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E-Pao! Opinions - Schizophrenic Alienation of N.E. India: Its Historical Roots

Schizophrenic Alienation of N.E India: Its Historical Roots
By: Lal Dena *


It is purely by an accident in history that North East formed a part of India. The social formation in mainland India and North East must first of all be explained from historical perspective of three definable phases of periods: pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial periods. Among societies in mainland India, social organization took the form of a caste structure and this continues to be so even to the present day. In this way they had been linked up with one another culturally and politically as a part of chain as it were even in pre-colonial era. With the exception of Meiteis in Imphal valley and the Assamese in Brahmaputra valley, the hill people remained essentially outside the orbit of Hindu influence and caste-based societal formation. While mainland Indian society could evolve pan-Indian homogeneities and Hindu ethos in social formation all through historical period, the hill people in North East with their diverse social alignments and group identities produced a high degree of fluidity and flexibility in their socio-cultural arenas. But even among the Assamese who were perhaps the most Sanskritised community with their Indo-Aryan language, the new intelligentsia began to see secession of Assam as the only means to save the Assamese nationality from prospective extinction. In Manipur valley too, the adoption of Vaishnavite Hinduism with its belief of the Aryan connection also provided a sense of belongingness to the Hindu world of India for some time. But in Manipur today, the belief that identification with Hinduism would ensure their emotional integration with India is proved false. The new generation tends to look upon Vaishnavite Hinduism as “cultural imperialism”.

The British conquest of India and its consolidation did not improve the situation. It may be pointed out that the British conquest did not take place simultaneously throughout the entire country. As a result, the objective condition causing political and national consciousness among different communities and ethnic groups also did not mature all at a time. We have already indicated that mainland India was unified culturally and politically even before the coming of British in India. This unity was further strengthened by colonization. This made the people of mainland India to see the Indian history as their common past, their subordination to the colonial rule as their common lot and its final overthrow as their common destination. The colonial secluded policy towards North East retarded the smooth penetration of Indian nationalism among the marginal and peripheral communities. In their dealings with the so-called frontier peoples in the North East, the colonial authorities at Fort William took up a policy of segregating the hills and plains people. The inner line regulation passed in 1873 established a virtual boundary along the foothills and stressed that any British subject or other person so prohibited, “who goes beyond the inner-line…without a pass shall be liable, on conviction before the magistrate, to a fine…”. Beyond the inner-line, “the tribes are left to manage their own affairs with only such interference on the part of the officers in their political capacity as may be considered advisable with the view to establishing a personal influence for good among the chiefs and tribes”.

Later on, the inner line covered almost all the eastern hills and surprisingly enough this system is still continuing in some hill states even today. Simultaneously, the colonial officials also passed an act, which envisaged the creation of scheduled districts for the administration of certain areas that might be declared ‘backward tracts’. Though Assam formed an integral part of British India, no act would come into force in the backward tracts unless expressly extended to them under the scheduled district act. Nor did the British Indian legislative reforms cover these eastern regions. When the federal scheme under the government of India act of 1935 was introduced, the eastern regions with the exception of Assam were placed either under ‘excluded areas’ or ‘partially excluded areas’. Excluded areas covered exclusively tribal inhabited areas while partially excluded areas had mixed populations, tribal and non-tribal. Both areas were excluded from the competence of the provincial and federal legislature. The argument put forward by the colonial academies was that these regions were so backward that no sophisticated concept of representative institutions could be transplanted. Only the concerned provincial governors in their own discretionary could interfere in the day-to-day administration of these areas. In this way, the people in the region felt the impact of colonial domination rather indirectly and this is one of the fundamental factors, which was responsible for the slow emergence of political consciousness among them. Even on the eve of the transfer of power in 1947, the colonial officials thought in terms of creating and separating the eastern tribal inhabited zones into a single political unit. Robert Reid, the then governor of Assam, strongly advocated the formation of a new colony, and his conclusion was in favour of what would be, in essence, a separate country, “divorced from (as in Burma) the control of the government of India.

