Lamyanba Hijam Irabot (Two-article series)

By Prof. Elangbam Nilakanta Singh
This article is sourced from The Manipur Page (

Jananeta Irabat, was a renaissance man. He was a versatile personality: Social reformer poet, artiste, intellectual, sportsman and revolutionary - all rolled into one. But he was a much misunderstood personality neglected, abused and forshaken by the elites and the mainstream people of the freedom struggle in Manipur. The last three decades of the 20th Century has resurrected him and raised him rightly to the pedestal of Jana-Neta (Leader of the people). The people have increasingly discovered the sterling qualities of his head and heart, his vision and the spirit of dedication to his land and her people. Hemango Biswas, his one time artiste colleague called him Simanta Prahari (Sentinel of the Frontier), which means sentinel of the Eastern Frontier. He has now become almost a legend and some simple villagers of Manipur (in 1955) that he would come back.

For a proper assessment of his role as the leader of the people, we have to divide his life into three phrases viz. his role as a social reformer, a writer and theater personality after his baptism in the fight for freedom at the sight of Gandhiji (1922) at Calcutta before 1938, almost a prelude to politics; his plunge into politics as expressed in various movements of women and the common people after the Gandhian fashion with a difference, after his resignation from Sadar Panchayet membership in March 1939 and the last phase of his imprisonment in Sylhet District Jail, followed by his initiation into Marxist ideology and political exile in Cachar and Sylhet (now in Bangladesh) culminating in his going undergound since 1948 to the end of his life at the foot of Ang-go hills (Sept 26 1951). He had to fight at the same time of two front feudal and imperialistic, with all their instruments of torture and suppression of human liberty. His education outside Manipur opened his eyes and his initiation into Maxist ideology proved the turning point in his life of relentless struggle accompanied by endless suffering. His love for the common people, the oppressed and the damned, more particularly the peasants and the women, knew no bounds.

Irabot was born at a time when other parts of India, particularly Bengal, witnessed a renaissance in thought and action. Even though he could complete his matriculation in Dhaka and Tripura, owing to sheer poverty, his impressionable mind like some of our pioneer poets, was exploded to the current blowing all around in India and he decided to do something for his mother Manipur. He expressed himself in the form of poetry and performing arts, besides being an excellent sportsman. He wrote a bunch of poetry particularly for school children entitled Sheidam Sheireng (1930) and started a hand-written magazine called Meetei Chanu (1922), the first magazine of its kind in Manipur, to be followed by other literry magazines. His first novel, Muhini was serialized in the journal, Yakairol since 1931 and so also his biography of Lokmanya Tilak, the great freedom fighter who happens to be his guru in politics, in the journal, Lalit Manuri Patrika since October 1931. He also wrote a play, Gomati and translated Bankimchandra’s novel, Krishna Kanter Will into Manipuri – both of which are still in manuscripts.

But participation in modern Manipuri theatre as an artiste both in male and female roles was his strong point. He acted in Bengali plays during the early period (1915-20), and played the role of Kumud in his first historical play in Manipuri Nara Singh (1925). He was deeply associated with the theatre movement and created the symbol of two ploughs being crossed for the first theatrical group Manipur Dramatic Union (MDU, established in 1931), signifying ploughing the cultural soil of Manipur. His role of Chandra Singh in the social play of S. Lalit Singh, Areppa Marup, was memorable. He played the role of Baladeva in the Manipuri version of the play, Debala Devi. His contribution to modern Manipuri theater is indeed immense.

