an equilibrium distribution. The Kabaw valley rightfully belonged to Manipur through the blood, sweat and tears of our ancestors.
The question that is always at the back of my mind, is why U Nu didn’t come to India with a present, such as a declaration that, Kabaw Valley is part of India. Why did Nehru fear Burma?
Bodh Chandra Maharaja in the 1950s
Five years earlier, I remember Maharaja Bodh Chandra, before he became a Constitutional head of the state of Manipur, giving an emotional speech using a loud speaker from the old Telegraph Office.
I went to listen though I did not understand politics. But I still remember his jibe at Sougaijam Somarendro, the ex-Durbar member who became the President of Manipur State Congress – “ngarangda tai pulamba toktuna…” (…only yesterday he was wearing a tie but today…). Bodh Chandra was being sarcastic about Somarendro because he changed his colour from a Royalist to anti-monarchy Congress party.
Author as a school boy in mid 1940s
Those were the exciting days when as a young schoolboy I went to attend many meetings of the Manipur Students’ Congress at the Aryan Theatre Hall. I hark back to a speech given by a young Mohammad Alimuddin to a small crowd including MK Priyobrata on the lawn of Major Khating’s bungalow with a small ornamental pond, which originally belonged to CF Jeffrey, the British State Engineer.
I used to go whenever such an event occurred, partly because I was inquisitive and partly because I had a convenient transport. My father bought me a boy’s bicycle known as “baish”, meaning 22 inches tall (the adult one was 24 inches). Not many boys had such a bicycle. I also lived within short walking distance of the Aryan Theatre and Khwairamband Bazaar.
Before I bite off more than I can chew, I apologise to all Manipuri historians whose scholarly austerity is unbending, for any shortcomings in this article, which is partly based on my experience and partly on the monographs by a multitude of authors.
It is not necessary to cite a source if the information one provides is common knowledge. This no plagiarism guarantee helps me to write this article as I enumerate my memories of that interim period when I was just mature enough to remember most of the political scenes as they stood at that time. After all, history depends on who is writing.
World War II had ended on May 5 1945 for Europe and on August 15 1945 for Asia, but the prologue to Manipur’s political conflict had just begun. I will call this era from 1946 to 1952 my “interim age” and I am going to examine what happened during this period in Manipur’s political wilderness.
One of the primary causes of human conflict is egoism as most people are more interested in their own welfare than that of other people, as is the case amongst the egoistic Meiteis. Every Meitei is egoistic and a Brutus at heart, who cannot see another Meitei on the higher rung of the social ladder. Conflicts are also possible where there is no element of egoism. Some non-egoistic desires are frequently involved in social conflicts, which often become political, as in the case of Hijam Irabot.
In 1945 I went to a middle school at Moirangkhom. RK Dorendra (the ex-Chief Minister of Manipur) and Dr E Kuladhaja (ex-Principal of RIMS) were my class fellows. I finished my schooling in 1952. This is my ‘interim period’, before I went to colleges in different parts of India, partly for enjoyment and partly for education. My father said I could study anywhere in India if I was doing well in my study. My mother always wanted me to be a BA. So I went to do BSc, saying that it was similar.
Writing a short historical account is difficult. Without detail, it becomes jejune and uninteresting, and with detail it is liable to fall into a pattern of monotony. The post War period in Manipur was a Renaissance for the Meiteis who were politically very naïve and who had previously no room for exercise in the political playing fields because of a lack of education and because the Meiteis were not subject to the stark servitude that was felt everywhere in the rest of British India as they have been under British Rule for only 56 years. World War II struck home to the Manipuris, especially the Meiteis, how primitive they were. Many Meiteis and a few tribal intellectuals began to indulge in modern politics in the immediate Post War period.
Though this is a brief political history of Manipur that I am writing, I would like to touch on the life of two Meitei politicians who bore the birth-pains of politics in Manipur. One on the left and the other on the right. They are Hijam Irabot Singh and Laita Madhov Sharma respectively. They were the pioneers of modern Manipuri politics as I knew them.
