TODAY -

Defending Manipur: Beyond the Rhetoric of Khongjom Day

A Bimol Akoijam *



Manipur commemorates the Battle of Khongjom (1891), the decisive battle of Anglo-Manipuri War of 1891 that brought Manipur under the effective control of British Indian Empire. Some Manipuri historians and politicians will acknowledge this battle of Khongjom, not without reasons, as "the last battle" fought by any "Indian princes" against the Colonial British. It is another matter that majority of people amongst the so-called "mainstream" may not know about this Battle or the War of 1891.

And yet, amidst "patriotic" songs and speeches, appeals to join the "mainstream" and work for "development" would, as usual, rend in the air as the State commemorates the day and pay homage to those who died fighting for their land and freedom of the people against an Imperial Power for whom the "Sun never sets".

However, given the present state of affairs in the State - the all around normative and institutional decay, deplorable/non-existent infrastructures, and a communally fragmented society which threatens the very existence of Manipur as a geo-political entity, one can not help but ask, what is the significance of this commemoration?

To remember and celebrate the spirit that was behind the defence of Manipur seems to be an obvious answer. But then, such remembrance/celebration makes sense only insofar as one can relate that spirit to contemporary life.

Manipur: Historicity of the Political

On the hindsight, the confrontation of 1891 seemed inevitable. After all, Manipur was to be caught between two empires that came up on its eastern and western flanks around the mid-eighteenth century - the British Indian Empire that grew as a politico-military power after the Battle of Plassey (1757) in South Asia and the emergence of the Burmese Empire under the Alaungpaya Dynasty (1752-1885) in South East Asia. In the power struggle between these two empires Manipur became an ally of the British, the foundation of which was laid in the treaty signed between "Manipur" and British East India Company (located at Chittagong) on 14th September, 1762.

After having been an active ally of the British in the latter's wars with the Burmese (such as First, Second, and Third Anglo-Burmese Wars, 1823-26, 1852-53, 1885-1886), Manipur lost its "strategic" interest to the British after Burma was annexed by the British Indian Empire following the Third Anglo-Burmese War (1885-1886). And after having consolidated its hold on the region, the British started actively interfering in the domestic affairs of the State which ultimately led to the 1891 confrontation.

It was a war that brought Manipur as a "Princely State" (classified as State with an "Eleven Gun Salute") under the British Indian Empire, which was subsequently "taken over" by the post-colonial Indian State on 15 October, 1949 as a "Chief Commissioner Province". As it stands today, that is the legacy that Indian Constitution acknowledges as it defines "Manipur" as one of the constituent States of India in its First Schedule as a "territory" which was "administered as if it were a Chief Commissioner Province before the commencement of this Constitution".

Incidentally, the "take over" of Manipur (as the official document on the "integration" of "princely States" calls it) was marked by an unceremonious act of dissolving a democratically elected Assembly in Manipur and the beginning of a direct bureaucratic rule of the State by New Delhi for more than two decades. This ironical beginning of the post-colonial life of the State has lots to do with the armed insurgency in the State.

However, strange as it might seem, while the establishment has readily acknowledged a historical moment like the Battle of Khongjom, its contingent facts of history, of which the armed insurgency has been a critical part/manifestation, that have critical bearings on our contemporary life have been rarely acknowledged or accordingly addressed.

Instead, the approach has been largely of treating the phenomenon as a "law and order" issue, which by definition makes it a "criminal" one. Worst, such an approach has been done through a surreptitious deployment of military power, that too with its war paradigm, as an instrument of maintaining law and order. The consequences of such systemic responses are there for all to see: the erosion of civil and judicial authorities and that of the institution of police as a crucial aspect of law and order administrative mechanism through its "militarization". Symptoms of such consequences have appeared too often and yet rather than recognizing those as inherent systemic flaws, those have been termed as "aberrations"! Subsequently, the systemic rot gets deepen and the language of intimidation and violence has come to be the mainstay of the polity and society.

On the other hand, the politically correct sounding phrases like "revolution" and "liberation" have increasingly become alibi to perpetuate atrocious criminal acts and violence against the general population. However "justifications" that one might get to hear, which are often indistinguishable from those who justify their inhuman acts under AFSPA, the fact remains that the people are fed-up with killing of people all in the name of the people, and not without reasons, the people also have enough reasons to suspect those "justifications".

Consequently, Manipur is dying as a civilized society and geo-political entity; for such an entity can never survive without functioning normative and institutional mechanisms. This is the present challenge of defending Manipur that we must concentrate as we remember the gallant heroes who died in defence of the land and people's freedom and dignity.

But what does this new challenge entails? First and foremost, it entails an informed and honest acknowledgement of the core issue that has critical bearing on the present state of affairs in Manipur: a historically rooted political issue manifested as armed insurgency.

Indeed, even when one says, the "insurgents" are only "interested in money", one must simultaneously ask as to whether one agrees with the political agenda that the insurgents are purportedly striving (if they were not to be "only after money").

Similarly, beyond the question of whether "sovereignty" for Manipur is "practical" or "possible"- as the Chief Minister reportedly said at Khongjom Day function the other day, "in the face of India becoming the third super power in the world, the demand for sovereignty of Manipur by various insurgent groups of the State has become far beyond possibility" - one must ask as to whether their demand has a historical and political reason and in principle does the demand have a political meaning for Manipur and her people.

It must go without saying that such clarity will enable us to embark upon a journey that reverses the decadence by ensuring the legitimacy of civilized normative and institutional mechanisms in our life. And on the other hand, this must also enable us to give certain sense of clarity and legitimacy to issues that we must legitimately own up by separating the grain from the chaff.

Defending Manipur: The Battle Within

Manipur is dying, largely in its own hands, for the people are suffering from a palpable slavish character (nurtured by a dependent political-economy) and a pathological sense of resignation (yararoi/oiraroi attitude). While their visions have often been shortsighted/twisted, a sense of "flight" than "fight" marks their motivation. And there have been many "episodes", some even christened as "people's uprising", which have led to ironical denouement without shaping a tangible result or transformations in Manipur's recent "history".

Indeed, as some say, failing to learn from history ensure its repetition. Commemorating the Battle of Khongjom (and the Anglo-Manipuri War, 1891) must also be an occasion to reflect and learn lessons from history. Indeed, there are lessons to be learnt from that seemingly inevitable confrontation. Take for instance, the manner in which the five British officials were killed, irrespective of their crime, which had shaped the trajectory of not only the War but also the future of the State: Was it a result of a well-deliberated and thought out action or was it one that was executed in a hurry amidst a milieu of unrest and excitation?

Let the commemoration of the Battle of Khongjom not be a hollow and escapist indulgence but a moment to come to terms with the challenges of defending a dying Manipur and rejuvenate the effort to defend the land and its people for a peaceful, dignified, prosperous and healthy life.

And it must go without saying that the War to defend Manipur begins from a battle from within each one of us.


* A Bimol Akoijam wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was posted on April 30, 2011.



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