Khongjom Day: Commemoration of the last Battle of Manipur
By Dr. Budha Kamei
The Khongjom day is observed on 23rd April every year to pay rich tributes to the great warriors who laid down their lives to safeguard the freedom of the land in the Anglo-Manipur war of 1891. They are martyrs. Lack of unity among the ruling princes and the British interference in the affairs of the state were the key factors of the war. The Anglo-Manipur war was a great historical event. The military conflict was definitely a war between two independent countries/states, though the British looked at it as a rebellion. The historical facts (British imperial documentation and the Manipur chronicles) point to the conflict as a war between two nations. Killing of five British officers including Mr. James Wallace Quinton, the chief commissioner of Assam was the immediate cause of the war. The execution of the five British officers without proper trial was unjustified, though as per the laws of little country what they had committed was the cause or waging war against Manipur (sovereign state) and thus liable to be punished by death. The friendship between the two countries had been destroyed by tactless and arrogant Mr. James Wallace Quinton. It was also the disaster for the British prestige in India and tiny Manipur did not comply in the foul play and pressure threats of Mr. James Wallace Quinton.
The British came to India as a trading company and later became the master of the sub-continent. The purpose of a trading company is to earn profit through trade. First, they made friendship with the native rulers, presented gifts to impress them and later on they interfered in the internal affairs of the state by helping one faction or another of the ruling family/dynasty as and when the Colonial masters considered it opportune. At last, the foundation of the ruling family/dynasty was crumbled. ‘Divide and rule’ is the only policy they employed in all parts of the world. So, one should never enter into friendship with the British. Only a few number of British officers stationed in India. However, they were sent to India after getting well training of anthropology. As anthropologists/colonial masters they collected ethnographic data of the native peoples by conducting field work or through local interpreters before entering in the particular region or state. In this way, Colonial masters could effectively deal with the native peoples of Northeast.
Located at a strategically important area between China and Indian sub-continent, Manipur was very much an arena of British imperial concern. The Colonial masters wanted to use Manipur as a buffer zone for many factors; for smooth trade between Assam (Assam and Cachar were a part of British India) and Burma; to deal with the frontier tribes like Mizos, Nagas, Kukis, and Suktes. The British policy towards Manipur was mainly dictated by Burmaphobia till the outbreak of Anglo-Burmese war, 1885. Even after the war of 1885, Manipur continued to serve as a frontier defense, because of the growing influence of France in the Indo-China.
During the whole of the 19th century, Manipur was an independent Kingdom. Truly speaking, she was never colonized. Manipur was not a Sanad state like other Indian states before 1891. She of course had diplomatic level contact with British by signing treaties now and then. In 1762, the first formal treaty was signed between the two equal powers. It was essentially a defense alliance. Several factors contributed to the signing of the treaty. Manipur was repeatedly invaded by the Burmese forces. To make the situation worse, there was no any unity among the ruling princes; sons murdered fathers and brothers murdered brothers. Under the agreement of the treaty, the British were supposed to help Bhagyachandra Singh in the expulsion of Burmese forces from Manipur. But, they didn’t give help. It was only after the conquest of Manipur (1819), Cachar and Assam by the Burmese forces, the British attitude changed from one of the indifferent to alarm; they were ready to assist Gambhir Singh in the liberation of Manipur on the thought that it would ensure the security along the eastern frontier, and secondly, it would also enable the British to impose favorable terms to the king of Ava at the time of negotiation for peace. Manipur was liberated by Gambhir Singh and his men with the assistance of the British. By the treaty of Yandaboo 1826, Manipur was recognized as an independent Kingdom. But, she lost Kabaw Valley to Burma, because the British were in favor of Burma. This clearly indicates the real attitude of the British.
When the news of execution of the five British officers was confirmed by the telegraph sent by Maharaja Kulachandra Singh, the British India government constituted a Manipur field force. They sent three columns to Manipur from three sides. The Manipur Durbar acted in complete unity and decided to put defensive stockades against the British forces. To the north, Manipur constructed a stockade at Mayangkhang and Senapati Angou Sana was posted there to meet the Kohima column; the Cachar road also known as Tongjei Maril was defended by a Manipuri stockade posted at Leimaton hill over looking Yaojangtek village and Leimatak River. It was commanded by Prince Kala Singh, Sagol Hanjaba, Ngangba Lourung Purel, Yenkhoiba Poila with one thousand soldiers to fight the Cachar column. The main battles were in the southeast Manipur valley. Manipur built three defensive places to fight against the invader; the first one was at Palel, the second, at Kakching and the third was at Khongjom and the rear guard was located at Thoubal.
It was at Khongjom, where was fought one of the battles of the war of Manipur’s independence which was a saga of heroism and patriotism of the great warriors of the land who fought against heavy odds, the outcome of which was a foregone conclusion. Gangmumei Kamei wrote, “On 25th April General Graham arrived at Palel. He was already aware of the battle of Kakching where British had surprised the Manipuri army under the command Meiraba Poloi. He was also informed that a large number of Manipuris were concentrated in entrenchment to six miles north of Palel. And both sides were prepared for a final show down at the battle of Khongjom on the fateful day of 25th April 1891.” The Manipur camp at Khongjom was defended by majors Paona and Chongtha Miya who earned immortal fame in the famous battle of Khongjom. The Khongjom mud fort was in oval shape about 50 yards long and 50 yards broad. Major Paona said, “My countrymen, their bullets had reached us, it is undesirable to retreat and die; my brother-in-law Yenkhoiba suspected us, we will not live. There is no question of retreat.” This expresses the firm determination of Manipuri soldiers. The Manipuri forces were outnumbered and the enemy was superior in arms too. Those were the days when the sun never set in British Empire. A little Kingdom like Manipur could not hope to meet the resourceful of the British located in their Indian Empire. But the Manipuris fought bravely for the cause of their motherland. In this pitched battle, Manipuris were defeated; major Paona was killed along with his brave men. According to local version, about 400 Manipuri warriors were killed and the enemy too suffered very losses. The fall of Khongjom is the turning point in the history of Manipur. After the battle, the Manipur field force entered Imphal and occupied the palace. The union jack flag was hoisted over the palace of Manipur. As a mark of victory, the British soldiers had blown up the masonry dragon which stood at the entrance of the Durbar hall. Thus, Manipur lost her sovereign and independence status and marked the integration into the British India Empire. Freedom they lost, but love of freedom they retained.