Bir Bikram,the Greatest among the great kings of Tripura – By Tapas Dey


History and how it is shaped have been variously defined by scholars down the annals of history though an authentic consensus on the issue is still elusive. Marxists with their accent on collectivism attribute the making of history to masses, a huge anonymous entity that remain for them the eternal fountainhead of energy and inspiration . However, Karl Marx himself made a significant observation on history in his celebrated treatise 'The eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon'.

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According to Marx 'men make their own history , but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already , given and transmitted from the past '. The observation continues to provoke lively and fierce debates as the rival school of scholars and historians ascribe the making of history to powerful individuals who with their personality and charisma can impose their will on the people and lead them.

Maharaja Bir Bikram giving the title Bharat Bhaskar to Tagore 1940

Had there been no Jesus Christ , would Christianity have come into being or had there been no prophet Mohammed , would Islam have made such an impact on the course of world history ? These questions remain unanswered by proponents of Marxist concept of history. Be that as it may, we are here concerned with the fact that history has always been an embattled arena, subject to conflicting interpretations depending on ideological propensities of scholars.

This loaded preface may seem an exercise in redundancy in the context of what this article is all about but , nevertheless, a fine thread bonds the preface with the core of the article. Tripura , a political bastion of the Marxists over the past three decades, has been singularly indifferent to its history and heritage . Marxism, as it was been practiced since the days of Lenin in erstwhile Soviet Russia, has been a totalitarian ideology that seeks to control every aspect of human life and thinking . Even though the limitations of this ideology now lie exposed, those schooled in hardcore Marxist political culture in Tripura remain steeped in the   hallucination that Tripura's history had commenced from the inception of 'Jana Shiksha Samity', a literacy movement launched in 1945 by late Marxist stalwart and former chief minister Dasharath Deb .

Maharaja Bir Bikram With Maharani Kanchan prabha devi

Such aberrations may be tolerable in a democratic polity but at a time when the state prepares to celebrate the centenary of Tripura's most enlightened king and greatest moderniser this Marxist intellectual baggage becomes unbearable.

Maharaja Bir Bikram Kishore Manikya (1908-1947) had been born a year before his illustrious grandfather , king Radhakishore Manikya (1896-1909) died by an accident . Bir Bikram Kishore's early life under the benign care of his father and king Birendra Kishore Manikya was not significantly different from his illustrious predecessors. Even in his boyhood Bir Bikram had shown promises of future greatness with his innovative ideas, drive and initiative and an inherited love for his subjects. Even according to contemporaries linked with the royal family Bir Bikram had exhibited his talents for ideas on architecture and engineering designs when still a boy. Even as the young prince was preparing himself for the challenges of the future, tragedy struck in the form of the death of king Birendra Kishore who had pioneered the tea industry in the state by allowing a number of British companies to go for planting and had also laid the foundation of a civil service besides cotinuing efforts to spread education among his subjects.

Shortly after monarchical responsibilities had thrust upon his broad shoulders in 1923 following the death of Birendra Kishore , young and dynamic Bir Bikram appeared in full glory to his subjects. The year was 1924 when Agartala was a very sparsely populated capital town exposed on all four sides to paddy fields , thickly wooded uplands , lakes and marshes . Depredations of large herds of elephants on human habitation and paddy fields were regular events and life used to be paralyzed after dusk. On one such night when people were shivering with fear in homes, the noise of a motor vehicle in which stood a gun-wielding , handsome man accompanied by followers with torches in hand . The man standing on the vehicle fired a few rounds from his gun and shouted to assure his subjects of protection from danger. The few people who had dared to come out of home immediately recognized their new and young king Bir Bikram kishore Manikya.

This small incident was however a significant pointer only as the king came into his own after his formal coronation in the year 1926. Having donned the mantle of king, Bir Bikram made a point of touring the length and breadth of his kingdom including his zamindari in Chakla Roshanabad encompassing the entire Comilla district and part of Noakhali and Sylhet districts of Bangladesh to see for himself the condition of his subjects as well as to make a proper assessment of the steps needed to be initiated to improve their lot. A series of measures followed and the results started showing in better services of the royal government to the people. The litany of major events that marked Bir Bikram's eventful twenty four year rule (1923-1947) has figured and will continue to figure in academic histories of Tripura. There are certain highly  positive aspects of his rule which this article will focus on .

