Amrit Mahotsav – Manipur’s fighting spirit and The Battle of Khongjom
M. Asnikumar Singh
On 23rd April every year, we observe Khongjom Day to commemorate the valiant sacrifices of Manipur’s heroes in the titanic Battle of Khongjom, which remains the greatest battle in the Anglo Manipur War.
On 24th March 1891, early in the morning, British Gorkha Battalion with a strength of 400 soldiers under the command of Colonel McDowal Skene of the British Army attacked ‘Yuvraj’ Bir Tikendrajit’s residence.
The Manipuri soldiers of the Manipur army, equipped with small arms and cannons, resisted the attack fiercely, and the British were compelled to retreat and take defensive positions. British military officer Lt Lionel William (Wilhelm) Brackenbury succumbed to wounds sustained in the battle.
The Manipuri Army continued to effectively engage the British attackers, who realised the futility of fighting the valiant Manipuri soldiers and sought a truce. When the British came out for talks of a truce, they were attacked by an angry mob which led to the death of 5 Britishers on the spot.
On 28th March 1891, British Officer Lt Charles James William Grant with 80 soldiers (with thirty soldiers of the 43rd Gurkhas and fifty soldiers of the 12th Madras Infantry) started from Tamu town (then Burma) towards Imphal. They reached Thoubal (Manipur) on 31st March 1891. His troops engaged with 800 soldiers of the Manipur Army (the Manipur Army at the time had a strength of approximately 6200 soldiers). Manipur Army was originally established in 1824 with a strength of 500 soldiers by Maharaj Gambhir Singh and his cousin Nara Singh during the period of ‘seven years devastation of Manipur from 1819 to 1826 /Burmese occupation of Manipur’ and was also known as Manipur Levy). Till 1853, British military officers were deputed to Manipur Army.
On 9th April 1891, Lt Grant was forced to withdraw from Thoubal due to the overwhelming resistance from soldiers of the Manipur Army. Lt Grant was the only British military officer to be awarded the Victoria Cross during the British occupation of the entire North-Eastern region. Victoria Cross is equivalent to India’s Gallantry award Param Vir Chakra. This reflects the severity of the battle of Thoubal. The Victoria Cross awarded to Lt Grant was sold at an auction at 408,000 British Pounds (approximately five crores in Indian currency) in London recently.
Meanwhile, on 31st March 1891, British India declared war on Kangleipak/Manipur. The British planned a deliberate attack on Manipur using three routes: 1) via Dimapur, 2) Kasar/Silchar, 3) Tamu (Burma).
On 25th April, the British column from Tamu met a strong Manipuri force at Khongjom hillock. This resulted in the ‘Battle of Khongjom’, which was the last battle in the Anglo Manipur War. The Manipuri defences were well planned but hastily prepared. In the battle of Khongjom, the British used 350 infantry soldiers and two guns on the Manipur army. But the Manipuri resistance was very strong, which shocked the British soldiers. The British first used the guns (canons) to shell the Manipuris position, followed by concentrated small arms fire. Believing the morale of the Manipuris would be sufficiently dented, the British infantry advanced, but they were surprised by the ferocity of the Manipuris resistance, who fought very stubbornly and refused to abandon their positions. Even after some parts of their defences were captured by the British, the Manipuris did not give up and instead continued to put up a very stiff resistance. This resulted in hand-to-hand combat. However, superior weaponry, better training and strength overcame the Manipuri resistance. The British suffered heavy casualties. Valiant Manipuri heroes Major Paona Brajabasi, Chinglen Sana, and Khumbong Major laid down their lives in the battle of Khongjom. The next day, the British reached Imphal from all three columns and the Manipuri flag was replaced with the Union Jack at Kangla Fort, Imphal.
Manipur lost the Battle of Khongjom, but its defiance in the face of adversity and valiant sacrifices by our heroes continue to inspire us in epic proportions. Manipur’s contribution to the anti-British and nationalist movements cannot be underestimated. The fighting spirit which shocked the British in the Battle of Khongjom remains in spirit among each and every Manipuri. Manipur and Manipuris continue to punch above their weight in various fields. The Mary Koms, the Mirabais, will continue to emerge from Manipur. Driven by the right vision, this very same spirit will take Manipur to the promised land.