Manipur in History: Reflection on the forbidden polity

Yenning *

 The Shillong Accord 1949
The Shillong Accord 1949.
Warning: These images CANNOT be reproduced in any form or size without written permission from the RKCS Gallery

"In the great galaxy of heroes in the imperishable roll of honour there were, there are now and there will never cease to be, beloved Manipuri names testifying to the fact that our people would rather die unsullied than outlive the disgrace of surrender to any measure that may work prejudicial to the preservation of the separate entity of the State, while fostering the good and cordial relations with the Dominion of India. I am confident that the Members of the Assembly will please see that this fair record is never broken" (Resistance 26 September 1978).
The inaugural speech by Maharaja Bodhchandra at the first session of Manipur Assembly on 18th October 1948.

Looking back in the mist of history, one cannot resist but argue that trajectory of modern political history of Manipur could have taken a different direction, had the Government of India (GoI) recognised and respected this sensibility and political aspiration.

The above statement of the Maharaja of Manipur, who then had become a mere Constitutional head, clearly manifests the need for preserving the "separate entity of the State" while fostering "good and cordial relations with the Dominion of India". The historicity of many of the issues and movements that besieged contemporary Manipur can be traced back to India's lack of sensibility and recognition towards the unique political history and development in Manipur.

The unfolding circumstances leading to 'contested' merger of Manipur into the Dominion of India in 1949 had served as the foundation stone for many of the issues such as insurgency, ethnic polarization, influx of illegal migrants, hill-valley divide etc. that besiege Manipur today.

At this crucial juncture of our history where our existence, history and civilization are under threat, it is crucial to revisit the past for history is the beacon that guides the present generation towards a bright future; and it is the very basis of identity of a people and a Nation.

Yenning in this column shall highlight crucial political developments of modern Manipur that encompass conduct of election, formation of State Assembly and subsequent merger of Manipur into the Dominion of India.

Manipur: An Asiatic Power

It is a historically established fact that Manipur had been an Asiatic State/Power situated at a great strategic location nestling between Southeast Asia and British India. Manipur, being located in the strategic area, had played important roles in the geo-politics of the region from historical times. The kingdom of Manipur was recognised by the Ahom, Takhel, Ava (modern Burma) and the British Empire, the lone super power during the period. Manipur had treaty relations with the British Empire.

The Anglo-Manipur Treaty of 1762, the Treaty of Yandaboo, February 28, 1826, which British signed with Burma recognised the sovereignty of Manipur, the Anglo-Manipur Treaty of 1833 (also called Jiri Treaty) and the Kabaw valley Treaty of 1834 that transferred Kabaw valley to Burma in return for 500 siccas it had to pay annually to Manipur. The Barrak Treaty of 1874 was another treaty that granted international recognition to the territorial status of Manipur.

These treaties are important international political instruments that gave international recognition to the existence of a political entity called Manipur and her territorial boundary. It is evident from these treaties and agreements that Manipur had evolved as a modern State much earlier and its boundary and territory had been recognised internationally.

After Manipur's defeat at the hands of the British Indian Empire during the Anglo-Manipur war of 1891, British did not annex Manipur but rather kept it under a system of indirect rule. British suzerainty, however, was exercised over important matters concerning trade and commerce, security and external defence etc. keeping much of the autonomy in the internal matters with the Maharaja or the Monarch.

It may be mentioned that the system of monarchy was not abolished by the British after the Anglo-Manipur War of 1891. Manipur was ruled through the political institution of Manipur State Durbar and its writ ran throughout the territory of Manipur. Historians and political experts were of the view that Manipur achieved independence from the British colonial rule on 14th August, 1947.

Manipur (1945-1949) : State and Political Trajectory

The years from 19451949 can be regarded as the most critical, challenging and active period in the 20th century politics of Manipur whose legacies were reinforced time and again in the contemporary Manipur politics. The enormous changes brought by the end of the Second World War led the Indian National Congress (INC) to take keen interest in the political activities of the Princely States.

The immediate attention of politically conscious middle class in Manipur was focused on the demand for responsible Government elected through universal adult franchise. The democratization of polity was the central focus of the movement in Manipur.

