Irabot earned his martyrdom fighting against the twin scourges of foreign domination and internal oppression. In the entire galaxy of leaders and self-proclaimed leaders born in the soil of Manipur, Irabot stands out alone as the one and only leader who fought for the toiling, oppressed mass. He was a poet, a dramatist, a journalist and a revolutionary to the core. In the modern politics of Manipur, Irabot is a legend. The seat of power and privileged life entitled to Irabot in his capacity as a Member of the Manipur State Durbar could not tame his revolutionary zeal. Simply put, unlike his contemporary elites, he could not simply watch the sufferings of the mass sitting in the ivory tower of being a Durbar Member. It was not long before Irabot gave up his status and seat of power and antagonise the royal family with whom he had matrimonial relationship to take up the cause of oppressed mass.
Irabot’s movement was multi-faceted in the fact that he was demanding a sovereign republic in place of a British controlled monarchy while leading the fight against exploitation of people in the name of religion (sic Hinduism). As aptly named Lamyanba Irabot, he was a pioneer in myriad fields. He was a pioneer in journalism, students’ movement, sports, political mobilisation of the mass and the armed revolutionary movement. With due acknowledgement of people’s recognition given to Irabot’s contribution towards socio-political evolvement of Manipur as testified by mass celebration of September as Irabot Month, Yenning would like to re-visit the heydays of British imperialism in Manipur up to the ultimate passing over of the paramountcy to the Indian Union with special reference to Irabot and his activities.
The period of king Churachand was marked by unprecedented religious oppression of people directed by the Brahmasabha in addition to political subjugation under the British colonial rule. Here what qualified Hijam Irabot as the one and only genuine leader of the mass was his simultaneous or combined struggle against religious oppression and political subjugation.
At the time, the socio-religious life of the people was at the mercy of the Brahmasabha which received full patronage of the king. In fact, ex-communication and ostracism was the order of the day. Brahmins marrying Meitei girls and then keeping their wives as outcaste within their families and again prohibiting their wives to breast-feed and feed their own children was a common practice. Even if the Meitei girls, unable to bear such atrocities, got separated from their Brahmin husbands, they were not allowed to re-marry other men.
The Brahmasabha held each and every family of the Manipur valley in a vice-like grip without giving any room for personal freedom even at the time of death. The Brahmasabha could declare any family impure (Mangba) when there was a death in the family. In such cases, the bereaved family were prevented from cremating their beloved father/mother or son/daughter whoever it might be. The family was allowed to go for cremation only after paying ‘purification fine’ to the Brahmasabha which was generally fixed around Rs 80, an astronomical amount during those days. This practice, as expected, soon became an effective tool for religious oppression as well as economic exploitation of the mass for benefit of the Brahmasabha members and the king. Already, the mass were paying all kinds of exorbitant taxes imposed by the British colonial rule. Various other taxes were exacted from the impoverished mass by the Brahmasabha in the name of imported doctrines of Hinduism. Mention can be made about Chandal Senkhai, Panchnapet, Pala Sentek, Kangching Thouri Sentek etc.
Chandal Senkhai was one of the most audacious practice devised by the Brahmasabha to earn an unfailing income from the mass. Under the rule of Churachand, each and very people of Manipur valley who adopted Hinduism were forced to adorn their forehead with Chandal. Again, for adorning one with Chandal, one has to pay a fixed sum of money and this was collected by the Brahmasabha.
Other than these, the common mass were overburdened by a number of taxes and duties imposed by the State administration under the British colonial rule. Amin Chakthak, Peon Chakthak, Dolaireng, Yarek Santri, feeding horses and elephants without payment were some of the common forms of exploitation witnessed during the heydays of British imperialism in Manipur.
