Independence is the perfect occasion to pay tribute to numerous freedom fighters who had struggled to get independence for the country from British rule. While we know about national-level freedom fighters, most of them from Congress party, there were several others who contributed equally towards the struggle. On this occasion of 74th Independence Day, let us remember five such freedom fighters from the North East India.
Maniram Dutta Barua (1806-1858), popularly known as Maniram Dewan, was a nobleman and a tea planter in Assam who led the first major fight for independence in the state around the time of sepoy mutiny. Maniram Dewan came from an influential family in Assam and his ancestors had held high positions in the Ahom kingdom. In his early life, he was a loyal official of the British government, who was appointed as a Tehsildar and a sheristadar. It was Maniram Dewan who had informed the British officials about the Assam tea grown by local tribes, which led to the British starting tea plantation in Assam.
But later, Dewan’s loyalty shifted to the titular Ahom king Purandar Singha, who had appointed him as the Prime Minister, and he resigned from the posts appointed by British govt. Gradually, Maniram Dewan become an opponent of the British rule, due to various reasons like the unjust tax system, exploitation of local economy, introduction of opium cultivation etc. He was also critical of appointment of Marwari and Bengali people at the post of Mauzadars in Assam, ignoring locals.
Maniram Dewan had filed a petition at the Sadar Court in Calcutta demanding that the administration by Ahom king should be reintroduced, which was rejected by the court. After that, while in Calcutta, he started networking with others working to overthrow the British government. After the Sepoy mutiny started in May 1857, Maniram Dewan saw it as an opportunity to restore the Ahom rule in Assam. With the help of king Kandarpeswar Singha and others, he planned to launched a rebellion against the British, with support from the sepoys deployed in Assam. Several local influential leaders had supported this plan, and were able to enlist sepoys for rebellion.
They had planned the revolt in August 1857, with Maniram Dewan coordinating from Calcutta, and decided that Kandarpeswar Singha will be installed as the king on Durga puja at Jorhat, and after that other towns like Sivsagar and Dibrugarh will be liberated.
Unfortunately, this plot was revealed before it could be executed, as some letters among the leaders were intercepted by British officials. Maniram Dewan was arrested in Calcutta, and was shifted to Jorhat in Assam.
Special Commissioner Captain Charles Holroyd, the officer who had intercepted the letters, was also the judge in the trial, where Maniram Dewan was identified as the main kingpin of the plot. On 26th February in 1858, Maniram Dewan and his associate Piyali Barua were publicly hanged.
Apart from being a govt official and later a freedom fighter, Maniram Dewan was also a prolific businessman. After discovery of tea with his help in Assam, he was appointed as the Dewan of Assam Tea Company in 1839. But after around a year he had left the job to start his own tea plantation, and became the first Indian to grow tea commercially in Assam by starting two tea gardens. Apart from tea, he also ventured into gold procuring, salt production, iron smelting, manufacturing of goods, boat and brick making, ivory work, ceramic, agricultural products etc.
After his death, the tea estates of Maniram Dewan at Senglung and Cinnamara were auctioned by the British govt, which were purchased by British tea company George Williamson at a very nominal price. But this proved a bad investment for the company, as the labourers, who were loyal to Maniram Dewan refused to work with the British owners. Later, Cinnamara tea estate was purchased by Jorehaut Tea Company, now owned by Assam Tea Corporation. The Senglung Tea estate was, however, abandoned and it was lost in time, before it was re-discovered in 2014.
Rani Gaidinliu, popularly known as Ranima, was a Rongmei Naga spiritual and political leader from Manipur. She had led a movement against the British rule in 1930s, to uproot the British govt from Manipur and Nagaland. She was born in Nungkao village in present-day Tamenglong district district in Manipur in January 26, 1915. As she was from a very backward place, she didn’t receive any formal education.
At the age of 13, she joined the Heraka religious movement, started by her cousin Haipou Jadonang. This movement was started to revive the Naga tribal religion. Within the Heraka faith, Rani Gaidinliu was considered as an incarnation of the Goddess Cherachamdinliu.
Later, this religious movement turned into a political movement seeking to drive out the British from Manipur and the surrounding Naga areas. The members of the organisation arranged guns from Cachar, and they started an armed struggle against the British government. By the age of 16, Rani Gaidinliu had become a leader of guerrilla forces fighting against the British forces.
