TODAY -

Sovereignty Struggles in Northeast India: Where are They Going?
- Part 1 -
Speech delivered at Arambam Somorendra Memorial Lecture

M. S. Prabhakara *



The write up published here is the paper presented by M. S. Prabhakara on the Sixth Arambam Somorendra Singh Memorial Lecture held in Imphal on June 10, 2011

Modestly Immodest Disclaimers?

I feel greatly honoured by the invitation of the Arambam Somorendra Trust to give the Sixth Arambam Somorendra Singh Memorial Lecture today , the eleventh anniversary of his death. I am also overwhelmed by a feeling of inadequacy . What little I know about Arambam Somorendra was gathered well after his death. Indeed, when he was killed I was not even in India. I have since then come to know that he was a distinguished playwright, a social worker and the founder general secretary of the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), one of the several organisations in Manipur engaged in an armed struggle to secure sovereignty and independence for Manipur .

I know a little bit more about Manipur, but not much, though I have visited the state many times. The first time was in 1967 when Manipur was still a Union Territory . I was then teaching at Guwahati University . I made the visit just out of curiosity about this 'remote' corner of the country , a fascination with the 'geographical and cultural edge of the periphery' that has persisted wherever I have lived. I have some vivid memories of that visit that was confined to Imphal. One, tasting for the first time an unusual dish marked on a board outside a small eatery in the Bazaar, I cannot recall which part.

More memorable was meeting Maharajkumar Priyabrata Singh at his home. The suggestion that I should get him to talk to me for understanding the history and culture of Manipur was made by Smt. Devjani Chaliah / Meenakshi Basu, who I had come to know through a common friend, a colleague of her husband in the Indian Railways. In those days a person teaching at Guwahati University commanded some respect not merely in Assam but in the rest of the Northeast.

If I remember right, Professor Gangmumei took me to his house, or I might have gone on my own. I remember the gracious courtesy , as also the large number of dogs and puppies having a free run of the large room where we sat and talked. During that conversation he spoke mostly of matters historical, of the ceding of the fertile Kabaw Valley to Burma and, with greater feeling of Molcham village whose people had been virtually cut off from the rest of Manipur though they were very much Indian citizens. He spoke glowingly of the fertile soil and the fine quality rice grown in Kabaw Valley . He even of fered to take me there, warning that I should be prepared for a hard trek. He said nothing about himself, nothing about the circumstances of the annexation of Manipur . I did not then know that he could have told me a lot more.

After I gave up teaching in December 1975, became a professional journalist and joined The Hindu in June 1983, I have made several long visits and travelled a bit outside Imphal. Yet, I have always had a sense of inadequacy , of being an interloper, when writing on Manipur . Let me quote (and let me also confess, I have shamelessly plagiarised from my writings while writing this essay) from one of my more recent articles, "Insurgencies in Manipur: Politics and Ideology" ( The Hindu , 28 January , 2010):

Every time one travels to Manipur, one returns humbled. This has been the case since my first visit to Manipur in the late 1960s, long before becoming a journalist. Active insurgency was not even on the horizon then though some resentment against 'India' was evident. Between 1983 and mid-1994 (when I moved to Johannesburg, South Africa) I visited the state at lease once every year more than once during some years. In the last eight years [that is, between 2002 and 2010] I have returned four [actually five] times. The feelings of inadequacy to confront and understand the complex situation in Manipur, the whys and wherefores of the insurgencies (the plural is advisedly used), the resilience of the ordinary people whose amazing creative energies thrive in the midst of all the pain and violence manifest in every walk of life, has only increased.

I am not posturing with false modesty; there are rational grounds for this sense of inadequacy . I stopped reporting on a day to day basis on developments in what for the sake of convenience we may call 'Northeast India' in June 1994, when I moved to Johannesburg as The Hindu 's correspondent in South and Southern Africa following the election of Nelson Mandela as the first democratically elected President of South Africa. For the next eight years I did not live in NE India, though I did visit Guwahati briefly on holiday thrice during this period.

My return to Guwahati in April 2002 also marked my formal retirement form The Hindu, which I had joined in July 1983 as its correspondent in Guwahati with the responsibility covering Assam and the neighbouring four states and two Union territories in the region, all of which in the heyday of 'regional nationalism' used to be projected as the Seven Sisters, bound together with a supposed commonality of history , culture and above all memories posited by the ideologues of that perspective as contrary to, indeed opposed to, the 'pan-Indian' history , culture and memories.