Dr. Hutton and Mills also suggested the unification of the eastern hill areas with Burma contending that ‘the people are ethnologically more akin to the Burmese people than to the Indian people, and they came to Assam via Burma’. Another proposal was the constitution of the eastern hill areas under the control of central government. It is argued that all the hills, being financially deficit area, must depend upon the financial support from the central government. Opponents of this proposal expressed their fear that if the hill people were put under central control, “they would be governed by ministers and politicians at Delhi and would have no prospect of being themselves among the ministers and politicians who counted. They might have one representative in one central assembly, but what is one among so many diverse tribes? And they would have no hope of getting the ear of the ministers. These ministers would be drawn from men of other races and communities and provinces and, in so far as they have prepared to listen to men from plains of their own castes and creeds, who would then have power without responsibilities”. The present happenings in Northeast India today tend to substantiate the two shades of arguments. As a matter of fact, all the eastern states today entirely depend on doles from metropolitan states and in the parliament they have hardly twelve representatives who are too insignificant among the five hundred members. Lack of ownership and sense of participation in the highest decision-making body cannot but alienate the people. Arguing on the same line, Reginald Coupland, a constitutional expert from Nuffield College, Oxford, also suggested that creation of a crown colony of eastern agency consisting of the hill districts and areas of Assam and Burma on the plea that these hill tribes “are not Indian nor Burmese, but of Mongoloid stock. In no sense do they belong to the Indian or Burmese nation”.

Racial factor in the politicization of ethnicity is equally important. As a matter of fact, Northeast India is an extension of Southeast Asia in terms of ethnicity and culture. For instance, the Meiteis of Manipur valley and the Ahoms of Brahmaputra valley have close cultural and ethnic linkages with the Shans of upper Myanmar and the Thais of Thailand. The Nagas of Manipur and Nagaland have their kith and kin across the border in Myanmar, the Chin Hills in Myanmar but also trace their origin from central China. The Singphos of Arunachal Pradesh have in the Kachin of the Kachin state of upper Myanmar their relations. The Khasis and Jaintias of Meghalaya have similarities in language and culture with the Mon-Khmers of Cambodia, Thailand and eastern Myanmar. D.R. Sardesai even goes to the extend of saying that the Khmers in Cambodia migrated along with their cousins, the Mons either from Southwest China or from the Khasis hills in Northeast India . Linguistically too, all the ethnic groups in Northeast speak languages belonging to the Tibeto-Chinese family which may further be divided into Tibeto-Burman and Siamese-Chinese sub-families. Well aware of the complexities of inter-ethnic connections between Southeast Asia and North East India, the colonial rulers deliberately demarcated artificial boundaries dividing even same ethnic groups of the two neighbouring countries to suit their imperial interests.

As a matter of fact, at the super-structure level, the colonial rule served as a sort of link between mainland India and North East India; but at the bottom level, it acted as a wall of barrier which prevented cross socio-cultural and political interactions between the regions during the whole historical period. As a result, there was no common national ideology which could bridge the gap between the two regions. Even when the nationalist freedom struggle reached its climax under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhiji, the waves of Indian nationalism never crossed beyond the Brahmaputra valley. Summing up the whole situation, H.K. Sareen has rightly observed thus, “Those in the leadership of the national movement paid scant attention to the masses of the people in the hills and valleys of North East India. That is why they did not or could not devise any ethos of breaking the barrier created by the imperialist rulers and drawing the masses into the struggle for independence. This remained one of the weaknesses of our national movement”. Where need for common national ideology was obvious and where no core nationalism was readily available, the search for identity led to more familiar identities like ethnicity and language. Therefore, ethnic self-consciousness and its assertion along the lines of ethnicity or language was increasingly manifested in the eastern region as a whole.

