The review of Ningthoujam (N) Birachandra’s 2009 book Seven Years Devastation will provide an occasion for remember the horrors that people of Manipur suffered at the hands of Burmese kingdom in the beginning of the nineteenth century. It also provides an understanding of the feudal system that existed in Manipur during that time, the incessant conflict among the powerful feudal lords, their greed, their deceits and their apathy towards the people. The book constructs the narrative of this untold suffering that lasted for seven years taking as sources the British records, Cheitharol Kumpapa and the oral narratives that have been passed down from generation to generation about this event.
The first chapter of the book deals with the circumstances leading up to the devastation. He considers both the external and internal circumstances. In the internal circumstances, he talks about the conflict between the feudal lords, who are mostly step brothers, which weaken the Ningthouja dynasty to protect the territory it controlled from the invading Burmese forces. It also mentions the deteriorating military preparedness given these conflicts between the powerful lords, involving the queens and the nobility. Burmese had acquired guns from the French and used them against the Meitei forces during this period. It is one of the major reasons behind Ava’s military supremacy over Kangla. Birachandra Ningthoujam claims that one of the factors behind this inability of the Ningthouja dynasty is the acceptance of Hindu religion as it had caused a divide between the people of hills and the plain. The chiefs in the hills and Meitei lords could not mount a united defence against the Burmese. When it comes to the external factors, it narrates how Burmese in the second half had consolidated and amassed a huge amount of resources to mount a campaign against its neighbours.
The second chapter deals with the situation of Imphal during those seven years of devastation. It narrates how Burmese placed many Meitei lords who were loyal to them to rule over the territory during this time. The major highlight of this chapter is the role of one brave feudal lord, Herachandra, who fought against the far superior Burmese military with a handful of his followers. He used guerrilla tactics and attacked the Burmese posts and cut their supply routes. The book attempts to portray him as someone who fought to defend the nation. Birachandra Ningthoujam (2009, 30) writes: “The main object of Herachandra was to save the nation from the Burmese yoke and set up an independent king on the throne of Manipur.” He further adds that Herachandra is “one of greatest patriots in the history of Manipur” (ibid.) Though the people suffered enormously at the hands of Burmese forces and many came to fight the Burmese forces under the leadership of Herachandra, would it be correct to call him a defender of the nation and a patriot? Did he fight for the people or to regain Ningthouja dynasty’s control over the territory? How come a territory ruled by a Meetingu, who considers the territory he ruled as his birthright, be a nation in the modern sense of the term? In a feudal system, feudal lords fight to defend their wealth and not the people. The land does not belong to the people but solely to the overlord. They might have sympathies for the people who live on the land they control but their interest is in protecting their wealth. These questions must be first dealt with before we call Herachandra a patriot who fought for the nation.
The third chapter deals with how Marjit, Chourjit and Ghambir Singh, the three brothers from the royal family, who fled at different points of time, to Cachar and took refuge there. Chourjit and Gambhir Singh went to Cachar after they were unsuccessful in ousting Meetingu Marjit from the throne. Marjit fled to Cachar after the Burmese invasion. After Gambhir Singh ousted the king of Cachar, Govindachandra, with the help of some Cachari nobility, the three brothers divided the territory amongst themselves. Gambhir Singh ruled the western Cachar, Chourjit ruled over eastern region of Cachar and Marjit ruled over the south-western region. They again fought with one another over territory. Later, Gambhir Singh succeeded over them and became the sole master of Cachar. When Burmese forces advanced to Cachar, Gambhir Singh and Marjit assisted the British in repelling the Burmese. After that, British decided to set up Manipur as a buffer state between Ava and Bengal and restored Govindachandra on the throne of Cachar as he would pay an annual tribute of ten thousand sicca rupees every year to the British Government for protection. Marjit and Chourjit were granted a monthly pension of 100 rupees and Gambhir Singh was entrusted with the task of throwing the Burmese from Manipur and was given a monthly pension of 300 rupees.
The fourth chapter concerns how British along with Gambhir Singh’s Manipur Levy again forced the Burmese out from Manipur. Gambhir Singh’s initial effort to raise Manipur Levy to two thousand personnel could not succeed, though he was given around one lakh rupees for the campaign by the British. Foreseeing the difficulty in maintaining the supply routes, the campaign was delayed. But at the insistence of Gambhir Singh, Manipur Levy consisting of five hundred men and some irregulars along with British forces left Sylhet to fight the British on May 17, 1825. After capturing Burmese posts at Nunga and Keino, Burmese had left Imphal completely by June 1825 and fortified themselves at Tamu. By February1826, British forces and Manipur Levy chased the Burmese out from Kabaw valley, beyond Ningthee River, after a fierce battle at Tamu.
The fifth chapter concerns the effect of the seven years of devastation. Birachandra Ningthoujam (2009, 60-61) writes:
About five lakh fifty thousand of Manipuris were killed during this period…More than three lakhs thirty thousand of Manipuris were carried as captives. Those who refused to go were killed mercilessly on the way. It is said that about one lakh of the prisoners were executed on the way. The captive Manipuris were sold as slaves in the markets of different parts of the world. But some of them were allowed to settle in Burma.
Birachandra Ningthoujam (2009, 1) claims that at the end of this episode, the population of the land was reduced from nine lakhs to only two thousand sixteen people. N Tarunkumar (2005, 10) used the word “genocide” to describe the episode. However, the author does not make it clear how he has arrived at these numbers. It is overwhelming to imagine that people numbering in lakhs from a community were forced into slavery and condemned to live in servitude in a foreign land.
The episode must have severely affected the collective psyche of the people for a long period. We still find the stories of the horrors of that period in our folklore. This episode must therefore be studied much more in detail and how it shaped not just the history of people but their collective psychology.
Birachandra Ningthoujam writes: “Some radical writers pointed out that, the Burmese devastation of 1819 to 1826 made intellectual and moral depression to the Manipuris. But actually it was not so, from the fact that, 19th century was also an important period of intellectual and moral awakening in Manipur.” Therefore, it is quite surprising that the author disagrees with the scholars who argue that this event has led to “intellectual and moral depression” (ibid.). Though it could be the case that there are other social changes that took place in the 19th century, but given the enormity of impact, the author himself claims, it is arguable that it must leave a mark in the collective psyche of the people.
The narrative can be summed up in Friedrich Engels’ remark from The Decline of Feudalism and the Rise of Bourgeoise. He writes
“In each of these medieval states, the king was the apex of the entire feudal hierarchy –an apex which the vassals could not dispense with, and against which, at the same time, they found themselves in a state of permanent rebellion. The characteristic relationship of the whole feudal economy – the granting of rights to the use of land on condition that certain personal services and certain goods be rendered – provided in its original and simplest form plenty of occasion for quarrels, especially where there were so many who had an interest in any dispute.”
– Birachandra Ningthoujam, the author of Seven Years Devastation, 1819-1826, is a reader in the Department of History, Lilong Haoreibi College. The book was published by PS Publication, Manipur in 2009.
Birachandra, Ningthoujam. 2009. Seven Years Devastation, 1819-1826. Imphal: PS Publication
Tarunkumar, N. 2005. “The Pan-Manipuris”. In Manipur, Past and Present. Vol. 4. Edited by Sanajaoba Naorem. Delhi: Mittal.