On April 21, 2022, Biren Singh, Chief Minister of Manipur tweeted about the presentation of a painting of the Raja/Ukpipa Goukhothang and a bronze gong presented by the Zomi Chiefs Association (ZCA). The same gesture was reciprocated by the Maharaja of Manipur; who is also the current Member of Parliament (MP) from inner Manipur, who tweeted on April 28, 2022, that the Raja Goukhothang Guite Memorial Trust (RGGMT) presented a painting of the Raja/Ukpipa Goukhothang along with the painting of the Sanjenthong Treaty of 1873, an important treaty signed between the erstwhile ruler of Manipur, Raja Chandrakirti and Kai Khual, emissary of the Sukte-Kamhau, who secured the release of Ukpipa Sumkam, the son of Raja/Ukpipa Goukhothang. 

These presentations were prepared to remember Raja/Ukpipa Goukhothang on his 150th Death Anniversary held on April 30, 2022, in Lamka, Churachandpur, Manipur, organized by the Raja Goukhothang Guite Memorial Trust (RGGMT). 

The association between the Manipur kingdom and the Hill tribes goes back to a long history of exchange and reciprocity. Raids by hill tribes into the valley and valley kingdom’s employment of hill warriors in their contingents, exchange of material and non-material goods, etc formed the historical exchange between the valley and the hills. The relationship between the two realms however took a bitter turn towards the middle of the 19th century with the positioning of the British political agent in Manipur in 1835, in the aftermath of the Treaty of Yandaboo in 1826. The first significantly large conflict between the Manipur kingdom and the hill Zomi Chiefs to the south took place in 1857 when the Meitei King Chandrakirti marched with a force of about 2000 armed soldiers to Tedim, the principal seat of power among the Sukte-Kamhau chiefs. This resulted in the defeat of the Manipur forces and the signing of a peace agreement between the Sukte-Kamhau Chiefs and the Manipur Raj.

During the Lushai Expedition of 1871-72, the Manipur Contingent under Major General William Frost Nuthall, the then Political Agent of Manipur, was responsible for looking after the Manipur Contingent consisting of about 2000 armed personnel to prevent any Sukte-Kamhau intervention during the expedition. However, with the success of the Expedition’s Eastern and Western columns, by March 6, 1872, Nuthall was informed that the services of the Manipur Contingent were no longer required. The next day, the camp encountered Raja/Ukpipa Goukhothang of Mualpi, with over 900 followers.

This group consisted of his family members and relatives with whom he was returning after his visit to Chothemunpi, back to his territory. Thinking of the Manipur camp as friendly neighbours with whom the Kamhau chief had made peace in 1857, Goukhothang unsuspiciously complied with the Maharaja’s majors’ orders at Chivu, near the present Behiang Border Trade Centre. He was subsequently arrested by the Majors Sawai Chumba and Major Thangal on the morning of March 7, 1872, and imprisoned in Imphal, where he died on April 30, 1872. Major Nuthall who had left earlier that morning and was absent at the time of the arrest later gave a justification in support of the majors under his command, in his correspondence to Brigadier General Bourchier on March 12, 1872, on the latter’s accusation of this act of the Manipuri Majors as “treacherous” in his report. After he died in Imphal jail, Ukpipa Sumkam Guite, the son of Raja/Ukpipa Goukhothang, was released under the treaty of Sanjenthong signed at the banks of the Imphal river between Kaikhual, the Sukte-Kamhau emissary and the Manipur Raja on March 16, 1873.

The arrest and death of Goukhothang, however, laid heavy on the minds of Sumkam and his followers who later went on to raid several outlying villages bent on avenging what his people considered a most deplorable act of treachery. The Manipur Raja under the advice of the colonial political agent implored upon the vengeful chief for a peaceful settlement of matters. This eventually led to the signing of a treaty between the Zomi Chief and Manipur Raja on 11th March 1875 in Kaparang (Torbung), for the mutual respect of the erstwhile territories of the Manipur Raj and the Zomi Chiefs. This treaty holds a special significance in the oral tradition of the Zomis who have passed down the accomplishments of their great chief and his son with much pride and a deep sense of their belonging to the land. 

The Zomis today consider Raja/Ukpipa Goukhothang as a symbol of anti-imperialist resistance who led his people as chief during the turbulent period of the Lushai expeditions. Representatives of the Zomi Chiefs Association (ZCA) and the Raja Goukhothang Guite Memorial Trust (RGGMT) presented the paintings and gongs to the Chief Minister and Maharaja of Manipur, emphasizing the need for mutual recognition and respect for the multiple indigenous histories of the land that now constitutes the modern state of Manipur. 

When the BJP government came into power in 2017, Chief Minister Biren Singh introduced his flagship “Go to Hills” project as a development initiative with the motto “chingmi-tammi amatani (hill and valley people are one)” as its clarion call for communal harmony to bridge the Hill-Valley divide in terms of development and infrastructure inequalities.

Simultaneously, there is an even more significant need for the mutual recognition and acknowledgement of the oral and local histories of the hill tribes to affect an impactful venture towards reconciliation and cooperation in the state.

The recent controversies over the construction of the Raja Chandrakirti park in Chivu, the site where Raja/Ukpipa Goukhothang was dubiously arrested by the majors, has not helped in the matter. In the modern era where the state as an institution has taken primacy as the keeper of history, it is crucial for such a multicultural state as Manipur to cater to its multiple histories, especially of the hill tribes who rely on their oral traditions to reinvigorate their heritage as a people.

The state must give precedence to the oral and local histories of the state’s hill tribes to regain grounds of trust and mutual respect. In this respect, the affable and optimistic gestures of the Chief Minister and the Maharaja of Manipur toward such crucial historical figures/events among the hill communities like the Zomis must manifest themselves in the effective implementation of constitutional and policy efforts to bridge the long-standing divides between the valley and the hills which has marked the current political disposition of the state. 

Sangmuan Hangsing is an independent researcher and Tawna Valte is an Mphil scholar at the Delhi School of Economics. Views expressed are personal.

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