Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh
On August 15 1947 India got Independence. On August 8 1942 the Quit India movement was launched in Bombay by All India Congress Committee, led by Mahatma Gandhi. But, it was the beat of a distant drum in Manipur, muffled by the sound and fury of World War II or Japanlan.
In Manipur in 1942, far removed from the concerns of posterity, the mighty Japanese began their relentless pursuit of a Japanese Empire in Asia. This 75-year old episodic memory of Japanlan with crumbs of British rule in Manipur will be portrayed through the looking-glass of dominant historical approaches in four columns.
Manipur, the last place on Earth with its secluded capital Imphal, wedged between Burma and India, and under British suzerainty only for 56 years, was unknown to the world until WWII. In this weird land lived seven clans of Meiteis in the valley, and thirty six tribal communities in the hills, in harmonious coexistence. Rustic Manipur of those days wouldn’t have been anywhere near as amazing in another country. Imphal combined the benefits of a town with the beauty and fresh air of the countryside. The majestic treelined nine ranges of mountains with their peaks dipping in the white cloud, acted as security barriers for Manipur. During Japanlan, Manipur gloriously stood the test of time against the Nippon Army that ploughed as a whirlwind from far-away Japan. History destined Manipur to be guarded by the Allies rather than by Manipuris.
Meitei primitive innocence had a knock on the head when the Japanese Army that tasted victory in Southeast Asia met its Waterloo in Manipur. Japanlan arrived in Manipur on May 10 1942 with the promise of destruction it was going to wreak. It ended on August 15 1945 as suddenly as it started, after the Japanese surrendered to the Allies on August 6 1945. It was a simple matter of Americans dropping two small atom bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
After the Anglo-Manipuri war of April 27 1891, ending in a British victory, the beginning had begun for frustrated Meitei alpha males in Imphal town. Illiteracy deprived them of the power of imagination to question the received wisdom of the time. They became laissez-faire without a calling. Not because they were lazy, but most of them were unemployed as there were no suitable jobs for them. Egotistical Meitei men shunned blue-collar works. Meitei women became breadwinners for the family as beta females.
The dysfunctional monarchy had no powers to call up able-bodied men for customary unpaid annual royal service (in lieu of taxes) or enlist them up for soldiering in wars with neighbouring Naga hills and Lushai Hills, as well as with Awa, Ahoms, Casaries, Tripuris and the British. So they indulged their free time in leisure generated by their indigenous sports and gambling like dog fighting. The villagers were occupied with and contentedly subsisted from their farming. Meiteis were functionally literate because of their Hindu philosophy. They enjoyed Hindu myths and their indigenous culture as stairways to Heaven, while keeping the British as their guard dogs, paying an annual tribute of 50,000 rupees. Meiteis had not felt being ruled by the British as they had not been interfered with in their daily living. The British presence was minimum. Just before WWII as far I knew, there were only 5 or 6 Sahibs, who were hardly seen except when they came out to play polo at the Mapal kangjeibung on Sunday afternoons in winter, sometimes with memsahibs.
The great turning point of WWII in Asia began in Manipur on May 10 1942 when the Japanese first dropped their bombs over Imphal and were routed in late I945, when all the remnants of the Allies Army left Imphal. This account is based on a penumbra of my memories as a young boy, and what I heard from my father. It will thus be less than a theatre of images as it is a formulation of less than the requirement for a textual score, without its precision and normative. It’s also punctuated with some satire as it can’t be written without some digress and at the risk of being jejune.
As Manipuris had always appreciated British fairness in administration, there had been shortages of antipathy to them unlike to Meitei kings, who, living in Manipur that time forgot, became despotic. Freed from lethal insecurity of their throne and strategically inhibited from the suffering of their poor peasants they heaved upon them burdens of unjust taxes to replenish royal coiffeurs, with Brahma Sabha as cheerleaders.
