Irawat, The Legend – II

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(contd from previous issue)

Irawat also acted in Bengali plays (1915-20) and played the role of ‘Kumud’ in the first historical play in Manipuri, ‘Nara Singh’, in the year 1925. His participation in modern Manipuri theatre as an artiste both in male and female roles was highly appreciated. Another memorable role that he played was that of ‘Chandra Singh’ in the social play of S. Lalit Singh, ‘Areppa Marup’ (inseparable friend). In the Manipuri version of the play, ‘Devala Devi’, he played the role of ‘Baladeva’. Besides these, he acted in other plays like ‘Sati Khongnaang’, ‘Birmangal’, etc. It is said that he identified himself with the character so completely with superb acting that the audience would forget it was a play and get deeply engrossed. Such was his charisma as an artiste! The true reflections of his internal feeling was manifested for the first time in the symbol of ‘Manipur Dramatic Union’-‘two ploughs kept across’ which was innovated by himself.

As recalled by Hemango Biswas, in 1944 District Kisan Sabha Conference, Irawat was in the presidential chair. There was a cultural programme at the end of the conference wherein the tea labourers of ‘Atharatila’ were presenting aJhumur dance. He recalled that at the peak of the dance, Irawat left the presidential chair and joined the dancers, making no mistakes in step and rhythm and continued till the end. Indeed, it is no wonder that later in life he was actively involved in the movement of Indians’ Peoples Theatre Association (IPTA) in many parts in Assam and Tripura. Irawat’s versatile personality and his growing popularity caught the attention of the royal family of Manipur. He was given RajkumariKhomdonsana Devi, the daughter of Chandrahas, the elder brother of Maharajah Churachand in a pompous wedding. He was appointed to the post of a member of the then Sadar Panchayat, the highest criminal court of the time, by the Maharaja and gave him some land and other facilities.

In 1924, he attended a meeting in Calcutta just after Mahatma’s release which maybe said to be his first contact with the national movement. He pledged himself to work for and serve his people.Remembering his hard days in school as a youth, he devoted to the spread of education in Manipur. Primary schools sprang up all over the hills despite the unsympathetic attitude of the state officials. He worked hard to learn the laws and was always anxious to reform them so that the inequalities might be eliminated.Though he held a high post as a member of the Panchayat, he mingled around with the common people and started getting acquainted with the malpractices and exploitations under the feudal system. He was unhappy with some serious practices of those days like the practice of holy and unholy( amangasheng) ,unbearable taxes levied upon the common man like ChandonSenkhai ( tax on applying chandan), Khewa, Matu and other oppressive practices such as PeonChakthak (feeding of petty officials without compensation), Dolaising ( palanquin carrying duty ), Yarek Sentry, PatsenMashul (catching fishes in the fields and lakes without the permission of the middlemen or the contractors), taxes on crossing bridges,etc.

Right from his youth,Irawat could not stand any injustice. During his school days at Johnstone, he was against punishment and canning of students. One day a teacher of the school flogged one of his class-mates roughly and kicked him. He couldnot bear such ill treatment meted out to students by the teachers and stood up against it when nobody dared to. Irawat immediately organised a strike in protest against the inhuman and cruel practice and demanded to ban such practices. This incident maybe said to be the first students’ strike in the state. He revolted against inhumane torture and exploitation, an act which is differentiated from the hooliganism of the present day which are fuel by politics to an extent.Irawat carried this spirit of fighting against oppression even while holding a high post at the Sadar Panchayat. He couldn’t bear the tyrannical practices meted out upon the common people and so he emerged as the leader of the oppressed classes. He didn’t lose time to stand up and formed the Manipur Seba Committee and established as ‘Praja Mandal’ to fight against the corrupted and oppressive feudal rule of the time.

The practice of AmangAsheng (MangbaShengba or Ritual Cleanliness) which was carried out by the Maharaja and the Brahmo Sabha required the people to pay certain amount of money (Rupee) for the revocation of excommunication. The value of Rupee was very high those days and many couldn’t afford it. An excommunicated person could not even be cremated according to Hindu rites. Irawat organised a social service group called the Seba Committee and dug out the mortal remains and cremated them under his leadership with all the rites and rituals. Would any of our present leaders even dare to think of doing this?  He led the people to resist and fight against such malpractices and injustice and it invited the wrath of higher and orthodox authorities upon him.

