Remembering Irawat : Are we people following his footsteps ?

Rajendra Kshetri *

 Floral Tributes : 122nd Birth Celebration of Lamyanba Hijam Irabot at Iboyaima Shanglen:: 30 September 2018 .
122nd Birth Celebration of Lamyanba Hijam Irabot at Iboyaima Shanglen on 30 September 2018 :: Pix - Shankar Khangembam

September, the ninth month in a calendar year, is a watershed month in the colonial and post-colonial history of Manipur. The history of colonial Manipur is indeed the history of one man who sacrificed everything, left every personal comforts/ titles/ belongings/ assets/ perks and perquisites – from 'Mamak Ibungo' (Royal son-in-law) to Member of the Sadar Panchayat Court – and gave every morsel that he could afford to, to fight for a cause, serve a cause he believed in.

The cause of common people- the downtrodden people. His was a struggle against nepotism, favoritism and corruption- the hallmark of colonial administration and monarchical regime. His was a movement to end exploitation of man by man. His was a revolutionary movement to establish an 'Independent Socialist Republic' in South East Asia.

September was the happening-month in the life and times of this one man. Never in the history of modern Manipur has a single individual synthesized in himself all the urges, feelings, emotions and aspirations of a people as Irawat did.

It was in September, the thirtieth day of the month that Hijam Irawat was born, five years after the British conquest. It was on 21st September 1948 that Irawat's days as a free-moving citizen came to an end. It was on this day that the 'Pungdongbam Incident' occurred that led Irawat to go underground.

It was again on 21st September 1949 that the 'Manipur Merger Agreement' was made between the Manipur Maharaja and the Governor General of India in Shillong in the presence of Sri Prakasa, Governor of Assam, while Irawat was still underground.

After more than three years of fighting underground for the welfare of the downtrodden and for "a perfect and free society where human beings could share all the rights and privileges on an equal level", Irawat died at Tangbaw village, his headquarter at Kabaw Valley on 26th September 1951. It was/ is therefore not for nothing that the whole month of September is now observed/ celebrated as 'Irawat Month'.

Much has been said and written about/ on Irawat and his movement and much more can still be researched and explored on the unexplored/ unresearched aspects of Irawat's life and times.

This piece is less intended as an addition to existing literature but more as addressing certain relevant questions that we all should be asking and pondering. What was/ is Irawat's legacy? What was/ is his idea of nation and nationalism? What visions had he envisaged for and of Manipur? What did Irawat's movement achieve in concrete terms? More importantly, what is his movement's relevance in contemporary Manipur? Difficult to answer but attempts could be/ should be made though.

To begin with, Irawat died unsung, unhonoured and unremembered. He was and has been buried in the labyrinth of people's forgetfulness for more than a decade and a half after his death. So was the movement of which he was not only the sole inspirer but the only leader to lead. However, the mid-1960s witnessed the resurrection of his movement at a time when people were getting disillusioned, frustrated and angry with the step-motherly treatment of the Centre. Irawat's legacy became a strong force in the late seventies.

Secondly, Irawat was the first to realize that peasants formed the bulk of Manipur's population and the economy was agrarian in nature and character. He also realized that unless the peasants were mobilised, the excessive oppression of the King could not be fought effectively. He therefore shifted his hitherto urban-centered movement to the rural areas and established many peasant-oriented organisations to fight the economic injustices against the peasants. As a result of Irawat's intensive mass mobilisation, a new socio-economic awareness among peasants emerged for the first time in the colonial history of Manipur.

Thirdly, Irawat's struggle for socio-economic and constitutional changes did not result in bringing a radical transformation of the Meetei society. However some significant changes of great import did occur due to his struggle. For instance, his struggle did succeed in demarcating a clear battle line between the King, the Brahma Sabha on the one side and the oppressed sections on the other. The struggle convinced people that the former was out to exploit them. No less significant is the fact that Irawat's ceaseless struggle against the King and is council of Brahmins made the people realize that the system of exploitation pursued by the King and his agents was not a given reality but man-made.

