TODAY -

Militarism and Future of Democracy in Manipur
History and Ideology of Resistance
Part 1

Kangujam Sanatomba *



Militarism and Future of Democracy in Manipur



"Armed struggle in Manipur is a struggle for democracy"

Setting the context

The genesis of the conflict in Manipur may be traced back to the last days of British imperialism. The lapse of British Paramountcy and Suzerainty in the Indian Sub-continent provided the historical context for the emergence of conflict situation in the Northeast region particularly in Manipur. The withdrawal of British colonial rule from the Northeast frontier created a political vacuum. The metropolitan Indian elite had the interest to fill in the vacuum on the one hand.

On the other hand, the emerging peripheral Manipuri elites also had similar interest to fill in the existing political vacuum. In other words, the imagined political space of the metropolitan Indian elite came to overlap with those of the peripheral elite. There was, thus, overlapping of the political space imagined by the metropolitan elite and the peripheral elite. The conflict in Manipur may, therefore, be located in the overlapping of their imagined political space.

The peripheral Manipuri elite tried to occupy the political vacuum by reasserting the erstwhile sovereignty of Manipur. They achieved this through the promulgation of the Manipur State Constitution Act, 1947 and adoption of a partially democratic Government by holding an election based on Universal Adult Franchise. This had created a problem for the metropolitan elite of India as no two entities could occupy the same space.

However, the metropolitan Indian elite were determined to occupy the political space already occupied by the peripheral elite through the expansion of the Indian State. But that could be possible only after dismantling the Manipur State and its democracy. With this point in view, the metropolitan ruling elite of India had undertaken five steps in regard to Manipur.

First, Manipur was made to send its representative to the Constituent Assembly of India by entering into a secret agreement with the Manipur State Durbar on July 2, 1947.

Second, the Standstill Agreement and the Instrument of Accession were signed on July 11, 1947.

Third, Government of the Indian Dominion had stationed an extra-constitutional entity known as Dewan in Manipur on April 10, 1949.

Fourth, the controversial Manipur Merger Agreement, 1949 was signed on September 21, 1949 and subsequently integrated Manipur into the Indian Union on October 15, 1949.

Fifth, the democratically adopted Manipur State Constitution Act, 1947, and the Manipur State Assembly were dissolved by promulgating two orders, namely, the Manipur (Administration) Order 1949 and the State's Merger (Chief Commissioner's Provinces) Order, 1950.

With such political manoeuvrings, the metropolitan elite successfully reoccupied the political vacuum existing in the Northeast frontier in the Manipur sector. The dissolution of the Manipur State and its democracy eventually has led to one of the most protracted armed conflicts in Manipur. As a matter of fact, the armed opposition groups or insurgent groups of Manipur have been resisting the presence of Indian State in Manipur.

They are fighting against the Indian military forces to restore the pre-1949 political status of Manipur with the ultimate aim to restore and reconsolidate the democracy that had existed then. Therefore, the struggle of the armed opposition groups of Manipur may be identified as a struggle for the restoration and reconsolidation of democracy. In other words, the armed struggle in Manipur is a struggle for democracy.

History of Resistance

Insurgency as a form of resistance in Manipur did not emerge as an immediate reaction to the Merger Agreement. Opposition to Merger Agreement was, in fact, an afterthought. There was a series of opposition to possible merger of Manipur with India on the eve of signing of the Merger Agreement. But no organised attempt was ever made to subvert the said Agreement in the immediate post-merger period. The Merger Agreement, therefore, was not an issue at the initial stage. On the contrary, there was at one stage a strong wave of expectation among some sections of the Manipuri elite that integration of Manipur into India would bring peace and development.

The competing elite had engineered the process of integration with the hope that joining the Indian Union would give them more political leverage and democratic space. But those aspirations were shattered following Manipur's transformation into a Part-C State within the Indian Union. One specific outcome of the merger was the shrinking of democratic space as imagined by the dominant elite of that period. This had resulted in the birth of a "dissenting class". This dissenting class has been the moving force behind all the social and political events that unfolded in the post merger period. The dissenting class of Manipur began to realise the need to recover the democratic space that had existed in 1949.

The political aspiration of the dissenting class of Manipur to recover the democratic space found manifestation in a sustained movement for Statehood. Viewed thus, Statehood movement or movement for responsible Government could be regarded as a demand for recovery or restoration of the democratic space that was lost with the dissolution of the Manipur State Assembly following the merger of Manipur with India in 1949. The seed of the present insurgency movement in Manipur was also sown during the Statehood movement.

For example, the Manipur National Union (MNU) had registered its opposition to the Merger Agreement for the first time in 1953. Not even Irabot had made any statement denouncing the Merger Agreement. It may be recalled that the MNU had not only denounced the said Agreement, but also threatened to declare Manipur's independence in the event of failure to grant complete Statehood to Manipur immediately by the Central Government.

For more than one decade of Statehood movement, the dissenting class of Manipur did not contemplate about waging an organised armed struggle against the Indian State to achieve their political aspirations. The character of the Statehood movement was non-violent and, therefore, peaceful in the way it was organised. When the Nagas were launching fierce guerrilla warfare against the Indian State, the dissenting class of Manipur remained faithfully committed to Constitutional method of democratic agitations.

It was conspicuously due to the lackadaisical approach of the Indian Government in addressing the issues in the Northeast that had induced the dissenting class of Manipur to embrace armed struggle as a form of politics. Two factors proved quite decisive for the emergence of insurgency in Manipur at certain stage of the Statehood movement. First, the response of the Central Government to the Statehood movement was far from satisfactory. The granting of Territorial Assembly to Manipur in 1963 fell far short of the democratic aspirations of the dissenting class of Manipur.

