Sovereignty Struggles in Northeast India: Where are They Going?
- Part 3 -
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

Here is a passage from the opening pages of this novel:

The relations between this unit (The dragoons of Ansbach) and the rest of the Prussian army was absurd, but in the middle Europe of the period not unusually so. Not many years before, and well within the memories of the older soldiers in it, the regiment had been the only mounted force in the independent principality of Ansbach, and had taken its oaths of allegiance to the ruling Margrave. Then Ansbach had fallen upon evil times and the last Margrave had sold his land and his people to the King of Prussia. Fresh oaths of allegiance had had to be sworn.

Yet their new lord had eventually proved as fickle as the old. In the year before Eylau the Dragoons had experienced a further change of status. The province of Ansbach had been ceded by the Prussians to Bavaria. As Bavaria was an ally of Napoleon, this meant that, strictly speaking, the Ansbachers should be fighting against the Prussians, not beside them. However, the Dragoons were themselves as indifferent to the anomaly they constituted as they were to the cause for which they fought.

The conception of nationality meant little to them. They were professional soldiers in the eighteenth century meaning of the term. If they had marched and fought and suffered and died for two days and a night, it was neither for love of the Prussians nor from hatred of Napoleon; it was because they had been trained to do so, because they hoped for the spoils of victory, and because they feared the consequences of disobedience. [Emphasis added]

I conclude this section with a brief account of two other narratives of Indian nationalism, one from Bengal and the other from Karnataka. Vande Mataram, from Bankimchandra Chattopadhya's novel, "Ananda Math" (1882), is India's National Song. It was, and even now is, sung regularly at sessions of the Indian National Congress. As is well-known, when the issue of free India's National Anthem was discussed in the Constituent Assembly, a strong case was made for adopting Vande Mataram as National Anthem, though many Muslims were averse to the song because of its blatant idolatry which, for Islam, is an anathema.

In the event, "Jana Gana Mana" by Rabindranath Thakur was adopted as the National Anthem while Vande Mataram was given an 'equivalent position' (whatever it means) as India's National Song.

Normally only the first two stanzas of Vande Mataram are sung. When I was very young, in the years before independence, we used to sing the full song, for by singing the song we were defying foreign rule, though technically as citizens of the princely state of Mysore we were only under indirect foreign rule.

However, even at that age I was puzzled by these lines that follow immediately after the first two stanzas:
Sapta koti kantha kalakala ninada karale
Dwisapta koti bhujaidruta kharakarawale
Ka bole ma tumi abale
Bahubala dhaarineem namami tarineem
Ripudalavarineem maataram

What puzzled that seven year old boy was the reference to the 'seven crore voices' crying in unison in celebration of Goddess Durga who symbolises the Nation that was, is and will forever be India, and the fourteen crore hands bearing arms in defence of that Mother. I knew even then that India's population was substantially higher than seven crore, for I also knew the Kannada poem, makkalivarenamma makkalivarenamma muvattu muru koti, [Are these the thirty three crore children I have given birth to…] by the highly regarded Kannada poet, Dattatreya Ramachandra Bendre, and included in gari (feather), a collection of his poems published in 1932.

Bendre too, in the words cited, invokes Bharata Mata, who plaintively wonders why despite giving birth to thirty three crore children she is still enslaved. In the Vande Mataram narrative, to the extent I have been able to understand, Ma Durga, symbolising the Indian nation, has about seven crore devotees to do her bidding, bear arms in their fourteen crore hands for her defence.

Around the time the poem was written, the population of Bengal, east and west, and perhaps including in the Bengali nationalist narrative those inhabiting territories further to the east, would be about seven crore. In other words, the Bengali nationalist narrative is the Indian nationalist narrative. In contrast, the Indian nationalist imagination as found expression of a Kannada poet living in Dharwad, then and to some extent even now a small town in North Karnataka envisaged an India that was inclusive in every sense of the word, thirty three crore being approximately the population of India when the poem was written. I leave it to the audience to make what inferences it wishes.

