by Pradip Phanjoubam
This article was published in the Economic and Political Weekly, EPW, in their combined special issue of July 26 and July 3 earlier this year as the lead story.
Events of the last two months have left Manipur mauled both emotionally and physically. Although the tension has been defused, the bitter aftertaste probably will not wash away easily – in the hills as well as in the valley, possibly for generations. But now that the tension has subsided and there is little likelihood of violence, it is time for the communities to drop the deceitful smokescreen of feigned fraternity and do some hard talk as well as soul search. If there is even an ember of hope that the relationship can be salvaged, the rebuilding of bridges which had been burnt can begin, if not, a new social restructuring process would have to be the next mission. Whatever the architecture of this new structure is to be, it must be enough to ensure that nobody is left with an unjust deal.
A parting of ways, even if desired by many, will not be easy because of the enmeshed nature of geography, both physical and human. By human geography I mean the physical space needed to ensure a realistic sense of security to a community. Disregarding the need is a sure recipe for deadly conflict. This geography is not just about the physical space anybody occupies. It is instead about a sense of control of the vital arteries that feed and sustain a social organism, or civilisation as it were. The recently concluded 68 days blockade of Manipur for instance would have given everybody a sense of what this geography would be for the civilisation nurtured in the Imphal valley. If a parting of ways has to happen, both these geographies would have to be addressed adequately and taken care of without leaving anybody sized up, mutilated and made helpless. This is not a question of pity or mercy, but of sound judgement designed to avoid deadly conflicts.
What then is the present conflict in Manipur about? First the immediate manifestation began with the Government of Manipur declaring the elections to six Autonomous District Council, ADC, elections. This then hardened after the government refused to allow Thuingaleng Muivah, leader of the Naga insurgent group, National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah faction), NSCN(IM) to enter Manipur to visit his village, Somdal in Ukhrul district.
The ADCs are local self governance bodies evolved as a parallel of the Panchayati Raj as the latter is not welcomed by the hill communities. They came into being in 1973 as per The Manipur (Hill Area) Autonomous District Council Act 1971 of the Government of Manipur, when Manipur was still a Union Territory. The Act hence is of Union government vintage.
However since 1989, the district councils became defunct because of agitations in the hill districts that disallowed elections to the ADCs demanding that they should be replaced by district councils under the 6th Schedule of the constitution, which would give these councils a measure of legislative and judicial powers as per tribal customary laws. This was never to be hence the hills have remained without the benefit of any statutory grassroots local self governance mechanism all the while. More than two decades later, the government decided to reinstate the ADCs, but the 1971 Act had in the meantime undergone an amendment in 2008.
Very broadly, this amendment seeks to transfer some of the traditional powers of the village chieftainship to the elected district council of tribal leaders. This is what the All Naga Students Association, Manipur, ANSAM, and the United Naga Council, UNC, objected and demanded the amendment be scrapped before the ADC elections were held. The government disagreed saying the hard won election process should not be delayed, but verbally promised necessary rectifications to the ADC Act can be made after the district councils have been formed. On this point of this disagreement, the ANSAM and UNC imposed the economic blockade that lasted 68 days beginning from the midnight of April 11-12.
In the midst of this trouble, on April 29 the Union government informed the Manipur government by a crash wireless message that Thuingaleng Muivah, the general secretary of the NSCN(IM) would be visiting his village Somdal in Manipur on May 3. Muivah was also to address two public rallies, one at Ukhrul on May 8 and another at Senapati on May 10. Perhaps it is a coincidence that Muivah who has never expressed a desire to visit his village for 44 years, even though on many occasions in the recent past he had camped next door in the NSCN(IM) headquarters in Hebron close to Nagaland’s commercial capital, Dimapur, wanted to enter Manipur at this juncture. This being the case, it is also understandable for the Manipur government to presume that the economic blockade over the ADC elections and Muivah’s intended visit are part of a design. The Manipur government decided to block Muivah’s entry. The decision led to the unfortunate Mao Gate incident on May 6 in which two Naga students were killed in clashes with the state police forces, and scores of others injured.
Soon enough, the fight also began to acquire an ethnic hue. The ADC elections as well as the blocking of Muivah’s visit began thus to be portrayed as Meitei (valley dwellers who form the majority population in the state) aggression against the Nagas. This is to some extent understandable for while the Meitei’s were somewhat indifferent to the ADC issue, the blocking of Muivah who has been a prime campaigner for Greater Nagaland to be formed by merging territories in Manipur, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Myanmar which the Nagas consider as the ancestral territories of the Nagas, with the present state of Nagaland, received strong support from the valley community.
