Pluralism, Democracy and Ethnic Relations in Manipur: A Critique
- Part 2 -

Prof. Gangumei Kamei *

The write up re-produce here is an excerpt from the lecture delivered by late Prof. Gangumei Kamei on the Arambam Somorendra Memorial Lecture on June 10, 2006 under the tittle "Pluralism, Democracy and Ethnic Relations in Manipur: A Critique"


Manipur passes through three types of polity - monarchy (feudalism), colonialism and democracy. Democracy coincided with the attainment of freedom from the British in 1947. Manipur experience with democracy had three phases:

1. The first phase was the experiment with the constitutional monarchy (1947-49) under the Manipur State Constitution Act, 1941.

2. 'The second phase was the pest-merger period when the Indian Constitution was introduced followed by a long spell of central rule. Thereafter, a limited democratic institution in the form of Union Territorial Council (1957) and Territorial Assembly (1963) was introduced.

3. The third phase was the introduction of full statehood in 1972 and its concomitant paraphernalia like, the full-fledged Legislative Assembly, the cabinet form of government and a judiciary.

The participation of the people in the democratic process started during the interim period prior to the attainment of the Independence. The passage of the Manipur State Constitution Act of 1947 heralded a new era of democracy. This constitution envisaged a constitutional monarchy for Manipur. This constitution in the articles 44-55 laid down the fundamental rights and duties of the citizens. The subjects of the kingdom were guaranteed the status of free citizen.

I quote Article 52, which states, "There shall be guaranteed to all people, Justice social, economic and political equality of status and opportunity before the law, freedom of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship, vocation, association and action, subject to law and public morality"

The Constitution provided for a 53-member legislative Assembly elected on adult franchise, a council of ministers headed by a chief minister appointed by the Maharaja and a Chief Court. Election was held in 1946 for the Assembly. A council of ministers was appointed. And democracy, for the first time in the history of Manipur, started functioning.

By a coerced Agreement imposed on Maharaja Bodh Chandra Singh, Manipur State was merged into the Dominion of India on l5 October, 1949. The merger put the constitutional experiment to an abrupt end. Manipur was placed under the category of Part 'C' state and was administered by a Chief Commissioner on behalf of the Government of India. The state was transformed into a Union Territory in 1957 and granted full statehood in 1972.

A limited form of democracy which was resented by the people, both pro-merger and anti-merger was introduced. It was an arbitrary action on the part of the Government of India. India adopted her constitution and was declared a Republic. A full democratic system was introduced in India. However, Manipur was given a step-motherly treatment. Elections were held in 1952 to send representative to the Parliament. An Electoral College of 30 members was also elected. The status of Manipur was downgraded to that of a Union Territory with a powerless Territorial (1957) which was transformed to the Territorial Assembly in 1968.

The long control rule of 23 years (l949-l972) was condemned by the people as condemned by the people as extension of the colonial rule, instead of the Political Agent or Dewan, there was the Chief Commissioner (later on Lt Governors). Manipur's Legislative Assembly was abolished. There was a prolonged agitation for the grant of statehood to Manipur. There was resentment and bitterness coupled with a sense of betrayal in the minds of the people.

Denial of the democratic rights produced a feeling of deprivation among the people. They resorted to different kinds of rebellions and insurgency; this led to the emergence of ethnic nationalism, which was a challenge and threat to Indian nationalism. We have to note that the Legi6lativ Assembly of 1948, the Electoral College of 1952, Territorial Council (1957) and Territorial Assembly (1963) provided the experience to the people in the democratic and electoral process prior to the emergence of full statehood.

Yet the leaders of the Government of India entertained a notion that the people of Manipur were not mature enough for democracy and Manipur was not viable as a state. Therefore, Manipur experience with Indian democracy from 1952-1971, produced resentment and alienation among the people. The electoral process provided the opportunity for the establishment of political parties, both national and local, including ethnic based political parties. The aspirations and the interests of the people were to be promoted and projected by these parties.

The statehood in Manipur since 1972 saw the full working of the legislature, the cabinet form of government, the judiciary of a state of the Indian Republic. People's representatives had become the rulers of the land. People had high hopes and expectations from statehood. However, statehood was followed by frequent defection of the legislators which created instability. The eight Assembly elections held between 1972 and 2002 did not produce absolute majority for any party. Ministries were constituted by cobbling a majority of legislators. No ministry had ever completed a full term before the passage of the amended Anti Defection Law of 2003.

