No matter who wins, the fires will be far from extinguished


On January 21, 2022, Manipur marked the fiftieth anniversary of becoming a “full-fledged” state of India. She was born in the pride displayed by an enveloping India. And as this gateway state, the fulcrum of India’s so-called Act East Policy, nears a two-day assembly general election in late February and early March, it remains trapped by hubris.

Manipur’s infrastructure remains in ruins. Corruption remains endemic, as government data repeatedly and ironically indicates. It remains awash in nationalist dye, both Manipuri and Indian. His politically leveraged ethnic stew is the subject of political and practical nightmares and has proven hostile to peace. Manipur remains home to the largest number of rebel groups in India: active, ceasefire, or that particular state endemic to Manipur: suspension of operations.

This is the story of an entirely avoidable malaise. Recent history is key to understanding this.

When Manipur was officially declared a state of India in 1972, it put Manipuri nationalists on edge mainly due to the attitude and optics of this announcement.

Aesthetic publicity posters for the inauguration showed classic, if somewhat stereotypical, majority Meitei symbols. A Manipuri dancer of the Raas Leela form was the centerpiece. This late 18th century form is attributed to the court of a Meitei king, Bhagya Chandra, who ruled a few decades after Hinduism was mandated as the state religion by King Pamheiba.

The dancer in the poster was accompanied by much older symbols. The mythical Kangla-sha, a creature with the body of a lion and the head of a dragon, sacred to the Meitei heritage, and the ancient practice of Sanamahi – which Pamheiba sought to demolish – was to his right. To the left of the dancer was coiled Pakhangba, the serpent-dragon at the center of the Meitei origin myth for religion and royalty.

The caption read: ‘Manipur. A new state inaugurated by Prime Minister Smt. Indira Gandhi.’

While perfect for a prime minister fresh off a stunning military victory with the surrender of a huge contingent of Pakistani armed forces in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, the poster was deaf in two important ways.

First, it described the centrality of the Meitei culture and people to the exclusion of all other peoples in the state – the Naga, Kuki and Zomi citizens of Manipur who today make up about 40% of the population and whose land occupy the nine rolling hills. tenths of the state. (This demography explains why the hills have 20 seats in the Manipur Assembly against 40 for the plains – a bias which has also resulted, as the hill tribes claim, in a majority development of the plains-Meitei and the securitization of the government jobs.)

And secondly, the “new state” announced by the Indian government and its influence was in fact an old state. The name Manipur dates from the time of the formal entry of Hinduism, which predates both the British Indian Empire and the spread of the East India Company across the subcontinent. Manipur existed as a kingdom and confederation whose origin dates back to the first centuries of the common era and was over time known by several names – Kangleipak ​​being the most important.

The Kingdom of Manipur chained to complete British control after the Anglo-Manipur War of 1891. On October 15, 1949, Manipur officially merged with India, an act of the last king of Manipur, Bodhchandra, who signed a treaty of accession with India on September 21 this year. Dates and events remain controversial. They are interpreted by Meitei nationalists as Bodhchandra having been pressured by a newly independent India with a gold-else signing ceremony at Shillong, where the royal family of Manipur had a residence.

Bodhchandra signed what is known as the Manipur Merger Agreement with Vice President Menon, who at the time was Secretary in the Ministry of States and, alongside Vallabhbhai Patel, responsible for integrating – sometimes with shameless pressure – the several hundred kingdoms and “princely states” in Indian rule.

Manipur remained a relatively minor state within the union for several years. In 1956, Manipur was renamed a Union Territory, governed directly by the central government under the direct administrative control of the Ministry of Home Affairs before becoming a state in 1972 with all federal privileges and powers – on paper, in any case.

“It is our wish,” Indira Gandhi announced somewhat imperiously at the official inauguration, “that Manipur may shine like a jewel and bestow beauty on the whole of India.”