When World War II ended in 1945, a social and cultural change came over Manipur as a result of meeting a variety of people from all over the world. There began a political dawn 1950s and sowing of the seeds of modern civilisation. Which started with Imphal town in the late 1940s, full of reassembled Jeeps, trucks and Motorbikes from military salvage depots.
Picnic at Pheidinga hill top – MK Priyobrata’s
unfinished house due to lack of potable water.
Front Row from (L) – 3rd Maibam Jamuna, Arambam Soroj Nalini
Sitting back from (L) – Author, L Jogamani, Arambam Sarat
[The jeep in the picture belonged to the author].
Manipuris saw for the first time face to face a Negro, or an American or Japanese, from far away continents. The flamboyant, well dressed and easy-going GIs impressed the young Manipuris, including myself. Many of us attempted to dress and behave like them, even speaking English like American GIs. The change was inevitable – a natural evolution of Manipuris from a primitive to a nascent civilisation. Watching Hollywood and Hindi movies put us in touch with what was going on in the rest of the world.
Advancement of civilisation brings about a change in culture. With the budding civilisation in Manipur a modern culture sneaked in and along with it, a blossoming political philosophy, opposite to the Chinese political philosophy which developed as a response to social and political breakdown in the 6th century BCE.
Like Karl Marx, who is thought of as the man who claimed to have made socialism scientific, Irabot brought scientific socialistic ideas to Manipur long before 1946, in opposition to the feudalistic rule of Maharaja Churachand, and religious prosecution of the Brahma Sabha in collusion with Churachand when his control over the state revenue was taken over by the British administration.
Over the years, I knew all the Chief Ministers of Manipur apart from the incumbent Okram Ibobi Singh, beginning with Mairembam alias ‘Moirang’ Koireng in 1963. Three of them – RK Doredra Singh, RK Ranabir Singh and RK Joychandra Singh – were my contemporaries. I had acquaintances with Moirang Koireng in my capacity as a doctor.
I was also acquainted with MK Priyobrata when I became a doctor. It was about the time he was collecting entrepreneurs for his spinning mill. He used to drive an old car to go about.
Priyobrata was such a fascinating man, a true and debonair prince. Many years ago, in the company of my friends, Kh Dhirendra from Kongba and N Nishikanta from Moirangkhom, I went to see him at his home when he was in his 80’s, to donate some money towards the erection of a memorial stone at the Khongjom War site.
As a young boy, I knew of all the mature politicians of this era (not personally of course), such as Sagolsem Indramani, Lalita Madhov, L Jogeswar and Salam alias “Chakri” Tombi. They were all around Uripok & the town centre. I had contacts with a few young ones, especially RK Maipaksana, who was my private tutor, young, very talented and inborn politician, athletic N Binoy, Ng Mohindro and Th Bira and others at close quarters, such as at Local teashops.
I heard of Hijam Irabot during my school days but I only saw him once at the Aryan Theatre Hall. He was much talked about with affection during our childhood because of his patriotism, love of peasants and for relinquishing the comforts of life by resigning from being a Member of Sadar Panchayat in 1939.
My eldest sister Irengbam Binodini Debi. A very sophisticated & educated woman of her time.
My eldest sister Salam’O Binodini Devi told me a few years ago how Irabot used to go to villages to help villagers revolt about the land ownership and the price of paddy. He and his friends used to help cremate dead bodies whose families were declared “mangba” (untouchable) and so nobody would come to help for fear of being declared untouchables themselves.
Irabot married into the Manipuri Royal family and was made a member of the State Durbar; highest state officials. But he was fearless and very principled. He was extra-ordinary. He couldn’t care less about his high society and comforts.
L Joychandra of the Prajatantra was a good friend of mine and so was M Gojendra. We sat many a time at his office at Uripok, talking about all sorts including current politics. Later on, he paid me two visits in the UK. The Prajatantra Daily was the mouthpiece of the Congress.
