Maharaja Bodh Chandra: The last ruler of Manipur

Wahengbam Pathou
Contd from previous issue
On 22 November, 1950 one Hill man named Mera Kabui of Khabi was brought under detention at Police headquarters for questioning. It had come to the notice of the police that Mera Kabui was found to have been ‘mentioned in a number of letters written by Irabot as a dependable comrade for Communist work among the Hill-people of Manipur’(ibid Pg.388). He was subsequently released on ‘giving an undertaking of good behavior in future’. As per the police records, it had come to light that Irabot had ‘reached Burma in safety on the 11th September, 1950’. He had trekked to Burma through the Heirok hills, escorted by a band of traders who were commonly known as Kabo lalonba. Irabot, in fact, was taken away to Burma by the band of Kabo lalonba to escape from the clutches of semi-fascist terror and police repression unleashed by the Chief Commissioner regime. He was left with no other alternative than to pick up arms and rise in rebellion so as to counter the violent crackdown of the Chief Commissioner regime installed by the Jawaharlal Nehru government. The repression unleashed by the Chief Commissioner regime knew no bounds and was tellingly brutal.
The people residing in the Awangkhul-Taretkhul-Keibi-Lamlai belt of eastern Imphal, which was considered to be stronghold of Irabot’s underground movement, bore the brunt of police repression. Worse still, the Superintendent of Police S.K. Palit’s ham-fisted approach to crush the communist rebellion with iron hand and repression threw common people living in the Hijam Irabot’s stronghold areas at the receiving end of police atrocities. Irabot was whisked away to Burma by a band of five men out of whom three were traders and two were his associates. It was around May 1950 when Irabot said on his journey to the neighbouring country as per Thokchom Bira’s admission (See Comrade Irabat by Thokchom Bir Singh, 1983, Imphal, Pg. 56). They were Leishang of Wangjing, Angou of Heirok, Purno alias Lila of Ukhongshang, Yairipok, Chaigoi of Lamshang and Wahengbam Ningthemjao of Taret-khul, Keibi. Of these five men only Chaigoi and Ningthemjao were Irabot’s associates. The rest were so called Kabo lalonba. Chaigoi was said to have known Burmese and Hindi language at the time. W. Ningthemjao was the youngest among those who accompanied Irabot to Burma in his mid twenties. Both the Irabot associates had picked up arms. Ningthemjao’s father W. Tonshajou was among the many people who were severely tortured by the police accused of harbouring Irabot in their neighbourhood. He sustained head injuries and loss of memory on account of police torture. Scores of rural folk especially in eastern Imphal region were rounded up and brutally tortured by the police under the Chief Commissioner regime.
Hijam Irabot was initially not inclined to raise banner of revolt in the form of an armed rebellion against India government in the post merger era. Having left with no other alternative in the face of the onslaught of brutal state repression unleashed by the Chief Commissioner regime, compounded by loss of Manipur’s independence in the most undemocratic circumstances, he was compelled to choose a path armed insurrection at the behest of young turks in his party like Ningthoujam Binoy, Thokchom Boro and Lamabam Ibotombi, among others. It has been rightly observed that the path of armed rebellion against the Indian state chosen, pioneered and resorted to by Irabot ‘was a harbinger of the spiral of violence which would escalate in the later decades of the 20th century’[cited from Reminiscences of the First and Last Chief Minister (under Manipur State Constitution) by Maharajkumar Priyobrata, Manipur Past And Present Vol. 1 by Naorem Sanajaoba, Mittal Publications, Delhi, 1988 Pg.138). ‘To act like Mr. Phizo’ means waging war against the Indian State was ‘just Irabot was persuaded to do towards the end of his life’(ibid.) as he realized that all democratic options to carry forward his political movement had dried up and exhausted in the face of unremitting police crackdown unleashed against him by the Chief Commissioner regime that came to be installed in Manipur in the post merger era.