Another factor, perhaps more crucial, was the uneven development of the colonial economy which greatly retarded the uniform growth and maturity of Indian nationalism among the different ethnic groups of the country. Due to this unequal economic development, national consciousness also developed unevenly. This is so because the entry of British capitalism in colonial form took place at different times in different regions with varying intensity producing dissimilar effects. In fact, at the time of its penetration into various regions of the sub-continent, it was at different stages of advancement. Since the port cities of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras presidencies were the fore-most British business centres, and the centre of capital investment and infrastructural development took place faster in these areas. The emergence of Bengalees, Marathis and Tamils as major nationalities was not accidental. Thus, colonial India experienced two streams of coeval processes as far as its nationality formation was concerned. The first was based on its pan-Indian identity and the second one on its regional ethnic identity. What had actually emerged in course of time were two types of nationalities: consolidated nationalities and marginal nationalities. The consolidated nationalities may be said to include Bengali, Bihari, Gujarati, Kanadiga, Konkani, Malayalee, Marathi, Oriya, Punjabi, Telegu, Tamil, etc. They are called so because they were well interconnected in some way or the other in the historical past. They evolved common social structure, common religion and common culture. In short, they shared common historical experiences both in pre-colonial and during colonial period. Therefore, the transformation of these consolidated nationalities into the core nationalism (Indian nationalism) was automatic and spontaneous. On the other hand, there are marginal nationalities which include Bodo, Borok (Tripuri), Garo, Gurkha, Khasi, Manipuri, Mizo, Naga, etc. They are called so because their integration with the Indian state structure had taken place only at the end of colonial rule.

Even Assam, which formed a part of British India, was not linked with the Indian mainstream of trade, commerce and industry. There were no local capitalists who could challenge British or mainland Indian capitalists. Modern industry, trade and commerce formed the objective foundation of Indian capitalism but these were conspicuous in their absence in Assam. Tilottama Misra has said: “In Assam, development of modern industries, transport, banking and other aspects of capitalist growth did not take place during British rule; and even after 1947, little has been done to build up even the infrastructure for the development of modern trade and industry in Assam using this backward state as colonial hinterland”. The only major industries such as the oil mining and tea plantation, which were started by British capitalists, continued to be monopolized by non-indigenous capitalists till today. This is to say that viable, vibrant and independent indigenous capitalism which could perhaps contribute to a more developed economy, failed to develop in the region. True, the new intelligentsia, no doubt, did participate in the freedom struggle and the Brahmaputra valley also witnessed the mass upsurge of the non-co-operation movement. But at the same time, the Assamese intelligentsia continued to think in terms of Assam and her nationality problem rather than on the all-India plane. Tilottama Misra has further argued that the allegiance of the Assamese intelligentsia to the Indian National Congress was also marked by strong regional considerations. As early as 1937, the Asamya Sanrakshini Sabha presented a memorandum to Jawaharlal Nehru by stressing that unless the National Congress helped Assam to overcome the danger of the ‘extinction of the Assamese race, a section of the Assamese intelligentsia would favour the secession of Assam from India’. Thus, throughout the colonial period and after, Assam had been under the constant threats of absorption from more advanced nationality and foreigners.

From what has been indicated above, it is quite clear that Assam and the whole of the eastern hill region had not been closely integrated with the all-India capitalist development. The resultant situation was the creation of internal colonialism, real or imaginary. Where people were made to develop more sophisticated needs only through consumption stimuli and where no infra-structural development was encouraged, the people were bound to be perpetually dependent on the more advanced states and then finally became a parasite economically. More damaging is the long-term psychological impact on the people: people from the peripheries tending to develop colonized mentality and people from the metropolis colonial mentality.

