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Simon Commission encounter as an important marker of how identities form in the Northeast – Part-3

This is the third and final part of Pradip Phanjoubam’s article in Charles Chase’s book “The Naga Memorandum to Simon Commission 1929”

Manipur case

My approach so far has been to try and see how the momentous 1929 event may look like from different perspectives in the hope this will give a more rounded picture of the problem being sketched. With this in mind, I will now attempt to see from the Manipur vantage, but in considering this, I cannot help but be reminded of the famous opening lines of Leo Tolstoy’s great novel, Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This thought is interesting for the contention that it is unhappiness which gives each individual, or community, their unique identity. If all were to be happy, then by Tolstoy’s sagely presumption, we would all have been flattened out into one likeness. Perhaps it is for this reason that in literature, the great tragedies and their tragic figures, including Anna Karenina, Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet etc., are far clearly marked out and etched in literary memory than any of the great comedies and the characters in them. What then has been Manipur’s unhappiness, or historical anxiety to use a more current vocabulary?

Manipur’s contact with the British is much earlier than most other communities in the region. The earliest treaty this erstwhile kingdom signed with the East India Company was on September 14, 1762, concluded between Harray Das Gossein, emissary of Manipur King Jai Singh, more popularly known as Maharaja Bheigyachandra, and also Chingthungkhomba, and Harry Verelst, Chief of Chittagong factory on behalf of the East India Company. By this treaty the British pledged to help the king against external aggressions against his kingdom, but in return a number of concessions were extracted from the king, including that he and his army would take part in British military expeditions in the region, in particular Burma.[i] Indeed under this treaty, Manipur extended help the East India Company’s effort to take control of the whole of East Bengal in 1765.[ii] This treaty provides an insight into one more important aspects of the British frontier policy which I will dwell on in a little more details later. The idea is to keep strategically located satellite power centres as “Protectorate States” to control vast tracts of territory strategically important to the British, but where they still did not have direct commercial interest. The British had also hoped that keeping Manipur as an ally would be enough to counter balance Burma, though they would be jolted in 1765 by a devastating raid on Manipur by the Burmese.[iii] It may be to the point to briefly explain why the British at the time gave much importance to Manipur in the power game on this canvas. The king who entered into this treaty, henceforth referred to by the name he is more popularly known – Bheigyachandra – is the grandson of King Pamheiba, considered one of the most powerful kings of Manipur. He and his cavalry was notorious for raiding Burma[iv], and these raids by him, and those by many other smaller principalities neighbouring the Ava Kingdom (Burma to the British), is said to have contributed to the weakening and ultimate fall of the Toungoo Dynasty in 1752 in Ava.[v]

At the risk of digressing a little, a brief profile of Pamheiba should be interesting for this volume for he was of Naga descent.[vi] Pamheiba was born of a Naga queen of his father, King Charairongba, also a powerful king. The fable goes[1] that Charairongba’s court oracle had a vision that the king would be killed by his first born son. When Pamheiba was born he being the first born son, his mother was fearful the infant would be killed by the king so she had the baby secretly taken away to be raised in a Naga village in the hills. The king was then told a boy was still born, therefore the curse was purged. In later years, Charairongba ahead of an expedition went to the foothills to round up his horses left there to graze, and there he met the boy Pamheiba who helped the king in catching the horses. The king was very impressed by the boy, especially his horesmanship, perhaps an instinctive liking of a father for his son, even if he did not know the boy was his son. The king later sent for the boy and adopted him as a son. The terrible prophesy later came true when the boy accidentally killed his father in a hunting expedition, and ascended the throne. Pamheiba is also the king who decided to have his kingdom turn Hindu, and even changed his name to Garibaniwaz. The reason probably had to do with the fact that Ava to the east was extremely hostile and he was at constant war with them, therefore he began looking to the west for allies and where Chitanya’s Bhakti Movement that preached love and devotion as the path to salvation was at its height. Nonetheless, he committed some of the worst acts of vandalism, such as rounding up and burning the sacred books Puya which documented rituals and beliefs of the indigenous Meitei religion, Sanamahi, in 1729. Some scholars of the time, known as Maichou, however hid and saved some of these books.

Two developments are of significance in this period. One was that after the fall of the Toungoo Dynasty in 1752, it was the Konbaung Dynasty that took the reins of power in the Ava Kingdom. This dynasty which extended to 11 kings, the last of whom, Thibaw, was defeated by the British in 1885, and exiled to Ratnagiri near Goa, was one of the most powerful in Burmese history, and they were on an empire building mission, causing much trauma to neighbouring kingdoms. It is significant that the first kingdom that the founder of this dynasty, Alaungpaya, decided to raid in 1753 after ascension to the Ava throne and settling down was Manipur in 1758-59, in which the king himself took part.[vii] He had to return before his mission was complete upon news of uprising by the Mons.[viii] There was again a raid in 1765, and this was during Pamheiba’s grandson Bheigyachandra’s time.