Villagers were compelled to cater to all the needs of Amin and village chowkidar including food and lodging as and when they visited any village. This is a brief description of Amin Chakthak. Likewise, officials of Agriculture Department coming to villages for collection of tax were given food and other requirements by the villagers as a compulsion. This was called Peon Chakthak. Government officials like peons, clerks visiting villages were carried on palanquins or litters from one village to another by the villagers without any payment. This form of forced labour was called Dolaireng. Again the villagers were forced to guard Government officials staying at their villages day and night as well as the cash they collected as tax. But the villagers were never paid for guarding the Government officials. This was another form of exploitation of the mass by the Government and it was known as Yarek Santri. Forcing villagers to collect fodder for horses and elephants of royal families and Government officials without giving anything in return was another inescapable misery endured by the common mass.
The practice of forced labour was rampant during the period. There were three kinds of forced labour viz; Pot-thang Puba, Pot-thang Shuba and Pot-thang Selkhai. When high-ranking Government officials went to far off places, some common men were forced to render their service as porters. This was called Pot-thang Puba. At times of building roads, bridges and bungalows, a large number of people were forced to assemble themselves and work as labourers. This form of forced labour was known as Pot-thang Shuba. In both these cases, people working as porters and labourers were not paid a dime for their service. Not only these, people were forced to bring fish, chicken, eggs, other domestic animals, rice as well as cash for offering to bureaucrats. This form of exploitation was perpetrated in the name of Pot-thang Selkhai without showing any leniency during the time of Political Agent Mr Shakespeare.
In fact, this period was one of the darkest chapters in the history of Manipur. From this darkness emerged a new light of hope called Nikhil Hindu Manipuri Mahasabha (later re-christened as Nikhil Manipuri Mahasabha) under the able-leadership of Hijam Irabot. Long before Irabot adopted Marxism as his political ideology, Irabot was at the forefront fighting against political subjugation, economic exploitation and religious oppression of the mass by the British imperialists and the Brahmasabha patronised by the king. Against the atrocious edicts of the Brahmasabha which ex-communicated people only to be re-communicated after payment of money, Irabot stood up like a messiah for the oppressed mass. Under his Goura Dharma Pracharini, Irabot and his followers started openly defying the king and the Brahmasabha. They cremated the dead and performed shrada ceremonies which the Brahmasabha prohibited. Irabot was fairly successful in abolishing or neutralising many of the socio-religious injustices suffered by the people then, if not all. Up to this stage, Irabot can be seen as a liberal reformer.
The Chinga Session of the Nikhil Hindu Manipuri Mahasabha held on December 29, 1938 was a landmark in the political movement of Irabot, and for that matter Manipur. The Mahasabha evolved into a purely political platform encompassing all the people of Manipur of both hills and valley with the omission of the word ‘Hindu’ from the name of the Mahasabha. In a very symbolic gesture, Irabot opened the Chinga Session by unfurling a flag embossed with Pakhangba Paphal, very similar to the Manipuri national flag which was in use just before British conquest of Manipur. The session adopted five different resolutions, the prominent ones being demand for sovereignty of Manipur, election through adult franchise, release of Gaidinliu and abolition of such practices as Yarek Santri, Peon Chakthak, Amin Chakthak, Pot-thang, Doilareng etc. British agents were unnerved by Irabot’s mass movement which was fast assuming a political character, totally deviating from his earlier social reformation movement. This was testified by his arrest on January 9, 1940 and subsequent imprisonment for three years whereas Bal Gangadhar Tilak arrested earlier on similar charges of speaking against British imperialism was imprisoned just for four months. In the post-British period, the newly independent India in connivance with some local Congress men employed ‘Irabot factor’ by floating a false propaganda that Irabot was working for integration of Manipur with Burma, only to hasten annexation of independent Manipur into the dominion of India. But it remained only a pretext and miserably failed in convincing the people as demonstrated by the controversial circumstances under which king Bodhchandra was forced to sign the Merger Agreement. Yes, being a communist, Irabot was associated with Burmese communists and this was based on a vision to liberate the oppressed people of entire Indo-Burma region from colonial yoke through coordination of communist revolutionaries. As much as he was opposed to formation of Purvanchal by merging together Tripura, Cachar, Manipur and Lushai Hills (Mizoram), Irabot was very clear that the political destiny of Manipur could not be placed at the mercy of either India or Burma.
This article was posted on The Sangai Express on Sunday, October 3, 2010