|August 15, 2004|
Opinion - News Analysis
By Siddharth Varadarajan
SPREAD OVER 200 acres in the heart of Imphal, no place is more important than Kangla fort in Meitei cosmology. The pride with which Manipuris speak of the 2000 years of history present at Kangla quickly dissolves into anger at the continuing occupation of this historic place by the Assam Rifles despite repeated assurances from successive Governments at the Centre that the Army would be shifted out.
Seat of the royal family that ruled Manipur as an independent state before 1891, Kangla fell that year after Yubaraj Tikendrajit Singh rebelled against British attempts to encroach upon his sovereignty. In March 1891, an enraged mob of Manipuri patriots just outside the fort killed Lt. Simpson, who was part of a British delegation visiting Imphal to deliver an ultimatum to the king.
Under pressure from the people, the king ordered the arrest, trial and execution of the remaining four British officers, including J.W. Quinton, Chief Commissioner of Assam, and the senior most representative of the Raj in northeast India.
The British then launched a full-scale invasion of Manipur. The fort fell and the Union Jack was hoisted over Kangla with colonial troops taking up residence there. On August 13, 1891, a date now commemorated as martyrs day in the State, Tikendrajit and General Thangal were hanged.
When the British left, ownership of Kangla was transferred to the Defence Ministry of the Dominion of India and then the Union of India. In constitutional terms, the Manipur raja, Bodhachandra Singh, signed the instrument of accession to India in respect of foreign affairs, defence and communications on August 11, 1947. Later that year, Manipur adopted its own Constitution and held elections for its own Legislative Assembly in June 1948.
In September 1949, the raja was coaxed or coerced — depending on one's point of view — into signing a merger agreement with India, which took effect on October 15, 1949. On that date, Manipur became a "part-C state" of the Indian Union. The manner in which the merger was brought about has left a residual bitterness that the insurgent groups successfully tap into.
After sustained public agitation to have Kangla returned to the people, the State Government in 1986 developed a fresh site for the Assam Rifles. But instead of moving out from Kangla, another battalion, the 24th AR, was sent to the new site.
In 1992, the Narasimha Rao Government agreed to vacate Kangla and on the morning of August 13 that year, M.M. Jacob, who was Union Minister of State for Home, publicly flagged off a column of the Assam Rifles from Kangla.
Incredibly, the column returned to the fort at night. The whole ceremony had been a cruel and insensitive hoax on the people of Manipur. And the day chosen for this was, incredibly, the 101st martyrdom day of Tikendrajit.
Now, the UPA Government is promising finally to vacate Kangla by the end of the year. But people in Imphal are not holding their breath.
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