Manipur at the time was in political uncertainty. After the death of Pamheiba, his eldest son, Shyamsai, became king but Shyamsai was not of king material and was more inclined to spiritualism. He one day without explanation decided to abdicate his throne and disappeared into the forest, some say on the banks of the Chindwin River to become a hermit, never to return. His younger brother Ajitsai took over as king against the tradition of primogenitor by which the eldest son of the king gets to be king. Primogenitor is incidentally a curse of all feudatories, causing bloody wars amongst princes, and Manipur too had its fair share. Ajitsai tried to revert the kingdom back to the old religion, rejecting Hinduism, causing wide civil strife. But Shyamsai left behind two sons, one of whom was Bheigyachandra, who together invoking the primogenitor principle and rose against their uncle and overthrew him. It was amidst this turmoil the Burmese invasions came, and again as a fallout of the primogenitor curse, with connivance of princes and nobles left out of power by this principle.

How did Manipur come to have an identity as a State so early? The answer may be in James Scott’s theorisation of State formation in the mountainous massif of SE Asia, to which the Northeast also belongs.[ix] Very briefly, he says little valleys in this rugged mountainous massif are where “Paddy States” evolved, facilitated by the surplus of rice production thanks the fertility of their soils and their bounty of being well irrigated. After all, the State as Friedrich Engel says is actually a mechanism for surplus management. Hence, societies in primitive states of subsistent economy have no need for the centralised bureaucracy that the State represents.[x] The arrival of technologies of agricultures, such as the yoking of the bullock to pull ploughs and bullock carts, would have been revolutionary, not only increasing productivity in the fields, but also releasing able bodied from field labour, thereby leading to an explosion of different professions, sophisticating the economy further. These valleys came to form the core of many new “Paddy States” in Scott’s words, but this also resulted in a peculiar friction between these “Paddy States” and the non-state populations in the surrounding hills.  This was also Manipur’s predicament, and Pamheiba’s Hinduism decision in the early 18th Century, further accentuated this rift.

To fit this narrative to the question of the British frontier policy in the Northeast and beyond, the British found these “Paddy States” convenient in the management of non-state spaces in their frontier territories. Lord Curzon in his Romanes Lecture titled “Frontier” delivered in 1907, two years after his retirement as Viceroy of India profiled this aspect of British frontier outlook, and how these Protectorate States were vital in buffering the Empire’s interest from other European rivals.[xi] He points out why there were plenty of similarities in the frontier management policies in Afghanistan to the west, Tibet to the north and Assam to the east. In the case of the Northeast the British lookout was for the “Spheres of Influence” of the French who had come to control Indo-China then. The befriending of the Shan and Manipur were all towards this end. As noted earlier, with Manipiur the British signed the 1762 treaty and bound by this treaty, Manipur had to participate in British expeditions in the Naga Hills, the Lushai hills and Burma, as and when the British demanded. The last time Manipur was called upon to intervene on behalf of the British was in 1885, when the British waged war and annexed Burma. Manipur had to send its troops to Kendat in Burma to rescue European employees of the Bombay Burmah Company.[xii]


These then are some thoughts on the time that threw up a Naga leadership that confronted Simon Commission. I have tried to sketch this momentous event, and the age it unfolded, from the perspectives of different stake holders. I would have liked to have explored it from more vantages, but this is not within the scope of this paper. Again, because of the very short deadline of about 20 days that my friend Charles Chase, the editor of this volume, gave me, I have also not been able to do justice to the referencing of sources for the information I have used. At many places, information that I remember reading of in certain works of certain authors, I have not had the time to hunt out and precisely point at them. In fact, I had initially turned down the offer to write this essay as I was sure I would not be able to do justice, but while doing a mental exploration of the subject, I was fascinated by the possibilities, and relented when Charles contacted me again with a slightly extended deadline. As I began writing this piece, I also realised there is so much more engaging subjects to be dealt with, but again that would have taken me beyond the scope of this paper. I do hope to develop this paper further to perhaps form a chapter of my next book which I am working on currently. For opening up this new window and letting me discover the possibility of a new journey, I once again thank Charles.

[1] The Manipur court chronicle, Cheitharol Kumbaba, enters day to day accounts of the exploits of the kings but obviously not events that reflect badly on the kings. These stories hence are from parallel literature in that existed in secrecy, maintained by scholars critical of the rulers of the time. One of these is the Larei Lathup. If not this, then these stories are also passed down by word of mouth therefore may have undergone mystifications and distortions that are known attributes of memory, and therefore not always altogether accurate objective accounts.

[i] Sanajaoba, Naorem edited, Manipur Treaties and Documents (1110-1971)-Volume 1, (Mittal Publications 1993)

[ii] Gunnel Cederof, Founding an Empire on India’s North-Eastern Frontier 1790-1840,(OUP 2014), p.55

[iii] Ibid, p.62

[iv] Ibid.

[v] See Hall. D.G.E., A History of South East Asia, PP-385-387, see also G.E. Harvey, History of Burma, from the Earliest Time to 10 March 1824, the Beginning of the English Conquest, (Frank Cass & Co, 1967), PP-238-239 and 208-212, for an account of these raids and counter raids.

[vi] Gait, Edward, A History of Assam, p.321.

[vii] D.G.E. Hall, A History of South East Asia, P-387

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Scott, James C., Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchic History of Upland South East Asia (Orient Blackswan 2010)

[x] Engel, Friedrich, Evolution of Family, Private Property and State (People’s Publishing House, 1955)

[xi] Curzon, Lord, Romanes Lecture 1907, (accessed Nov 23, 2017)

[xii] Robert Reid, History of the Frontier Areas Bordering on Assam, from 1883-1942, (republished Bhabani Books, 2013), P. 86, see also James Johnstone, Manipur and the Naga Hills, pp. 245-250

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