Maharaj Kumar Priyobarta Singh was born on 17 February 1911 in Imphal. Described as the most popular prince of Manipur in the 20th century, he was fondly called ‘Sanayaima’ by his father, Maharaja Churachand Singh. I recall him as an impressive personality with a vast knowledge of various issues of Manipur and the North East Region.
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An alumnus of Rajkumar College, Raipur, St Pleasant Mount School, England, and Allahabad University, he was appointed as a member of Manipur State Durbar. Selected for emergency King’s Commission in the Indian Army, after training at Indian Military Academy, he was posted to the 2nd Battalion, The Assam Regiment. Restrained from frontline fighting during World War II owing to his royal status, the Maharaj Kumar was involved in line of communication and operational logistics duties in the North East and Eastern India and deployed on the Burma front for a short period. After the war, MK Priyobarta Singh led the Assam Regiment contingent during the World War II Victory Parade held in New Delhi in 1945.
On 14 Aug 1947, he became Manipur’s first Chief Minister at the age of 37. Some of Maharaj Kumar’s achievements during his tenure as the Chief Minister were the establishment of Manipur State Bank, Manipur Rifles, Maharaj Kumari Dhanamanjuri (DM) College, Regional Medical College, Manipur Spinning Mill, State Kala Academy and Manipur University. Among the many achievements he also prevailed upon his elder brother, the Maharaja of Manipur to ensure that all tribes/castes, including Yaithibis / Harijans are treated equally in the eyes of the law and administration.
Maharaj Kumar’s efforts to bring about Hill-Valley unity were phenomenal. Among many friends the Maharaj Kumar mentioned to me, one very close was Major Ranenglao ‘Bob’ Khathing, 3rd Battalion, The Assam Regiment, who joined the Interim Government of Manipur as Minister of Hill Affairs in October 1947. They remained lifelong friends and ensured the Hill – Valley unity.
Even in his eighties and nineties MKPB, as he was also popularly known, would meet large numbers of ex-servicemen from Manipur and the Assam Regiment in particular. During the Naga-Kuki clashes in 1992-1994, I met ex-servicemen from both Naga and Kuki communities, who had come from the remote corners to visit the Maharaj Kumar with great hope and appealed to him for bringing peace and calm in the region. Deeply concerned about the events and the wellbeing of soldiers and veterans of the Army, Assam Rifles and the Assam Regiment particularly, he narrated to me about his involvement in conflict resolution among various tribes in the hills.
He headed the Manipur Cultural Integration Conference (MCIC), a philanthropic organization aimed to bring about greater understanding between various tribes in the hills and between the hills and valley population. Having trekked all over Ukhrul, Senapati, Tamenglong, Chandel and Churachandpur districts, staying with his friends, he genuinely understood the issues and was a committed practitioner of social integration in the true sense. On 17 February 2002, five days after his 91st birthday, MKPB died at his home in Palace Compound, Imphal.