His going to Burma and tying up with Thakin Than Tun of Communist Party of Burma (C.P.B.) was in essence a fight back against the Indian state for the injustices meted out to the people of Manipur ever since the culmination of Manipur’s infamous and sham merger into the Indian union. It is a sheer coincidence, by quirk of fate, that while Hijam Irabot and Thakin Than Tun fought against Jawaharlal Nehru and U Nu, the two premiers who happened to be close friends to each other. Two comrade-in-arms were pitted against two premier friends. Later on, in 1952, the two premiers, Nehru and U Nu were rumoured to have been secret partners-in-crime in bartering away all claims of Kabow valley that Manipur could lay upon, stealthily and unknowingly from public glare, when they held one of their diplomatic summits, on the soil of Imphal. The issue of Kabow valley was an unsettled question after the lapse of British paramountcy. It is said that India continued to receive compensation from Burma under U Nu’s premiership in Burmese currency in the immediate aftermath months since colonial British rule ended in subcontinent.
In Burma, Hijam Irabot was said to have played a key role in reuniting the faction ridden and warring Burmese communist parties viz. such as the Communist Party of Burma (C.P.B.), Peoples Comrade Party (P.C.P.) and Burmese Communist Party (B.C.P.). Batches of Meitei youths were trained by Burmese communists in warfare that even included handling of anti-aircraft guns.
 Large stockpile of arms and ammunition left behind by the retreating Japanese forces fell in to the hands of the Burmese communists. Wahengbam Ningthemjao was among the many youths trained by the Burmese. He continued to stay in Burma much longer after Hijam Irabot died at the Tangbo Sedaw village in Burma on 26 September, 1951. Tangbo Sedaw is said to situate beyond the Ang-go hills (Yoma range in Burmese) in Burma near the course of Ningthee (Chindwin) river. Ang-go hills and Ningthee river are the Meitei names christened for a hill range and a major river, which are now in Burma but were part of the Meitei kingdom, as late as the beginning of the nineteenth century when it was an Asiatic power in the South-east Asian region.
Much long after Hijam Irabot died, post circa 1964, W. Ningthemjao returned back to Manipur, as part of a band of trained Meitei youth militants, carrying a large haul of arms and ammunition. They returned via the Heirok route, the same path taken by Hijam Irabot for his onward journey. On reaching the Heirok village, information was passed on to the Imphal unit of the Communist Party of India, which by that time had split into two factions following the split of 1964 and had given up call for armed rebellion against the Indian state. On receiving the information, Thokchom Bira, popularly known as Comrade Bira, a one-time associate of Hijam Irabot, but did not go Burma and was not inclined to pick up arms, came to Heirok in a jeep and took away all the arms brought by the Burma trained Meitei rebels.
Th. Bira then deposited all the arms to the police and thus, foiled beforehand a phase of armed rebellion that was to be launched by the batch of Burma-returned rebels among whom included W. Ningthemjao. Th. Bira, a Calcutta graduate, an elite urban folk, was not inclined to the hard rigours of life associated with leading a perilous existence while carrying out armed rebellion but was covetous to enter fray in the Indian electoral politics. He was later assassinated by a left wing militant outfit on the charge of ‘Indianizing’ Irabot in 1980.
In his booklet on Hijam Irabot, detailing a biographical sketch of the leader, Th. Bira maintains conspiracy of silence as to what was Irabot’s reaction to merger agreement. The underground mass leader was very much within Manipur when merger agreement was signed in Shillong and came into effect the next month in 1949. He went to Burma a year later in 1950. According to another comrade of Irabot, Soyam Chhatradhari in his book, Meeyamgi Luchingba Irabot, it is maintained that Irabot ‘flew in to a rage’ when the news was broken to him that Maharaja Bodh Chandra had signed the merger agreement in Shillong on 21 September, 1949.
