Who actually gave the order to kill the five British officers?

By: Samarendra Chongtham

On the night of March 24, 1891, the following British Officers, including an ordinary Bugler, were executed by the Meiteis inside Kangla.

1. Mr. James Wallace Quinton, I.C.S.Chief Commissioner, Assam. 2. Colonel Charles Mc Dowal Skene, DSO, I.S.C.Commandant, 42nd Gurkha Rifles. 3. Mr. W.H. Cossins, I.C.S.Assistant secretary to the Chief Commissioner of Assam. 4. Lieutenant Walter H. Simpson, I.S.C.43rd Gorkha Rifles. 5. A Bugler (name unknown).

The Britishers, who were under the custody of the Manipuries inside Kangla, were not just hacked to death. They were properly executed in front of the Kanglasha (erroneously called the Dragon by the Britishers) by the public executioner, in compliance of orders from appropriate authority. But who was that person who actually issued the order of capital punishment on that fateful night ? Some say, it was General Thangal while some maintain that it was Jubraj Tikendrajit Bir Singh. There seem to be a mystery surrounding the controversy.

I, for one, am still confused. Let us examine it. The British Officers were marched in front of the Kangla-sha, their legs heavily fettered, one by one. The public executioner, Sagolsemba Dhono Singh of Khongnang Pheidekpi, held a Tendong-Thang (a long-handled sword), stood facing North, while the prisoners were made to stand facing West. He decapitated their heads one after another and the Britisher’s blood was smeared all over the body of the Kangla-sha. Their heads were later collected and ritually buried at a near-by sacred-place of the Meiteis, known as Nungoibi Laipham and their bodies were buried outside Kangla (near the present Khwairamband Bazar).

The head of the already-dead Mr. Grimwood, the Political Agent, was also severed from his body and buried along with that of the other officers. The head-less corpses of the Britishers were not carried ceremoniously for burial. To the Meiteis, the Mlechhas are unclean, impure, and untouchable; hence they did not touch their dead bodies, which were dragged by ropes, tied on their legs. Lest the sacred Sanathong (the Grand Western Gate) would be desecrated, the dead-bodies were not allowed to pass through the gate; they were dragged across the rampart, a few yards away from the Main Gate.

The whole episode smacks of a long-held belief and superstition of the Meiteis, mentioned in their holy-scriptures known as the PUYAS – that Manipur would attain peace and prosperity when white man’s head rolls in front of Kangla-sha. And what an irony of fate ! Instead of peace and prosperity, the incident turned-out to be the precursor of the downfall of the Meitei-kingdom and loss of her independence.After the Battle of Khongjom, when the victorious British troops marched into Kangla and raised the Union Jack on April 27, 1891, they were shocked and outraged at the sight of Kangla-sha, smeared with the blood of the slain British Officers. The first thing they did was to blow-up the Kangla-sha by filling gun-powder into the mouth of that majestic Royal-Gate. We are curious to know why the heads of the British Officers were buried at Nungoibi-Laipham ? After a battle, the Meitei kings traditionally used to collect the heads of the enemy as war-trophy and ritually bury them at Nungoibi situated inside Kangla. This ritual was known as “Nungoibi-Lalu-Chanba”.

The same procedure had been followed in the case of the Britishers who were treated as enemies. And, why not ? They had killed a great many innocent people, including women and children, by their mindless attack on the night of 23rd March, 1891.When Jubraj Tikendrajit Bir Singh repeatedly failed to turn-up in the Durbar, called by Mr. Quinton on 22 & 23 March, 1891, the latter did a most stupid thing; he decided to capture the Jubraj by using force, from his own residence inside Kangla, which later had disastrous consequences. He ordered to march British troops inside Kangla at dead of night on 23rd March 1891 and surrounded the residence of Jubraj Tikendrajit Bir Singh. But the clever prince escaped the British drag-net. In the skirmish that followed, hundreds of innocent civilians and a few Manipuri Sepoys were killed by this unprovoked attack by the Britishers. In hind-sight, it was a fool-hardy attempt on the part of Mr. Quinton, with hardly 400 British troops under his command, to venture the capture of the Jubraj, who was the commander of 6000-strong Manipuri Army, that too, inside the heavily fortified (with artillery) Kangla. No doubt, the adventure (mis-adventure?) turned out to be a miserable catastrophe, subsequently resulting in the loss of five precious lives (including his own) of the British empire.Having failed miserably to capture the Jubraj, Mr. Quinton called for a truce with the Manipuris and requested for a meeting inside Kangla. The five British Officers, accompanied by a Bugler, entered Kangla around 9 P.M. of 24th March. This again, was another instance of the arrogance and lack of indescretion on the part of Mr. Quinton; call in fool-hardy, if you wish. The previous night, they had killed many innocent civilians by their undeclared war against the Manipuris. The grieving relatives, who had lost their near and dear ones, clamoured for British blood and Kangla was literally swarmed by an irate mob, streaming from the surrounding villages (there were number of Manipuri villages/settlements around Kangla, at the present site of Khwairamband Bazar, Imphal Municipal Council, P.W.D., North A.O.C., 2nd M.R. etc).

