The renaming of Mt. Harriet in the Andaman and Nicobar Island as Mt. Manipur in honour of Maharaja Kulachandra, his brother from a different queen mother, Prince Angousana Senapati and 20 of their associates who were imprisoned there after the 1891 war with the then colonial power of Britain is landmark from the point of view of it as a reminder of an important chapter in the history of Manipur. Much has been written and therefore known about the circumstances that led to the 1891 explosion of violent confrontations which ultimately led first to the death of five high-ranking British officers including J.W. Quinton, chief commissioner of the British Assam province bifurcated from Bengal in 1874, and then later the defeat of Manipur in the event of a full-scale invasion by British forces. What would have been no more than an internal skirmish of succession after the death of one of the longest ruling monarchs of the then kingdom, Maharaja Chandrakriti, between his descendants, thus became an external war, one that became a major pivot in Manipur’s modern history. The skirmish between sibling princes itself was unfortunate, but this is hardly surprising, for such tumultuous succession wars were common in any monarchy which followed the primogenitor principle whereby the eldest prince by unwritten law had the sole right to inherit the kingdom from their king father and the rest of his siblings were to be destined to become his subordinates and fade into oblivion from the pages of history regardless of their leadership merits as individuals.
Curiously, almost as a pattern, the return of public attention and academic focus on Manipur’s tryst with the infamous Kala Pani prison of the British colonial empire, is exposing yet gain the shallowness of scholarship in Manipur. Fundamental questions on the matter, for instance the fate of the 22 sent and imprisoned on the island should have had definitive answers from the repository of M.Phil and Ph.D theses at the Manipur University and other research institutes, but this lamentably is hardly the case. This was also exactly the frustration when people were looking for information on the crucial World War II battles fought on the hills and plains of Manipur and neighbouring Nagaland and Chin hills, at the time the Japan sponsored Imphal Peace Museum at Maibam Lotpa Ching, Bishnupur, nicknamed Red Hills, was being set up. Information on this equally important and pivotal historical event have had to be sourced from elsewhere when they should all have been readily available in the research works at the state’s own university, now universities.
Thanks to the journalists fraternity in Manipur under the banner of the All Manipur Working Journalists Union, AMWJU, which organised a tour of the Andaman Islands in 2013, we at least know that the 22 who were convicted in 1891 of waging war against the Empress of Britain, were not kept in the notorious Cellular Jail but were instead placed under house arrest at Mt. Harriet nearby. This again falls into a pattern of the British way of handling what they referred to as Princely States. For instance, when Burma was taken over by the British after the 1885 Third Anglo-Burma War, the reigning monarch of the kingdom at the time, King Thibaw and Queen Supayalat were deported to India and kept under house arrest for life at a place called Ratnagiri near Goa, and similarly, after the 1857 Sepoy uprising in India was suppressed, the Mughal Monarch Bahadur Shah and family were deported to Rangoon and kept under house arrest there for life. While every detail of what, where, when, how and what happened thereafter about King Thibaw and Bahadur Shah are well known and recorded, including in bestseller historical novels such as in Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace in the case of King Thibaw and in William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal in the case of Emperor Bahadur Shah, the scholarship reality in the case of Maharaja Kulachandra the 21 others are at best obscure, if not altogether in the realm of oblivion.
The case of Burmese King Thibaw and Queen Supayalat, as also creatively chronicled by Amitav Ghosh in The Glass Palace, is interesting for one more reason. The queen gave birth to twin daughters while in prison in Ratnagiri and thus the two princesses became prisoners at birth. Because as prisoners they were exposed to only the household staff, one of them ended up marrying a prison staff. The other, after attaining adulthood, went back to Mandalay. Readers can sense Ghosh’s indignation in recounting this episode and the indignation is infectious to say the least. There is almost a sense of deja vu in this for the wife of one of the exiled royalties from Manipur, Angousana, also gave birth to twin daughters while a prisoner. These two Manipuri princesses too became prisoners at birth, a reality not tenable at all under the international humanitarian law or under any civilised law. Anguousana was originally given the death sentenced but the sentence was commuted to deportation and imprisonment for life as he was considered still too young.
Since all 22 were deported for life, if it can be presumed nothing else happened, all would have died outside Manipur. The question is, did any of them receive pardon to be released and allowed to return to Manipur? There is also a claim from some in Nagaland that among the 22 there were two Ao Nagas who had gone to Manipur at the time. Among the 22 there were indeed two held from Mayangkhang area with the suffix Naga to their names. Were they Maram or Thangal as they would be if they were locals, or were they Ao from Nagaland? Sadly, nothing much has been done to find out any of these details. One thing is known though. At least the two royals in the list of 22, Kulachandra and his brother Angousana, did not die in Andamans. The British authorities after some years showed some leniency and transported them to the mainland at the Hazaribagh Jail in Bihar. Did any of the rest also go with them? Nothing again is known for nobody has tried to find out so far. It was as Hazaribagh Jail that Angousana’s wife gave birth to the twin daughters. It is said the two girls spoke Bihari fluently because their nurse was a Bihari. One of them unfortunately died during a cholera epidemic in the jail it is said. As years advanced and Kulachandra’s health deteriorated, the king requested the British for transportation to the holy land of Radha Kunda at Mathura where he wanted to spend his last days. This wish was granted and the two brothers along their household were transported to Radha Kunda and this is where the two breathed their last, Kulachanda much earlier.
After Maharaja Churachand was coronated as king of Manipur in 1907, he visited his uncle Anguosana at Radha Kund (Kulachandra was no more by then), and there he pleaded for his surviving cousin sister, Angousana’s younger daughter, to be allowed to be taken back to Manipur. The father as well as the British authorities consented and the girl thus returned to her homeland she had never seen before. That unfortunate girl, born in prison and by destiny a prisoner for her entire childhood and much of her teens, is the mother of my late mother, and I know this story from the stories my mother told me and my siblings.
Now that Mt. Harriet has been renamed as Mt. Manipur, we do hope there will be more researches on this chapter of Manipur’s history. Perhaps, as in the manner Amitav Ghosh and William Dalrymple told their enchanting stories of fascinating chapters from Indian and Burmese histories, or closer home as MK Binodini has done her bit in Bor Saheb Ongbi Sanatombi, maybe there can also be charming stories of the Andaman episode told in the genre of novel treading the borderlands of history and art, fact and fiction. Or else cinema and theatre, of course preceded by pure factual research work.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author