Sambhudhan Phonglo: Dimasa Freedom Fighter Who Raised an Army for War against British
Sambhudhan Phonglo! Not many, except from the Dimasa tribe, have heard about him. We know how Subash Chandra Bose established the Azad Hind Fauz and raised a huge army of 60,000 soldiers in foreign lands. His objective was to involve in war against the British and free India from British rule. Do you know Sambhudhan Phonglo raised a huge army in the Dimasa territory of the Northeast for war against the British? He was driven by the same objective – drive out the British by involving in war. It is an irony that we know nothing about this brave warrior of Bharat Mata from the northeast! Likewise, the saga of a thousand and more warriors from the east to west, north to south, is in oblivion.
The British established their supremacy in parts of the northeastern states after the Treaty of Yandaboo signed in 1826 with Burma. As per the treaty, the British occupied Assam, Manipur, Cachar and the Jaintia Hills district. They annexed the Dimasa territory in 1832 and 1854 in two phases. The Dimasa territory included parts of Cachar and Nagaon in Assam, ravines of the Jatinga valley, lower part of Karbi Anglong district, parts of Dimapur of Nagaland and Jiribam in Manipur. Initially, the British appointed a Junior Political Officer with headquarters at Asalu to handle the region. Later, in 1866, they sliced away parts of the Dimasa territory and brought them under Nagaon and Naga Hills. This was part of the divide and rule policy of the British to weaken the natives and facilitate enmity between tribes. Sambhudhan Phonglo became aware of this policy of the British, which culminated in his firm resolution to fight for the freedom of the motherland until death.
Sambhudhan Phonglo was born into a Dimasa Kachari tribal family to Khasaidi and Deprondao Phonglo at Maibang in 1850. Though his exact date of birth isn’t on record, he was said to have been born at dawn on a Falgooni Purnima, which may correspond to March or April according to the Gregorian calendar. He was the eldest amongst five siblings. Dimasa people, also called Dimasa Kachari, are one of the Kachari – a group of ethnic tribes from Assam. Sambhudhan Phonglo has been described as well-built, tall, fair, and handsome. He was married to Nasadi after he shifted base to another Dimasa village called Semdikhor.
According to Dimasa mythology, the Dimasa Kacharis trace their origin as the children of the Earthquake God Bangla Raja and divine bird Arikhidima. They suffered from severe drought in their ancestral land sixty thousand lunar months ago and migrated to the foothills of the Himalayas and the now so-called Dimasa territory. They are one of the oldest inhabitants of the region. Few historians are of the opinion that the ‘Kiratas’ mentioned in the Mahabharata are actually Kacharis of the Northeast. The Kacharis are also termed descendants of Ghatotkacha, the son of Pandava prince Bhim and Hidimbi.
The Dimasa Kachari kings ruled for a long period with one of their capitals in Dimapur. Few kings worth mentioning of different Dimasa kingdoms are Virochana, Nirbhay Narayan, Harischandra II, Krishnachandra Narayan Hasnusa, and the list goes on. Kachari Rajbari fort in Dimapur, which is in ruins, has stood the ravages of time. This fort and more historical relics prove that the Dimasa Kacharis were experts in brick making dating back to several hundred years. Another existing historical monument is the Baroduwar Dimasa Kachari Palace in Khaspur in Cachar. Today, the Dimasas of Cachar who have adopted Hinduism, are called Barmans and this tribal group from Assam who adopted Vaishnavism are called Hajong Kachari. Other Kachari tribes worth mentioning are Sonowal Kachari, Bodo, Kirata Kachari, Saraniya Kachari, Thengal Kachari, Mech Kachari, and more. Their common ancestral kingdom was at Dimapur.
The British introduced a set of new revenue rules and taxation policy in the Dimasa territory. They did not vest any administrative power to the Dimasa nobility. The people found it difficult to cope up with the new regulations and new administrative system of the British. Moreover, the colonial forces looted and drained the resources of the people forcefully in the name of tax. Most Dimasa Kacharis lost their lands to the British. Besides, the British forcefully employed the tribals in large numbers as porters for various manual jobs and hard labor. According to one historical account, Captain Francis Jenkins and R B Pemberton with a team of 83 Britishers employed 1400 porters during a survey in the North Cachar hills. Those who failed to carry out their duties with devotion were punished. Many of the men were abducted and forced to work as labors. Such was the brutality of the British!
Here is a Dimasa Kachari folk song from the mid 1800s:
“What a disgraceful incident has happened in our village / the chicks are captivating the mighty Eagles / The white men are gradually occupying our land and river / Will nobody be born in our golden land that will save our country? Will our legendary heroes Demalu, Halodao, Rangadao Degadao and Delai Mailai not reincarnate?”