Democracy hurled up new leadership from amongst the majority Meiteis, minority tribals and Muslims. The people's representatives are in the saddle of government. Luckily, Manipur had a free press and an independent judiciary which strengthened the roots of democracy. There were various civil societies which acted as pressure groups on specific issues, compelling the government to accept the people's demand. The pressure groups which sometimes created headache for the government ultimately strengthened the working of democracy.

However, one notices that democracy, democratic process and democratic values of freedom, equality and human rights are not adequate to fulfil or accommodate the aspirations of the people for development, employment, protection of their identity and their rights. It is a test for those who believe in democracy. The electoral process was sabotaged by corrupt practices, money power, muscle power, misuse of government authority, use of gun culture both by the wielders of state power and those who are opposed to the state authority. This bas weakened both the democratic system and state structure.

Moreover, the state of Manipur is a highly subsidized state. The state government is dependent on financial resources and the security provided by the Government of India. Politics have come to be more a process of capture of power through the so called democratic election, formation of ministry with a cobbled up majority, and management of power and extraction of benefits, mostly financial, for the developmental works carried out with the assistance of the Planning Commission and other ministries.

The task of government is confined to lobbying for fund in the centre and other central agencies. A successful leader in Manipur is the one who can convince the central government to give more money to the state. The huge investment of resources did not lead to development in the real sense; it created more corruption and led to the emergence of an extremely rich class of political leader, and bureaucrats who conspired to retain their position of power.

It is sad but true that the state of Manipur and its governance cannot function without the protection provided by the police and security force. Yet there is no alternative to democracy. And people now have a deep love for freedom and democracy. Democracy can solve the problems of a pluralistic state like Manipur.

Ethnic Relations

Ethnic diversity, ethnic competition, ethnic conflicts and ethnic alliance or ethnic compromise are the basic components of the ethnic relationship within a plural society. An ethnic relation was created when diverse ethnic and cultural groups willingly or through coercion or conquest, were brought together under a state. This relationship produces both positive and negative effect. And the state imposes its power, authority and resources to keep the ethnic diversity in check in order to harmonize the relationship of the plural parts.

The relationship covers both inter-ethnic and intra-ethnic relations. The greatest factor in plural society is the capacity of the state to manage the ethnic relationship social, economic and political within the body politic of the state. The recent trend is that non-state structures like the church and interfaith organizations and civil societies forward to harmonize the ethnic relationship. The state encourages the non-state groups to help manage this complex relationship.

History shows that the evolution of the state occurred in the valley of Manipur among the Meiteis, who built up chiefdom, principalities, kingdoms, nation state and even empire. In the hills, the tribes did not or could not build up state due to the lack of resources, and were confined to the establishment of the village level polity. Naturally the tribes were engaged in the intra-village and inter-village relationship among themselves, mostly hostile in nature due to the practice of head-hunting.

The inter-village and tribal solidarity did not emerge before the modern times. The tribes lived in independent village polity which was described by William McCulloch as "village republics". The loyalty of a tribesman and his world view were confined to his family, his lineage, his clan, his dormitory and his village.

With the expansion of the Meitei state into the hills of Manipur, a relationship had emerged between the Meitei State- to be more precise, the Meitei monarchy- with the hill tribes, there are traditions and historical accounts which manifest the cultural relation between the Meiteis and specific tribal groups at the clan level. Myths exist (and perhaps, they were sometimes created or invented) to show the close relation between the monarch and the individual tribal village who extended allegiance to the monarch. The political and administrative relation was created when many hill villages were conquered and brought under the political control of the kingdom of Manipur.

The writ of the monarch was imposed on the villages situated along the lines of communication and trade routes. He imposed nominal tribute over them. As R. B. Pemberton recorded, when the Meiei forces were withdrawn again after the raid, the hillmen once again returned to their free polity. It was King Garibniwaj who imposed Lallup (feudal service) in 1735 over the hill villages like Khullakpa, administrator of the village, Khunbu, owner of the village, and Lulakpa among the Naga villages. And the title of Ningthou (Chief) was discarded.

