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Disaster in Manipur: An Imperial Episode

Fifty years before the great struggle with the Japanese on the frontiers of India, writes Antony Brett-James, Manipur in 1891 was the scene of a gallant Victorian action.

The north-west frontier—for generations the British had known and talked of it, and had no need to enquire which two countries it divided, for “the Frontier” spelt tribal territory from Quetta to the Khyber Pass and on northwards to Gilgit. The Indian Army served there, year in, year out, and many a British regiment too, as they guarded the mountain passes, manned the forts, and sparred with the fierce and wily tribesmen.

How different, and how unknown, was India’s north-east frontier! That, too, had its mountains, but they wore close-woven cloaks of jungle. That, too, had its tribesmen, but they were not always at war with the Government’s armed forces.

The province of Assam, made up of a warm, densely populated valley with rich tea gardens on the one hand, and, on the other, of the surrounding hill tracts and their varied peoples, lay remote and inaccessible beyond the unbridged Brahmaputra.

Still more difficult of access was the tiny Native State of Manipur and its chief town, Imphal, barely fifty miles from the Burmese border, but divided from the central plain of that country not only by a long skein of parallel mountain ranges with few footpaths, but also by rivers like the Chindwin and Irrawaddy.

Across the contours of a map, Manipur is four hundred miles from Calcutta, but the mere distance meant little, for the journey was extremely arduous and prolonged.

Before 1900 no roads capable of bearing wheeled traffic led into Manipur, and three bridle-paths only linked the State with the outside world: the shortest track running south-east to Tamu on the frontier with Burma was little used, save by raiding armies; the second track came in from Dimapur and Kohima to the north; most important was the path that crossed rivers and mountain passes for a hundred and thirty miles westwards till it reached Silchar, the small capital of the neighbouring state of Cachar.

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