Tracing links with the past

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By Few people know that 22 Manipuri freedom fighters were exiled to the Andamans as "punishment" for loving their land, reports Hemanta Kumar Ningomba
  • Published 29.03.03

The Saheed Minar pillar in Imphal’s crowded Bir Tikendrajit Road is testimony to the love that the Manipuris feel for their beloved state. Kalapani island, located 1,200 km from the Indian mainland, will one day occupy an important place in every Manipuri’s heart — history is testimony to this.

Kalapani or Andaman and Nicobar Islands can never be separated from the history of many Indian states, including that of Manipur, as freedom fighters who once fought the mighty British Empire were sent there in exile or as prisoners of war.

In 1891, the British could invade the kingdom of Manipur due to the serious infighting among the royal princes for power. The princes who lost power teamed with the British in a bid to capture the throne. This led to British interference in Manipur’s affairs and the kingdom ultimately lost its freedom and sovereignty.

The British waged a war against Manipur in April 1891 on the charge of killing five British officers the previous month. Royal British flags were finally hoisted at the kingdom’s palace, Kangla, on April 27 that year. Maharaja Kullachandra Singh, Yubraj Tikendrajit Singh and Gen. Thangal were arrested on charges of waging a war against the British.

On August 13, 1891, Yubraj Tikendrajit and Gen. Thangal were hanged to death at Pheidabung, next to the world’s oldest polo ground in Imphal, now known as Saheed Minar, along with three other freedom fighters — Subedar Niranjan, Kajao and Chirai Naga. Twenty-one others, including Maharaja Kullachandra, Prince Angousana and Manipuri army officers were sent to exile in Kalapani.

On the path of history

On February 17 this year, an 18-member team of Manipuri journalists, under the sponsorship of All-Manipur Working Journalists’ Union, left Imphal to trace the old links with Kalapani. On February 21, the team landed on the shores of the Andamans.

People in Manipur, no doubt, know that the Manipuri king and his officers were exiled to the Andamans, but the majority do not know where exactly they lived and how they spent the rest of their lives as punishment for loving their “motherland”. We went to all the libraries in Port Blair, the capital of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, after we found no traces of Manipuri freedom fighters at the famous Cellular Jail. Except for one who chose to stay back, all remaining Manipuri freedom fighters had breathed their last at either Nabadwip in West Bengal or Vrindavan in Uttar Pradesh after they were freed from the Andamans on the condition that they would never return to Manipur.

Even as every journalist in the team offered floral tributes during tarpan of these 22 brave sons of the state who died in far-off lands, each could feel the historic significance of the trip. Tracing their history became the primary goal.

It was in the evening of February 27 when we finally traced the residence of the 22 Manipuri freedom fighters to Mount Harriet. From the library, we decided to head towards Mount Harriet.

The next day, we landed on the soil of Mount Harriet, situated 55 km from Port Blair by road and 15 km by sea. Mount Harriet is a 365-metre high peak in southern Andamans.

A book called Kala Pani by a former historian of Udaipur University states that some of the followers of Yubraj Tikendrajit, who was hanged to death by the British government for leading the revolt by Manipur in 1891, were transported to the Andamans. It states that the prisoners belonging to the royal family were kept in a bungalow on Mount Harriet.

“Thus for the first time prisoners transported to the Andamans for waging war against the Queen were treated differently from the common criminals,” says the book.

The Andaman Story, written by N. Iqbal Singh, states that the prisoners of war from Manipur were housed in a bungalow on Mount Harriet with some land to cultivate a garden and given facilities to carry out some kind of business to maintain themselves.

Iqbal Singh’s book states, “Many years later, however, when some of the well-known political prisoners were to demand similar treatment, the government of India was to comment that there was a difference between the Manipuri prisoners and those who were described by the government as sessionists, because the former Maharaja had no trial.”

Mount Harriet spans 2 square km and offers a fascinating overview of the outer islands across the azure sea. However, without bothering to visit the tourist spots, we headed straight for locations likely to offer remains of Manipuri freedom fighters.

Everything was, however, in ruins and we could not find any concrete structure as an exact proof. However, we finally came across a place where we found some variety of Manipuri trees and plants — guava, mango and bamboo — and came to the conclusion that some of them might have lived at that place. We stood there in silence for two minutes paying our respects.

In memoriam

We approached Lt. Governor A.N. Jha requesting him for a piece of land on Mount Harriet to construct a memorial for of the 22 Manipuris. Jha told us that the land could be under a forest reserve but promised to extend all possible help to acquire a piece of land on Mount Harriet.

The freedom fighters who lived in the Andamans were Maharaja Kullachandra, Senapati Prince Angousana, Lekendra Birjit Singh alias Wangkheirakkpa, Col. Shamu Singh alias Luwang Chief, Maj. Nilamani Singh alias Apurel, Maj. Miya Singh, Urshaba Uru Singh, Machahal Chaoba Haider, Guna Singh Khongdram, Kumba Singh Laishraba, Dhaja Singh Mayenba, Nani Singh alias Nepra Machahal, Trilok Singh alias Nongtholba Satwal, Dhana Singh Shagolsemba, Jamadar Guna Singh Indijamba, Jamadar Ningthouba Singh alias Chingshuba, Jamadar Thaoba Singh alias Phajao, Jamadar Tonjao Singh Mangsataba, Subedar Chaobaton Singh, Poradhumba Singh alias Ashangba Kut, Choukami Naga and Gouho Naga.