Irengbam Gulamjat Singh. Electrical Chief Engineer, 1950
My father Gulamjat Singh was once declared “mangba” by the Brahma Sabha under the patronage of Atombapu Sharma, simply because he used to patronise a poor Sanskrit-educated Brahmin called Nilamani Sharma in our neighbourhood – who was a “konok”, which I believe, was regarded as a sort of “desecrated Brahmin” by the Brahmin society of Manipur. My father built him a Temple and Mandab just for him. And family to worship.
My elder sister Pishak explained to me recently. She said these ‘konok’ people were some sort of outcast Brahmins like Borachaoba of Mainupemcha tragedy – a real tale of two star-crossed lovers – immortalised by the old song, Meitei chanu mamomloi, Mainupemcha shakhenbi… which in English is:- The only Meitei damsel, breathtakingly beautiful Mainupemcha.
This Brahmin known to us as Aigya Nilamani, used to come to our house one Sunday evening of every month and ritually read Srimad Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit and translate it in Manipuri to my father. Jealousy is a natural emotion. Atombapu, a highly educated orthodox Brahmin from Sagolband, across the swing bridge from our house, had an illusion of a Sanskritised Manipur with Brabubahan who defeated Arjun and their daughter Chitrangada. I don’t think he believed all that nonsense. As he was originally a mayang, he tried to justify his roots in Manipur.
A man sent by the Brahma Sabha, like the “town crier” of ancient illiterate England, came walking along the Uripok Road, beating a drum and announcing that Irengbam Gulamjat was from that day declared “mangba”. That was the notice to everybody to excommunicate my father in the Roman Catholic style from the Pope in the Vatican or the “fatwa” from Ayatollah Khomeini.
As ill luck would have it, death occurred to a younger brother of mine, Leihao with dysentery. He was just 2yrs and 8 months. Nobody dared to come to help my father. My father was a man of principle with a strong will. He refused to pay the fees for ‘shengdokpa’ (purification). He was prepared to cremate his son himself.
Churachand Maharaja with Ngangbi Maharani
My father being a state employee, as the only electrical engineer, was well known to the Political Agent and the President of Manipur State Durbar (PMSD) at that time. He was persuaded by the PMSD to get himself literally ‘purified’ by paying the stipulated fee of 80 rupees (a lot of money at that time) to the Brahma Sabha, while the larger fee for Churachand Maharaja would be waived. All that involved was sprinkling of a few drops of ‘holy water’ – pond water with leaves of a Tulsi plant, which has been at a temple, by a Brahmin and him openly declaring that my father was ‘purified’. My father refused.
Lamyanba (pathfinder – honorific title) Irabot was born to a poor family on September 30 1896. He became a natural politician with socialistic ideals to improve the lot of the poor people of Manipur.His later conversion to the communist ideology, was still tinged with basic Manipuri patriotism.
He was a charismatic figure and the most radical politician who ever existed in Manipur. He was a gifted person with political philosophy in his sinews. Not only was he a reformist but a good sportsman, a prose writer, poet and artist and ultimately a revolutionary. He was the father of the modern Meitei insurgencies.
Irabot was arrested on January 9 1940 for an inflammatory speech he made at Police Lines, Yaiskul, when Nupilan II (Women’s War II) broke out. He was tried by the Manipur State Durbar on March 21 1940 and sentenced to three years imprisonment. After some time in Imphal jail he was sent to the Sylhet District Jail (1942-43) where he was inducted to communism by fellow communist inmates.
Irabot returned to Manipur in March 1946 after Indian Independence, when the Manipur State Council lifted the ban on his entry. His arrival signalled the beginning of a shaky new epoch for Manipuri politics. He immediately began to organise a new party called the Manipur Praja Mandal (MPM) in April 1946.
During 1947-9 there was a great political consciousness among the Manipuri students. It was instilled by college students from Calcutta and Gauhati. They formed the Manipur Students Congress and animated youngsters like me and the masses with freedom movements.
I used to attend these students meetings at the Aryan Theatre Hall or Rupamahal Theatre. They organised processions when we shouted “Chhatra Congress Zindabad” and “Bharat Mata ki Jay”.