Second, the Government of India conferred Statehood to Naga Hills Tuensang Areas (NHTA) under a new name known as Nagaland in 1963 as a political concession to the Naga National Council for launching armed struggle. This particular event had generated far reaching impacts among the dissenting class of Manipur thereby creating an impression that the Government of India tended to respond more favourably to violent struggle than to democratic struggle. In a strategic shift, a section of the dissenting class of Manipur, who hitherto had avoided armed struggle as a political strategy, established the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), the first insurgent machinery, in 1964 with the stated objective to restore the sovereignty and independence of Manipur. Later on, due to differences among the leadership of the UNLF on the question of launching armed struggle, Oinam Sudhir broke away to form the Revolutionary Government of Manipur (RGM) and began to indulge in subversive activities against the Indian State.

Not surprisingly, the rise of insurgency as a form of resistance on the political landscape of Manipur attracted the attention of the Central Government. To appease the Manipur insurgents as well as to pre-empt any potential subversive activities, the Indian Government granted complete Statehood to Manipur in 1972. In this context, Professor N Sanajaoba held that RGM's demand for an independent Manipur was met with Statehood to Manipur. Indeed, the Central Government would have delayed the granting of Statehood to Manipur by another decade if the UNLF and the RGM were not set up in the 1960s.

However, the Central Government had committed a serious mistake in the manner how Statehood was granted to Manipur. Statehood to Manipur was not granted ceremoniously. It was an obvious fact that Statehood was not a result of formal negotiation with the insurgent group. The RGM members were arrested, imprisoned and later released after granting Amnesty by the Manipur Government in 1972, but no political talk was initiated with them. Therefore, the basic incompatibility underlying the conflict remained unresolved.

That was primarily the reason why the second half of the 1970s witnessed resumption of insurgency that continues to remain till date. Insurgency that was limited to political subversion and socio-cultural mobilisation had assumed the form of a full-fledged armed struggle. After the attainment of Statehood, the RGM went into oblivion and instead the PLA emerged as the most powerful insurgent group of Manipur. But its leader Bisheswar was arrested and subsequently coerced into contesting the State Assembly election. Here too, the Central Government failed to bring about a political solution to insurgency in the State by initiating political dialogue with the arrested leader.

Stringent counter insurgency operations launched by the Indian military forces had given serious setback to insurgency movement in the State. But the late 1980s witnessed reassertion and reconsolidation of the armed opposition groups in Manipur after a brief lull. Now-a-days, there are more than 30 armed groups operating in Manipur. But the UNLF and the RPF have emerged relatively as the most stable armed opposition groups in a sense that these two groups have not encountered factional split in recent time. These two armed opposition groups have systematically worked out the ideology of resistance.

The Ideology of Resistance

Insurgency emerged in Manipur at certain stage of the conflict as a form of power invented by the dissenting class to pursue their goals defined in terms of a sovereign independent Manipur. Insurgency can also be understood as institutional machinery or as a political technology to be employed for resisting the presence of the Indian State. But insurgency cannot operate in the absence of an ideology since insurgency as a form of power needs to be sustained with a particular form of knowledge.

The politics of resistance has produced three streams of ideological discourse, viz (1) the nationalist discourse (2) the leftist discourse (3) the revivalist discourse. But no resistance group in Manipur exclusively subscribe to a particular stream of ideology. There cannot be a water-tight compartment. Presence or absence of these streams of ideology among different armed opposition groups of Manipur is a matter of degree.

Insurgency in Manipur is articulated more in the language of nationalist discourse with nationalism and liberation as the main ideological plank of the insurgent movements. Here, nationalism finds manifestation as the most dominant ideology of the resistance groups. The rise of nationalism in Manipur is linked to a specific occasion or material operation around the emergence of resistance movement. In other words, it is not the nationalist ideology that produced the resistance movement; rather it is the very act of resistance that produced the ideology of resistance. Nationalism can, therefore, be understood not only as the ideological dimension of insurgency, but also as a form of knowledge which corresponds to a specific imagination of nation, territoriality and history which together constitute the basis of the resistance movement.

History, the concept of time, International Law, the doctrine of right to self-determination, nationalism, the notion of territoriality etc are used as ideological inputs in the production of nationalist discourse. The doctrine of the right to self-determination and International Law are employed to justify the resistance struggle in the eyes of the international community. History and nationalism are used to mobilise the masses. However, history has become the most powerful weapon in the hands of the armed opposition groups. In the process, history itself becomes a site of contestation and a site of resistance.

The concept of time has been meticulously employed by the resistance groups in the construction of nationalist history. The claim that Manipur has a 2000 years old political history is a vivid example. In similar vein, the armed opposition groups chose October 15, 1949 as a specific historical moment when the independent political existence of Manipur came to an end. This particular date has also become a moment to be undone. As such, the day is observed every year as "National Black Day" with the imposition of general strike from dawn to dusk. They are demanding the revocation of the Merger Agreement. It may be recalled that the Manipur Merger Agreement which was signed on September 21, 1949 became operative on October 15, 1949.



Full text of the speech delivered at the Colloquium on "Militarism and Future of Democracy in Manipur" organised by Manipur Research Forum, (Imphal & Delhi) in collaboration with Department of Philosophy, Manipur University, Canchipur; All Manipur Working Journalist Union, Imphal; Indian Council of Social Science Research (NERC), Shillong; and Human Rights Alert, Imphal. March 24-26, 2011. Venue: Manipur University, Canchipur.

To be continued ..


* Kangujam Sanatomba wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was webcasted on July 03, 2011.



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