Andaman Islands will forever have a piece of Manipur

Despite scepticism that the renaming could have been done for political gains, there is hope that the peripheries of India may now have a way out of history’s blind spot.

Published: 23rd November 2021 09:55 PM  |   Last Updated: 23rd November 2021 11:53 PM   |  A+A-

M K Angousana and his twin daughters, R K Sanahal Devi and Sanatombi Devi

M K Angousana and his twin daughters, R K Sanahal Devi and Sanatombi Devi.

The recent renaming of Mt Harriet in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands as Mt Manipur certainly seems like the beginning of an effort for a broader and more inclusive Indian history. For outlying regions of the country that have had to push their own unique pasts into oblivion to adopt and adapt to the historical stream considered mainstream, this cannot be more welcome. It is however still unclear if the initiative is for a new understanding of Indian history or merely about rejecting one hegemonic mainstream to adopt another rather than the start of an exploration of Indian history as a salad bowl where each ingredient remains different but contributes to the larger whole.

It is from this vantage point that Manipur is looking at the renaming done in honour of their past ruler Maharaja Kulachandra, his brother from a different queen mother Prince Angousana Senapati and 21 others who were imprisoned there after the 1891 war with the then colonial power, Britain. There are of course doubts raised that the gesture is merely symbolic and has the aim of warming up the BJP’s campaign to retain power in the state in the Assembly elections a few months away. Despite this scepticism, a general hope that the peripheries may now have a way out of Indian history’s blind spot is unmistakable.

The circumstances that led to the 1891 explosion of violent confrontations that 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 later the defeat of Manipur in a full-scale invasion by the colonial forces that followed are known. What would have been no more than an internal skirmish of succession between sibling princes after the death of one of the longest ruling monarchs of the kingdom, Maharaja Chandrakriti, became an external war, one that became a major pivot in Manipur’s modern history.

The succession skirmish among the princes was unfortunate, but hardly surprising in a monarchy that followed the primogenitor principle whereby the eldest prince was given the sole right to inherit their father’s kingdom, with the rest of his siblings destined to become his subordinates and fade into oblivion from the pages of history regardless of their leadership merits as individuals.

The return of public attention on Manipur’s tryst with the infamous Kala Pani prison is leaving Manipur academia embarrassed by the research vacuum on this chapter. This was especially highlighted when people began looking for information on the crucial World War II battles fought on the hills and plains of Manipur and neighbouring Nagaland in the backdrop of the Japan-sponsored Imphal Peace Museum at Maibam Lotpa Ching, Bishnupur, being set up.

From the sketchy records available, there were several from Manipur who were sentenced to death in 1891, including Prince Koireng, popularly known as Bir Tikendrajit, for waging war against the Empress of Britain. Another 23 were deported for life to Kala Pani jail and kept under house arrest at Mt Harriet, much like what the British did to Myanmar’s ruler after the Third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885. King Thibaw and Queen Supayalat were deported to India and kept under house arrest for life at Ratnagiri near Goa. This was also the fate of Mughal monarch Bahadur Shah, who was deported for life to Rangoon (Yangon) after the 1857 uprising was suppressed.

While every detail of what happened thereafter to King Thibaw and Bahadur Shah are well known and recorded, including in reimaginations of their destiny in bestseller historical novels such as Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace in the case of King Thibaw and William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal in the case of Bahadur Shah, the scholarship reality in the case of Maharaja Kulachandra and the 22 others are sketchy.

The case of Burmese King Thibaw and Queen Supayalat 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. There is almost a sense of deja vu in this for the wife of one of the two exiled royalties from Manipur, Angousana, also gave birth to twin daughters while a prisoner. The twins became prisoners at birth, something not tenable under any civilised law.

From details available from descendants of the exiled royals, the two did not die in the Andamans. The British authorities, after some years, showed leniency and transported them to the mainland at the Hazaribagh jail. It was at this jail that the twins were born. It is said the two girls were fluent in Bihari because their nurse spoke it. One of them unfortunately died during a cholera epidemic in jail. 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 with their household moved to Radha Kunda. This is where the two breathed their last, Kulachandra much earlier.

After Maharaja Churachand was crowned as king of Manipur in 1907, he visited his uncle Anguosana at Radha Kunda (Kulachandra was no more by then). There, he pleaded for his surviving much younger cousin sister, Angousana’s younger daughter Sanatombi, to be allowed to be taken back to Manipur. The father as well as the British authorities consented and the girl thus returned to the homeland she had never seen before.

Pradip Phanjoubam
Editor of Imphal Review of Arts and Politics 


India Matters


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