Maharaja Bodh Chandra: The last ruler of Manipur

-Wahengbam Pathou
Contd from previous issue
That Irabot took the extreme step of committing suicide, ending his own life out of sheer frustration when things appeared to reach a point no return for him, when an eerie sense of hopelessness tore him asunder and tormented him apart is an earth shattering account. But it is all the more infuriating when on realizes that behind this sordid saga the then party apparatus of the C.P.I. was squarely blamable for this sad story for they pressurized him to the hilt. Irabot committed suicide when the threat loomed over him that he would be taken back to Manipur against his wishes since it was the policy of the party to give up armed rebellion. And yet, the same C.P.I. claims Hijam Irabot as their own leader and mascot in Manipur’s political arena. This is height of rank opportunism, hypocrisy and shamelessly sacrificing someone’s soul at the altar of political expediency by maintain a conspiracy of silence on the question what was is reaction to merger agreement. A shadow of dishonesty palpably looms over appropriation of Irabot by the C.P.I.
Amidst all these repugnant dark dealings, Thokchom Bir Singh a.k.a. ‘Comrade Bira’ emerges as the prime suspect for such shady dealings. He was, of course, the tallest leader of the party from the First Lok Sabha elections in 1952 until his death in 1980. He was widely regarded as the brain behind and the face of the Communist Party of India in Manipur landscape who presided over the reins of the party, practically as its supremo. In common parlance among certain circles, the C.P.I. is referred to as Comrade Bira party, in essence, given his ideological standing and grip in the party. Needless to emphasize, there were many sections who were sorely furious with Comrade Bira’s conduct of appropriating Irabot concealing the true political stance on the merger question of the latter like late R.K. Tulachandra because of which Comrade Bira paid heavy price with his life.                                      
One will unfailingly observe that Hijam Irabot (1896-1951) and Comrade Bira (1926-80) were different, almost poles-apart, personalities. They exhibited contrasting outlook and conflicting opinions in several aspects. To say the least, they were different characters by birth and in life. Irabot, as everybody knows was born a poor orphan. He was was a self-made man in every respect. He was certainly not groomed by family and left him scarcely educated only upto schooling level. He grew up amidst great hardships and was not well attended by his immediate family. He was sent to accompany his relative Sougaijam Samarendra, first Meitei graduate, to Dhaka as his personal attendant or so to say, his cook. On the contrary, Thokchom Bira was well bred by his family and sent to study and graduate at St. Paul’s College, Calcutta. In C.P.I. party organization, he was more of a backroom boy who played propping up role behind the scenes.
Hijam Irabot was a leader with mass appeal and following, who took up the cudgels to fight injustices prevalent the society under Churachand Maharaj as a fiery agitationist leading from the front, shaking the establishment without caring two hoots, about the safety and security of his life. He went to jail several times, serving prison sentence both in Manipur and outside. He was banished from Manipur for six long years from 1940-46. Comrade Bira did not exhibit the tendencies of sparing extreme sacrifices which can be one ounce comparable to Hijam Irabot. A stalwart pioneer of Manipur 1950’s veritable rebellion against merger, Irabot picked up arms to revolt against the Indian state leading a perilous existence. He led an underground life from 1948-50 in Manipur eluding capture by police with great struggle and extraneous efforts. The trials and tribulations endured by Irabot inorder to carry forward his political movement is a stuff of legend and no one comes any closer in comparison.
Comrade Bira, meanwhile, was an urban folk, certainly not a hard wearing man, having any intent to carry on and keep alive the flicker of armed rebellion in Manipur sparked (which means isakara in Russian and a very popular term in communist lexicon in V.I. Lenin’s days) under the leadership of Hijam Irabot. The C.P.I.’s change of tack to give up armed revolt came in as a handy opportunity to shelve Irabot’s armed movement in Manipur. Just to sum it all Comrade Bira was totally disinclined call of armed rebellion in view of the hard rigours of life associated with leading an outlaw revolutionary life like Irabot whom he address as one of his comrade just to appropriate him for matters of political expediency. He did not have slightest of intention to lead a revolutionary outlaw’s existence. He most fervently and eagerly set sights on becoming an Indian member of parliament representing Manipur. To be one C.P.I. M.P. on the floor of Indian parliament was his ardent wish. And to realize his aim, Irabot’s armed insurrection was put to an end from behind toeing the party line to give up the armed rebellion. This naturally happened much against the wishes and desire of Irabot dealing a severe blow to yearning and longing to fight back injustices wrought by merger.