The roots of alienation of the region must also be sought in the context of the relations and positions of different ethnic groups within the state. Donald L.Horowitz in his ‘Pattern of Ethnic Separatism’ has put forth the following categories of potential separation:
(a) backward ethnic groups in backward region;
(b) advanced ethnic groups in backward region;
(c) advanced ethnic groups in advanced region;
and (d) backward ethnic groups in advanced region.
Horowitz’s finding was that the groups in the first category were the most frequent and precocious separatists and their ethnic anxiety also the largest. This is precisely what has been happening in North East India for the last several decades. The ethnic groups that occupy backward peripheral regions not only fail to identify with the core nationalism but also tend to develop their own ethnic-based nationalism. If an ethnic group succeeds by its own efforts in achieving and maintaining group rights through political action and political mobilization, it goes beyond ethnicity, according to Paul Brass, to establish itself as a nationality. In other words, when an ethnic group achieves a certain degree of autonomy within an existing political structure or in a state of its own, it becomes a nationality or a nation. The case of Naga appears to support this view-point. In this connection, Udayon Mishra has commented thus; “The Naga’s loyalty to his tribe or clan is being gradually replaced by his loyalty to the concept of united Nagaland which will include all the Naga inhabited territory between the Chindwin in Burma and the Brahmaputra in Assam. This demand for a greater Nagaland is clearly linked with the growing tide of Naga nationalism which has succeeded in greatly reducing, if not altogether doing away with, inter-tribe and inter-clan rivalries and differences. This development from tribe and clan organization to the idea of a sovereign Naga state comprising the entire Naga nation, has been helped immensely by the Naga’s intensely deep attachment to his native soil and to common local tradition”.

To meet the political aspirations of the North East people, the government of India has so far adopted two models of autonomy- one in the form of sixth scheduled district and another the autonomy enjoined with a state as provided under the constitution of India. The scheduled district arrangement was a colonial concept which was mooted as far back as in 1874. Consequent upon India’s independence in 1947, the constituent assembly accepted the Bordoloi committee’s recommendation on the need for creation of sixth scheduled districts for the protection of land rights, language and culture through a certain degree of autonomy for the tribal people in undivided Assam. Now, with the exception of Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Nagaland, the sixth scheduled model has currently been applied to Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura.

To some, the sixth scheduled model has been a progressive constitutional arrangement. But on closer scrutiny, the model has several inherent drawbacks. All laws and regulations made by the district councils require the consent of the state governor, which, in other words, means the state. The main funding institution for the districts is again the state. More often than not, the state government always restrains the exercise of autonomy by the district councils. Article 31(A) of the constitution gives the government the power to acquire any land, occupied or not. Moreover, all forestlands are exempt from the jurisdiction of the councils.

The passing of the 73rd constitution amendment of 1992 has further made the sixth scheduled councils almost redundant. The panchayat bodies are entitled to get funds from the state and the central government under several schemes, in addition to their own regular sources of income by taxation, mobilization of locally available resources and the like. The establishment of the finance commission is meant to prevent the panchayats from falling into financial starvation. Whereas the scheduled district councils are solely at the mercy of their state government. They often complain that they have not received what the state owes them, and with the subsidy withheld, they are often paralyzed. In many cases, resource allocation has been a major bone of contention between the district councils and the state governments. As a result, the autonomous function of the councils has been greatly restricted by their financial and administrative dependence on the state governments. Another advantage, which the panchayat bodies have over the district councils, relates to the duration of their dissolution. The dissolved panchayats must be reconstituted within a period of six months from the date of their dissolution. For the district councils, fresh election can be held subject to the approval of the state legislature within a period not exceeding twelve months.

True, the scheduled district councils have some legislative and judicial powers on delegated subjects. But even here, the panchayats have far exceeded the councils. The 73rd constitution amendment has delegated the twenty nine subjects under the 11th schedule of the constitution to the already long list of subjects of the panchayats.. Just to cite one example, while Zilla Parishads have control over higher secondary schools, the district councils have controlling power over primary schools only. What is so conspicuously absent in the district councils is the provision for empowerment of women. Under the panchayat bodies, not only seats are reserved for election of a certain fixed number of women, but specific quota of pradhans and up-pradhans in gram pranchayats and adhyakshas and up-adhyakshas in Zilla Parishads are reserved for elected women. On the whole, while the proverbial Democle’s sword of state control hangs over the district councils, a liberalization process has been set in motion in respect of the panchayats.

