Sovereignty Struggles in Northeast India: Where are They Going? – 2

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(The write up published here is the paper presented by M. S. Prabhakara on the Sixth Arambam Somorendra Singh Memorial Lecture held in Imphal on June 10, 2011)
Nation State: Questions, questions
India is a Sovereign Nation State. But what is a Nation State? What is Sovereignty? The traditional, one may say, the classic view, of the Sovereign Nation State is derived from a series of treaties that ended the Thirty Years War (1618-48) involving what later came to be known as Prussia and still later as Germany but in mid seventeenth century were actually various principalities and city states in Middle Europe. As taught in elementary textbooks of political science, the two prerequisites for a sovereign nation state are a clearly defined territory, with clearly defined borders, in short territoriality, and an uncompromised sovereign status, which is the founding principle of the related concept, nationalism, prefigured in the expression, nation state.
The India into which I was born might have been a nation state of the imaginations of the Indian people, though ‘the Indian people’ may be seen in some perspectives as another imagined construct; but it was clearly not sovereign. Even its territoriality, one may argue, was also the result of colonial occupation, conquest and expansionist ambitions and security concerns over a ‘border’ that the colonial rulers themselves did not clearly know and kept on pushing outwards, though there was an ‘inherent territoriality’ of Indian nationalist imagination derived from myths, literature and memories. India of my birth included what eleven years later became Pakistan. Had I been born a year earlier, that India of my birth would have included Burma/Myanmar.
Pakistan that diminished the territoriality of Indian imagination and harsh colonial reality was, less than a quarter century of its birth, was also a Nation State. But its territoriality too was diminished by the emergence of another Nation State, Bangladesh. Put simply, nation states, like every other material and intellectual artefacts are constructs of the human history and endeavour, and of imagination, and also some cunning initiatives. Nation states are real, reflecting the memories of the past, real or imagined is immaterial, of the living realities of the present and the hopes and aspirations and, in many cases, the aggressive ambitions about the future. They are also, as argued by Benedict Anderson, imagined communities that are not the less real for being constructs of human imagination. Indeed, some Indian organisations still carry maps of ‘India’ in their offices whose territory, clearly going beyond the imaginations of theorists of states as essentially imagined communities, includes not merely the modern states of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh but also Burma/Myanmar, Sri Lanka and even Afghanistan.
There is nothing surprising about the elasticity of these human constructs, nor about their imaginations and aspirations. After all, what are now, or till very recently, the stable borders of sovereign states of Europe came to be recognised so only in 1871, with the consolidation of the German state under Bismarck. And we all know what happened to that German State less than fifty years after Bismarck’s death under a tyrant who imagined that his Reich would last a thousand years. We also know what is happening to other nation states in Europe and elsewhere that were viewed as inviolable, permanently cast in stone.
As a student of literature, I have found that the ‘truth of fiction’ sometimes tells me more than the more conventional historical narratives. Eric Ambler’s “The Schirmer Inheritance” (1953) spans a period of over a century of violent European history, from the times of Napoleon Bonaparte to Hitler and the Second World War. One of its themes is the plasticity and elasticity of the concept of nationhood at a time when it was not unusual for a person born in a principality or city state of Middle Europe enlisting to fight for another principality or city state at war with his ‘native state’. Nationalism was an unknown concept; there were no ‘national armies’ but only ‘professional’ soldiers, a euphemism for mercenaries, who were ready to enlist in the ‘enemy’ army, ready to die but hoping to survive, make money and return to hearth and home.