The ‘Nikhil Hindu Manipuri Mahasabha’ was initially established in 1934 as a countermeasureto Christian missionary influence with the Maharaja Churachand as the president. Irawat was made the vice president. This maybe said to be a diplomatic tact to distract Irawat by the Maharajah. In its first session on May 30,1934, which was held at the palace, the Maharajah presided the meeting and delegates from Bengal, Tripura, Burma and Manipur attended. The second session was held at Silchar in 1936, the third session at Mandalay in Feb/ Mar, 1937 which was attended byLalit Madhab Sharma, Bankabihari Sharma and Irawat. The third session made a call to the Manipuris to get acquainted with the Meitei script. This call has been accomplished today with the first matric exam on Meitei Mayek conducted this year(2016). Truly a visionary he was!

In the fourth session which was held at Chinga, Imphal in 1938, the Maharaja didn’t attend sensing winds of change and Irawat presided over it and the word ‘Hindu’ was omitted from the name of the organisation for the first time. It thus became a political organisation under the name ‘Nikhil Manipur Mahasabha’ and it adopted many political resolutions for the first time like asking the British to quit Manipur State Darbar, full responsible govt. in Manipur based on Adult Franchise, release of Rani Gaidinlieu from prison, abolition of Manipur State Darbar, etc. When these resolutions of democratic nature and against feudal levies were sent to the Darbar, it expectedly debarred state employees from being its member. Irawat resigned his membership from the Sadar Panchayat Court along with one ElangbamTompok Singh, a clerk in the Revenue Department.Undoubtedly, these two werethe real heroes who stood the test of the time and sacrificed personal comforts to carry out the works of the organisation for social cause. Thus,Irawat became the president of the Mahasabha with Tompok as the General Secretary. That was the turning point of Irawat as a full-fledged political worker and an organiser.

In the cold winter of December 1939, a man- made famine broke out in Manipur due to the indiscriminate export of rice and price rise. Starvation was prevalent everywhere and compelled the women folk from all over togheraothe Khwairamband Bazaar and agitated against export of rice. This is now known as the second Nupi Lal of December, 1939 in the history of Manipur. Even after the agitation, the export of rice was not banned. So, onthe following day of December 12, 1939, the women folk again gathered around the bazaar in agitation and this time they seized all the cartloads of rice and paddy kept for sale to the Marwaris and were taken to the Police station. The women folk carried out all these not in ease though for they were charged with lathis, butts and bayonets over by the armed sepoys. Several women were injured, six of them very seriously.

Irawat was not in Manipur when the incident took place. He was in Tripura and was asked immediately to return and lead the mass movement against which the 4th Assam Rifles had been let loosed. He came back as soon as possible and went straight to the hospital and met the wounded. His presence motivated and encouraged the people giving a new ray of hope. He soon organised 4000 volunteers for picketing trunk-roadsto stop the rice exportsout of Manipur. Finally the government was forced to ban the export of rice and all the then eighteen rice mills in Manipur were closed down.

The agitation was widespread and a civil disobedience followed wherein the people stopped paying all feudal levies and revenue. Irawat led the masses and addressed public meetings with inspiring and strongly worded speeches. It was the dawn of a new political party called PrajaSammelani with Irawat as its president. At a meeting held at Police Bazaar on the 7th of January, 1940,some radical members of the Mahasabha led by Irawat formed the new political party PrajaSanmelani. He also formed the MahilaSanmilani, the women’s wing. Apart from the banning of the rice export, the struggle for the constitutional changes was carried out with VandeMataram on their lips which werepart of Manipur’s contribution for India’s Independence (Poorna Swaraj). On this day, he delivered a speechcondemning the government’s atrocities and called out the people to join together and resist such oppressions. He was accused by the government that his speech was of seditious in nature and thus he was arrested from his house and sentenced to three years in jail in March 1940 under section 124 (a) of the Indian Penal Code. In Manipur jail, he organised a movement for better treatment as the jail conditions were bad and primitive and won many demands of the prisoners. Due to his popularity in the jail and the situation prevailing outside, sensing the danger, the authorities ultimately transferred him to Sylhet Jail.

It was during his stay in the jail that he came into contact with many communists andcommunist literatures. For the first time he came in touch with communist ideology of MarxismLeninism. He was greatly attracted by the ideology as he himself had always stood up for the oppressed classes and was against the feudal oppression even while he was in Manipur.So, he soon applied for membership to the Assam province committee and became a member while still in the jail.He truly believed that socialism was the only means to cure all social, political and economic ills, and for the genuine emancipation of the toiling masses.
(To be contd)

Read  the Previous Part – Irawat the Legend -I

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