Regarding the autonomy enjoined with the states, much can be said. Quasi-federal in form, the Indian constitution can best be described as reluctant federalism. The union government retains extensive legal, administrative, legislative and financial powers and in certain situations of so-called political instability, it can dismiss an elected state government. Baruah has rightly pointed out that in the area of control over fiscal resources, Indian federalism is probably at its weakest. If the concern for Indian unity made India’s constitution makers reluctant federalists, their enthusiasm for national development turned them into central planners keen on grabbing as much control over resources and powers of economic management as possible. Since there is no genuine devolution of power to the states and to the scheduled district councils in the true spirit of federalism, the entire contemporary history of modern India is filled with series of demands for more autonomy and in the case of North East, for secession. This makes the process of strengthening the Indian nation-state quite vulnerable and this process, if not handled properly, can be a process of nation-in-the unmaking as well.

Is the right to self-determination an alternative?
In view of the on-going secessionist movements in North East India and the indigenous people’s movements, the issue of the right of self-determination is of pressing importance now. In a democratic set up, self-determination is a basic right, which gives a group independent statehood or expanded power within a federal state. Some scholars have classified self-determination into various types. According to Ronen, self-determination is classified into five types, such as:
(a) National self-determination as the aspiration to rule one’s self, and not to be ruled or controlled by others;
(b) Class self-determination meaning the proletariat’s quest for self-determination to establish the true communist society free from bourgeois exploitation;
(c) Minorities’ self-determination meaning minority should not be forced under any sovereignty under which it does not wish to live but be given a fair chance to decide whether it desires to live in an existing sovereign state or to set up new independent state;
(d) Racial self-determination meaning the aspiration of people for self-rule on the basis of race; and,
(e) Ethnic self-determination meaning that ethnic groups should freely determine the form of government which ranges from limited autonomy to independence.
Ronen himself admits of the inaccuracy of this classification and the minority and ethnic self-determination could better be grouped as one under which racial self-determination may also come. Some other scholars are more inclined to broadly classify the right of self-determination into two: external self-determination and internal self-determination.

External self-determination:
In so far as its external aspect is concerned, it means creation of an independent state or integration of self-determining people with an independent state. In other words, the external self-determination also means separation of self-determining people from an existing state or country of which they are a part to set up a new independent state. According to R.N.Ismagilova, by external self-determination “is meant the fight against relics of colonialism and neo-colonialism and the achievement of state sovereignty; the solution of national and territorial problems of an international character, in other words, the struggle for a just settlement of relations with neighbouring states and peoples” The external self-determination thus inbreeds secession. The right of a nationality or nation to determine its own destiny presupposes freedom to secede, and without such freedom, unification or integration is never real. As to the specific condition when secession is to be resorted to, opinions may differ. But if a particular state and its successive governments have repeatedly oppressed a people, minority or otherwise, over a long period, violated their human rights and fundamental freedom, if other means of achieving a sufficient degree of self-government have been tried and have failed, then the question of secession can arise as a means for the restoration of fundamental rights and freedom and the promotion of the well-being of the people’. A group of social scientists who met at Shimla in October,1993 on the initiative of Prof.B.K.Roy Burman also has observed that in the context of the emerging world moral order, if a state indulges in acts like genocide or liquidation of peoples, the right of secession cannot be denied to the affected peoples even though the UN system may not support it. In this way, secession is seen by many as the ultimate manifestation of the external right of self-determination. It should however be noted that secession is not an absolute right and it cannot be invoked unilaterally.

Internal self-determination:
The internal self-determination primarily relates to self-government with a certain degree of autonomy within the boundaries of an existing nation-state. It means the right of people to determine their own social, economic and political system, to depose their resources and to create conditions for their own development within an existing state. In other words, the internal self-determination refers to the autonomy and self-government actually enjoyed or to be enjoyed by the autonomous entity in its political decision-making process. It is understood to refer to independence of action on the internal or domestic level, while foreign affairs and defense are in the hands of the central or national government. The Sami homeland in Finland, the Greenland home rule in Denmark, the Nunuvut self-government in Canada and the Kuna autonomy arrangement in Panama are good examples of the implementation of the internal self-determination.