At the people to-people level, the Meitei relation with the tribes was maintained through the barter trade. Commercial relationship was institutionalized into social relation system of 'Mangai' meaning 'friendship/ relative'. A prominent tribal family always had a 'Maagai' among the Meiteis families living in the foothills or even with some families of the nobility in the capital. The Mangai relationship continued for generations.

The items of the barter trade were mainly the minor forest produces, bamboo products, boats brew out of timbers, fruits and vegetables like cotton, ginger and chilly. And they were exchanged at the markets of the foothills. In return, the plainsmen exchanged salt cakes, dry fish and cotton textiles. The barter trade created commercial relationship which was mutually beneficial and socially congenial.

The Meitei traders, including women, conducted the long distance trade with the tribesmen in the hills. The Princes took shelter in the hills whenever there was political problem in the capital. There were instances of inter-marriage, which are not many, but there was no barrier. Hinduism created a cleavage between the hill tribes and Meitei plainsmen. With the conversion of the ruling families and the people into Hinduism and the introduction of the caste system the intimate social relation between the Hindu Meitei and non-Hindu tribes underwent a great change.

Social barriers cropped up duo to caste and difference in dietary habits; the non-Hindu tribes were looked down upon by the Kshatriya Meiteis as they were outside the Hindu Varna system. The liberal social policy of the ancient Meitei Kings was abandoned and replaced by, orthodox caste-oriented attitudes towards the hill tribes. So the population of Manipur in the 18th century was grouped into two; Hindu Meiteis and non-Hindu hill tribes.

During the colonial period, the inter-ethnic relation assumed a new dimension with the Kuki influx and the settlement of that Kuki migrants in the hills of Manipur, juxtaposed to the Naga village and some early Kuki-Chin villages. The British Political Agents were entrusted by Maharaja Nar Singh and subsequently by Maharaja Sir Chandrakrit Singh to manage the affaire of the hill tribes. The Kukis were given land to establish villages under their chiefs. They were recruited into the Manipur army in a separate regiment known as the Kuki Irregulars. Land had become a bone of contention and cause of friction between the Nagas and the Kuki immigrants.

The Nagas resented the loss of their lands and fought back against the frequent raids committed by the Kukis throughout 19th century and early 20th century. The Kuki immigration added a new complexity in the ethnic diversity and created rivalry ad conflict between the two ethnic groups. The Kuki chieftainship coupled with their feudal rule were recognized by the state. The Kuki chief established their ownership of the land settled by the King or the Manipur State Darbar to them.

After the British conquest of Manipur and introduction of British rule in Manipur, the Maharaja and his Darbar were o administer the valley of Manipur only. The Political Agent and President of the Manipur State Darbar (PMSD) were to administer the hills. Ethnicity in administration created a negative impact on interrelationship of Manipur. Meiteis and tribes, divided into Naga and Kuki, emerged as distinct ethnic groups.

The Kuki rebellion of 1917 -19 and the Zeliangrong revolt of 1930-32 affected the inter-ethnic relations. The British were shocked at the Kuki refusal to serve as labour in France during World War I. The Nagas, some Kuki-Chin groups and the King of Manipur supported the British in the war against Germany. After the suppression of the Kuki rebellion, the British followed a lenient policy towards the former rebels. And as a consequence of the Kuki rebellion, administrative sub-divisions were created in the hills for more intensive administration. The Zeliangrongs revolt was suppressed with the execution of their leader Jadonang in 1931 and imprisonment of Rani Gaidinliu.

Under the democratic rule, ethnic relations took a more friendly form. Every section of the population was given the opportunity to participate in the electoral process to promote its interests. Inter-ethnic competition, which was to get protection and benefits from the colonial authorities, was transformed under democracy n friendly alliances to obtain access to the power and resources of the state. The ethnic identity continues to be an influencing factor in the democratic process of sending representatives to the legislature. The inter-ethnic relations has been harmonised by ethnic alliances due to the mutual need to share power and resources of the state.

Bureaucracy has played an important role in influencing the political leadership. Ethnic bureaucracies in most cases define the ethnic interests and advise the leadership to achieve the ethnic goals. This role is surreptitiously played by the ethnic bureaucracy, Further, ethnic relation has been influenced by the emergence of ethnic nationalism - Meitei nationalism, Naga nationalism and Kuki-Chin aspirations. Later, ethnic nationalism was projected and sponsored by the ethnic insurgents.' There were clashes of interests between the three groups. Ethnic nationalism is opposed to Indian nationalism, but each of them is opposed to each other.