Comrade Bira did not undergo the level of personal hardships and made the sacrifices like Irabot did. He did not undergo the level of incarceration in Alipore jail like N. Binoy 16 other convicts in the Manipur Conspiracy Case. Konsam Rabei was said to have died in Midnapore jail while serving prison sentence. Sadhan Gupta, a blind barrister from Calcutta appeared for the accused in Manipur conspiracy case. (Mr. Gupta was a member of the C.P.I. and was elected to the Lok Sabha in 1953 in a by election becoming the first blind parliamentarian of India. He later joined C.P.I.(M) and became Advocate General of West Bengal.) Whether it was him or a different counsel, N. Binoy stated that he slapped a Bengali lawyer for asking him to confess that he committed wrongful acts on his part by leading underground existence, before his arrest on 1 July, 1950, in order to get a lighter, reduced sentence. N. Binoy served a long prison sentence in Alipore jail because he did not agree to work as intensively as a manual labourer like others did during the course of his prison sentence. An offer was made by the jail authorities to reduce their time in prison if they agree to work as manual labourer with increased volume of work. Comrade Bira was discharged and led overground existence unlike Hijam Irabot and the 17 convicts of the Manipur Conspiracy trial.                
In personality and outlook, Comrade Bira and Hijam Irabot were totally contrasting figures because the former was an integrationist while the latter exhibited separatist tendencies. While Irabot’s antipathy to merger was well known, Comrade Bira considered it a good thing to happen for Manipur for it was coming into the fold of Indian polity and coming closer to the national mainstream and to Delhi. For Irabot, all the while, merger was a catastrophe of cataclysmic proportions, darkest hour for Manipur, Comrade Bira did not feel likewise. He had different considerations and calculations with the outcome of merger. According to him, merger was a fine hour for Manipur because of it precisely, the latter’s ‘separate existence’ was coming to an end and so, he could consequently make bid to get himself elected to the Lok Sabha as a C.P.I. candidate in 1952. Since the Hijam Irabot led armed rebellion stood in the way of realizing his goals. So he quietly manoeuvred to put an end to the latter’s insurrection by indulging in backdoor manipulation toeing the C.P.I.’s party line.       
One must bear in mind Communist Party of India was an illegal entity from 1948-52. They legitimized themselves by contesting election the 1952 polls. Hijam Irabot’s death happened on 26 September, 1951 before this occurred. Intriguing question arises would he have caved in to C.P.I.’s changing stance or was the pressure exerted on him to give up his armed movement in Burma and return back to Manipur as Comrade Bira also admit Irabot was returning back to Manipur in his book. Was the pressure exerted on him by the party apparatus of the C.P.I. so severe that it drove him to commit suicide to wash his hands off from anything to do with CPI’s strategy to give up armed rebellion? Was he a Meitei nationalist before being a communist or was he a plain Indian communist and nothing else, a disciplined member of the party who was willing to toe party line which ever adopted, as the C.P.I. would like have the people believe?  
Comrade Bira’s dream project was mainstreaming of Manipur in order to assimilate it as an integral part of India and that he should lead the way in pursuing this path. While doing so, if need be, he should stop any other, including Hijam Irabot and his followers, from stoking embers of rebellion against the Indian state. He was a pure Indian integrationist. He shelved Irabot’s path of rebellion and portrayed it in an altogether different light. What Irabot desired in real terms for Manipur and how Comrade Bira portrayed of him therein lie heaven and earth difference stacked with fundamental faultlines. Comrade Bira projected Irabot in the most different of light spreading brazen falsehoods about him dealing a severe travesty to his true ideological mooring this is what was angrily felt by R.K. Tulachandra and had Comrade Bira assassinated. It is also important to recall the incident of Comrade Bira surrendering all the arms and ammunitions brought from Burma by a batch of Meitei rebels in the 1960’s after the C.P.I./C.P.I.(M) split to the police so as to foil beforehand a spate of militancy in Manipur.   
