Modern India takes on the King of Manipur over his royal palace

State government plans to evict ‘living deity’ from building that dates back to the British Raj

The head of a once-powerful royal family in the north-east of India is on hunger-strike after state authorities announced plans to force him from his palace and seize control of the building.

In a unlikely showdown, the titular King of Manipur, Leisemha Sanajaob, said he was beginning the fast after the state government at the weekend announced its decision to take control of the Sana Konung palace, which his family has occupied for more than 100 years.

The decision to force out Mr Sanajaob, believed by some to be the latest in a line of living deities dating back to 32AD, has triggered protests in the state capital, Imphal, from groups who say Manipur's culture will be further diluted as result. A number of them are camping out at the palace to try and ensure the authorities do not step in.

"He feels betrayed. In 2006, a memorandum was signed between the king and the government agreeing that no decision should be taken about the palace unless there was consent on both sides," the king's advisor, Puyam Tomcha, told The Independent.

He added: "To the common man, the king is a God. He cannot work, he can only do religious work."

The announcement by the state government to seize the palace in Imphal marks the latest twist in the slow but steady demise of the Ningthouja dynasty, said to be descendants of Pakhanbga, the serpent king. The independent state of Manipur, located alongside Burma and one of the "seven sister" states of the Indian north-east, was the very last of the independent princely states to be conquered by the colonial British government.

The Anglo-Manipur War of 1891, triggered by the beheading of half-a-dozen British officers, resulted in a major operation to defeat the sovereign state and appoint a monarch from a minor line of the lineage. The Kangla palace, which had been occupied for centuries, was taken over by British troops and an alternative palace, Sana Konung, was built instead.

In 1947, when India gained independence, Manipur agreed to be part of a union but it was not until 1949 when the then maharajah was forced, some say at gun-point, to sign-away Manipur's sovereignty.

Since 1971, when prime minister Indira Gandhi scrapped the payments to the 600-plus princely states, the royal family of Manipur has, like many other erstwhile royals, has struggled by as best it can, selling off portions of its estate in order to survive.

One Manipuri writer and historian who asked not to be identified, said public opinion about Mr Sanajaob was probably divided, but that a number of people supported him. "He is the customary head of the laws of the land," he said.

For more than three decades, Manipur has been rocked by separatist violence and an attendant crack-down by security forces that has turned it into a heavily militarised place. Unemployment is high, as is drug addiction and HIV infection. In protest at the cycle of violence, one Manipuri woman, Irom Sharmila, has embarked on what has become the world's longest hunger-strike.

Mr Sanajaob's fast is unlikely to last anywhere near as long as her's. The royal advisor, Mr Tomcha said the king would be discussing his strategy over the next day or two.

A spokesman for the government of Manipur on Tuesday failed to respond to inquiries. However, M Okendro Singh, who is also the education minister, told the Times News Network that the government had thought at length on how to renovate the palace "ensure retention of the feel of the glorious era when Manipur existed as an independent nation".

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