Madness of ethnic boundaries and xenophobia

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By Pradip Phanjoubam

Manipur continues to boil. Schools and colleges have been shut by a government order without any indication when the order is likely to be lifted, in anticipation of students being led onto the streets in demonstrations to demand the implementation of the Inner Line Permit System, spearheaded by the Joint Committee on Inner Line Permit System. Thankfully at least, according to information reaching newsroom late this evening, at least the atrocious curfew on the movement of non-locals which besides bringing shame would see predictable reciprocation elsewhere in the country, has been lifted. All these come immediately after the bitter tension paid with three precious lives in Ukhrul and a consequent indefinite highway blockade of the State, was lifted, and the people were preparing to take a sigh of relief. Something seriously is indeed rotten in the State of Manipur.

A lot remains to be said of the merit of the demand for the introduction of the ILP, but suffices it to say that a far-sighted government ought to have anticipated this trouble long ago, and introduced suitable legislatures at least three decades ago to avoid things coming to such as an ugly pass as today. I have said over and over again that it does not have to be the ILPS which can address an anxiety spread not just across Manipur but the entire Northeast, including Assam. In Meghalaya, a similar agitation for the ILP is unfolding and in Assam there are periodic eruptions of violence directed as “Hindi speakers”. It may also be recalled in the 1980s Assam saw some of the most cataclysmic stirs against “foreigners” which lasted eight long years. When so many share an apprehension, it should have been taken as a matter worth serious scrutiny by the political leadership to evolve a way to address the problem suitably. It is a wonder why the wisdom in the saying “a stitch in time saves nine” is so much taken for granted by our politicians.

I had also argued in these same columns why the unedited ILPS in itself is unlikely to be the right choice for Manipur, but something similar which for instance can deter transfer of land ownership to non-domiciles would serve the purpose much more. The government therefore should form a committee to study such land laws where they are still practiced, such as in Himachal Pradesh, at the soonest. The moot point is not just about the ILP being suitable, but also whether it will not go against the basic tenets of the Constitution, therefore virtually impossible to enact.

But beyond a sane discussion on the suitability of the ILP, the focus of attention of all concerned citizens is being grabbed rather startlingly by the manner in which the demand for the ILPS is being pushed and equally by the government’s reaction to it. The xenophobia evident in the citizen’s curfew is disturbing and the government’s shutdown of educational establishments in response atrocious.

While the government’s reactions are often harsh, and would probably amount to overkills, the manner protests over social issues in Manipur, not necessarily only in the ILPS demand case, is beginning to cut a sorry figure. The practice of herding out school children on the roads to lead public protests is demeaning. Surprisingly so many have argued this is a democratic right. Let them be reminded a school student who has just passed the Class X examination is officially only 15 years of age, and is not even eligible in any democracy in the world to vote in a democratic election. Why are the more mature students in the Universities absent from these agitations? Why just University students, why are also people in the many professions simply watching? It could mean they do not believe in these agitations, or they simply do not have the spine to support or express dissent. If it is the former, it puts a cloud on the depth of moral support for the agitation itself. If it is the later, what can be more shameful? But the height of hypocrisy is in the fact of many mature professionals, including in the intelligentsia, from the comfort and safety of their homes and offices, approvingly writing of the manner school children are made to lead street agitations, urging them to go on.

What exactly is happening? How mature can any revolution powered by school children and vegetable vendors be in the long run? There can be no doubt on why the former should be left alone. Let children not be dragged into what are essentially domains of adults. Of the latter, no doubt about it they have been a force to reckon with, but simply pushing them to the front while others take the front seat in the galleries to watch the sordid dramas as they unfold, and with theatrical shows of self righteously indignation go about pronouncing their verdicts on supposed government actions or inactions, is simply unfair.

Borders and frontiers

Let nobody be fooled. Even though the problems witnessed at Ukhrul concluded for the time being, and even if the current agitation on the ILP demand also gets to see a respite, let nobody be too quick to presume the last on these matters have been written. They have only just receded but the core issues which brought them to the fore have hardly been put to rest, and so they will continue to tick on like time bombs on which Manipur must continue to sit. Manipur’s cup of woe is already full, but there are more trouble waiting, and therefore this cup is destined to overflow more. The demand for a Sadar Hill district is one such, and indications are, it is beginning to stir awake again.

I will not go into the histories of these agitations again and bore our readers who would have read them over and over again every time each of these problems surfaced. Instead, let me in the limited space of this column dwell a little on a problem common to most of them. This is the idea of State borders or frontiers, or more precisely the non-existence of demarcated frontiers in the pre-modern States outside of Europe.

