Ode to an honest maverick

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    By Yambem Laba

    IF Manipur were to look back and gauge leadership on merit, the vote would most certainly go to former chief minister Wahengbam Nipamacha, who passed away in Imphal on 17 July at the age of 82. A maverick, he was largely given to unpredictability when it came to announcing a holiday and was well known for passing caustic remarks.

    Once, while talking to a delegation of the United Naga Council — an apex Naga body in Manipur — he suddenly rose and said, “Do you know our Gambheer Singh conquered Thibomei (Kohima) but Manipuris are not claiming Kohima as their land, so forget the idea of integrating Manipur’s (hill) areas.” He then walked out, leaving the delegation stunned. The UNC retaliated by imposing a crippling economic blockade but Nipamacha did not budge an inch. As Union minister of state for education, he once wrote to the editor of The Statesman on the sad state of education in Manipur.

    Affectionately called Nipamacha, meaning “little boy”, by his parents, he taught in Imphal’s prestigious Johnstone High School after graduation but left to complete his master’s in history. He later founded and ran Wangoi High School. In 1972 he was elected to the Manipur Assembly, which he repeated three times, and served as Speaker in the seventh Assembly. In 1997, he upstaged Rishang Keishing, who was holding office for a record fourth time. Nipamacha said, “The Speaker is Arjuna following the diktats of the 10th Schedule which he likened to Lord Krishna.”

    While meeting then Prime Minister AB Vajpayee, who had just announced the Kashmir-to-Kanyakumari, Saurashtra-to-Silchar national grid of highways, he is said to have remarked that “while K to K and S to S might sound rhythmic, the PM being poetic appears to have forgotten that a state called Manipur exists on the eastern side of Silchar”. Annoyed by extortion, he once bluntly asked the then Union home minister, “Has the NSCN(IM) got permission from the government of India to indulge in extortion even in front of the Army?” This was after the NSCN(IM) had declared a ceasefire and both sides were engaged in peace talks.

    Nipamacha again took over as chief minister in 2000 and was in office until 2001 when, following mass desertion, he made way for Radhabinod Koijam, whose tenure was also shortlived. As chief minister, he was criticised for giving his ministers a free run, with each functioning as the chief minister. He then plunged the state into a financial abyss by implementing the Sixth Pay Commission after which government employees received their salaries once every three-four months. But he never regretted giving employees enhanced salaries.

    When he was chief minister the Central allocation was a mere Rs 400 crore, compared to today’s Rs 3,000 crore. Yet there was no talk of a 10 per cent cut for ministerial private coffers, which is believed to have increased to 30 per cent these days. As chief minister, he also drew flak for purchasing a Mitsubishi Lancer for Rs10 lakh but, this apart, he was clean and pure at heart when compared to those in power now who have reportedly become billionaires with real estate investments across the country and suspected Swiss bank accounts.

    That all of Manipur mourned his passing was a fitting tribute to his incorruptible, selfless nature, open-heartedness and outspokenness. When I met him a few years ago, he told me, “Listen, when I die Yamraj, the Hindu god of death, is bound to question me and to name three good things I did while alive. I will tell Yamrajji that when I was chief minister, I gave Sixth Pay Commission scales to state employees, hosted the 5th National Games and set up the State Human Rights Commission. Yamraj is bound to say ‘shabash’ and show me the path to heaven.”

    Manipur will surely miss a leader of his stature and steadfastness.

    (The writer is The Statesman’s Imphal-based Special Correspondent)

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