Contested history


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In the Manipur hills-valley conflict, memory and myth are often confused with facts

The article 'Unmindful of History' (The Hindu, December 29, 2017) makes some fine critiques of Chief Minister N. Biren Singh’s Bharatiya Janata Party’s government in Manipur, but it misrepresents history.

Revisiting the Lushai Expedition (1871-1872) would put things in perspective. I will refer only to British records and not the Manipur royal chronicle. Alexander Mackenzie’s monumental work, History of the Relations of the Government with the Hill Tribes of the North-East Frontier of Bengal, first published in 1884, is a good place to start. There are also memories and myths to depend on in reconstructing history, but memories and myths differ from people to people, and from community to community, as insecurities and desires often influence facts.

The Lushai Expedition followed a devastating raid by Lushai tribesmen on the Alexanderpur tea estate in Cachar. Several were killed, including a planter, Winchester. The raiders also abducted Winchester’s six-year-old daughter, Mary. Thereafter, the British launched a massive punitive expedition into the Lushai hills. Tedim Chins, known to the British as Kamhows, from the Tedim ranges of the present Chin State of Myanmar, were British-friendly, and their service was enlisted in the hunt for Mary. Manipur was then bound by a 1762 treaty with the East India Company and was called upon to send troops accompanied by Maj. Gen. W.F. Nuthall to block northern escape routes around Behiang, but was not part of the Cachar column carrying out the expedition under Brigadier General Bourchier.

The expedition lasted from December 9, 1871 to February 24, 1872, when Mary was rescued and the Lushai chiefs behind the raid surrendered. Nothing of significance happened on the Manipur side, but when the expedition concluded, Manipur troops intercepted a team of Kamhows returning from the British expedition with 957 Lushai captives. The Kamhows were held and the Lushai captives were freed. They settled in Manipur. Kamhow leader Kokatung was brought to Imphal and put in prison, where he died. Bourchier was outraged. Nuthall was also angry but later reasoned that Manipur was justified in doing this as the Kamhows had earlier raided and committed offences within Manipur.

The article also makes unsubstantiated remarks against Maharaja Chandrakirti whose father, Gambhir Singh, died in 1834 when Chandrakirti was just two. Gambhir Singh’s cousin Nara Singh then ascended the throne and Chandrakirti was appointed regent. When Chandrakirti came of age, by the principle of primogenitor, the throne was restored to him. Barely out of his boyhood then, he committed mistakes, but ultimately grew to be one of the ablest statesmen of the kingdom. For instance, he was the one to settle the Chassad-Kuki unrest in 1881.

Boundary modifications

In 1834, when the boundary of Manipur was redrawn to gift the disputed Kabaw valley to Burma, Chassad-Kuki settlements were left neither in Manipur nor Burma. This 1834 line came to be known as the Pemberton Line, after Capt. R. Boileau Pemberton who drew it along the foot of “Muring hills” (British records), indicating that these hills were once the domain of the Maring Nagas.

Towards 1881, Chassad became restive, and armed with muskets — which the British suspect were supplied by the king of Sumjok, a small Shan principality in Kabaw valley — made several attacks on Tangkhul Naga villages nearby. The matter could not be adequately addressed because of the ambiguity of Chassad’s subjecthood. The boundary was then redrawn to bring Chassad within Manipur and this brought peace. The boundary became the Pemberton-Johnstone Line after Col. James Johnstone, head of the 1881 boundary commission. Burma was invited but failed to turn up.

This boundary was modified again in 1896 and thereafter came to be known as the Pemberton-Johnstone-Maxwell Line. This is the line ratified by the Rangoon Agreement of 1967 between India and Burma. The 1834 line is India’s earliest demarcated international boundary.

In 1885, when the British again waged war on Burma to annex it, Manipur troops were called upon to march to Kendat in Burma to rescue European employees of the Bombay Burmah Company. It is also noteworthy that the Manipur army then had a sizeable number of Kuki soldiers. It is not true therefore that Manipur’s boundary did not extend into the southern hills. The fact is, unlike in its northern hills where large, fortified Naga villages practising a good measure of settled agriculture were common, its southern hills were largely barren of settled villages and population. Though changed considerably now, this demographic profile is still very much a marked feature of the State. Chandrakriti died in 1886, so he also cannot be justifiably associated with events during WWI as the article has done.

Pradip Phanjoubam is editor of ‘Imphal Free Press’ and author of ‘The Northeast Question: Conflicts and Frontiers’

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Printable version | Jun 3, 2020 4:26:53 PM |

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