Fortune favoured Irabat by this time. The king Churachand Singh arranged to give the hands of the daughter of his elder brother to him and he was appointed member of Sadar Panchayet court (the post of a magistrate) with all the privileges including a considerable plot of land. This was deliverately done in the hope that he would take the side of the feudal king supported by British imperalist. But this temptation could not compet Irabat to deviate from the path of service to the people and taking always the side of the oppressed people. He gave his heart and soul to the social reform movement which found expression in the establishment of Nikhil Hindu Manipuri Mahasabha (1939) with the king as the Chief patron. It has its memorable sessions in the framework of Pan-Manipuri movement, the second in Silchar (1939) and the third in Mandalay in Burma (now Mayanmar) in 1937. The spirit of the resolution in the various sessions represented a serious attempt at the removal of disparities, the oppression of the people in religious rites and rituals and heavy taxation in the guise of service in such forms of Chandan Senkahi, Hiyang, Pacha and Napet, etc. the most obnoxious of which being Pothang (forced labour) imosed on the common villagers for the comfort and safety of the nobles and petty officials. Irabat was, of course, in excellent company of writers and social activists in all these ventures and undoubtedly he took the lead. Manipuri Sahitya Parishad was established in 1935 and he was its first general secretary. It is also on record that he was the first person to wear khadi in Manipur. All these happened in the Indian context of Swadeshi movement in Bengal (1905) owing to proposed Bengal partition, the cries of Vande Mataram and advent of Mahatama Gandhi with his non-cooperation movements. Irabat and his colleagues could somehow attune themselves to this movement from freedom, though not so explicitly, by way of marking time. Somehow it remained a social reform and cultural awakening. It is interesting to recall that the Mandalay session in 1937 of the Mahasabha had as one of its resolutions that the Manipuris be asked to make themselves familiar with the Meitei Mayek (Manipuri script) which had become quite a cry at the moment.

The second phase of his life began with his plunge into politics when Nikhil Hindu Manipuri Mahasabha dropped "Hindu" from it at its Ching-nga Session (Imphal) in 1938 and became a political organization. The king and his officials had to dissociate themselves from its functioning, Irabat had to resign from his post and among the leaders of the movement only Irabat and E. Tompok were entrusted with carrying the activities of the Mahasabha which was declared an illegal political organization in Feb. 1939 by the Manipur State Darbar. He had to sacrifice his landed properties as well as his dignified membership of Sadar Panchayet Court for the sake of his dedicated service to his motherland.

It is perhaps time that we have a close look at the strategic perspective of the movement, both social and political, initiated by Irabat and his followers as a long-drawn out hegemonic struggle or in Gramscian terms, a way of position. By hegemonic struggle, we mean a struggle for the minds and hearts of men and women so that the nationalist influence would continuously grow among the people through different channels. The movement alternated between the phases of the extralegal of law-breaking mass movements and phase of the functioning within the four walls of the law. Both phases were geared to expanding the influence of the national movement among the people. The masses had to be politicized and acitvised: the masses who suffered from the double torrute of deudal system and colonial authorities. Their belief system or ideology as expressed in humiliating submission to the king and the British officials had to be overthrown. The long drawn out character of the hegemonic struggle may be described as Struggle-Truce-Struggle (S-T-S) a phase of vigorous extra legal mass movement and open confrontations with the authorities being followed by a comparatively passive phase in the form of constructive work, social reform and reorganization of workers, peasants, the women and the youth. When the opportune moment arrives, this would be followed by extra-legal mass movements. Thus the political struggle is perpetual. As Gandhiji used to say, Suspension of civil disobedience does not mean suspension of war". Irabat had to adopt to S-T-S strategy which applied to India’s Freedom Struggle also.

On the social and cultural front he had to face the bitter music of Mangba-Sengba (pollution and restitution) a widely practiced, but unlawful, form of extortion charges imposed on the public by the members of Brahma Babha of which the king happened to be the Chairman. During the thirties, this Mangba-Sengba scandal swept over Manipur like a plague, leading to excommunication of the thousands of the poor people which the state Darbar had to check ultimately. The Mahasabha had religious reform wing (Goura Dharma Pracharini Sabha) which came to the rescue of the helpless people. The fourth session session of the Mahasabha over which Irabat presided had, among its resolutions numbering about 30, such dedications s demanding a legislative Body and release of Gaidinliu from the jail, which proved too much for the authority to bear. Most of the decisions dealt with social reform and other matters of political nature. This was followed by another memorandum submitted by a few educated Manipuris to the Maharaja demanding reforms in administrations. The reactions of the President of the Darbar, Mr. Macdonald was characteristic: "Democracy is, after all, much more foreign to Manipur than Manchester cloth".