 Out and out, Comrade Bira was an integrationist. His sole aim lay in contesting elections and getting himself elected to the Indian parliament and Manipur State assembly. He was happy, content and satisfied with Manipur being a constituent unit of India which was brought about by merger. True to his nature and character, his eyes were fixated in getting elected as a Member of Parliament in Manipur in 1952 and quite obviously, had a disdain for Irabot’s armed movement. To Comrade Bira, Irabot’s armed insurrection was a cause not north pursuing and should be shelved of so that the C.P.I. can take took roots as a political force to be reckoned with. Irabot’s armed rebellion, therefore, was an armed rebellion should be abandoned with. Comrade Bira contested the 1952 elections as C.P.I. candidate when all almost his associates, the 17 accused of the Manipur conspiracy trial, were behind the bars. Even his own elder brother was Thokchom Boro was imprisoned when he entered electoral fray.      
Irabot’s armed rebellion had no place in the C.P.I.’s scheme of things when his life was drawing to end. When things started to come to such a pass, did despair and dejection drove him to take his own life is a nagging question that continues to fester. While such a sad story happened on the Burma front, Comrade Bira busied himself in preparing to contest the elections of 1948. He was just 26 years of age at that point of time. He nurtured dreams to set foot on the floor of the Indian parliament as a communist representative from Manipur. This was all that he hoped for and in doing so, he swept under the carpet whatever manifestations Irabot’s armed movement showed so as to stay relevant in the arena of Indian electoral politics. But in quite a cunning ploy, he hijacked the great leader portraying him in a totally different light as C.P.I’s mascot which left many in Manipur society flabbergasted key among whom included late R.K. Tulachandra.         
Beating around the bush and driving around the bend, Comrade Bira, in quite an exasperating manner, tends to downplay and makes light of Hijam Irabot’s armed movement saying it happened everywhere in India wherever the communists were active. According to his contention, armed rebellion was an all India phenomenon in pursuance of the resolutions adopted in the 1948 second party conference and what happened in Manipur was just an example of the party’s decision. There was nothing extraordinary about it. Nothing more should be read into it as the case of Irabot’s rebellion did not happen in isolation as it was all India phenomena which is what the Communist Party of India and the likes of Comrade Bira would like the people of Manipur believe. Such a thing happened everywhere in different parts of Indian subcontinent like Kakdwip and Tebhaga in West Bengal, Telangana in the South, Mymensingh in East Pakistan and Tripura in the northeast. This happened under the instructions of the party leadership and Hijam Irabot merely followed the party directives. He did what was told to do by the Communist Party of India.
Such a narrative foisted by Comrade Bira is a blatant and unabashed attempt at trivialization of Irabot’s armed movement just to fit him in as part of the C.P.I. fold. One cannot miss the fact while the communist armed insurrection that happened elsewhere were primarily militant peasant movement that sought to fight against landlordism to establish a new society and if need be overthrow the Indian state by violent recourse to arms in pursuit of ‘yeh azadi jhoothi hai line’, the case of Hijam Irabot’s struggle is markedly different from the rest of them essentially because Manipur’s national question and identity were closely and interminably interlinked to Irabot’s armed rebellion launched from Burma training guns against the Indian state after his motherland’s rights were unjustly forfeited on account of the infamous merger. In doing so, communism was a subtext of his struggle, not the other way round. Most importantly, Irabot’s struggle was launched against the Indian state waging war using a foreign country as a foreign soil to fight back gross injustices meted out by merger. Therefore, his case cannot be equated with communist insurrections springing up in Tebhaga and Telangana.   
