Sunday, January 24, 2010

Manipur’s History of Struggle: Statehood and the Dubious Republic

Thirty-eight years of being a state (sic. Republic) within the Union of India is a history filled with human rights violation, socio-political decadence and continuous struggle. It’s a long and tortuous journey. In this chequered history, the Government of Manipur celebrated the 38th Statehood Day within the garrison of Manipur Rifles (1st Battalion compound) on January 21. The celebration, as contrary to the spirit of celebrations itself, was marked by absence of any public participation. Again the State would be celebrating the country’s Republic Day on January 26 amidst the tightest of security arrangement with minimal public attendance. Spectacular military/police march-past, colourful cultural shows, costly tableaus and all kinds of extravaganzas will fail to draw any crowd to the Republic Day celebrations as had happened since a decade or so ago. Then, would not it be plausible to question why the people of Manipur do not feel any desire to commemorate the day when India became a republic. Is it on account of the boycott calls given by various insurgent outfits year after year? Or is it something else?
Citizens of any republic would certainly celebrate the day their country became a republic with all their hearts out without holding back an iota of their spirit of nationalism. Unfortunately, any sense of jubilation on becoming a republic is missing in this part of India. For Manipur and other parts of North East region, something is seriously amiss in the Republic of India. People staying away from a national function like the Republic Day could indicate certain socio-political implications. Two implications are quite obvious. First, sense of alienation still runs deep among the people of Manipur. And second, Republic Day is no occasion for celebration.
Like wise, January 21, the day Manipur attained statehood or popularly known as the Statehood Day is no longer a day of public celebration. The State Government seems to be aware of this fact. Perhaps, that was why the Government opted the well garrisoned MR Compound for celebrating the Statehood Day instead of a public place like the Pologround. The aloofness of the general public from celebrating the Statehood Day is surprising and interesting as well, when one reminisces the long struggle of the people of Manipur to achieve this political status against the much unwilling Republic of India. After all, the history of Manipur is a history of perpetual struggle.
History of Struggles
The history of Manipur is replete with struggles. When Manipur was a sovereign kingdom, the people of Manipur had to struggle hard. Battles after battles were fought to safeguard the kingdom from foreign invaders. They toiled hard, sweated and sacrificed their blood to protect the sovereignty of Manipur. Brave and resilient as they were, they fought and defeated waves after waves of invading armies until the decisive Battle of Khongjom in 1891 excepting the brief period of Seven Years’ Devastation. Until 1891 the struggle of the Manipuri nation was largely military in nature. However, after it came under the British suzerainty, the struggle of the Manipuri nation assumed extra socio-politico-economic dimensions. This was manifested in the Kuki Rebellion of 1917–1919, the Nupi Lans of (1904 and 1939), Jadonang’s resistance movement against the British and the sweeping Leftist socio-political movement of Hijam Irabot.
Contemporary history of Manipur which began in the post-Merger era is not different. The controversial Merger Agreement and subsequent political developments saw seeds of dissent, pushing the Manipuri nation to a long and continuous journey of mass struggle. Following the Merger Agreement, the Manipur Legislative Assembly elected under its own constitution was summarily dismissed and the country reduced to the status of a Part C State which was nothing more than a Chief Commissioner’s fiefdom. Again, in a deliberate act of humiliating the nation, Kangla was placed under the occupation of the Garhwal Rifles. In 1956, Manipur was designated a Union Territory under the direct governance of the President of India through his appointee. An elected Territorial Council took office the following year. Its powers were severely limited to rural areas outside Imphal, and soon there were calls for it to be abolished. Disappointment of the people is encapsulated in the words of John Parratt:
"Such political subjection to Delhi could hardly be expected to satisfy a State which had managed its own affairs for centuries and had been the first on the sub-continent to hold democratic elections" (Wounded Land–Politics and Identity in Modern Manipur)