The outbreak of Nupilal (Women’s war) on Dec. 12, 1939 over the issue of rice export, in which several hundred Manipuri women came to the state office and gheraoed the President (Mr. T.A. Sharpe), leading to bayonet charge by a detachment of Assam Rifles, represented a spontaneous eruption of the suppressed energy of the exploited people. The spark was, of course, set off by the rice export of the Monopolists. Irabot was not present in Manipur on this day. But he came back from Cachar and addressed public meetings with strongly worded speeches, which the authorities considered seditious. He was arrested from his house on Jan 9, 1940 and tried by Manipur State Durbar on March 21, 1940. there had been already a split in Jan – 1940 in the Mahasabha over the issue of extending support to the Women’s movement and Irabat formed a new group under the style of Manipur Praja Sanmelani. The result of the trial was that Irabat was convicted and sentenced to 3 years. This marked the end of the second phase of his life dedicated to social and cultural awakening in the back-ground of politics. He made contacts with the communits while he was in Sylhet Jail (1942-1943) and became a communist leader representing North-east India in various political conferences. He wrote a few poems in Sylhet Jail, full of patriotic fervour and charged with modernist rhythm, which was published in as late as 1987 under the title, Imagi-Puja (Worship of the Mother). While working among the peasants in Sylhet and Cachar, his creative spirit found expression in songs and dances associated with I.P.T.A. movement and arouse the artistic consciousness of the villagers. He was allowed to enter Manipur only in March, 1946. He got himself merged in the constructive phase of the struggle and was responsible for creating various organizations like Krishak Sabha Praja Mandal, Praja Sanmelani, Mahila Sanmelani, Youth League, etc. After the historic Pungdongbam incident in which a potice offical was shot dead in the scuffle between the police force and peaceful processionists on their way to attend a protest meeting at MDU Hall at Imphal against the proposted creation of Purbanchal, Irabat and the CPI had to go underground.

Dr. Venkat Rao is strongly of the view that Irabat was the father of Manipur insurgency and dreamt of Manipur being a sovereign democratic republic. It is debatable. The last part of his underground activities was shrouded in mystery. But he was undoubtedly a brave freedom fighter arousing the social, political and cultural consciousness of the people of Manipur and even outside with his relentless hard work, mixing with the peasants and remarkable creative expression. He was a Jana-Neta in the real sense of the term and it appears that History has at last done justice to him.

Selected References:

Hijam Irabat and Political Movement in Manipur by Karam Manimohan Singh (1989).
Irabat: (Ed) Irabat Center for Marxist Studies, Imphal, 1988.
India’s struggle for Independence (1857-1947) by Bipin Chandra, 1989.
Seminar on Jana Neta Irabat: Irabat Birthday Celebration Committee, CPI Manipur, 1995.
Source: MITKAPTHOKPA (Oct-Dec, 1996).

by Dr L Shashikumar Yurembam

Manipur was deprived of freedom after its defeat in the Khongjom War, 1891. Major Maxwell came as the British political agent to unite the princely kingdom and brought it under the British rule. Taking the law of the land directly into their hands, the British awarded capital punishment to Bir Tikendrajit and Thangal General for challenging the might of the British and trying to guard Manipur's sovereignty. This left a blazing fire burning in the heart of the helpless Manipuris who were already at the mercy of the British rule.

It was such a time that saw the birth of Hijam Irabot, the Icon of Revolution in Manipur. Born in a simple Meetei family on September 30, 1896 at Pishum Oinam Leikai, Irabot was destined to lose his parts, Hijam Ibungohal and Chongtham Chanu Thambalnganbi at a very young agre. He grew up and began his education under the care of his paternal aunt, Sougaijam Ongbi Ibeton. After completing his seventh standard, he went to Dhaka for further studies with Sougaijam Somerendra in 1913. His stayed at Dhaka was short-lived and he studied only till the ninth class. In 1915, he wernt to Tripura and stayed there for some time. On his return to Manipur, he did not go back to his aunt's place but stayed at Wangkhei at the residence of Maibam Samdan, who was a member of the Manipur State Durban. By that time, India had also started revolting vehemently against the British rule.