Irawat's movement gave them the first ever hope that things could be changed. No less important a transition that took place in the society as a result of Irawat's struggle was the emergence of a socio-political consciousness which transformed the people from an ignorant, fearful, divided group into a conscious socio-political force. This perhaps could be regarded as Irawat's most enduring legacy.

Fourthly, Irawat brought a sea-change as far as woman empowerment is concerned. It was during the second Nupi-Lan of 1939-40 that Irawat transformed the womenfolk from unorganized scattered units to an organised conscious political force. Indeed the vanguard role the women played to arouse the people against any form of exploitation and oppression is an unique feature of Meetei society and has no parallel anywhere else in India.

Fifthly, the movement which started with a limited aim of changing the oppressive practices of the King took a radical turn in the late forties to end up as a peasants' revolutionary movement in what was an apparent attempt to establish an 'Independent Socialist Republic' in South East Asia. It can therefore be conjectured, if not concluded, that for the first time in the history of modern Manipur, the Irawat-led peasant movement made a bid to carve out a distinct identity of Manipur. It is not very often that modern Manipur had seen a leader who went underground, waged armed struggle for the liberation of the downtrodden and in the process died a true revolutionary.

Sixthly, like China's Mao-Tse-Tung Irawat was a nationalist before he was a communist/ Marxist (A detail discussion can be found in Kshetri, Rajendra, 1990: "Irawat and Left Nationalism- I and II", Frontier, Calcutta, Vol. 22, No 29 & 30 and Kshetri, Rajendra, 2006, The Emergence of Meetei Nationalism, Mittal, New Delhi). It follows then that Irawat must not and should not be bracketed within the narrow/ parent thesis of any political party. Irawat and his movement lies beyond the prism of Political Parties.

Finally, what did Irawat's movement achieve in concrete form? What is his movement's relevance in contemporary Manipur? Admittedly, the Irawat-led movement did not result in establishing a socialist state. But never before in colonial Manipur were the people so conscious of the socio-economic and political realities. That was Irawat's achievement. His legacy and relevance.

PERSONAL NOTE as Tribute to the Great Soul:

"Thangol adu maya thangngu thouna, hey louooba/ thangol adu maya thangngu thouna…"

Every time I read these (immortal) lines immortalized by Chandrakala's rendering, every time I listened to this soul-stirring song; blood stops running in veins, heart stops beating, pulse stops throbbing…

Oh Great Soul! You envisaged a Manipur, a Manipur of unity and harmony. You dreamt of a Manipur, a Manipur of undivided house. You visualized a Manipur, a Manipur free from exploitation of any kind.

Today, Manipur, your beloved Manipur, presents/ unfolds a (sad) picture of disunity, hatred and enmity. It is a house divided. The hill-valley divide, instead of bridging, is widening. There is no love lost among the communities.

We have failed you, Oh Great Soul. We have failed miserably to translate, render, put into action your words of wisdom: "Meetei ani tinnadaba yade" as against "Meetei ani tinnaba yade". We no longer have leader(s) of your caliber, sacrificing spirit, stature and statesmanship. The people feel orphaned with no one to look up to, no one to inspire and motivate.

Oh Great Soul, the 'Sentinel of the East', the 'Father of Meetei Nationalism', today's leaders have become petty dealers, past-masters of dealing with (mundane matters) service appointments, transfers, postings, suspensions, contract works. Manipur, your beloved motherland, is brimming with rhetorics and rhetorists. It is service (to the people) of a third kind- Lip Service All the Way.

Forgive me, the ever-smiling Iconic Hero who had no foes, only friends, for paraphrasing your soul-awakening lines. Were you alive today, you would be nodding as I, an ordinary citizen, felt constrained to pen in the Orwellian way.

"Khadang adu maya thangngu thouna, hey luchingba/ Khadang adu maya thangngu thouna…"

* Rajendra Kshetri wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is Professor and Head, Department of Sociology, Manipur University, Imphal.
Author of "The Emergence of Meetei Nationalism"; "District Councils in Manipur: Formation and Functioning"; "Sociology: Perception and Conception".
Prof. Kshetri is also the Founding President of Manipur Sociological Society (MSS).
He can be reached at aardhikshetri(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on October 07, 2018.

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