However, contrary to propaganda by interested parties, the police force at Mao Gate that blocked Muivah’s entry was not a Meitei force. Manipur follows a 31 percent job reservation for schedule tribes. This would have roughly ensured the police force at Mao Gate on May 6 had at least between 31 percent non-Meiteis. The two IPS officers – the operations overall commander and his second-in-charge (2-IC) on the day of the confrontation were both from the hill communities too. It is also untrue that the ADC elections are being forced on the hills with valley interest in mind. All hill affairs, including the amendments to the ADC Act, in Manipur are looked after by the Hill Area Committee, HAC, formed by all 20 hill MLAs of the Manipur Assembly (Manipur Legislative is 60 strong, 20 reserved seats and 40 general). As a government clarification stated recently, HAC functions like a mini Assembly within the Manipur Assembly, and the latter cannot interfere in the decisions of the former.
In the ADCs, there would also be no representation at all of the valley communities making the embrace or rejection of it solely a hill affair.
State and non-state
The question remains why the hill-valley binary so easily comes to the fore, even where this should not have been? The answer perhaps has a lot to do with the troubled nature of formerly “non-state” people waking to the new reality of the “state”, and acquiring their own nationalist aspirations. The “state” and the “nation”, are two different notions. The “nation” is an imagined community (Benedict Anderson), and it is this imagination which binds together people into political identities. But for this imagined community to have a tangible sustainable architecture, it must have a “state” as its backbone. The “state” in this sense is a political mechanism invariably involving a centralised bureaucracy (or government) with a definite hierarchy of functionaries and institutions to run its political and economic administrations optimally. When this twin project of “national imagining” and “state” formation not only succeed, but become congruent, a “nation-state” can result. It is also true that just as the state can fail, so can the “imagining” that makes a nation.
There are also a few interesting deduction to be made in both the processes of “nation” formation and “state” formation and there can be few other places to match the Northeast region to make these observations. One of these deductions is, “nation” formation would normally precede “state” formation. Another is, in the process of social evolution, people have existed outside of any national “imagining” and thereby lived outside of the understanding of the “state” as well. This condition of apolitical organisation of society is indeed an attribute of many if not most indigenous populations. In other words, both the birth of the national “imagining” and “state” formation happen at different times for different peoples, and the evolution of these conditions depend largely on the status of the economy. (Friedrich Engel in “Evolution of Family Private Property and State). At its crux, this theory says the state is a mechanism for managing surplus economy implying that subsistent hunting-gathering, or primitive non-productive tribal economies, are hardly the condition for the evolution of the “state” or the “nation” consciousness.
The third interesting observation is, history is an account of “states” and that “states” recognize other “states” only, either as friends or enemies. This is also why “non-state” communities seldom figure in any known history. While everybody has a past, the past is not always history. Similarly, all facts are not historical facts (E.H. Carr in What is History? / Historian and his facts), which is why, as Carr so illustratively points out, Caesar crossing the insignificant stream Rubicon is a historical fact and not the everyday fact of millions of others who in the course of their lives would have crossed the same stream. This should explain why in the written royal chronicles (with all their limitations and biases) available in the region only established kingdoms figured substantially. In the 1819 devastating invasion by the Ava (Burma), mentions were found only of Manipur and Ahom kingdoms, and how these latter principalities were devastated etc. This historic event is also chronicled by the British for it led to the First Anglo Burma war that culminated in the Treaty of Yandaboo, 1826. It is as if beyond these few feudal principalities of the time, the rest of the map of the region were just blank spaces. In the account of the Ahoms when they first entered Assam to establish their kingdom in the 13th story the story was very much the same. “States” fight or make friends with “states”.
This was also evident in the case of the Nagas. The British took cognizance of the Angamis as a force to reckon with only when Angami villages such as Khonoma, Kohima, Jotsoma, Mezoma etc, started forming a confederation and showed signs of state formation in the first half of the 19th century. The first expedition of the British into the Naga hills was in 1839 (L.W Shakespeare: History of Assam Rifles). British interest in the region was already beginning to be entrenched with the tea industry launched under the pioneering Bruce brothers was expanding in Assam and coal and oil were also discovered, and hence the shadow of state formation amongst the Angamis troubled them. The same can also be said of manner the British became concerned by the hint of state formation under the leadership of Jadonang and Gaidinliu amongst the Zeliangrong Nagas during their 1931-1933 rebellion. (Prof. Gangmumei Kamei’s Jadonang a Mystic Naga Rebel).