Of these, the cases of Sami and the Greenland stand unique. The Sami people are found in Norway (50,000), Sweden (20,000), Finland (8000) and Russia (2000). Except in Russia, the Samis have their own parliaments in all the three European countries. These parliaments are all recognized as the sole representative Sami body with an autonomous power over (a) community planning; (b) the management, use, leasing and assignment of state land, conservation areas and wilderness areas; (c) applications for mining licenses; (d) legislative or administrative changes pertaining to traditional Sami occupations and livelihoods; (e) the development and teaching of Sami language in schools, and in the social and health services; and, (e) any other matter affecting the Sami language and culture On closer examination, it is found that the Sami parliaments in Norway and Finland are genuinely autonomous and representative political bodies, while the Swedish Sami parliament is more a part of the state authority. No European nation to which Samis form a part, cannot take any final decision on any issue without the approval of the Sami parliaments. Another notable fact is that the Sami parliaments can represent the Sami people both at the national and international level. Though Sami people are not independent, their autonomous status has also some elements of external self-determination.

More progressive in the implementation of internal self-determination is the Greenland home rule which was established since 1979. Greenland was colonized by Denmark in 1721. With the abolition of her colonial status in 1953, Greenland formed an integral part of Denmark. By the home rule act of 1979, Greenland government has the full authority in all matters of internal concern which includes education, taxation, religion, social affairs, economy, infrastructure, fishing, trade, cultural and political matters. Of course, foreign affairs, currency, defense and judicial matters still remain with the Danish government. Greenland representatives can also be included in the Danish foreign delegation. These are the two examples where the internal self-determination was implemented. After all, the goal of internal self-determination is not the break- up of existing state, not the estrangement of peoples, but their rapprochement, the establishment of relations of friendship and cooperation between them. In this way, internal right of self-determination can be implemented through various mechanisms and arrangements within the framework of a nation state and ultimately be a powerful tool for genuine democracy and federalism.

These models may be tried and applied to North East India. It must be understood that the demands for greater autonomy and ‘independence’ do not come from blue. They are the outcome of certain internal contradictions in pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial Indian situation. It must therefore be admitted that the attainment of national independence is not a solution to the problem of emerging nationalities. No nation, which has attained independence, can consolidate it without the ethos of freedom permeating every share of its life.


* Lal dena writes for the second time for e-pao.net. He can be contacted at isaac_intoate@yahoo.com


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  • Sub-Junior Girls Football #2:: Gallery
  • Namsai gets Buddha relic from Thailand
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  • 3rd Ningol Chakouba, Delhi : A Report
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  • Chothe: Shabu Hong Rein :: Gallery
  • Eyek Tamba :: Learn Manipuri script
  • Candle light for Belinda Morse :: Gallery
  • Exhibition of Pottery Crafts #2 :: Gallery
  • Phayeng Cultural programme :: Gallery
  • Khongjom War Memorial #3 :: 360 ° View
  • Ichangi Laidhi #1 :: eRang
  • Ningol Chakkouba by Paomee:: Gallery
  • Ningol Chakkouba @Kolkata :: Gallery
  • Ningol to her mapam lamdam :: Gallery
  • Manipuri Calendar for 2018 : Download it
  • Mera Men Tongba :: Gallery
  • FIFA U-17 Profile :: Kh Ninthoinganba
  • FIFA U-17 Profile :: Thounaojam Jeakson
  • FIFA U-17 Profile :: Nongdamba Naorem
  • FIFA U-17 Profile :: Dheeraj Moirangthem
  • FIFA U-17 Profile :: Amarjit Kiyam (Captain)
  • FIFA U-17 Profile :: Thangjam Boris
  • FIFA U-17 Profile :: Wangjam Suresh
  • FIFA U-17 Profile :: Md Shahjahan
  • Old Manipuri Movie #1 :: eRang Classic
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