Since childhood, Irabot had been a meticulous boy who always stood for the cause of truth. Whenever, he was free, he used to mingle with people in his society and came to know and understand more about their problems as well as their ways of livelihood. The seed of his commitment to the cause of the sufferings in the society was sown during this very crucial time.

He spearheaded movement towards this goal without turning back. His first and foremost strive was to free Manipur from bondage.

Realising that the struggle for independence calls for able and healthy young sons of the soil, Irabot emphasized on upliftment of sports in the state. He was the one who initiated the organization of various sports tournaments like Football, Hockey and Cricket, which were first of its kinds in Manipur. He also focused his attention on the cultural and economic development of the State.

Much of the literary trends in Manipur also owe its existence to Neta Irabot. In 1922, he published 'Meetei Chanu', a journal, and thus laid the foundation stone for arts and literature among Manipuri daughters whom Irabot always held at the highest esteem.

Irabot was also the first who tried to cast the reflection of the western civilization in Manipur. As a dramatic persona, his place was unchallenged. He played the roles of women in various plays like the much acclaimed. In 'Nar Singh' of Lairenmayum Ibungohal, he was the Kumuda. In the play 'Areppa Marup', he played the part of Chandra Singh. All his plays reflected his intense love for the motherland and always threw light on the mother-son relationship and the sorrows and pains there when the two are separated. The Manipur Dramatic Union was formed on 17 April, 1930. His intention behind all these activities was to instill in each Manipuri the love of motherland and to groom the younger generation and led them towards a common goal- to attain freedom.

By then, Irabot's personality attracted the attention of the royal family and the King's courtiers. Thus, he was offered the hands of Khomdonsana, Sir Churachand Maharaj's niece. Subsequently, he was made a member of the Sadar Panchayat which made him to leave his initial profession as a teacher. Even after his sudden change in social status, Irabot never betrayed his commitment to the cause of the common people. He tried his best to abolish discrimination in the society in the name of religion. Stories are still being told about the incidents in which Irabot personally involved in cremating dead bodies shunned by the Brahmins as unholy and conducted the Shradha ceremony by performing the rites himself.

One of the most important incidents with which we associated Irabot is the 'Nupi Lan' (Women's War). He was the man who left behind many unforgettable imprints on the pages of Manipur history. He also laid the foundation for 'Manipuri Krishi Sammelan', an organization for the farmers and helped them to voice many of their demands and wants. This was an eye opener for the farmers of the time and also ushered in the trend of public participation in the functioning and governing of the state.

Irabot believed in solidarity and the feeling of oneness among the Manipuris of the hills and the valley. For the first time in the history of Manipur, he instilled political consciousness in the minds of the public.

During the time of 'Nupi Lan' when shouting slogans were banned, he led the agiotation by singing songs that produced a dynamic effect on the minds of the people. Because of his involvement in the various social and political issues brewing up in the state, a criminal case was filed against him by the Manipur State Durbar. The idea of communism was born and he became an ardent communist while in prison. After being released from the jail, Irabot was barred from entering his homeland, Manipur. During these years, he participated in many conventions and meetings of the Communist party.

In 1948 at a Communist party meeting at Calcutta (now Kolkata), the idea of armed revolution was broached up and Irabot supported it. He later became a full-fledged member of Communist party when it became a National party. He was elected from Utlou Constituency in the 1948 election. Many youth and women came forth to join his party.

September 21, 1948 proved to be a milestone in Hijam Irabot's life as a revolutionary, popularly known as the 'Pungdongbam Incident'. This day saw the emergence of Neta Irabot as an underground activist. The Government announced a reward of Rs 10,000 to anyone who could tell Irabot's whereabouts. But there was no Manipuri who would betray his love and sacrifice. Even during his period of hiding, Irabot rendered his services for the development of the society. He went to Burma (now Myanmar) in 1950 and continued to work for the people at the International level. On the 26th September, 1951, in a remote village of Burma called Tangubo Sedo, Irabot breathed his last.

'Revolution' in Manipur in almost all fields was pioneered by Hijam Irabot. He strove till his last to build a firm and developed society as each day in Manipur unveiled more bitter experiences for the masses. Irabot, his life and person, has today become an indispensable memory. A leader and revolutionary like him is what Manipur needs now.

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