A man of average intellect and common sense, should have realised the gravity of the situation and anticipated the risk of entering the enemy’s stronghold at night without any security, surrounded by a multitude of hostile Manipuris, determined to revenge them. In such a scenario Mr. Quinton, with his retinue of five officers, entered Kangla for a parley with the Manipuris which spoke volumes about his arrogance and superiority-complex as a white man.The meeting was held in front of the Darbar Hall. On the side of the Manipuris present in the meeting were the Jubraj, the Thangal General, prince Angom Sana, Girdhari Singh, Angom Ningthou, Colonel Maisnam Shamu Singh and other high-dignataries of the State. The Manipuris agreed to cease fire and conclude a truce but on condition that the Britishers should surrender their arms and ammunitions to the Meiteis, which they refused. On this issue, the Durbar could not proceed further and broke. Jubraj Tikendrajit Bir Singh ordered Angom Ningthou to see that the Sahebs were safely escorted out of Kangla. As soon as the Sahebs reached the LAKTONG GATE (there were as many as five gates from the Western Gate upto the Citadel), the agitated mob closed the gate and started assaulting the Sahebs. The Jubraj rushed with a stick in hand and drove the crowd. But in the scuffle, Mr. Grimwood was speared to death by one Pukhramba Phingang @ Kajao of Kangmong Village on the steps of the Durbar Hall; the rest of the sahebs were saved by Wangkheirakpa and Angom Ningthou and they were kept inside the Durbar Hall for their safety under heavy guard.

The Jubraj entrusted the task of protecting the Sahebs to Angom Ningthou and he himself went to the rampart to supervise the troops who were firing towards the Residency. Meanwhile General Thangal called the top Guard people to “Shut the Sahebs mouth” (Saheb Logki Machil Thupchillo), meaning to kill them. This, he said, was with the approval of the Jubraj. The guard commander, Subidar Jatra Singh (He was from Keishamthong), said that he needed confirmation from the Jubraj and went in search of him, accompanied by Usurba. They found Jubraj Tikendrajit Bir Singh at the South-Western corner of the rampart and said. “The Thangal General says that it is your order that he Sahebs should be given to the executioners, is this right or not ?” The Jubraj replied, “Did the old man give such an order ? Don’t do this; the sahebs should not be touched.Look after the sahebs. I am coming”.Jubraj Tikendrajit immediately rushed to the Top Guard where he confronted the octogenarian General with heated exchange of words. He said, “What is this Ipu (Grand oldman) ? Whar are these unseemly words you have said, Thangal General replied, “what are you afraid of ? I have served here for many years. You are a boy. How can you make it up with the Sirkar after what had happened. We will drive the Sirkar’s people right upto Cachar”. The Jubraj was not impressed and unmoved. He said that under no circumstances the Britishers should be harmed to which General Thangal retorted, “you are a fool. We can’t make it up with the Sirkar; what is the good of talking like that ?” (extract from Documents of Anglo Manipur War, part II-N. Khelchandra Singh).After this verbal duel, between General Thangal and Jubraj Tikendrajit Bir Singh, it seemed that the matter was closed.

Excusing himself of extreme exhaustion due to sleeplessness, the Jubraj left the place for his chamber to retire. The ageing General, also left for his house. He was so frail due to old-age that he could not even walk the distance and had to be carried on the back of his personal valet-Mongjam Bhubon Singh, a lad of 20 years (He was from Keishamthong Top Leirak). On the way, General Thangal had a wash at the Wanggol-Pukhri; and thereafter, his servant laid him in his bed for the night. This was recorded during his trial by Major Maxwell, Chief Political Officer, Manipur Field Force. It seemed, everything was OK and the matter had been amicably settled.But alas! it was only a temporary lull before the storm. After about half an hour, Yenkhoiba Lalupchingba came and said, “The General had ordered that the Sahibs be given over to the Lanmi (executioners)”. This time, surprisingly, no body raised any objection. Executioners were fetched.Heavy iron-fetters were put on the legs of the British prisoners and marched them upto the Kangla-sha where their heads were decapitated one after another, including that of the Gurkha Bugler. The rationale behind the murder of the Bugler by he Meiteis is still not clear. At least the life of the poor wretch could have been spared.

There is nothing on record to prove that General Thangal had issued a second order to kill the Britishers. Nobody knows. When the order was given and to whom. But the fact remains that the Sahibs were killed. By whose order ? – the matter is still a mystery and needs further critical research because there is a wide gap.From the foregoing accounts, it is clear that the idea of killing the Sahibs first originated form General Thangal. It is also clear that, all along, Jubraj Tikendrajit bir Singh vehemently and stubbornly opposed the proposal. Although the Jubraj is superior to General Thangal as per protocol, and had to obey his orders, in reality it was often found otherwise. The octogenarian General held a unique position in the royal court of Manipur – having served four successive kings viz, Maharaja Gambhir Singh, Chandrakirti Singh, Surchandra Singh and the then ruler Kulachandra Dhwaja Singh. He wielded enormous power and prestige. Every Manipuri, including the members of the royal family, look-up to him with awe and admiration. None dare to challenge his authority. Although by designation only a General, he could be called the defacto monarch. Except in the battle field, the General had no power to issue order for killing anybody. This was the prerogative of the king only. But it was possible sometimes he overstepped. Such being the position a question arises: whether he had summoned the sentries guarding the British prisoners, to his house at head of night, when Jubraj himself had gone to sleep, and issued a second order to kill the Sahibs ? This is only a conjecture and I leave it to the scholars for further research.On the morning of 25th March, 1891, when the news of the murder of the British Officers reached Tikendrajit Bir Singh, he was totally shattered.

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