The year 1960 saw the beginning of the Manipuri people’s long and arduous journey of struggle for restoration of democratic government in the State. By April, protest demonstrations were visible in different parts of the State, particularly at Imphal. The Government of India responded to the heightened civil movements with brute military force. Para-military forces were called in from outside the State. In addition to the State police, more and more numbers of para-military forces like Assam Rifles, East Frontier Rifles and Bihar Police were deployed against the democratic protesters. Warrants for arrest were issued against leaders of the civil movement, forcing many of them to go underground. Possibly, the State Government learnt and inherited this legacy of suppressing civil movements with military forces from the Government of India.
For more than a decade the people of Manipur had to struggle to achieve full-fledged Statehood. The vehement protest demonstration that greeted Indira Gandhi, then elected Prime Minister of India, at Imphal on September 23, 1969 was an epoch-making event. The protesters were baton charged most brutally, sparking off retaliatory violence in which vehicles were burnt and several demonstrators and police were injured. What added fuel to the raging fire was the fact that Nagaland, formed only after the end of British colonial era, was granted statehood much earlier in 1963 whereas Manipur despite being a sovereign kingdom for centuries was kept relegated to the position of a Union Territory. It was only after a long struggle that Manipur was finally granted statehood (most reluctantly!) on January 21, 1972. The inexplicable reluctance of New Delhi to grant statehood to Manipur produced long lasting imprints. One dangerous reading of the general populace was that New Delhi could hear sounds of guns booming in the Naga Hills but they had no ears for the democratic protest movements continuing for years in Manipur. This implies that New Delhi cannot claim innocence for the violence raging at present in Manipur and the whole of North East.
Dubious Republic
The question now is why the people of Manipur feel so dull about celebrating the Statehood Day, the status which was achieved after a long struggle and much sacrifice. Why this objective, cherished so much half a century back, is no more alluring today? If one goes by the long struggle made by the people, certainly the people of Manipur would have been celebrating the Statehood Day with much fanfare. But this is not the case. Our reading is that people realised they were grievously mistaken in believing that statehood could fulfil certain collective aspirations of the people. For Manipur, statehood has turned out to be an alluring diamond mine without any diamond. The journey of Manipur people’s struggle did not end with attainment of statehood. We are all living witnesses to this fact.
Not long after achieving statehood, we witnessed a sustained campaign mostly by students, for inclusion of Manipuri language in the 8th Schedule. This was followed by intense protest demonstrations for removal of Assam Rifles from Kangla, only to be taken over by the persistent struggle for repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA). This particular act and the manner State responded to civil protest movement made the republic of India highly questionable. The republic is dubious for it is unacceptable for a Republic to empower its military to shoot and kill its own citizens on mere suspicions with full immunity, and again to detain democratic protesters under National security Act including those aged wrinkled-faced stooping women because they had the moral strength to raise a voice of dissent. Again the Republic of India is dubious because its laws and acts are not uniform. What is applicable to North East and Jammu and Kashmir is not applicable to other parts of India including those Naxal infested regions.
To any keen observer, it is quite obvious that the struggle of Manipuri people shifted its focus from political aspirations to human rights protection since the early 1980’s. Notorious as it is, AFSPA also gave birth to martyrs like Pebam Chittaranjan and a living legend like Irom Sharmila Chanu. Chittaranjan questioned the very foundation and character of the Indian Republic by sacrificing his young life on the 57th Independence Day of India i.e. August 15, 2004. The struggle for human rights was periodically supercharged by the acts of excesses committed by the State. Chittaranjan enacted the most courageous form of protest by self-immolating himself during the height of anti-AFSPA movement following the rape and brutal murder of a maiden, Thangjam Manorama, by the Indian military forces.
Manipur’s struggle continues
The struggle continues with Sharmila already into the 10th year of her fast unto death campaign against the infamous AFSPA. The relay hunger strike launched in solidarity to Sharmila’s campaign has also completed one year. Apart from the continuing anti-AFSPA struggle, another stream of protest struggle emerged in the last couple of years, the new one directed against fake encounters. Pre-occupied with all these struggles, the people of Manipur, perhaps do not have time to celebrate the Statehood Day or the Republic Day.
The article was posted on The Sangai Express on Sunday, January 24, 2010

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