I end this section with its over-solemn discussions involving very learned sounding terms like nationalist imagination and narrative with a bit of comic relief encapsulated in the two photographs above. The one at the top is from the website of a perfervidly patriotic website with explicit Hindutva orientation, [], celebrating some Indian triumph, perhaps an Indian victory over Pakistan in a cricket match, perhaps some other real or imagined Indian victory over issues more serious than Pakistan.

What matters is not the context, but the image, for the image is all. The one below is the famous photograph of the planting of the US flag atop Mount Suribachiyama, the highest point on Iwo Jima, a Japanese island in West Pacific ocean, after it was taken possession of by the United States Marines during the Second World War, also a triumphal image, but the triumph is real.

The celebration of patriotic fervour in the simulated first photograph where the Indian tricolour appropriated a triumph to which it is not entitled raises interesting questions about the nature and direction of extreme nationalism, and its implication not merely for the smaller nationalities that may feel oppressed, but even for the very triumphalism of the kind represented by both the pictures, one fake and ersatz, the other all too real.

Such triumphalism creates its own victims. What happened after the end of the civil war in Yugoslavia to Serbia, the largest republic of the former Federal Republic, when Croatia, Macedonia and Slovenia declared their independence, may or may not have relevance to the variety of struggles going on in this region, their aspirations covering a wide spectrum from demands for autonomy or when such autonomy already exists shifting gears and seeking independence.

The inescapable fact in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was that the Great National Chauvinism of Serbia had consistently diminished the smaller nationalities of the Federal Republic and had alienated them. This combined with other factors like foreign intervention and also, one should admit, the insular Little National Chauvinism of the smaller republics like Croatia led to the unilateral declarations of independence, civil war, open and covert foreign interventions, and in the end the destruction of a sense of nationhood that had served Yugoslavia well, even to the extent of enabling Tito (not a Serbian but a Croatian) to weld a Yugoslav nationalism in opposition to the perceived oppression of Great Russian Nationalism that could not be eliminated even by Stalin in the Soviet Union.

Ideas Do Not Die, Ever

I return in this section to two points made in the previous section where I have tried to deal with some events and developments of contemporary history (that many in my audience would know more about) to amplify some other features of what I call varieties of separatism. The first is that separatist sentiments, real or opportunistically manipulated, are sometimes used as a bargaining tactic in areas where the objective reality provides no rationale for such separatism. In such areas separatism dies away sooner or later.

The second point, that the primary cause for the unravelling of the Yugoslav state was the overweening Serb chauvinism that led inescapably to the barely dormant chauvinisms of individual little nationalisms. This happened despite the fact that the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia formally comprised six Socialist republics and two autonomous provinces, a clear recognition that the Yugoslav state at least in its constitutional provisions was truly federal in letter and spirit, had recognised the reality of the complex ethnic mix of its population and had mandated the required constitutional provisions.

However, this constitutional recognition of the uniqueness of the identities of the various constituent autonomous republics and autonomous provinces meant less than nothing in practice when confronted by the national chauvinism of the largest and most powerful of the nationalities, the Serbs. One may see some corresponding similarities in the way Centre-State relations have worked, or have not worked, in India.

Interestingly, and to the extent I remember, the Chapter on Centre-State relations in the Indian Constitution does not even use the term, federal and derivatives thereof, in any of its articles, though commentators and judicial pronouncements on its provisions use the term freely.

In other words, the decisive contribution to the unravelling and disintegration of the Federal Republic came from within Yugoslavia, from the dominant Serbian nationalism that, like other great nationalisms, degenerated to Serb chauvinism. The process did not stop in 1991; it went on and eventually forced Montenegro which had not seceded in 1991 but had remained as the Republic of Serbia and Montenegro to walk away in 2006.

One wonders if these seemingly obscure developments in an area so removed from India have some relevance for process of nationality formations in India, and the problems that this is encountering as much in Assam as in other parts of this region.

To be continued....

* M. S. Prabhakara wrote this article , which was publised at Imphal Times
This article was webcasted on June 04 , 2018.

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