After Jadonang was arrested and hanged by British govt in 1931 following a mock trial, Rani Gaidinliu became the leader of the religious and political movement. She had openly rebelled against the British rule, and had appealed the people to not pay taxes.
Her movement was so successful that the British govt had launched a manhunt to capture her, but she managed to evade the govt forces, moving through several villages in current day Assam, Manipur and Nagaland. The British govt had even announced a 10-year tax holiday for any village that will provide information on her.
But on October 17 in 1932, Rani Gaidinliu and her associates were arrested after a surprise raid by an Assam Rifles contingent led by Captain MacDonald near Kenoma village. After a trial, she was convicted of murder and abetment of murder, and was sentenced to life imprisonment. She lodged in jails in Guwahati, Shillong, Aizawl and Tura. When she was in Shillong jail, Jawaharlal Nehru had met her, and promised to pursue her release. He had also given her the title ‘Rani’, calling her the Queen of the Nagas. Subsequently, Nehru had appealed to the British government her release, which was rejected.
After the interim govt of India was set up in 1946 ahead of full power transfer by the British, Rani Gaidinliu was released from Tura jail on the orders of Nehru, who was the Vice President of the Executive Council in the interim govt.
But her struggle didn’t after India’s independence and her release from jail. She was opposed to the Naga separatist movement seeking secessionism from India. She had advocated for a separate Zeliangrong territory within the Union of India. She also tried to revive the Naga traditional animist religion Heraka, for which the original movement by her cousin was launched. Therefore, both the separatist leaders and Baptist Christian missionaries became her opponents. The Christian leaders had threated of serious consequences if she tried to revive the Heraka religion. As a result, she went underground in 1960. After six years in 1966, she and her followers came overground with an agreement with the union government.
On 17 February in 1993, Gaidinliu died at the age of 78 years. She was conferred with the Padma Bhushan award in 1972, Vivekananda Seva Award in 1983, and was conferred the Birsa Munda Award posthumously.
Pa Togan Nengminja
Pa Togan Nengminja is considered as the first Garo freedom fighter in Meghalaya. He was a Garo warrior, who is known for ambushing a troop of British soldiers in the state. Nengminja was born in Samanda village near Williamnagar in East Garo Hills region of Meghalaya.
In the year 1872, a contingent of British soldiers from Tura went to East Garo Hills to complete the conquest of the region. The British forces were facing resistance from the Garo tribe who were refusing to give way the control of their homeland to the western invaders. The soldiers set up a camp in a village named Matcha Rongkrek near Chiso Bibra.
In an attempt to prevent the British from conquering the region, Pa Togan Nengminja planned an attack on the camp. Accordingly, he and other Garo warriors attacked the camp in the night when the soldiers were sleeping. Though the attackers achieved success initially, the other soldiers roused from sleep by the noise of the attack, and they immediately started a retaliatory attack. The Garo warriors equipped with traditional weapons were no match for British soldiers with gun, and they were soon overpowered.
The team of attackers suffered heavy losses and Pa Togan Nengminja died on the spot due to gunshot.
Pa Togan Nengminja and his warriors had used shields made of plantain banana stems to protect themselves from bullets. He had thought that as soon as the bullets hit the shield, they will cool down and lose its momentum. Needless to say, it didn’t work, but it does point towards the planning of the warrior before the attack.
Kushal Konwar was a freedom fighter from Assam who had participated in the independence movement led by Mahatma Gandhi. Kushal Konwar was born in 1905 at Balijan near Sarupathar in the current District of Golaghat in Assam. While studying at school, Kushal was inspired by the Gandhi and he had participated in the non-cooperation movement against the British. He left school at the age of 21 with many other students to take part in the freedom struggle actively.
He had also established a primary school and worked there as an honorary teacher. But as his economic status had deteriorated due to this, he later started working at a tea garden at the insistence of his father. First, he worked in a tea garden owned by a British planter, but soon switched job to another estate owned by an Assamese planter in 1927.
He worked in the garden as a clerk, but in 1936, he left the job to fully devote to the freedom struggle. Kushal Konwar had joined the Congress party and led the party in the Satyagraha and non-cooperation movement in his area. He had become the president of the Sarupathar Congress Committee, and had become a prominent leader in the party due to his organisational skills.