Irabot now a confirmed communist, realising the potential of the youth, formed the communist orientated Manipur Students federation’ (MSF) and Mahila Sanmeloni (MS) for college educated women. The communist slogans such as ‘paddy fields should be owned by the peasants’ and songs like Thangol adu thouna thangu he louuba – ‘sharpen your scythe you ploughmen,’ were very popular among the peasants.
But it was a beguiling message to the peasants. In Communist Russia peasants did not own land. They lived miserably, queuing long hours for a loaf of bread or an egg while the elite at the Kremlin had their own shopping malls and department stores. Irabot and other communist politicians did not know about this. The Soviet kept under lock and key.
In Manipur, almost all the paddy fields in the villages were owned by the Imphal townspeople. The Royalty owned a lot of them. Irabot was against it and thus he was not very popular among the Meitei elite in Imphal. He was infamous. His notoriety nosedived further, after he was openly declared communist and was forced to go underground. Most people in Imphal was not bothered about him except as a piece of news. Communists were regarded as a sort of ruffians.
The mercurial rise of Irabot’s political career was abruptly stunted by an unfortunate accident which accrued when a police officer, Sub Inspector, named Keisam Naran Singh was shot on September 21 1948 at a village called Pungdongbam in northeast Imphal. The circumstances of theshooting remained unsolved. I was at the Civil Hospital Gate when he was brought ‘dead on arrival’ from bleeding.
No one knew who shot him. It was rumoured that he shot himself accidentally with his own hand gun. The bullet went through his right thigh (if I remember correctly) severing a main artery and he bled to death before reaching Imphal Civil Hospital.
It so happened that, Irabat and his communist party organised a protest meeting on September 21 1948 at the Manipur Dramatic Union hall to protest against Sardar Patel’s idea of the formation of Purbachal Pradesh (Northeast province) which includes Tripura, Cachar, Lusai Hills and Manipur. A large group of people – communist sympathisers from the village of Pungdongbam came to attend the meeting. A police party tried to stop their march and a scuffle ensued, during which a bullet went off.
Irabot, with other young leaders, immediately went underground for fear of being arrested and accused of fomenting a violent rebellion. A warrant for his arrest was issued by the Interim Government. Praja Sabha, Krishak Sabha and Mahila Sanmeloni and other communist organisations were banned. A reward of Rs.10, 000 was announced for his capture.
Following the shooting incident hundreds of peasants were arrested and jailed. Among them was a man of middle age and spare build, who was arrested at Phungdombam village. He was always dressed in a red shirt and dhoti with a red Gandhi cap on his head. Whenever he was marched from Imphal Central Jail to the Cheirap Panchayat (court) in the afternoon, he was always jabbering to himself and we thought he was mad.
Cheirap panchay court – locked out.
In old days the two courts were open and the whole compound was open. We children from Uripok used to walk in and look at the paintings like ‘people who drink alcohol would be burnt in Hell by hell fellows’.
He marched keeping in step in the middle of a platoon of newly recruited Manipur Armed Police. Some of them wore Khaki uniform and shouldered 303 rifles with one bullet in the chamber. Nobody knew what he was charged with.
One such afternoon, I happened to be walking by the side of Wahangbam ongbi Medhabati Debi (the first Meitei woman BA) who was returning from the school where she was a teacher. Her husband Ibocha, who retired as Chairman of Imphal Municipality, was a great friend of my eldest brother Gokulchandra. She remarked to me: “they are walking him like a criminal.” I did not understand what she meant at that time.
Irabot’s esteem in the eyes of the public began to dip below the radar until revived recently in the 1990s by his admirers. He was rightly honoured with the Meitei epithet “Lamyanba” (pathfinder). He will remain as our Che Guevara. Irabot formed the Manipur Communist Party on October 29 1948. He organised its armed wing known as the Manipur Red Guard (Miyamgi Fingang Lanmi in Manipuri). Th Bira was appointed as the Commander. Irabot continued to publish his weekly memoranda to intimidate the Government from the Underground.
Irabot was also having correspondence with the Burmese Communist Party, and they allowed him to set up his base in the Kabaw valley. He went to Burma in the beginning of 1951 to arrange military training for his men. During another visit the same year he died from typhoid fever on the morning of Septemeber 26 in the village of Tangbo.
