From Imphal with love

Pamreihor Khashimwo *

Chief Minister Nongthombam Biren on his maiden visit to Ukhrul :: April 11 2017
Chief Minister Nongthombam Biren on his maiden visit to Ukhrul on April 11 2017 :: Pix - Lamdamba Oinam

In the backdrop of the current state politics since it became fully-fledged state in 1972, distinctly reveals how different understandings of different identities influence and shape the state policy. Placing the Manipur political debates in social and historical context, it identifies major narratives within the Manipur grand political policy from which it emerged divergent interpretations of ethnic tribal identity.

Through a discursive analysis of parliamentary debates, it highlights how the emergence of a "normal" political policy is caught between competing understandings of the different communities and the ambiguous role of the state, as both increasingly confront the uncertain trajectories of integration and ceding of tribal political rights and autonomy.

The implications reach beyond Imphal for long period to shed light on the paradoxical relationship between politics, policy, and identity amidst changing conceptions of the community and the diverse social system of the state. It moves the debate on state sovereignty and national identity into a distinctly different key than that defined by such outstanding leaders and individual: the context provided by significant historiographical conflicts over the meaning and direction of state political evolution and approach.

That this is done for the majority valley dweller case, rather than by now all too familiar ethnic tribes, also shifts the debate away from the constructive and forward-looking ground.

Certainly, Ibobi has done much to deconstruct and concoct it in its old role as a balancer and mediator in the state. Moreover, the public hysteria over many contentious issues in the state begs the question of just how deep-rooted this maturity really is. Many were taken aback when the then Chief Minister announced rather casually that it was planning to bring administrative convenience and developmental programmes in the state by carving out new seven districts.

I, as a concerned citizen of the state, lambast the creation of seven districts as "crass", adding a passionate paean to the Manipur. Further, all of the players in this game- the state political leaders, the tribal leaders, and other- are either being disingenuous or are suffering from collective amnesia. Could Imphal have forgotten that the notion of an Imphal-based political developmental strategy was seen as part of leaders "disaggregation strategy" towards the Manipur?

The reality is much more banal. The state capital, being really lethargic and busy, left it to the Chief Minister and its cabinet, who, being really busy too, left it to the "disaggregation and biased political stratagem" to explain the latest problems. That, as we all know now, is a bad idea.

The new BJP led coalition Government in the state under the leadership of Biren is launching a new phase of its Manipur series, this time exploring relation valley dwellers (Meitei) with the tribal of hill districts. Mindful of state's growing troubles- including Naga peace framework agreement, anti-Tribal Bills, creations of seven new districts, new developmental challenges, etc that compelled Biren to take a fresh look at affairs of the state.

Imphal tended to neglect tribals for long period, now there seems to a have a change in its economic and political orientation and trying to accommodate ethnic tribals issues as a major state policy priority. Sadly, the new state leader doesn't seem to have the political vision or the stratagem yet, neither working on them. Yet, appear to work under the political plan of New Delhi and see no forbearance as the road to long-term future peace in the state. The worrying factor is about from New Delhi disingenuous political missile plans than the state incompetence.

Such naive politics would not be remotely capable of bringing political and social equity and better standing of the state for future. The emotion is worth taking seriously; the accusation is not. New Delhi has also been noticeably circumspect in its response. Perhaps that's because New Delhi knowingly has not noted public opinion and adopt tactics rather than constructive strategy.

None of this is reassuring, and it's certainly not "normal". All this tells us that the state remains fragile. Yet a constructive approach to political deadlock is possible. It would begin with a serious intellectual battle and political debate among stakeholders of the state, necessary and logical responses, and technical feasibility.

Imphal must open up expansive possibilities for reordering relations, renewing engagement and rebuilding ties with the ethnic hill tribes. The arrival of Chief Minister Biren momentarily rejuvenates the state's politics and relations with the tribes. Superficially, Biren has gone further than any of his predecessors in imagining a stronger partnership with non-Meitei. He has less time for the sterile ideological arguments of the past and is focused on resolving outstanding problems.

Unlikely, the tribals are moving away from some of its past idealist focus. Thus, the leader must look at the tribal's emphasis on balancing interests and values as a long-overdue shift in Imphal toward realism.

This new direction draws Imphal closer to ethnic hill tribes. Yet, it will not be easy to translate this convergence into effective and tangible outcomes between tribals and Meitei. Biren seems acutely conscious that it has the most to lose from any further fragmentation and weakening of the state.

His developmental promises during his chest-thumping speech at Ukhrul district clearly demonstrate, but many crucial and sensitive issues of the state failed to appear in his maiden speech as the leader of the state. The new CM seemingly emphasised that the election results are a mandate for change and a new call for equal development in the state. Yet both change and equal development will not be easy as it sounds.

Since the ethnic divide between the hill tribes the Meiteis is acute, any attempt towards initiating inclusive programs may have a backlash. The recent agreements between the new government and the UNC add to further suspicion. It remains to watch whether Biren can deliver what he has promised after becoming the Chief Minister of the state.

The genuine test will be the step the new government takes to close these gaps while being mindful of the ethnic politics and sociocultural sensitivities and bringing different ethnic groups into harmonious and peaceful coexisting political entities.

The government is in the political honeymoon period and the state is celebrating new BJP led coalition government. Yet, sadly there seems to have no normal political agenda but working within the principle of coalition politics to save the government from sinking, appeasing the tribals with rhetoric developmental gesture under Modi's political missile plan.

Certainly, Biren should introduce "this Test": If your staunchest ally becomes a fan of malicious and development politics, chances are you miss-stepped. The new CM should not work as New Delhi's political pawn in the state.

* Pamreihor Khashimwo wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was posted on April 20, 2017.

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