Indira had even been pressured into making this concession because by then the nationalist resistance in Manipuri – the forerunner of many later rebel groups – had broken out. Statehood, dignity and federal autonomy were the main demands.

I came across this recap of the time from a digital archive of Manipur police records:

“In 1969-1970 Manipur’s demand for statehood became violent. A black flag demonstration was also held in front of Indian Prime Minister Smt. Indira Gandhi on September 23, 1969 during her visit to Imphal. The police had to open fire to control the crowd. During this period, subversive revolutionary groups also came out with different names. The police struggled to control the activities of the Meitei State Committee and the RGM (Revolutionary Manipur Government), in addition to managing the agitation for statehood by different political parties and students…”

Red tape followed even after 1972, and continued even after Indira’s electoral ousting in 1977 during the Janata coalition years, and resumed after her electoral return to lead India in 1980. was also the year AFSPA, or the Armed Forces (Special Forces Powers) Act, 1958 was extended to Manipur.

Each successive central government, led by Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party – with a chaotic coalition interlude in 1996-1998 – has perpetuated Manipur’s systemic collapse. They also supported the application of AFSPA, which offers the Indian Army and its auxiliaries like Assam Rifles both impunity and immunity in the conduct of searches and operations. The Manipur Police, an elite commando force that morphed into a commando during Okram Ibobi Singh’s three-term congressional term that ended in March 2017, also took advantage of this impunity and immunity. repeatedly questioned. and censure by the Supreme Court.

The impact of such administration and the perpetuation of an economy of conflict which has remained preferable to an economy of peace, has led to immense collateral damage, both physical and emotional, on the citizens of Manipur for decades. decades. Manipur’s myriad rebel groups naturally took advantage of this – and in this they were also aided by hardline elements of Bangladesh’s security establishment, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s. rebels retain the support of Myanmar’s military and establishment. Indeed, all rebel groups in Manipur have, or continue to find, refuge across the border in Myanmar, in exchange for money and odd jobs for the Tatmadaw, the establishment of Myanmar’s armed forces.

Several of these groups have since 2012 merged into CorCom, or Coordination Committee. The United National Liberation Front (UNLF), the Revolutionary People’s Front (RPF’s armed branch is the PLA or People’s Liberation Army), Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL) form the trinity in this grouping. CorCom, as collective and individual entities, has allied itself with the Socialist National Council of Nagaland – Khaplang or NSCN (K) and the Asom United Liberation Front (independent) to carry out operations against the army and the Indian paramilitaries. They too caused numerous civilian casualties.

Since 2015, matters have been further complicated by the high resolution announcement of the Naga Peace Accord in August of the same year in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This agreement remains far from being concluded. A key part of the reason is that any peace agreement will necessarily include the native lands of the Naga in Manipur, leading to the lingering suspicion among non-Nagas that territory or administrative control will be ceded. Another reason: any accommodation towards the Nagas could be interpreted as a downfall by the BJP’s main vote bank in Manipur, the Meitei majority. This clouded the electoral calculus in 2017. It is still part of the electoral calculus in 2022.

Manipur’s outgoing chief minister, BJP’s Nongthombam Biren Singh – a former Ibobi protege who switched sides in late 2016 – inherited and perpetuated this collective malaise in many ways. Indeed, it added a new, aggressively nationalist dimension. This ranges from a crackdown on critics, to his public assertion in January from AFSPA, to an attempt – which has infuriated many Manipuris – to try to link Manipur to Indian mythology, particularly the Mahabharata.

Regardless of who or what political entity will rule the state from mid-March 2022, Manipur’s agonies will be far from over, its fires far from extinguished.

Sudeep Chakravarti is an author, analyst, historian and commentator. He has written extensively on North East India, regional affairs, conflict and conflict resolution, and the intersection of democracy and development. His latest book is The Eastern Gate: War and Peace in Nagaland, Manipur and India’s Far East (published by Simon and Schuster India in January 2022).

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