The young party leaders such as N Binoy Singh, Ng Mohindro Singh, Th Bira Singh, M Megha Singh and others were in jail by the mid ‘50s. I knew Binoy, Mohindro and Megha closely. Binoy was our (boy’s) hero because of his physique and sportsmanship. We used to hear a lot of his non-existent daring-dos at this time. Later, N Binoy and his group formed the Kangleipak Comminist party, which has now degenerated from an ideological communism to commercial activities.
Irabot’s burgeoning early political career began with the founding of Nikhil Hindu Manipuri Maha Sabha (NHMM) on May 30 1934. He campaigned for the modernisation of the economy, social reforms and justice in Manipur. He tried to red-pencil the evils of the Anouba (new) Brahmins’ Hinduism, especially the money making “mangba-sengba” (unclean-clean) furore.
In the 1930s thousands of poor people suffered as they had to pay a levy for Chandan Senkhai (taxation for putting on the Vaishnavite tilak mark on the forehead) and fees for “sengdokpa” (cleaning, purification). The NHMM also compelled the Meiteis to declare the tribal communities untouchables as they ate meat and drank alcohol and lacking in cleanliness, which was then customised for Meitei Hindus. Soon it grew on Meiteis.
Brahmins came from Bengal and North India, like the Kerala Christian missionaries from Kerala, who were brought to Manipur by Keralite PC Mathews who took over as Chief Commissioner in 1955.
Mathews did nothing to organise the government set up, ostensibly, “due to want of necessary executive and technical personnel”. On the other hand, he complained that there had been irregularities in accounting that the hills remained unvisited by any government officer (in contrast to the British period). He then brought in swarms of Keralite missionaries. (cf. PANMYL Manipur Today n.d). The first Little Flower School was established by a few nuns from Kerala in the centre of Imphal. These Keralite nuns did a good job in modernising children’s schools in Manipur.
Right from the early days, these Brahmins brought the caste system to Manipur: mayang Brahmins and Meitei Kshatriyas, while the seven salais (clans) of the Meiteis were assigned the seven Vedic gotras. Luckily, I remembered our ‘gotra’ was Shandila when my son Neil and I were asked by the main panda as we went into the Sanctum Santorum of the Jagannath Temple. It saved my embarrassment as it was the only one I knew. My English wife was not allowed despite my being friendly with the king of Puri, saying that even Indira Gandhi was not allowed in as she married a Parsee.
Author at Jagannath Puri Temple, 2003
Brahmins brought the Master and Servant relationship to the Meiteis. Every Brahmin, high or low, was addressed as ‘aigya’ meaning ‘hukum kijiye’ in Urdu, which means “give me the order, sir”. In the years after the War we had to kneel and touch the floor in front of a Brahmin whenever he came to our house. He would say “Jai Jai”. Thus we had three castes in Manipur: Brahmins, Kshatriyas and the Untouchables (tribals).
Manipur now has a secular and egalitarian society, no castes, no slavery but many creeds with freedom to choose one’s own religion under the Indian Constitution. Laimayum Lalita Madhob Sharma was a charming middle aged man with a pleasant demeanour. He was good looking with more mayang features than Meitei. He spoke in cadence with perfect Hindi intonation. He was well versed in Sanskrit and spoke Hindi without an accent. He was always dressed in a pristine white Khaddar dhoti and kurta. A smart Congress cap always donned his head. Later, he found his roots in Bengal and changed his daughters’ surname to “Chatterjee”.
His younger daughter was married to Brajamani Sharma, one year senior to me in school. He became an engineer. He also miraculously found his ancestry in Bengal and became Mukherjee. So Mukherjee married Chatterjee. I attended their wedding as the groom’s companion.
Brajamani was a brilliant student. He matriculated from Johnstone High School and stood first in the whole Gauhati University. Because his name was Mukherjee, all the national Newspapers in Calcutta, such as Jugantar, Amrita Bazar Patrika and Statesman, prided that a Bengali stood first in the all-Assam Matriculation examination. He became a Civil engineer in Manipur.