In 1942, the Congress Working Committee passed the Quite India resolution in a meeting in Bombay, and Gandhi appealed everyone to join the movement. While the British govt quickly arrested all prominent Congress leaders, the movement was led by the public at large. In Assam too, state level Congress leaders were arrested, and local level leaders like Kushal Konwar took the responsibility of running the movement.
Although the call was for non-violent movement, it had turned violent with the formation of ‘Mrityu Bahini’ (suicide squad) by some Congress workers. Several incidents derailing trains, burning bridges etc were done by this squad, to prevent the movement of British military. A believer in Gandhi’s ideology, Kushal Konwar didn’t approve the methods used by the Mrityu Bahini.
On 10 October 1942 at around 2 a midnight, a train carrying British soldiers derailed near the Sarupatha Railway station. It is said that around one thousand soldiers were killed in the accident, which was handiwork of the Mrityu Bahini. They had removed the fish-plates from the track, causing the derailment.
Immediately after the accident, the British army cordoned the entire Sarupathar area and rounded up a large number of innocent people, assaulted and harassed them. Since Kushal Konwar was a prominent Congress leader in the area, he too was arrested, and falsely implicated in the case. Kushal Konwar was not aware about the plan to derail the train, but he was painted as the mastermind behind the plot. The trial for the case was conducted by the District Commissioner of Sivasagar district, not a regular British court.
After a trial only in name, Kushal Konwar, Dharmakanta Deka, Ghanashyam Saikia and Kanakeswar Konwar were sentenced to death, while others were awarded various jail terms. Later, the Governor of Assam revoked the death sentence of other three, but Kushal Konwar’s death sentence remained.
At the dawn on 15th June in 1943, freedom fighter Kushal Konwar was hanged to death by the British in the Jorhat jail.
U Tirot Sing
Tirot Sing, also known as U Tirot Sing Syiem, was a chief of the Khasi tribe in Meghalaya. Born in 1802, he had declared war against the British for their attempt to colonise the Khasi Hills.
After taking control over Assam following the Treaty of Yandabo with the Burmese govt in 1826, the British sought to establish network of roads to reach the various areas under this territory. As part of that strategy, David Scott, the Agent of the Governor-General for the entire eastern frontier, planned to build a road from Guwahati to Sylhet.
As the road have to pass through Meghalaya, Scott met local leaders in the area for permission to build the road. As U Tirot Singh was one of the constitutionally chosen chiefs or ‘Syiems’ in the province of Nongkhlow in the Khasi Hills, Scott arranged a meeting with him. The route through Nongkhlow was chosen by the planners as it would be the fastest route to Sylhet and the rest of the Bengal.
When the British govt approached Tirot Sing for the same, he welcomed the idea, believing that it will improve connectivity in the area, the road will provide him and his tribe access and control over duars or check posts into Assam, and they will be able to extend trade upto the Surma Valley in present-day Bangladesh.
After the consent for the road was given by Tirot Sing and other local leaders in 1827, the construction began soon. But after several months, the king of Ranee in present day Assam disputed Tirot’s claim over the check posts. Tirot Sing went to confront him with a troop of soldiers, believing that the British will take his side. But instead the British forces blocked his path.
By this time, Tirot Sing was also becoming suspicious of British plan in Meghalaya, as he got information that the British govt planned to levy heavy taxes after the road is completed. He also learnt that British forces had brought reinforcements to Guwahati. As a result, he convened a durbar and ordered the British to vacate Nongkhlow. But the British administration ignored his order.
Infuriated, Tirot Sing launched a sudden attack on British officers on 4th April in 1829. His soldiers killed two officers. David Scott had a narrow escape, as he had left for Cherrapunjee shortly before the attack.
Shocked by this sudden attack, the British forces were mobilised immediately for retaliation. British troops were brought from Sylhet and Kamrup, and they were confronted by the soldiers of Tirot Sing. The Khasis used guerilla warfare, and used their knowledge of the hilly terrain to their advantage. But, they were armed with only native weapons like bows, arrows and swords, which were not enough to resist the firepower of guns of the British military.
Facing defeats, several chiefs surrendered before the British, Tirot Singh was also injured and he took refuge in the forest. But he was forced to come out from hiding after his location was revealed by a local bribed by the British. On 9th January in 1833, he surrendered before the British govt. After a brief trial, he was deported to Dhaka, where he died in jail on 17 July 1835.