The Marxist parties and their leaders in Tripura always criticize the state's royal family for failure to promote and protect the interests of their tribal subjects. How valid and legitimate is the criticism? Traditionally the Manikya dynasty rulers of Tripura had encouraged settlement of non-tribals including professionals like priests, babers , washermen and farmers within the state since the days of Ratna Manikya (1464-1468) in order to introduce plainland cultivation which would yield higher revenue . The second purpose was to wean the tribal subjects away from primitive shifting cultivation as well as to pave the way for their development through close interaction and contact with relatively advanced non-tribals. This well-intentioned attempt taken at a time when historical realities were altogether different has been subjected to grossest possible misinterpretation.

As a far-sighted ruler and visionary king Bir Bikram Kishore Manikya had foreseen that unchecked migration and settlement of non-tribals within Tripura might spell trouble in future and the interests of the backward tribals needed to be protected. Keeping this in view he had set aside about large tracts of land in the hilly areas as reserved for his indigenous tribal subjects in three installments between 1931 and 1945. That the post-independence rulers of the state failed to protect the land from encroachment and interests of the tribals is an altogether different issue. He had sensed the upcoming changes in the political wind and took steps to democratize the administration. It is a recorded fact that it was at  Bir Bikram's initiative that the first elected municipal council had been formed at Agartala . In the pre-independence days king Bir Bikram was in an unenviable position: as a native king he could not antagonize the British rulers of the country but in his heart of hearts he was sympathetic to the freedom fighters . He therefore turned a blind eye to freedom fighters and revolutionaries taking refuge in his exclusive domain in Tripura but, nevertheless, Pandit Nehru in a letter had cast aspersion that the royal government was ill-treating freedom fighters. The charge was totally baseless and the king refuted it . Bir Bikram had realized well in advance that India would be partitioned and decided that his royal domain would join the Indian union and that is why he had singed the appointment of barrister Girija Shankar Guha as Tripura's representative to the constituent assembly on April 28 1947 on nineteen days before he was to expire prematurely at the young age of thirty nine.

Apart from this, Bir Bikram was the first king of Tripura to go on long tours in Europe and America thrice during his lifetime between 1931 and 1939. In the course of these sojourns he came in contact with political heavyweights of the two continents including the king and queen of England , Adolf Hitler , Benito Mussolini ,The King of England , the King of Spain and Franklin Roosevelt in USA and was treated with great honour his position deserved . In the course of his tours  he had gathered invaluable knowledge and experience which he subsequently put into effect while planning his capital Agartala with a brilliant lay-out. Even now the heart of Agartala remains beautifully planned though the king's untimely death in 1947 and the emergence of gigantic socio-economic problems in the post-partition days considerably unsettled the plan .

King Bir Bikram Kishore Manikya's name will perennially shine brightly in Tripura's history because of his just and equitable treatment of all sections of his subjects. He had protected the interests of his tribal subjects by reserving but what he did for his non-tribal subjects is unique in history. In the wake of riots at Raipura near Dhaka in 1941 thousands of terror stricken Hindus sought shelter in Tripura . King Bir Bikram Kishore Manikya provided them not only relief in the form of food and cash doles but resettled them within his state . By this single act of magnanimity Bir Bikram earned universal respect and kudos across India . But his greatest achievement lay in his contribution to higher education in Tripura . Agartala's Maharaja Bir Bikram College , built on sprawling and picturesque landscape in southeaster part of the town and personally designed by him, is a towering testimony to Bir Bikram's commitment to education in the state.

King Bir Bikram was the torch-bearer of a great dynasty that had always extended liberal patronage to art and men of art . Following in the footsteps of his three illustrious ancestors from his great grand father Bir Chandra Manikya (1863-1896) Bir Bikram liberally helped poet Rabindranath Tagore and his institution 'Shanti Niketan' with annual financial grants including special sanctions for setting up a hospital and a library . The king had ordered proper observance of the poet's eightieth birth day through statewide programmes and the entire state celebrated the birth day . Only a few days ahead of the poet's death king Bir Bikram conferred the honorific title of 'Bharat Bhaskar' on Tagore in a special function held at Shanti Niketan and the poet also liberally acknowledged the debt of love and affection he had received from four successive kings of Tripura . In his centenary year king Bir Bikram will be remembered for all his great achievements but the people of the state who continue to reel under an ethnic divide will recall his magnanimous role as a great catalyst for unity among all sections of his subject.

Tapas Dey 

Tapas Dey is a former MLA and a well known public figure and journalist  from Tripura. The views in the article belong to the writer and TNT-The Northeast Today may not necessarily subscribe to the same views