Out and out, Hijam Irabot was a subversive element who continually sought to undermine the legitimacy of Indian state over Manipur brought about by merger. He wanted it be let known to the world all that he was doing in Burma was he was alive to fight back for his motherland’s Manipur rights deprived of by merger in whatever way he could by waging war against India. To put it crudely, he was an enemy of the Indian state in the eye of the Indian law until his last breath. Such a conduct demeanour on Irabot’s part was certainly not well liked by the likes of Comrade Bira in the Communist Party of India and as he result, the party apparatus indicated him to he would be taken back to Manipur following which he sadly took his own out of sheer frustration. As one knows, Burma was a cauldron of hot revolutionary wars in 1950-51 with its communist stalwarts like Thakin Than Tun and Thakin Soe leading from the front against the offensive of U Nu’s government forces. Irabot being a revolutionary man was just happy to be there not interested in coming back. How many gunshots were fired by him during his days in Burma is a relevant question to be raised? According to W. Brajamani alias Ningthemjao’s account, Irabot was said to have fired cannonballs at night to U Nu’s forces to halt and disperse them from their hot pursuit chase of his comrade-in-arms.
Such was the scenario of rebel leader Hijam Irabot in action in Burma. Amidst these circumstances, when it was told to him by the Communist Party of India to return back to Manipur or else he might as well be taken back by its party apparatus, all his revolutionary hopes and zeal came crashing down, heavens seem to fall down before his eyes causing a deep wrench in his heart and all hell broke loose when utter despair drove him to commit suicide by consuming sangom bindha saba. This story is truly earth shattering and devastating for one to terms with. When Irabot was deeply engaged with fighting the U Nu forces, Comrade Bira was busying himself to call off armed rebellion formally to enter fray for 1952 Lok Sabha polls while 17 accused of the Manipur conspiracy trial among prominent whom included N. Binoy and his elder brother Th. Boro and Ng. Mahendra were sent to jails across India. (Mention may be made that U Nu and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru were same sides of a coin being very good friends at personal level too whom Irabot considered adversaries of equal order.) ‘Comrade’ Bira being among the very few to be left overground thus became the centrifugal force of the Communist Party of India and took the lead to shelve off and fold up armed rebellion in Manipur so that he could contest the first Lok Sabha polls of 1952 for which he was more than eager.
To reiterate once again, ‘Comrade’ Bira had unchallenged reign in the C.P.I. Manipur unit from 1952-80 until his death. When one critically examines his statement the Hijam Irabot ‘started for Manipur’(See Comrade Irabat by Thokchom Bir Singh, 1983 Pg. 61) leaving Mawlaik district in Burma soon before the latter died (implying the latter was returning back to Manipur), there is more to it than meets the eye. Such an expression leaves no doubt in one’s mind that it is, at best, an exercise in distortion and obfuscation at best just to suit his own agenda and his party line as well as interests. Was Irabot really a fool to return back to Manipur when he would very well knew that the moment he step back on its soil, he would be arrested by the Indian authorities that had come to preside over it after merger and arrest him on charges of criminal conspiracy, waging war against Indian state and relevant provisions of firearms act for he being the spearhead of rebellion fomented in Manipur. Typical of a politician’s contrivance character, ‘Comrade’ Bira states that Irabot was returning back to Manipur seeking to create a narrative that he was nothing but a loyal soldier of the Communist Party of India who toed party line and gave up his armed rebellion in Burma coming back to his home!
Try as the C.P.I. might, Hijam Irabot was a man who chose the path of gun instead of coming over to participate in the first general elections of India. He went to his deathbed never shunning the path of violence and calling off his act of waging war against the Indian state. His act of picking up arms was totally in contravention of the Indian laws. He would be booked for multiple crimes in the eye of the Indian law if the Indian authorities ever got hold of him. Even if he surrendered would the Chief Commissioner regime installed post merger that too headed by a European E.P. Moon leave him. Certainly not; so therefore, one cannot understand who ‘Comrade’ Bira was trying to fool by his bizarre statement, Hijam Irabot ‘started for Manipur’ in September, 1951 leaving Mawlaik district.            
To return to the argument for and against Irabot’s stand on merger question, it should be clear in one’s mind that just because Irabot did not articulate in writing that he denounced merger, cannot lead one to derive the inference that he countenanced it. One must consider the fact that he was indulging in an act of waging war against the Indian state from 1949-51.
To be contd...