Understanding the Politics of Plebiscite
- Towards Participatory Conflict Transformation -
Part 1

Sanatomba Kangujam *

Picture :: The Sangai Express

Factors Triggering Plebiscite Proposal

Responding to the call of the former State Governor, Dr SS Sidhu, for insurgent groups to shun violence and find a peaceful democratic solution to the problem, the United National Liberation Front, UNLF, had floated a four-point proposal for holding plebiscite under the auspices of the United Nations to resolve the Indo-Manipur conflict satisfactorily once and for all. In a speech delivered by the then Governor of Manipur on the Republic Day in 2005, His Excellency had indicated that insurgency problem should be resolved politically while addressing the insurgents as "dissatisfied brethren".

The change demonstrated in addressing the insurgents as "dissatisfied brethren" and not as "misguided youth", which earlier was the case was appreciated by the UNLF as a change in the attitude of the Governor/Government. What prompted the UNLF to initiate a new approach to find a way out of the conflict in Manipur was the appeal of the Governor to express their viewpoints and demands by non-violent and democratic means and also to resolve the current conflict through dialogue and negotiations. Such a gesture was interpreted as a positive signal and a change in attitude of the Government worthy of appreciation regardless of how little it might be.

The contextual understanding of why the UNLF made a shift in its approach towards resolving the conflict in Manipur can be sought in the social and political dynamics that unfolded in the preceding years. The Great June Uprising of 2001 against the extension of ceasefire between the Government of India and the NSCN-IM to Manipur and the Great July Movement of 2004 in the wake of Manorama's Incident against the continued enforcement of AFSPA had provided UNLF with an opportunity to review its policy.

These two events were considered by the UNLF as clear indications of a qualitative change in the mindset of the people. From the overall perspective, the UNLF believed that these two movements of the people against what it called "divisive and repressive colonial policies" were firm indicators of a revolutionary situation. It was on the basis of the emergence of such encouraging factors that informed the UNLF to formulate a new strategy to arouse and empower the people to assert their ultimate democratic right to directly participate in resolving the conflict on the basis of an UN-supervised plebiscite.

According to the UNLF, the emergence of such a revolutionary situation is made possible by the existence of armed struggle.

The UNLF regarded the armed struggle as the leading factor in the liberation struggle, but felt that armed struggle could not by itself overthrow the alien rule without the active participation of the people. Conceding that sovereignty lies with the masses, the UNLF regarded the people to be the basic source of strength and the most decisive factor of the liberation struggle.

To UNLF's strategic thinking, armed struggle and democratic struggle are two forms of struggle, complementary and supplementary to each other. Which one assumes primacy depends on the given stage of liberation struggle. The UNLF justified floating of plebiscite proposal on two grounds. First, it is the only internationally accepted method to take the vote of people on vital national issue. Second, the Manipur-India political conflict needs to be resolved according to the wishes of the people.

Significance of the Plebiscite Campaign

The plebiscite proposal floated by the UNLF heralded a new chapter in the history of insurgency in Manipur. It is a practical approach which aimed at resolving or transforming the prevailing conflict that has remained seemingly intractable for many decades. Though outrightly rejected by the Government of India (GoI) as unfeasible, the proposal for holding plebiscite has nevertheless produced far reaching implications on the overall conflict scenario in the State.

The plebiscite proposal was employed as a means to initiate widespread political discourse by the UNLF. The years 2005-2006 witnessed holding of spontaneous public meetings on the issue of plebiscite throughout the Manipur valley. The magnitude of the events was unprecedented in the history of Manipur as no such spectacular public response to the call of an insurgent group had ever been witnessed before. People of various hues came out to participate in the meetings held to discuss issues relating to plebiscite.

Apart from social activists, University Professors took active role in spreading awareness to the masses on the prevailing conflict situation in addition to highlighting various aspects of the plebiscite proposal. The ensuing public debate and discussion mainly centered on the feasibility of holding plebiscite under the existing circumstances, the future of Manipur and also the historical trajectories leading to the present situation. Many intellectuals came forward to share their views on plebiscite through newspapers.

The plebiscite campaign was able to stir up the mind of the masses and mobilised a huge section of the society towards generating a healthy debate on the political future of Manipur. However, in what can be described as an unfortunate development, the State Government had resorted to stringent repressive measures against the organisers of the plebiscite meeting by June 2006. Subsequently, the plebiscite campaign temporarily died out.

After a gap of about four years, the plebiscite campaign was revived in 2010 following the arrest of Uncle Sanayaima and resultant public uproar against his unlawful detention by the Indian Intelligence agencies. Many civil organisations have organised a number of public meetings at different places on the theme "Manipur-India conflict and people's participation in its resolution".

The public meetings adopted certain resolutions which among others include endorsement of people's participation in resolving the Manipur-India conflict; demand for holding of plebiscite to resolve the conflict; and seeking the co-operation of the United Nations and other international human rights organisations in the resolution of the conflict.

A very interesting aspect of the plebiscite campaign is the endorsement of the proposed plebiscite by the public. The spontaneous public response to the call of an insurgent group speaks volume of the popular support which the insurgent group is in command. The public response indicated two realities. One, it demonstrates that the UNLF enjoys a considerable extent of support from the masses from where it derives its legitimacy to sustain the liberation struggle. Two, open public endorsement of the plebiscite proposal is a clear reflection of the fact that the people of Manipur are still in favour of the idea of an independent Manipur as espoused by the insurgent group(s).

It deserves to be pointed out that the public response to the call of the UNLF for plebiscite has been spontaneous and widespread. This is rendered possible because of the popular support which the UNLF enjoys or because of the mass base which the insurgent group was able to build up over the years. Besides, the open endorsement of the plebiscite proposal by the people is a clear indication of the prevalence of certain degree of disagreement with the idea of India or Indian-ness. Huge sections of the people of Manipur seem to harbour deep grudges against the existing Indian rule in Manipur.

The significance of the plebiscite proposal lies in the fact that it is the first concrete model spelt out by an insurgent group in Manipur to resolve the prevailing conflict. No other insurgent groups had ever come forward with any tangible option to bring about an amicable solution to the political conflict involving India and Manipur. Not even the GoI had ever suggested a formula acceptable to both sides to end the standoff. The GoI, in its decades of engaging with the armed groups in Manipur, has not been able to convince the latter to resolve the conflict through a mutually acceptable political process.

The policy of the GoI towards insurgency in Manipur as well as the North East has never gone beyond initiating peace talk within the framework of the Indian Constitution. The definition of peace prescribed by the GoI has not implied more than securing the surrender of the armed groups and providing half-hearted rehabilitation package to the surrendered cadres. Moreover, Government of India's policy on insurgency has been predominantly shaped by militaristic concerns.

The Government relied more on counter insurgency operations rather than on a genuine and more proactive approach that lay more emphasis on resolving the impasse through proper democratic methods. So far, the solution suggested by the Government always remains confined within the framework of the Constitution. In other words, India's notion of peace in the North East is more prescriptive rather than transformative in approach and practice. Given these stereotype realities, UNLF's plebiscite proposal seems to be breaking new grounds for transforming the conflict in Manipur.

to be continued.......

* Sanatomba Kangujam wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer can be contacted through sanatombak(at)yahoo(dot)com
This article was webcasted on June 08, 2011.

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