Lalita Madhov, like myself, was born and brought up at Uripok. Later in my college days when he became an MP in Delhi, we were known to each other very well. Previously, as a school boy, I used to attend at small Congress meetings at Uripok, where he was a speaker.
I met him many a time in Delhi when he became an MP and I, a college student.
He came and stayed with me once, when he visited Agra in 1958. I was in Medical College. He was a likeable fellow, full of jest. I was had an occasion when Laisram Achou Singh MP, who we regarded as the first educated socialist of the Jay Prakash Narain party, came to Agra in 1959 and stayed at my hostel.
Lalita Madhob was an unorthodox Brahmin. As the General Secretary of NHMM he helped a few tribal people who wanted to convert to Hinduism and become Meiteis. One such person was a Kabui woman who was married to a man in my neighbourhood. I was present at that short “sanctifying” ceremony with a few Sanskrit mantras.
The history of Manipur politics began to emerge at the fourth session of NHMM at Chinga Hill on December 29-30 1938. Lalita Madhob Sharma was the General Secretary. It was at the height of ‘Mangba–Sengba’ unrest. The meeting brought consciousness to the educated.
Meiteis of what it would be like to have a democratic government. The meeting worked out a framework for opposing the feudal rule of the maharaja, and the religious oppression of the Brahmins who had complicity with Maharaja Churachand. The name of the organisation was changed to the Nikhil (all) Manipuri Mahasabha (NMM) by dropping “Hindu”. Irabot was appointed as the President.
The Maharaja naturally, alienated himself. It had now begun to attract non-Hindus. One of the resolutions adopted was the return of the British administration of the hills to the State and thus integrate the hill with valley – to stop the divide and rule policy of the British. It also demanded the establishment of a representative form of government with a LegislativeCouncil.
The NMM however, continued to exist as a necessary toothless tiger. New political parties sprung up like mushrooms under the guidance of Irabot – all with communist leanings. The Manipur Praja Mandal had been founded back in 1939 and Manipur Praja Sanmeloni on January 7 1940.
Krishi Sanmeloni, a communist peasant movement, established at Nambol in 1936 under the leadership of Salam Herachandra and Maimong Madhumangol emerged as a political heavyweight in 1946 when Irabot became its president. It then changed its name to the Manipur Krishak Sabha (MKS). It advocated radical programmes for the betterment of poor farmers. The urban sister organisation of the MKS was the Manipur Praja Sangha (MPS) by the amalgamation of Manipur Praja Sammeloni and Manipur Praja Mandal.
While all these communist organisations were performing under Irabot, what was left of the NMM eventually formed the Manipur Congress Party under the new President Lalita Madhob Sharma. It continued its policy of protesting for economic and educational advancement and renewed its call for an elected Legislative Assembly.
In 1940, realising the public unrest, the Governor of Assam, Sir Robert Reid, as advised by Christopher Gimson, the Political Agent, directed Churachand maharaja for some democratic reforms, in pursuance of British policy towards the Indian Princely States. It fell on deaf ears.
The Political Agent, Christopher Gimson, was quite piqued with the Maharaja’s lack of interest, and at the same time he felt that the
Mahashaba could not be turned to constitutional ways as most of its leaders had no ideas higher than that of making money. So he did not energise.
Gimson was also quite nettled as Churachand spent more time out of Manipur on holiday, horse racing in Shillong, and going on pilgrimages to Navadeep, rather than looking after the affairs of the state, such as that he was so inert during the Nupilan II (2nd Women’s War). Ultimately, he was virtually exiled by the British. His nepotism, avarice and incompetence did not endear him to the British Administrators. He died in Navadeep, with tuberculosis on November 6 1941.
Most Manipuris were illiterate and had no idea of Churachand’s lack ofinterest in the welfare of his people. Older folks were still addressing him as “Maharaja Ishwar”- God-king. Churachand was succeeded by his not-so-colourful son Bodh Chandra.