The Romanes Lecture of 1907 titled “Frontiers” by Lord Curzon of Kedleston, who was Viceroy of India from 1898 to 1905, and a well known adventurer and explorer in his younger days, gives us an account of how the Western mind saw Asiatic societies’ notion of boundaries. He said, “In the first place the idea of a demarcated Frontier is itself an essentially modern conception, and finds little or no place in the ancient world. In Asia, the oldest inhabited continent, there has always been a strong instinctive aversion to the acceptance of fixed boundaries, arising partly from the nomadic habits of the people, partly from the dislike of precise arrangements that is typical of the oriental mind, but more still from the idea that in the vicissitudes of fortune more is to be expected from an unsettled than from a settled Frontier.”

This of course is how an administrator of a colony saw things, but still, few will dispute that the notion of borders even where State formation had happened in our own region would have been quite different in pre-modern times than how they are known now. Indeed borders could not have been what they are now, clearly demarcated and administered as intensely, or even more intensely at the peripheries, than the central cores of the States. It is not difficult to imagine very amorphous notions of borders both in place where States (or Paddy States in Scott’s term) have formed and in the non-State Zomian spaces as well.

The example of Kashmir will illustrate this. When the British acquired Kashmir in 1846 after defeating the Sikhs in the First Sikh War, Kashmir being under the suzerainty of the Sikhs then, it also inherited a boundary problem. Ever since this new acquisition was made, the British were uneasy about Kashmir’s un-demarcated boundaries, and began almost immediately thereafter to put in efforts to fix the northern and eastern boundaries of its new territory. And as A.G. Noorani writes in “India-China Boundary Problem” two boundary commissions followed one another. The first, consisting of two members, was set up in July 1946 and given the mandate of defining the boundary between the British territories in the districts of Lahul and Spiti in the South and those of Ladhak in the north and also Ladakh’s boundary with Tibet.

This effort came to nought as China did not cooperate largely by refusing to respond British entreaties to set up corresponding surveys and finally to conclude a treaty on the matter. The Governor General of India at the time, Henry Hardinge did not however give up on the quest for a defined boundary. He appointed a second Boundary Commission on July 10, 1847, this time of three members. This effort also was in vain as the Chinese still did not respond to request for a joint determination of the boundary from Spiti to Pangong Lake. It would come as a surprise to most of us now that nobody, including China, were interested in drawing this boundary at the time, though it is now hotly contested between India and China even leading the two countries to a brief war in 1962.

To cut the story short, the British were still determined to fix a boundary, and at one point this need became quite desperate because of Russia’s interest in the region, resulting in a virtual cold war between the British and Russian empires in what is now referred to as the “Great Game”, and began sending out expeditions to unilaterally decide where India’s boundary in this sector should be. They made different boundary alignments, most importantly two, one which ran along the ridge of the Kuenlun Mountain, therefore including Aksai Chin in India, and another along the ridge of the Karakorum Ranges on the southern edge of the Aksai Chin. Independent India claimed the one along the Kuenlun ridge was the boundary, and China disagreed. The rest is familiar history to all of us.

In our own homeland, the story was not much different. Just the story of one boundary, the one between Manipur and Ava, should suffice to illustrate this. Without going too far into history, and beginning from the time the British entered the region, the boundary between the two principalities was fixed at the Ningthi River (Chindwin River) in 1826 with the signing of the Treaty of Yandaboo, thereby including the Kabaw Valley within Manipur territory. In 1834 Kabaw Valley was awarded to Ava by the British and fixed the Manipur boundary along the foot of the “Murring Hills” by a line called Pemberton Line. In 1881 Pemberton Line was redrawn by Johnstone and Ayapoorel (foreign minister) of the Manipur kingdom Gen. Balaram, to include the Chassad Kukis within the Manipur territory, in order to check the restive tribe (Mackenzie). In 1896, after Manipur came under the British, Colonel Maxwell made the realigned Pemberton-Johnstone Line more permanent by erecting 38 boundary pillars. Only on March 10, 1967, long after both India and Burma were liberated from British colonialism, would this boundary be ratified by the two countries by the Rangoon Treaty.

This is what the idea of boundary became after the advent of the West in the region. Before that era, they were imaginably very different and ambiguous, and why not, for this served the needs of these principalities very well then. Manipur’s internal boundaries would have been no different. The boundaries between different tribes and communities would have been at best notional. As for instance, where would the boundary between the hills and valley dwellers have been? Should all flatlands be considered as the Valley’s domain? Should all hills, wherever they are, be considered as belonging to the hill communities? Quite obviously, as communities who have lived in the same region for aeons, there would have to be considerable overlaps of notions of territories? Many of these places would have occurred in the myths and legends of many different ethnic groups at the same time. The trouble today is, we are stubbornly trying to give these traditional frontiers, hard demarcated boundaries, and because of their impossibility, dangerous conflict situations are thrown up. The answer, easier said than done is to come to terms with shared territories and spaces. Though difficult, if resolving conflicts is the primary concern, effort must however have to be in this direction.

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