As some friends in this audience may perhaps know , I was born and grew up in Kolara, a small district town in what at the time of my birth in 1936 the princely state of Mysore, now Karnataka. My home language is Kannada. Between 1962 and 2010 I lived in Guwahati barring two breaks of eight years each. Though, due to circumstances partly of my own thoughtless making and partly not in my control, I had to move in March last year to Kolara, to the old house by father built way back in 1939, even now I feel more at home in Guwahati, my home on and off for forty eight years, and other parts of this region than anywhere else, barring perhaps Bombay , Johannesburg and Cape Town where too I lived for several years.

One' s heart is where one' s passions are engaged. During this period, I have made many friends, and also some enemies, in this region, for making enemies is the true sign of acculturation and absorption. I have also tried to study and understand the political, social and cultural environment and milieu of this region, in particular the interlinked issues of identity assertions, separatism, autonomy , sovereignty , culminating in insurgency movements, all inseparable from the history of the land and the memories of its people. However, I remain committed not so much to the Indian State, which is after all a mere geographical construct, but to the ides of a genuinely democratic India of a variety of pluralist, contrary and dissenting perspectives.

My only identity is that of an Indian, in an inclusive and the broadest sense of the term. It is within that framework that I have tried to understand the sovereignty struggles in the region and the issues that animate them. To put the point without any ambiguity , I am a sympathetic student of these struggles trying to learn; I am not a partisan. I do not want my inclusive Indian-ness to be diminished in any manner, Nor do I want to live in an India where my fellow Indians too feel diminished, as is undoubtedly the case with many people in the region who do feel, due to various historical circumstances so diminished, who cannot with the same confidence (or it is arrogance?) assert that they are Indians.

When I arrived in Guwahati in January 1962 to join the Guwahati University , I did not know Assamese or any other language spoken in NE India. Though I acquired a working knowledge of Assamese towards the end of my fist stint in Guwahati (January 1962- December 1975) and that knowledge has slightly improved over the years, I still have only a 'working knowledge', a euphemism that conceals the reality of ignorance of the language. To some extent, as is the case with many who have Assamese, I can follow a bit of Bangla. But of the other numerous languages spoken in this region I know nothing. This is certainly the case with Manipuri, under whatever nomenclature.

I have thus the most superficial journalistic understanding of current events and developments in this state gathered from English language newspapers published from Imphal, Guwahati and Calcutta; some historical background gained from literature published in English, and, above all, from conversations with friends some of them going back to my GU days. Of the complex history and culture and memories of the state and the people that are in some cases not commonly shared by all the people, the milieu that my audience instinctively knows, I know less than nothing. More mortifying to me is the fact that in my active days as a reporter, I could not negotiate my way even in Imphal without the company and assistance of friends.

When I travelled outside Imphal, I was totally at sea, a mere metaphor in this land locked state, without some friend to give tongue to me, in every sense of the term. Since I am going to speak on sovereignty struggles in the region including in Manipur, I thought I would place on record these serious impediments that have affected my understanding and analysis of what may broadly be called the Nationality Question in this region, the core issue that has given rise to these sovereignty struggles.

These struggles have been going on for long, in the case of the Naga people long before the state of Nagaland was constituted. In a historical context such struggles are not even unique to this region, Scepticism about the emerging Great Indian Nation, and anxieties about what would happen to the smaller nationalities were evident even in the so-called mainstream India whose people, like those of Manipur, had actively participated in the freedom movement led by Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress Party .

I propose to discuss these struggles in the context of some recent developments since April 2002, when I returned to Guwahati after an eight year absence. This is because these struggles have taken a qualitatively different form, especially in their tactics, in their reading of the wider correlation of forces nationally , in the context of the growing consolidation of what is officially characterised as 'left wing extremism' (LWE) and internationally , in the context of the 'dissolution of the Soviet Union (1990-91), and the subsequent disintegration of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia after a prolonged civil war (1991-95), beginning of the declaration of independence by three constituent republics of the Federation, Slovenia, Macedonia and Croatia and, above all, the developments in Montenegro in May 2006. It is not accidental that one of the few places in India where the referendum in Montenegro and its subsequent declaration of independence were discussed at a public meeting was this very city , Imphal.

To be continued....


* M. S. Prabhakara wrote this article , which was publised at Imphal Times
This article was webcasted on May 25 , 2018.



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