There were no resistance against the British occupation of the Dimasa territory and their exploitation of the tribal folks until Sambhudhan Phonglo raised his voice. Under his leadership, the Dimasa Kacharis of the North Cachar Hills started preparing for war against the British. Sambhudhan Phonglo moved from place to place, visited almost the entire Dimasa territory and inspired the folks to rise in revolt against British and free the region from their rule. He also approached people from neighboring regions and motivated them to rise up in rebellion.
Sambhudhan Phonglosa could not witness the terrible condition of the Dimasa Kacharis under British rule. He felt restless. He saw his people lose their freedom to the British. Why support the British consolidate their position? Why lose freedom? Why embrace slavery? Was it worthwhile to live in peace under foreign rule? These questions arose in his mind. Losing freedom was embracing slavery! He felt it was easy to endure hardships but impossible to endure slavery. He felt the British had only annexed their lands but not the heart of the people. He felt confident that united, the Dimasa Kacharis could drive away the British.
And then started his tour from one village to another in the Dimasa territory, especially the North Cachar Hills! Sambhudhan Phonglosa gave lectures to the villagers who assembled in groups and motivated them to rise up in rebellion. Within a short span of time, he was able to recruit a great number of the Dimasa Kachari youth and formed a revolutionary force. He appointed Mann Singha as his principal adviser, and Molongthong as subordinate commander. He himself started training them in batches in the art of warfare including Guerrilla warfare techniques.
Do you know Sambhudhan Phonglosa was an ardent devotee of Mahadev? Though his residence was at Semdikhor in the Mahur valley, he chose Maibang, which was once the capital of the Dimasa Kachari Kingdom, as his base for training the youth. It was 1881. Maibang, located in the now Dima Hasao disctrict of Assam, has several historical monuments of the Dimasa Kachari kings, dating from the 12th century. Sambhudhan Phonglosa established a training center at Maibang.
The Dimasa Kachari people came forward to help for the establishment of the training centre. They donated for the production of weaponry. And then the training started. Sambhudhan Phonglosa started training the youth in batches with each batch consisting around 40 Dimasa Kacharis.
The British came to know about Sambhudhan’s activities. The British Sub-Divisional Officer at Gunjung issued orders to Sambhudhan to appear before his court. Such was the strong influence of the brave warrior amongst his people that they supported him and resisted his visit. They paid no heed to the official order. The British then sent an arrest warrant to arrest Sambhudhan Phonglosa but in vain. Sambhudhan stood defiant.
CA Soppit was then the SDO of North Cachar and Major Boyd the Deputy Commissioner of Silchar. On January 15, 1882 Boyd along with CA Soppit and 40 Kuki forces reached Maibang to arrest Sambhudhan Phonglosa and his men. Phonglosa knew beforehand that the British would arrive at Maibang with an army and about their intended operation. Hence, he asked the villagers to move out of the village until the British would return back. The British found the place deserted!
The same day, i.e on January 15, 1882, Sambhudhan Phonglosa attacked the British Sub-divisional headquarters at Gunjung. The British forces stationed there fled without giving any resistance. Phonglosa and his men were able to kill three of the British forces during the attack and wounded many. Phonglosa then set the British headquarter on fire.
After this successful attack of the British post at Gunjung, Sambhudhan Phonglosa advanced with his men towards Maibang to fight against the British. The Dimasa Kachari troops involved in war dance with the accompaniment of maduli (a drum) as they marched speedily forward through the jungle towards their next target attack. They reached Maibang.
A war between the Dimasa Kachari troops and the British forces ensued at Maibang. Major Boyd received serious injuries during the fight. Several Dimasa soldiers attained martyrdom, as their tribal weaponry were no match to the advanced British artillery. An wounded Sambhudhan Phonglosa and the remaining tribal warriors retreated into the jungle and waited near the Sainyader hill for the British troops to follow them. They strategized to attack them in the hill stretch. More Dimasa warriors joined Phonglosa at the hill. But the British troops retreated, as Major Boyd was seriously wounded. Boyd succumbed to his injuries at Silchar, fifteen days later, i.e. on January 30, 1882.
Sambhudhan Phonglosa was all the more determined to wage war against the British. But for his mission to be successful, he needed more people and weaponry. Hence, he strategized to seek help from the Tripura king. He sent his chief adviser Mann Singha to Tripura. The British somehow came to know about this. They arrested Mann Singha in Tripura. He was brought to Silchar and sentenced to life imprisonment in Silchar jail. The brave warrior went on a hunger strike inside the jail, refusing to take even water from the British. He attained martyrdom in Silchar jail. Phonglosa continued training the youth and waited for an opportune moment to attack the British.
On 12 February 1883, Sambhudhan Phonglosa died of an injury. Without a leader, the Dimasa Kacharis could not give shape to teir leader’s objective after this.
Salute to Sambhudhan Phonglosa and the brave Dimasa Kachari warriors who sacrificed their lives for the freedom of the motherland. Jai Hind!
1. History of the Dimasas: from the earliest times to 1896 AD, edited by SK Barpujari