With a view to fight back the disillusionment wrought by merger and autocratic form of government that came to be installed in Manipur thereafter as well as the semi fascist terror that was unleashed to crack down on him, Irabot took recourse to ‘Nongpok thong hangba’ which means opening of the eastern corridor to liberate Manipur from the yoke of India in the lexicon of the rebels. In this connection, the title of Lamyanba (which literally means pioneer) is aptly bestowed on him. When Irabot is addressed as Lamyanba, it acquires the connotation of being the pioneer for Manipur insurgency launched for the restoration the lost sovereignty which was fleeced away by merger with India. Lamyanba Irabot, accordingly, becomes father of Meitei insurgency.
Hijam Irabot in fact has been endowed with many titles both in his lifetime and posthumously. When he served as member of Sardar Panchayat under Churachand Maharaj, he was addressed as Member Irabot, thereafter in the heydays of his political career, he came to be addressed as Neta Irabot as he came to associate and represent the pulse of the people. To the communist partymen outside Manipur, he was Comrade Irabot. Some of his followers within like Th. Bira and Ng. Mohendro attempted to popularize the name ‘Comrade Irabot’ to identify him as leader of Communist Party of India and one among themselves.
(They conveniently gloss over the fact that Irabot was severely reprimanded by forcing him to issue self criticism. There were sharp differences between C.P.I. and Hijam Irabot as he persuaded an independent line. Irabot never declared himself openly as communist). Neta Irabot, by far, was the most popular and well known sobriquet of the man in his lifetime. Because of his age and stewardship, many hesitated to address him as Comrade Irabot. Posthumously, the Communist Party of India bestowed him the title Jananeta (leader of the masses). This title however is not so widely accepted and failed to strike chord with the general public as it acts as a tongue twister to Meitei glottis.
The posthumous sobriquet of Lamyanba given to Irabot is the most curious affair of all the titles bestowed on him in recognition of his heroic services and sacrifice. It is not known who actually gave him the title and what were its basis. Yet, the use of the title is widespread and it gained in currency in the lexicon of the insurgent outfits. The CPI does not use this sobriquet. Lamyanba means pioneer but the moot question is what exactly was he pioneer of? It is true that Irabot did pioneering works in organizing peasant movement against exploitation by landlords, political movement for democratization and social reforms.
But in the lattermost stage of his career, he resorted to Nongpok thong hangba (opening of the eastern corridor) by trekking all the way to Burma to fight back, rebelling against the Indian state. Trekking all the way to Burma and using the country as launch pad and sanctuary for rebellion against Indian state was first pioneered by Irabot. It was he who fired first shots of armed rebellion. Scores of Meitei youths have trekked to Burma following the footsteps of the pathway to rebellion charted out by Hijam Irabot and waged war against the Indian state. Scores of them have lost life in the prime of youth. Therefore, opening of the eastern corridor (Nongpok thong hangba) as leeway to precipitate rebellion is a legacy of the great leader in Irabot. In this context, the sobriquet of Lamyanba is aptly bestowed anonymously on Irabot.
The Communist Party of India which claims itself as political legatee of Irabot is hesitant and reluctant, to the core, to use the title Lamyanba and stick to Jananeta. However, whether the C.P.I. likes it or not, history has adjudged Irabot as father of Meitei insurgency and the title Lamyanba has gained widespread currency and appeal to the general masses. Much to the chagrin and against the wishes of the C.P.I., Hijam Irabot is addressed as Lamyanba in mass media and common parlance of the general masses. The term Lamyanba altogether carries a different meaning, sense and connotation to address Hijam Irabot. The wider the sobriquet Lamyanba is used and applied, Irabot becomes all more pejorative and antithetical to C.P.I. When the nomenclature Lamyanba Irabot is in vogue, it pinpricks conscience of every party card holder of the Communist Party of India for Irabot’s separatist tendency and cause went against the very grain of the party’s core values. It is sheer pretence and dry, rank opportunism for the C.P.I. in Manipur claim itself as political legatee of Hijam Irabot when the paths of the mass leader and the C.P.I. crossed to no end.
To be contd