Confluence of the Past and the Present : 'Merger Agreement' and Manipur Question

Angomcha Bimol Akoijam *

Sitting in the backyard of the Redlands Rajbari Residence, as Shri M. Anandamohan and Shri S. Gaurahari looked at the crimson skyline of Shillong, they could poignantly sense the uncanny confluence of the tidings of an impending night and the historical moment that marked the end of an era in the life of the centuries old kingdom. That evening of 21st September, 1949, they knew that their jobs as the ADC and the secretary to Maharajah Boddhachandra and the independent Manipur were coming to an end.

Less than a month after that soulful evening in Shillong, on 15th October, 1949, both did see Manipur entering a new phase in its journey as a geo-political entity. The present Manipur is part of that moment in time called the past just as that past has come to be a part of the present as well.

Merger: The Background

After 1858 Queen Victoria's Proclamation, "British Indian Empire" was broadly divided into two major parts: (a) "British India" and (b) the "Native States" (which was also referred to as "Indian States" and "Princely States"). The former was directly administered by the Crown through its representative known as the "Governor General" while the later were under their respective Rulers (known as Maharajah, Rajah, Nawab etc). Although not clearly codified as written (uniform) rules but rather as a matter of "convention", all these rulers were under the Crown that exercised as their "paramount power" and the "Governor General" acted as the Crown's representative as the "Viceroy" to these rulers.

Although Manipur effectively became a "vassal state" of the British by the beginning of the third decade of 19th century, something that was legally affirmed by the Treaty of Yandabo (1826), Manipur was not considered, or at best there was some ambivalence on its status, as a part of the "Indian States" till the Anglo-Manipur War of 1891. With the constitution of the "Chamber of Princes" in 1920, and its inauguration in 1921, the status of Manipur as a part of the "Indian States" ("Princely States" or "Native States") of the "British Indian Empire" was confirmed.

As a result of the administrative/constitutional reform in its Indian empire, following the recommendations of the Simon Commission (instituted in 1927), the Government of Indian Act 1935 was enacted. Under that Act of 1935, a federal polity was envisaged with a Central Legislature with two houses, one representatives from "British India" and the second house to be a body of representatives of the "Indian States" ("Princely States"/"Native States").

However, the Govt. of India Act 1935 was "partially implemented" as the "Princes" refused to join the proposed federation (something that were negotiated during the Round Table Conferences in London in 1930s) and thus, only the house with the representatives from "British India" was constituted following the elections held in 1937.

The Indian Independence Act was passed by the British parliament in 1947 to transfer the power to the South Asians by dividing the "British Indian Empire" into two major Dominions (States): India and Pakistan. The fate of the "Indian States" was fairly left ambivalent under this Act, albeit the Crown's suzerainty shall lapse from the 15th August (meaning midnight of 14th August).

Thus, technically speaking, the "Princely States" would become independent and sovereign states from the midnight of 14th August, 1947. That is why Lord Mountbatten and Sardar Vallabhai Patel wanted all the rulers of the "Princely States" to sign the IoA before the lapse of the British suzerainty over them as per the Indian Independence Act, 1947.

Except for Jammu and Kashmir, Junagadh and Hyderabad, all the "princely states" (including Manipur) had signed before that deadline. Although the Indian Independence Act of 1947 was rather ambivalent on the future of the "Princely States), in terms of real politik, the fate of the "Princely States" were sealed when the Viceroy almost commanded the rulers (their representatives) to join either of the two newly created Dominions (during the last session of the Chamber of Princes on 25 July, 1947).

As such, it must also be noted that some of the "native states" were mentioned as forming parts of the new administrative provinces in the Indian Independence Act.

"Integration": A Process of Constituting a Postcolonial State

"Integration" of these "Princely States" to the newly created Dominions (States: India and Pakistan) were both legal and political process. In terms of legal proceedings, it took the form of three different kinds of agreements:
(a) Standstill Agreement,
(b) Instrument of Accession, and
(c) Merger Agreement.

The first, i.e., Standstill Agreement, was to essentially maintain the hitherto existing lines of communications and administrative arrangement between "British India" and "Princely States" till new alternative arrangements came into force.

The second, i.e., Instrument of Accession(IoA), was a crucial amongst the three for it amounted to surrendering the independence and what could be called "external sovereignty", something that deprived the "Princely State" of its Right of Belligerency and power to independently enter into any treaty with a foreign country, two crucial features of an independent and sovereign states.

At one level, as the name of the agreement suggested, it was an act of "acceding" to the new state (India or Pakistan) which shall exercise the said powers as an independent and sovereign state in the global order of (nation-)states. At another, the IoA established a "treaty relation" between two states, that is India/Pakistan and the acceding princely state.

In this sense, the IoA signed by the Maharajah of Manipur on 11 August, 1947 did not surrender his sovereign rights over the territory of his state and also did not necessarily entail him to accept any future constitution (such as the Constitution of India which was adopted on 26 November, 1949 and came into force on 26 January 1950).

Unlike other "princely states", Manipur had its own constitution (1947) and a legislative assembly constituted through elections based on universal adult franchise, first of its kind in South Asia (perhaps, South East Asia as well), 1948. Legally speaking, thus, signing of IoA did not change the status of these institutions.

Third, the Merger Agreement is the last process of integrating the "Princely States" into the new Dominion. It is an act of transferring whatever remaining powers that the "Princely State" had, even after signing the IoA, to another entity (existing or newly created state). In this third phase, some "states" were combined or merged to form a new unit (the then "native states" in present day Rajasthan were merged) or simply the power of administration was transfer to some other entity (Manipur by Dominion Government of India).

It must be remembered that not all states had gone through this third process. For instance, Jammu and Kashmir being a part of the Indian Union is based on Instrument of Accession only; there was no "merger" agreement between its ruler and the Dominion Government of India.

It is in the light of the above processes, one must place the "Merger Agreement" that was extracted from Maharajah Boddhachandra in 1949. Doing so would also entail one to delineate the "legal facts" from the "political facts". Only then we would be able to meaningfully address the plethora of interrelated issues that haunt us as a people, from the "armed insurgency" or "armed political movements" to the anxiety over the "territorial integrity" and threats to the demographic character of the state.

In short, informed deliberation on the present in the past and the past in the present as a legitimate enterprise will go a long way in shaping a life with dignity and well-being of the people in the beleaguered little paradise.

* Angomcha Bimol Akoijam wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was posted on October 21, 2017.

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