The momentum of political activities in the State increased when Irabot was allowed to return to Manipur in the early part of 1945 on the ground of his mother- in-law's illness. In Manipur, Irabot tried to mobilise the masses by reorganizing the mass fronts such as Mahila Sanmelani, Praja Sanmelani, Praja Mandal, Krishi Sanmelani and Chhatra (Student) Federation.

In April 1946, a joint meeting of Nikhil Manipuri Mahasabha and Praja Mandal, was held at Wangkhei. In the meeting, a strong resolution was taken protesting against Prof. Coupland's plan of forming an independent North-Eastern Frontier Province or Crown Colony. It was argued that the proposal was an act of continuation of imperialism and pleaded to make Manipur a free Nation within a free India (Hijam Irabot 1946).

Meanwhile the task of the 16 member-Constituent Assembly consisting of representatives from the Nagas, Kukis, Meitei and Meitei-Pangal was completed in July 1947. The recommendation of the Committee visualised elections with full adult franchise to a Legislative Assembly, with no required qualification for voting either in terms of land ownership or education.

The Manipur Constitution Act 1947 in the words of John Parratt (2005) "was a remarkably enlightened and liberal piece of legislation. It provided, for the first time in the Indian sub-continent, for a legislature to be elected by full adult franchise under a Constitutional monarchy' (p 100). The Constitution (1947) visualised for an elected Legislative Assembly having a term of three years duration.

The composition of the Assembly was proportionally divided to accommodate the plural character of Manipur. Under it, 30 seats were meant for general (Manipur Valley), 18 seats for the hills and 3 seats for the Muslim communities. Besides, there was provision for two seats representing education and commerce respectively, which were to be elected by a limited franchise (The MCA 1947).

As envisaged in the Manipur Constitution Act of 1947, election to the Manipur (State) Assembly began on 11th June and continued till 27th July, 1948. The election produced a hung Assembly as no single party could get absolute or simple majority.

In the election, the Krishak Sabha won 6 seats, the Manipur State Congress won 14 seats, the Praja Santi won 12 seats and 18 seats were won by the representatives of hill area of Manipur. A coalition Government led by Praja Santi, which was supported by the Krishak Sabha and the Hill representatives came into existence.

Maharaj Bodhchandra formally inaugurated the first ever democratically elected Assembly on 18 October 1948 with MK Priyobarta Singh as the Chief Minister. Mr TC Tiangkham, a representative from Kuki community, became the first Speaker. Among the Ministers were Mr Bob Khating, a Naga representative, Md Alimuddin, a Meitei Pangal representative etc.

Many historians opined that mandate of the people of Manipur was for a separate united Manipur with treaty relations with the Dominion of India (Instrument of Accession and the Stand Still Agreement). Maharaja Bodhchandra of Manipur signed the Instrument of Accession and Stand Still Agreement on 11 August 1947, four days prior to the declaration of India's independence.

It can be mentioned that the Instrument of Accession executed by the Rulers provided for accession of the Indian States to the Dominion of India on three subjects, namely Defence, External Affairs and Communications, in the main. Standstill Agreement covered eighteen subjects. With the inauguration of elected Assembly, the Maharaja's power also got transferred to the Assembly.

In short, the real power lies with the Assembly and Maharaja Bodhchandra became the nominal/Constitutional head of the State. Unfortunately, Government of India completely disregarded such democratic political transformation and development in Manipur. After days of hectic diplomatic persuasion, threat and intimidation, Maharaja Bodhchandra was made to sign the 'Merger Agreement' on 21st September, 1949 (Anandamohan, Shillong 1949 ) bypassing the elected Assembly, that embodied people's mandate and the real power to do so.

In the light of the above distinctive political history and status of Manipur, GoI has historical and Constitutional responsibility to protect and promote the unity and integrity of Manipur.

It is the Constitutional responsibility of the Central Government to preserve the historical and geo-political entity of Manipur, which had existed for centuries. This distinctive political status is the historical basis of the demand for protection and preservation of the geo-political entity of Manipur.

* Yenning wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was webcasted on August 27 2023 .

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