As the nation approaches its 72nd Independence Day, we bring you stories of #ForgottenHeroes of #IndianIndependence that were lost among the pages of history.
For seven hundred years, from 1110 till 1819, the Kingdom of Kangleipak (Kingdom of Manipur) reigned over the area of modern-day Manipur uninterrupted.
The kingdom’s eventual downfall began in 1819, when the Kingdom of Burma, under Emperor Bawdawpay, invaded and annexed Manipur.
The Burmese reign over Manipur saw a campaign of genocide against the Meitei, reducing the region’s population to just 2,500. Following the fall of Manipur, the Burmese kingdom expanded into Assam and the Brahmaputra Valley. But it is there that they faced an unexpected, but formidable, enemy – the British.
Threatened by a potential Burmese invasion of Bengal, on March 5, 1824, the British declared war on Burma. Manipuri refugees agreed to fight on the British side if they agreed to restore the sovereignty of Manipur under Prince Gambhir Singh.
The British agreed and won the war. By 1826 Burmese troops had been expelled from the area and Manipur restored as an independent kingdom under British protection.
All was peaceful until the death of Maharaja Chandrakiri in 1890 when a power struggle for the throne ignited a civil war.
A series of coups, exiles and appeals for help eventually led to the British getting directly involved in Manipur once again. A party of British officials and 400 Gurkhas arrived in Imphal to arrest the prince in revolt, Tikendrajit, and oust the current man on the throne – Maharaja Kulchandra Singh.
When the Maharaja refused to abdicate or hand over the prince, the British tried to conduct a sudden midnight raid and capture Tikendrajit in 1891. But the imperials’ plan was quickly foiled by Manipuri soldiers.
Angered, King Kulachandra ordered the beheading of the five British officers on March 24, 1891.
It was this incident that triggered what was later called the Anglo-Manipur war of 1891. And it is here that Major Paona Brajabashi, a brave soldier of the Kangleipak kingdom and hero of the Indian freedom movement, took centre stage.
Attempting to resist British forces marching from Tamu (on the border between Manipur and Myanmar today), 700 Manipuri soldiers were dispatched to Thoubal, a major town, under Major Wangkheirakpa and Yenkhoiba.
Sensing that they may not be able to resist the British, the Maharaja dispatched another 400 men under the command of Paona Brajabasi and Chongtha Mia Singh, who was promoted to Major from Subedar, to reinforce the earlier squad.
“The party under Wangkheirakpa made a strong stockade at Thoubal. Orders were issued to Majors Paona Brajabasi and Chongtha Mia Singh to proceed towards Palel by the Burma Road. But seeing the British reconnoitring party, the two Manipuri Majors constructed a mud fort on the bank of the Khongjom River (27 km from Imphal). One day before the battle, Lt. Cox spied out the disposition of the Manipuri troops at Khongjom,” writes Dr Yumkhaibam Shyam Singh, a Manipuri scholar.
Major Paona and Chongtha’s 400-strong force was poorly equipped, and both urgently requested for cannons of high calibre, without which they would have to face the British with only small weapons.
Despite three requests, the high-calibre weapons did not arrive and with the mud fort surrounded, the British guns sealed their fate on April 23.
However, there was bravery and honour even in defeat. The Manipuri forces, led by Paona, fought what many historians describe as one of the fiercest battles in Indian history.
“As soon as the British Infantry made their advance close up to the fort, the Manipuri position was attacked by the Mounted Infantry from three directions into a V-shaped Formation. While attacking the British troops soon jumbled into the nullah and were scrambling up the opposite side, the Manipuris were keeping up a hot fire all the time. However, the attackers eventually entered the fort, where severe hand to hand fighting ensued, the British with bayonets and the Manipuris with shields and swords,” says this research paper on the war.
Engaged in a bloody clash, the Manipuri soldiers, including Paona, fought until the last man by some accounts. While others peg the Manipuri casualty figure to 128. While the British lost only two soldiers, with eleven others severely injured.
“Despite fighting valiantly, there was no one left standing except Paona Brajabashi. A Manipuri British Army Officer asked him to switch sides and join the British army. The British insisted that he could switch sides in exchange for a plump post. However, Paona reportedly replied that death was more welcome than treason. Saying this Paona took off the cloth wrapped around his headgear and asked the British Officer to behead him,” says Kakchingtabam Hemchandra Sharma, Secretary of Association for Paona Memorial Arts and Rural Development Services.
And so Paona fell, unflinching till the end.
On April 27, 1891, the British entered Imphal and raised the Union Jack above the Kangla Palace, but not before hundreds of Manipuri soldiers laid down their lives. Tikendrajit and five other commanders of the Manipuri army were executed, while Kulachandra Singh and 21 other noblemen from his court had their properties confiscated and sent into exile.
The British also conducted an extensive disarmament campaign against the Manipuri people, confiscating close to 4000 weapons.
However, the one positive in this war was the united front the people from the hills (Thangkul Nagas) and the plains (Meitieis) presented before the British invasion.
“It is undeniable that the Manipuris living both in the hills and the plain fought the war united. Traditions express that Maharajas maintained a very sound relationship with the hill people of Manipur,” says Dr Shyam Singh.
As for Paona, who embraced death rather than escape or surrender – his legend lives on. In memory of him and the other Manipuri soldiers who laid down their lives, Manipur celebrates Khongjom Day every year on April 23.
(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)