Maharaja Bodh Chandra at his coronation in 1941 during WWII
The British administration thought very little of him. Bodh Chandra did not have the monarchial personality that his brother Priyobrata had and partly because during World WW II, he had no administrative power as the British Army took it away from him and the independence movement of the people made him look like a toothless tiger.
I often watched him playing volleyball as the server hitting the ball only once, at Khwairamband Mapal Football ground, inthe same team as my eldest Brother Gokulchandra.
My eldest brother Gokulchandra, Chief Engineer, Manipur (R), at Rashtrapati Bhavan
I had a quiet albeit sorrowful respect for him. To me, his calm composure was like a king though he never spoke a single word. His face and hairdo reminded me of Buddha in contemplation. He also married a distant cousin of mine, Yellangbam Ibecha from Yellangbam Leikai.
Bodh Chandra was once banished by his father Churachand to Benares for some superstitious activities like listening to the oracles (maiba/maibi) that gave him unfounded messages. To his father he looked as if he was attempting to arrogate his throne. While staying in Benares for a few years he met elderly Sri Prakasa as his mentor and who later, as the Governor of Assam, betrayed him.
World War II with brigadiers and generals in Manipur, with no authority of the Maharaja, belittled Bodhchandra’s image in the eyes of the Meiteis. He had very little to show during the War years, and after the War he did not set up to modernise his administration. Soon he was embroiled in the political demand for a democratic government. Many regarded him as the person who sold out Manipur, though I do not agree. He had no choice, either way.
After the War he toured some hill areas to make his presence felt as the king of Manipur and with the intention of unifying the hills and the valley, which the British Administration wilfully kept apart. Time was not on his side. He was soon caught up in the new world movement of political freedoms and liberties.
The end of the War ushered in Indian independence on August 15 1947, when the British Labour Party came to power with Attlee as the Prime Minister. This was followed by an independent celebration in Imphal with the formation of a democratic government, by hoisting the Manipur Flag at Kangla.
First Indian Independence Day celebration on 15th January 1947
Manipur’s newly found independence lasted only for 2 years, which was marred by internal political conflict, invective backbiting and conspiracy until Manipur was forcibly merged to Independent India by Sirdar Patel in September 1949. Maharaja Budh Chandra was coerced to sign the agreement in Shillong, under the mentorship of Sri Prakasa from Benares.
The end of the War in 1945 brought to the Manipuris a new dawn of modernity and a neo- political frame of mind, especially among the educated Manipuris, both in the hills and the plains.
Imphal War Cemetery
In Manipur by January 1946, as it was in every princely state, there were recommendations for the establishment of popular elected governments.
Bodh Chandra was not insensitive to the mood of the people, but was not showing any sign of relinquishing his power as the rightful monarch of Manipur. It was indeed a difficult decision for anybody. He was hoping for an autonomous state similar to some princely states of India while Nehru thought Manipur to be too small to exist as a state.
The return of Irabot, the prodigal son to Imphal in March 1946 signalled the beginning of a shaky new era for Manipuri politics. By this time, with the influence of the Indian national Congress, the Manipur State Congress Party was becoming popular among the Meitei elite.
Apart from Lalita Madhob the names of E Tompok and RK Buhhansana and Banka Bihari Sharma were heard in every home.
There was a joint meeting on April 5 1946 between the Congress President Lalita Madhob and Elangbam Tompok on the one hand and Irabot on the other. Irabot represented the Manipur Praja Mandal (MPM) as president and the NMM as a Committee member. RK Bhubansana was the president of the joint meeting.
Many resolutions were passed such as what would be the status of Manipur after independence. The proposal to include Manipur in Purbachal or the new North East Frontier control of the hill areas and the British Reserve, which had been under British control since 1907. Surprisingly, the option to merge with India, if the majority so decided, was also considered.
A few days after, some in the NMM leadership who were increasingly coming under the influence of the Indian Congress, plotted to remove communist Irabot from the political scene. At a meeting chaired by the new Congress president Banka Bihari Sharma they decided to accuse Irabot publicly over his communist affiliation and demand an explanation from him within a fortnight.