The oft-written Chandon shelkhaiba ie taxation for putting chandon (Vaishnavite sect mark) on their foreheads attracted vitriol from the four corners of Imphal valley. Levy of Mangba-Sengba tax ie ‘pollution tax’ caused extreme misery to impecunious Meitei men, whose family would be expelled from participation in the community until the individuals were purified, shengdokba (clean) by Brahma Sabha, on payment of a sum of money that the people could ill-afford. My father was maliciously picked as a victim when his 3-year old son died at a time when he needed his community.
Manipuris remained loyal to the British during the war. They admired the Japanese for their cleverness and bravery, but didn’t like them because every item they manufactured and brought to Imphal like bicycles and fountain pens were very cheap but third class in quality. A fountain pen I had for five paisa, would always leak staining my fingers.
When the Japanese planes dropped the first bombs over Imphal, one midmorning of Sunday May 10 1942, I was walking back home from Khwairamband keithel (bazaar) about 4 minutes’ walk from the Maharani thong bridge across the Naga River that connects Uripok Road. I went there to buy raspberries on a Khongnang mana (pepul leaf) for a half a paisa.
Rows of tin-roofed Ima Keithel (women’s market) of Khwairamband Keithel was on the far side of the bridge with a large stone statue of Keithel Lairembi (Market goddess) facing north. At its northend was the fish market next to Pangal market selling eggs, chicken and ducks. Between Ima keithel and Majorkhul was a tiny Hao Keithel for hilldwellers.
Khwairamband Keithel was divided into two blocks by a road running from the west gate of Kangla, joining Uripok road to Kangchup Hill, where the water refinery tank was located. Sadar Bazaar in the north was separated from Johnstone High school on its eastside by a high brick wall.
To the east of the school was the Civil Hospital. The south block was Maxwell Bazaar, the present choke-a-block Paona Bazaar. There were three cinema halls, one at Sadar and two at Maxwell. There was a tiny-winy mosque by the Nambul River, opposite Wahengbam Leikai, but without ‘Allahu-Akbar’ evening muezzin calls. As I walked home I heard a big bang as the bomb crashed upon the bazaar full of people or, the cantonment at Kangla Fort in the British Reserve. As a child I was nonplussed. At the cantonment was stationed the 4th Assam Rifles battalion of 600 soldiers, mainly Gurkhas with a leavening of a handful of Khongjai, Tangkhul and Lushai. My father took me there once to see Bali (animal sacrifice) on the day of dashera when the priest of the Kalimai Temple at the cantonment would slaughter buffaloes and goats. The battalion was to fly the British flag and to discipline any Manipuri tribal uprising, such as the Jadonang/Gaidinliu Revolt or the Kuki Rebellion. After half a century’s association with these very disciplined Gurkhas, Meitei townspeople became quite homily with them. No Meitei would be recruited in the battalion as the British didn’t trust them. It had units stationed at Churachandpur, Tamenglong and Ukhrul. Showing British authority, when the replaced detachment from Tamenglong came marching down Uripok Road from Kangchup to a light infantry quick step, it was led by their Band playing a marching song. The entire population of Uripok would rush out to the road to see the ‘pageant’. The band was uniformed exactly as the present Assam Rifles band that entertains spectators at the Manipur International Polo Tournaments. In tiny Manipur everything was produced. It had no beggars and no homeless people like those in Mumbai, London or New York. None died of starvation. During WWII there was no famine in Manipur as was in Calcutta. The popular phrase Manipur Sana leibak (golden land) is a key to unlatch and lift the lid on Manipuris’ fortitude to go through tragedies and triumphs and still survive. The “Battle of Imphal”, I learnt later, was actually the fighting in the regions surrounding the present city of Imphal, especially for four months in 1944. It began in May after the Japanese launched several air attacks on Bishnupur village. From August it took place along the dozen miles of the Old Cachar Road between Bishnupur and onetime suspension bridge over the Leimatak River. During the next two months, Potsangbam and Ningthoukhong were the scenes of ferocious battles. The brave Japanese were only 16 km from Imphal. General Slim commented: “Whatever one may think of the military wisdom of thus pursuing a hopeless object, there can be no question of the supreme courage and hardihood of the Japanese soldiers who made the attempts. I know of no army that could have equalled them.”
(The writer is based in the UK. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org. Website:www’drimsingh.co.uk)
Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh