TODAY -

Sovereignty Struggles in Northeast India: Where are They Going?
- Part 2 -
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

Varieties of Separatism

Though any reporting, or even serious academic discussion, of the problems of separatism in post-independence India concentrates almost exclusively on this phenomenon in this region, beginning with the Naga insur gency , the fact is that the sense of diminishment within the larger context of the Indian state that I referred to earlier is not unique to the people of this region. One of the oldest separatist movements in the country , going well back into the years before independence, is the so-called Dravidian movement in the old Madras Presidency , superficially seeming to be inspired by anti-Brahmin, anti-Hindi and anti 'North India' sentiments but with profound economic and cultural dimensions.

This has had many offshoots. Apart from the DMK, and the AIADMK, the two 'natural parties' of government in Tamilnadu, there are several other clones of this mindset occupying significant political space in the state even now . Separatism itself may now be a dormant sentiment, but even at the suggestion of a possible threat to Tamil 'national' interests like the dispute over the sharing of the waters of the Kaveri, for instance, these assert themselves forcing even the so-called national parties to follow suit.

Though the Dravidian parties in India have more or less given up on these aspirations in terms of practical politics, the vast Tamil Diaspora with rich material and intellectual resources still cherishes fantasies of some kind of a sovereign Tamil state that would include the Tamil speaking areas of Sri Lanka, this despite the fact that Sri Lankan Tamils have a low opinion of the Indian Tamils, disdaining them as contaminated by their larger non-Tamil environment, and so less Tamil than themselves.

Indeed, anxieties about what would happen to the smaller nationalities vis a vis the numerically larger nationalities inhabiting the so-called Presidency provinces, what Professor Amalendu Guha has theorised as the complex linkages and rivalries between Great Nationalism and Little Nationalism in India, revolving round religion, language and caste, and 'ethnicity' were present even during colonial times. These acquired a peculiar urgency in the years before the transfer of power .

Those two seminal, and also self-serving, accounts by V. P. Menon, The Transfer of Power in India and The Story of the Integration of Indian States, provide numerous instances of such anxieties and rivalries, as also of the manoeuvres and plain skulduggery that accompanied the integration of states into what was designed to be a homogenous Indian nation state. People of Manipur (and Tripura) would know too well the sordid details. Menon' s book devotes just a paragraph to the 'sorting out' of the problems of Manipur and Tripura in Shillong.

Anxieties about 'fissiparous tendencies' was not a post-independence phenomenon; they were a constant in the political deliberations of the Congress party and used to feature even in the most rambling of Jawaharlal Nehru' s speeches. One need not go into the well-known challenges posed to the process of integration of states in the princely states of Hyderabad, Jammu and Kashmir and Junagad, all of which tried to be independent countries.

One of them, J&K, still festers. The case of the so-called Khalistan is part of the living memory , though it was the creation of the ruling party itself to weaken an entrenched regional political formation in Punjab. However, there were other, probably equally serious moves to secure independence from many other princely states as well during the integration process, especially in the various kingdoms and principalities of what was then known as Rajputana. The case of Jodhpur state with a common border to Pakistan is well-known.

Indeed, such sovereignty aspirations were present in the most unlikely cases like the State of Travancore in Deep South. It is not as if these arose only because of the unique and volatile conditions that prevailed in the period between the formal granting of independence, the lapse of paramountcy , and the complex process of negotiating with these princely states their position in the new Indian state. Indeed, though not as straightforward sovereignty aspirations, such sentiments about the loss of real or imagined sovereignty in a feudal past, that was oppressive and is moreover dead and gone, are even now dormant in some cases.

Nostalgia for the past comes easily , especially when one is certain that the past cannot come back. For instance, since my return to Karnataka a little over a year ago I have sometimes sensed a corresponding sense of alienation vis-- vis 'India', a resentment against the dominant presence of non-Kannadigas in Bangalore, the capital of Karnataka, in crucial sectors of the economy (like the IT sector) among the 'indigene' of Karnataka.

One has only to read the Kannada language press and even more so, the numerous Kannada blogs, to sense such sentiments. While the special circumstances relating to Manipur 's annexation/accession to the Union of India did not obtain in the princely state of Mysore, in some perspectives the 'core' of the State of Karnataka, there does exist a peculiar and quite unjustified nostalgia about the state' s feudal past, even its colonial past as in Bangalore where the word 'colonial' especially in relation to urban architecture has acquired connotations of beauty , romance, elegance, even chivalry , though when this past is stretched farther back to cover the regimes of Hyder Ali and Tippu Sultan, also feudal, other passions and anxieties prevail. In other words, separatist aspirations from within the component units of a constituted state are not unique.

Nation State: Questions, questions

India is a Sovereign Nation State. But what is a Nation State? What is Sovereignty? The traditional, one may say, the classic view, of the Sovereign Nation State is derived from a series of treaties that ended the Thirty Years War (1618-48) involving what later came to be known as Prussia and still later as Germany but in mid seventeenth century were actually various principalities and city states in Middle Europe. As taught in elementary textbooks of political science, the two prerequisites for a sovereign nation state are a clearly defined territory, with clearly defined borders, in short territoriality, and an uncompromised sovereign status, which is the founding principle of the related concept, nationalism, prefigured in the expression, nation state.

The India into which I was born might have been a nation state of the imaginations of the Indian people, though 'the Indian people' may be seen in some perspectives as another imagined construct; but it was clearly not sovereign. Even its territoriality, one may argue, was also the result of colonial occupation, conquest and expansionist ambitions and security concerns over a 'border' that the colonial rulers themselves did not clearly know and kept on pushing outwards, though there was an 'inherent territoriality' of Indian nationalist imagination derived from myths, literature and memories. India of my birth included what eleven years later became Pakistan. Had I been born a year earlier, that India of my birth would have included Burma/Myanmar.

Pakistan that diminished the territoriality of Indian imagination and harsh colonial reality was, less than a quarter century of its birth, was also a Nation State. But its territoriality too was diminished by the emergence of another Nation State, Bangladesh. Put simply, nation states, like every other material and intellectual artefacts are constructs of the human history and endeavour, and of imagination, and also some cunning initiatives.

Nation states are real, reflecting the memories of the past, real or imagined is immaterial, of the living realities of the present and the hopes and aspirations and, in many cases, the aggressive ambitions about the future. They are also, as argued by Benedict Anderson, imagined communities that are not the less real for being constructs of human imagination. Indeed, some Indian organisations still carry maps of 'India' in their offices whose territory, clearly going beyond the imaginations of theorists of states as essentially imagined communities, includes not merely the modern states of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh but also Burma/Myanmar, Sri Lanka and even Afghanistan.

There is nothing surprising about the elasticity of these human constructs, nor about their imaginations and aspirations. After all, what are now, or till very recently, the stable borders of sovereign states of Europe came to be recognised so only in 1871, with the consolidation of the German state under Bismarck. And we all know what happened to that German State less than fifty years after Bismarck's death under a tyrant who imagined that his Reich would last a thousand years. We also know what is happening to other nation states in Europe and elsewhere that were viewed as inviolable, permanently cast in stone.

As a student of literature, I have found that the 'truth of fiction' sometimes tells me more than the more conventional historical narratives. Eric Ambler's "The Schirmer Inheritance" (1953) spans a period of over a century of violent European history, from the times of Napoleon Bonaparte to Hitler and the Second World War. One of its themes is the plasticity and elasticity of the concept of nationhood at a time when it was not unusual for a person born in a principality or city state of Middle Europe enlisting to fight for another principality or city state at war with his 'native state'.

Nationalism was an unknown concept; there were no 'national armies' but only 'professional' soldiers, a euphemism for mercenaries, who were ready to enlist in the 'enemy' army, ready to die but hoping to survive, make money and return to hearth and home.

Eric Ambler's novel narrates the story of Franz Schirmer, rather of two Franz Schirmers, both Sergeants. The first, a dragoon of the principality of Ansbach, had enlisted in the Prussian army. He deserts after the Battle of Eylau in 1806 when the army was retreating in defeat. After many vicissitudes that include changing his name slightly towards the end of his life, an initiative central to the tension of the narrative, he survives and prospers and dies in his bed in the fullness of years.

The second Schirmer is his great-great-grandson, also named Franz. Born in 1917, he enlists in the German army at the age of eighteen, and after being wounded assigned to non-combatant duties that he finds demeaning. Finally, while the beaten German army is retreating from Macedonia in October 1944 by when it was clear that Hitler had lost the war, the truck convoy he is leading is blasted by a landmine planted by Communist partisans, is gravely wounded and left for dead.

He is not dead, fights for his life, survives and even thrives as a bandit in the Macedonian mountains straddling Yugoslavia, Albania and Greece, with a fantastically opportunistic cover he has created for himself as a revolutionary, still fighting away for liberating Greece from the new home grown fascists of Greece.

To be continued....


* M. S. Prabhakara wrote this article , which was publised at Imphal Times
This article was webcasted on May 30 , 2018.



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