Any researcher or scholar based in Manipur would find that acquiring Grant’s Victoria Cross and Khongjom War diary would be ideal and desirable so as to take forward history-writing endeavor in the state
By Paojel Chaoba
Eighty soldiers of the British had given a humiliating defeat to 2000 well- armed Manipuri soldiers at the Khongjom battle, according to the British records and narrative. Though, in contemporary times, there have been serious debates on the usefulness of colonial records in constructing national histories and also directing the future course of shaping historical discourse. Many have argued that colonial records, particularly records of British military and ethnographers with reference to South East Asian history should be understood against the backdrop of sophisticated historiography (the writing of history based on the critical examination of sources) and research tools. Many smaller nations or communities are still grappling with attempts at reconstructing history via the much controversial nativist approach albeit academic acceptance.
Despite severe criticism on digging up rich British archival sources to suit community or people based or even subaltern history, most historians in Northeast India have depended on records by British military personnel and colonial administrators. There are hardly any deliberations on ways to approach these colonial texts in the so-called post-colonial era. Though many have depended on these records, there is hardly any emerging critical literature that systematically studies archival materials in Manipur. It is against this background that historians and academics in Manipur need to understand the value of retrieving key colonial records so as to further deepen the spirit of understanding “our own history”. The Khongjom war diary of Lt Grant may hold much.
The issue raised here at the outset of this article becomes all the more pertinent with the news that Victoria Cross won by a British Army officer for his unusual bravery along with his original war diary of a controversial war during the era of the British Raj is expected to fetch up to £400,000 . The diary and medals are to be sold off at a proposed auction, scheduled on June 23.
Story of the history
“In a spirit of revenge rather than self-defense, Grant led a party of mounted men forward and charged, surprising and routing the Manipuri. Grant’s horse was killed under him and he fought on foot, emptying his revolver again and again in the melee. In the attack, 40 Manipuris were slain and Grant’s loss was only his horse and a pony,” reported George J Kilman for the Deseret Evening News in November 1891.
The reporter then encapsulated the bravery of Lt CJW Grant and as per his report “He (Grant) marched against the hostiles with only 80 sepoys and grappled with foes by the thousands, winning at every point,” Lt. Grant was awarded the highest honour by the British, with the Victoria cross for his valour in defeating the Manipuris who were superior in numbers then. It was the report of the last Anglo-Manipuri war of 1891 fought between 31st March till 27 April of 1891, as per historical documents available. Grant in his account had laid waste to the Thoubal Fort where hundreds of Manipur fighters were killed under his command with lesser men but with superior military warfare techniques and bringing about the defeat of the Manipuris at Khongjom.
The great battle of Khongjom as per Manipur’s popular history also give ample mention that the Manipuri army fought the British with inferior weapons including swords and spears and the brave Major Paona Brajabashi along with hundred other brave warriors laid down their lives for the independence of Manipur. Till date, April 23 is observed as Khongjom day and is a state holiday. The date of the actual battle of Khongjom is still debated by historians in Manipur.
The British account records that that Prince Tikendrajit and his coup was successfully dismantled and justice was meted out for killing the British chief commissioner Quinton and Grimwood with others. Grant was called up by the British government from Burma to suppress the coup and save Ethel Grimwood and her team from being killed. In short, Lt Grant gave a humiliating defeat to the Manipuris then with limited numbers and finally leading loss of Manipur’s independence and later martyrdom of Prince Tikendrajit. That is only the British side of the story, but what about the Manipuri account, remains to be debated and uncovered more.
On June 3 last, the Evening Standard, a publication based in the UK carried a news that the war diary and the medals including the Victoria Cross of Lt Grant will be on auction, “The Victoria Cross group of medals is to be sold by auction house Dix Noonan Webb on June 23 on behalf of a collector,” the auction aims at fetching 400,000 pounds – or nearly Rs 4,12,07,600 approximately.
Need for archival material of historical importance
Also to be auctioned with the medal is an archive of historical importance, including Grant’s unpublished leather bound Officer’s Field Note and Sketch Book and Reconnaissance Aide-Memoire. War and history enthusiasts opine that the state government should bid for the war diary and medals.
Yumnam Rajeshwor Singh, President of 2nd WW Imphal Campaign Foundation, speaking to TFM said, “The auction is said to include the documents and diary of Lt Grant pertaining to the Anglo-Manipuri war. Here in Manipur, we have very little records on the war. The auction documents will give a clear account on what happened during the period. So, I feel we should bid for the auction and keep the records in our state museum or state archives for posterity”.
Wangam Somorjit, academic and author of ‘Manipur- The forgotten nation of southeast Asia’, opines, “We know from other documents that the Palace attempted to negotiate with the British after the execution of the Chief Commissioner and political agent…but we don’t know the contents of the agreement made between Tikendrajit and Grant during the war…we even don’t know the original agreement exists still today. We heard that provisions of the British camp at Thoubal Fort was provided by the Palace according to the agreement. It will be a very good step if our state acquire the original documents of the agreement. It will be of great help to better understand the nature of the war and the Palace’s motive,” he commented.
Evening Standard says, “The action fought by Lieutenant Grant and his small band of Gurkhas in 1891 on the North East Frontier of India was a great epic of Empire which brought him fame during his lifetime as the ‘Hero of Manipur’”. It continues, “His storming of the defences at Thoubal was remarkable in itself, but it is no exaggeration to say that the subsequent defences of that place for eight days with just 80 men against an estimated 2,000 of the enemy is a feat that probably ranks alongside Rorke’s Drift in the history of famous defences against overwhelming odds.” The Victoria Cross is the highest military decoration, awarded for valour in the face of the enemy. Since its introduction in 1856 there have been 1,354 recipients, with Grant being the 406th.
With the news of plan to auction Grant’s Victoria Cross and Khongjom War diary, the government of Manipur would immensely benefit bidding for it. There have been issues raised on challenges of accessing archival material by Manipur based historians and scholars owing to abject state of resource crunch and access to dependable archival materials with regard to Manipur’s history.
Whatever said and done with regard to historiography, any researcher or scholar based in Manipur would find that acquiring Grant’s Victoria Cross and Khongjom War diary would be ideal and desirable enough so as to take forward history-writing endeavor in the state. Perhaps, Grant’s Victoria Cross and Khongjom War diary may further throw light on the historical event, albeit a careful textual reading mandated by modern methodology. Instead of downplaying colonial archival materials in the higher echelons of academics, it would not be wise to ignore archival records, be it colonial or postcolonial.