Irabot though a communist, did not declare himself as a member of the Communist Party and his association with the NHM was subterfuge. Irabot’s response was published in several issues of Bahagyavati Patrika. He denied that the allegation was true and demanded that the charge that he was a communist be withdrawn. Being a patriot, he stressed the importance of all the political parties working together at this critical juncture of impending independence for a better political future of Manipur.
It fell on deaf ears. It went unheeded. Frustrated, Irabot now decided to use the muscle power of his two parties – the MPM and MPS to compete with the NMM in demanding a democratically elected legislative assembly.
The NMM petitioned Budh Chandra on August 3 1946, for an immediate declaration that there would be a democratic government and he would set up a ‘constitution making committee’, while in the meantime, an interim government would be instituted. The following month, not to be left out in the cold, the MPM and MPS united to form the Manipur Praja Sangha (MPS) with RK Bhubansana as president and Irabot as secretary. This new party also petitioned Bodh Chandra to set up a commission for organising the election of a Legislative Assembly.
Irabot’s burgeoning political career began with the founding of Nikhil Hindu Manipuri Maha Sabha (NHMM) on May 30 1934. He tried to red-pencil the evils of the ‘Anouba Brahmins’ money-making Hinduism.
Laimayum Lalita Madhab Sharma was a charming middle-aged man with a pleasant demeanour. He was from Uripok and so I knew him very well. He was an unorthodox Brahmin. As the general secretary of NHMM he helped to convert many tribal people to Meiteis.
The history of Manipur politics began to emerge at the fourth session of NHMM at Chingnga Hill on December 29-30 1938. Lalita Madhab was the general secretary. The meeting brought to the educated Meiteis what it would be like to have an independent democratic government. It also worked out a framework for opposing the feudal rule of the maharaja, and the religious oppression of the Brahmins. The name of the organisation was changed to the Nikhil Manipuri Mahashaba (NMM). Irabot was appointed as president.
The NMM however, continued to exist as a necessary toothless tiger. New political parties sprang up like mushrooms under the guidance of Irabot – all with communist leanings.
While all these communist organisations were performing under Irabot, what was left of the NMM eventually formed the Manipur Congress Party under the new president Lalita Madhab Sharma.
Manipur State Durbar Hall
On March 3 1947 the Manipur State Congress set up the Manipur constitution making committee. Frank Pearson, the president of Manipur State Durbar drafted a constitution for the state. On May 8 1947 the Manipur Constitution Act was passed. On July 1 1947 the old Manipur State Durbar changed its name to the Manipur State Council. On the eve of Indian Independence an Interim Government was formed with a legislature on August 14 1947. MK Priyobrata was nominated to be the Chief Minister.
Manipuri flag with Pakhangba symbol
At the stroke of midnight of August 14, 1947 Manipur became a sovereign independent state.
In July 1948 the first Manipur State Assembly was set up with elected members on adult franchise – the first of its kind in India. In October 1948 Manipur State Assembly was inaugurated with Maharaja Bodh Chandra as the Constitutional head.
However, the plot was thickening. While under house arrest at his own residence – The Redlands in Shillong, Budh Chandra signed the Agreement of Accession on September 21 1948. But for some reasons he kept it quiet. With hind sight that was his biggest blunder. He naturally did not want to lose his job. Under the provision of that Agreement Manipur became an integral part of India with effect from October 15 1949 when it was officially announced in Delhi by MK Velody, secretary in the Ministry of States, Government of India.
In Manipur, Maj Gen Rawal Amar Singh, the Dewan (Indian political agent) announced the annexation on the same day, October 15 1949, at an official ceremony at the Imphal polo ground at 9 am. The Manipur administration was taken over by New Delhi by dissolving the democratically elected 1948 ministry. I went to see it. I didn’t know much about it. I was just happy that we were independent. So was everybody. We donned hastily sewed white congress caps, including my father and brothers. The rest is history.
For Manipuris, it was the bugle sound of the “Last post” – a Remembrance Day Tribute to those Manipuris who died for their country’s freedom. It was the end of the 2,000 year-old Ningthouja kingdom.