Present Scenario

A rapid survey of the inter-ethnic relations shows that the areas in which the ethnic relationship operates are in the field of people's participation in the democratic process, government employment, educational institutions, trade and commerce, interfaith interaction and the massive campaign of the civil societies for peace, unity and development.

In the democratic state of Manipur, people participate in the electoral process. People join the political parties and contest elections to the legislature. The elected leaders become the members of the Legislative Assembly and Parliament who decide on the great issues of the state concerning the interest of the people. This electoral process involves the mobilization of masses of various ethnic groups; inter-ethnic relation is, in turn, influenced by people's participation in the electoral process.

The elected representatives become ministers. The participating ethnic leaders make compromise or alliance under the law and constitution to devote to the governance of the state. The relation amongst the people was greatly influenced by the objectives given by their party manifestoes, which, in most cases, harmonize their relation. Sharing of power and distribution of resources for economic development compel the elites of the ethnic groups for more involvement in the political process of the state.

The government is the greatest employer in Manipur. And government service is the most sought-after employment. Thousands of people are employed by the state. These include all sections of the population. There is a common interest among the different categories of employees and they develop solidarity and fraternity amongst themselves. The government service also covers the transfer and posting in different parts of the state - urban, rural, hill township and interior hills. These posting led to close social and economic relation among the different sections of the people.

While there us ethnic competition in the recruitment to the government services, the government employment produces positive sense of harmony and mutual benefits. The bureaucracy is the tool of the state to deal with many issues; from law and order to educational process, health care, roads and communication to rural development. So the government provides a great platform for ethnic relationship.

Educational institutions are the places where the young students of various ethnic and linguistic groups come into contact with each other. The primary and even the high schools in the hills are confined to the people of the ethnic group of the area. The schools, colleges and university in Imphal bring the students into closer contact. These institutions are the meeting place of the young minds. However, we see that the organisations of the students are segregated.

Trade and commerce continue to be a joint venture via the exchange of goods and services among the various communities of Manipur. Trade and commerce widen the ethnic relations to inter-state, national and global relations. Profit knows no boundary, caste or creed. Despite political and ethnic differences, trade is carried to the mutual benefit of all sections. Markets all over the state provide the meeting place for people of all groups as they do trade and commerce for profit and economic benefit. Imphal city, Churachandpur town and Moreh are the classic examples of the close ethnic interaction, for commerce, friendship, social harmony despite the cut-throat competition among the traders and ethnic tension.

Manipur is a secular state which does not interfere in the religious pursuit of the people. Hinduism, Islam, Christianity and other, religions have a limited relationship. Unfortunately religion, which is supposed to stand for spiritual uplift of man and the salvation of his soul, has not produced a friendly religious relationship. The proselytizing Christianity, the liberal Hinduism and exclusive Islam do not have a wide inter-faith interaction.

The liberal among the religious leaders encourage inter-religious congregation, while some denominations are more exclusive. The inter-denominal relationship among the Christian community has emerged to some extent. The inter-religious interaction is promoted by United Religion Initiatives established under the late Swami Damodar Maharaj of ISKCON. Because of the exclusivity of Christianity, the Naga-Kuki conflict occurred despite their religious commonality.

The need for harmony in ethnic relationship is greatly heightened by the need to maintain the unity of the people and integrity of Manipur. A massive campaign is continuously carried on by various civil societies to maintain pence, unity and brotherhood among the people of Manipur.

In conclusion, the shared ideals of democracy, economic interdependence, and the need for better livelihood and social coexistence will strengthen the ethnic relationship, which is bedrock of the pluralistic state of Manipur. We have learnt from history that Manipur has had great crises in her long history. But she had withstood them all. I would like to remind the learned audience that the classical political thinkers define the state as the people who are living in a definite territory (sovereignty).

I have to emphasize the role and position of the people which is the greatest factor in the making and unmaking of a state. So long as the people live unitedly in the country with full allegiance to the government, the state which is the highest form of human institutions will sustain and live on.

* Prof. Gangumei Kamei gave this speech at Arambam Somorendra Memorial Lecture on June 10, 2006 which was later published at Imphal Times
This article was posted on May 31, 2017.

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