The fact that these “non-state” spaces never occurred in these historical accounts do not necessarily mean they were never conquered and were always independent as claimed by many scholars. In most cases, they were just presumed to be part of one state or another. The changes of suzerainty over the then empty non-political space of Kabaw Valley between Manipur and Ava kingdoms should serve as an illustration of this. The fact is, until the political organisation of these “non-state” spaces began centralising to acquire attributes of a “state”, there was nothing much for a “state” to conquer or take cognizance of. As the “non-state” peoples invariably begin awakening to the brave new world of the modern times and cross into the territory of “history” and national “imaginings”, most of the time they wake up within territories of already formed “states” and “imagined communities”. The challenge facing much of the modern world is to accommodate this new phenomenon. Assimilating new “imaginings” within old existing ones is never likely to be easy and has tremendous conflict potential. The Northeast and Manipur know this only too well.
But despite this commonly understood phenomenon, there is still immense bitterness amongst the hill tribes, including Nagas, of perceived discrimination by the valley dweller Hindu Meiteis. This has a background. The Meiteis are ethnically and linguistically very close to the hill tribes, but after they converted to Hinduism in the early 19th Century, they imported a caste system in which the hill tribes were treated as outcastes, leaving deep hurts amongst the hill men. Quite ironically, Pamheiba, one of the most powerful kings of Manipur who ascended the throne in 1714, who waged successful wars against Ava (Burma) during 1725 and 1749, and who not only converted to Hinduism but also made it the state religion of his kingdom, was of Naga descent (Edward Gait: A History of Assam). He not only banned the original Meitei animistic religion Sanamahi but to complete the annihilation of the religion, religious books in Meitei script called the Puya which recorded cultural norms, tantric rites practiced at the time, made prophesies etc were made bon fire of in 1726. He also paved the way for replacement of the script with the Bengali script. The religion survives to this day, so also the script. The religious discriminations are also a thing of the past, still bitter memories of the time persist.
Land reform issue
There are yet other issues feeding the Hill-Valley binary. The resistance to the ADC election is mostly on ground that this would lead to compromise of tribal lands. In the land tenure system of a modern state, all land within the territorial boundary of the state would belong to the state. Individual land owners would be only tenants leasing the little plots of land their homes or farms sit on from the state with certain rights of ownership over them but this ownership is not absolute. The state can if it considers it necessary in the interest of public good, acquire the land back from its tenants through legally laid out norms and after paying due compensations.
Obviously different states would have different land laws, but they would be variations of this basic principle and nothing radically different. The modern system is pretty clear cut and there is hardly likely to be any dispute which cannot be settled by just the plain application of the rule of law. It is when we enter the world of customary indigenous laws that things get a little nebulous and messy.
Manipur, as in all other northeast states, have both these notions of land and ownership coexisting. The valley has embraced the modern, the hills stick on to the customary. While there are mechanisms for settling disputes within each of the systems, this is not so when the two are pitted against each other. This is relevant in the wake of Manipur integrity-Naga integration opposition. The question is, in case this demarcation becomes absolutely necessary, what would be the criterion that defines notions such as “ancestral land”? Would it be in terms of actual physical occupation of a particular tract of land for a particular length of time? In this case, a majority of the land in Manipur hills would be physically unoccupied, and if modern law were to be applied, these would be government land. Or would it be defined in terms of occurrences in myths and legends of the communities? In this case too, much of these tracts of land and mountains would occur in the ancient myths of many different communities. Koubru Mountain is one such instance. If this mountain range is considered as the ancestral land of the Nagas, it is also registered in the Meitei archetypal memory as sacred abode of traditional deities. As a matter of fact the mountain itself is an ancient deity. Quite obviously it would also be woven inextricably into the daily lives of the Kukis and Nepalis who now have made it their homes. The same can be said of many other sparsely inhabited or uninhabited ranges such as Thangjing, Laimaton, and Nongmaijing etc. This would be true of many rivers and lakes in the valley too. The psychological demarcation of territories between hills and valley, and the association of each of these geographical regions with different ethnic communities cannot but be a recent and unnatural hybrid of the modern and traditional outlooks.
Again, notions of ancestral lands and homelands of different communities, especially indigenous ones, overlap, sometimes totally, and there is no way justice can be done by seeking to divide them using instruments of the modern land tenure mechanisms such as definite and mathematically precise boundaries, marked by boundary pillars and fences etc.
These notions were not meant to be closeted this way and any attempt to do so would throw up conflict situations. The Kuki-Naga feuds in the 1990s and indeed the “Naga integration-Manipur integrity” tensions now over the demand of Greater Nagaland, etc are tragedies that have resulted or are waiting to result out of this insistence on dividing what are fundamentally indivisible. Since the notions of ancestral lands and homelands of traditional ancestral neighbours overlap, the only way peaceful coexistence can result is to agree to allow these overlaps to continue in the spirit of sharing and accommodating.