Eric Ambler’s novel narrates the story of Franz Schirmer, rather of two Franz Schirmers, both Sergeants. The first, a dragoon of the principality of Ansbach, had enlisted in the Prussian army. He deserts after the Battle of Eylau in 1806 when the army was retreating in defeat. After many vicissitudes that include changing his name slightly towards the end of his life, an initiative central to the tension of the narrative, he survives and prospers and dies in his bed in the fullness of years. The second Schirmer is his great-great-grandson, also named Franz. Born in 1917, he enlists in the German army at the age of eighteen, and after being wounded assigned to non-combatant duties that he finds demeaning. Finally, while the beaten German army is retreating from Macedonia in October 1944 by when it was clear that Hitler had lost the war, the truck convoy he is leading is blasted by a landmine planted by Communist partisans, is gravely wounded and left for dead. He is not dead, fights for his life, survives and even thrives as a bandit in the Macedonian mountains straddling Yugoslavia, Albania and Greece, with a fantastically opportunistic cover he has created for himself as a revolutionary, still fighting away for liberating Greece from the new home grown fascists of Greece.
Here is a passage from the opening pages of this novel:
The relations between this unit (The dragoons of Ansbach) and the rest of the Prussian army was absurd, but in the middle Europe of the period not unusually so. Not many years before, and well within the memories of the older soldiers in it, the regiment had been the only mounted force in the independent principality of Ansbach, and had taken its oaths of allegiance to the ruling Margrave. Then Ansbach had fallen upon evil times and the last Margrave had sold his land and his people to the King of Prussia. Fresh oaths of allegiance had had to be sworn. Yet their new lord had eventually proved as fickle as the old. In the year before Eylau the Dragoons had experienced a further change of status. The province of Ansbach had been ceded by the Prussians to Bavaria. As Bavaria was an ally of Napoleon, this meant that, strictly speaking, the Ansbachers should be fighting against the Prussians, not beside them. However, the Dragoons were themselves as indifferent to the anomaly they constituted as they were to the cause for which they fought. The conception of nationality meant little to them. They were professional soldiers in the eighteenth century meaning of the term. If they had marched and fought and suffered and died for two days and a night, it was neither for love of the Prussians nor from hatred of Napoleon; it was because they had been trained to do so, because they hoped for the spoils of victory, and because they feared the consequences of disobedience. [Emphasis added]
I conclude this section with a brief account of two other narratives of Indian nationalism, one from Bengal and the other from Karnataka. Vande Mataram, from Bankimchandra Chattopadhya’s novel, “Ananda Math” (1882), is India’s National Song. It was, and even now is, sung regularly at sessions of the Indian National Congress. As is well-known, when the issue of free India’s National Anthem was discussed in the Constituent Assembly, a strong case was made for adopting Vande Mataram as National Anthem, though many Muslims were averse to the song because of its blatant idolatry which, for Islam, is an anathema. In the event, “Jana Gana Mana” by Rabindranath Thakur was adopted as the National Anthem while Vande Mataram was given an ‘equivalent position’ (whatever it means) as India’s National Song.
Normally only the first two stanzas of Vande Mataram are sung. When I was very young, in the years before independence, we used to sing the full song, for by singing the song we were defying foreign rule, though technically as citizens of the princely state of Mysore we were only under indirect foreign rule. However, even at that age I was puzzled by these lines that follow immediately after the first two stanzas:
Sapta koti kantha kalakala ninada karale
Dwisapta koti bhujaidruta kharakarawale
Ka bole ma tumi abale
Bahubala dhaarineem namami tarineem
Ripudalavarineem maataram
What puzzled that seven year old boy was the reference to the ‘seven crore voices’ crying in unison in celebration of Goddess Durga who symbolises the Nation that was, is and will forever be India, and the fourteen crore hands bearing arms in defence of that Mother. I knew even then that India’s population was substantially higher than seven crore, for I also knew the Kannada poem, makkalivarenamma makkalivarenamma muvattu muru koti, [Are these the thirty three crore children I have given birth to…] by the highly regarded Kannada poet, Dattatreya Ramachandra Bendre, and included in gari (feather), a collection of his poems published in 1932. Bendre too, in the words cited, invokes Bharata Mata, who plaintively wonders why despite giving birth to thirty three crore children she is still enslaved. In the Vande Mataram narrative, to the extent I have been able to understand, Ma Durga, symbolising the Indian nation, has about seven crore devotees to do her bidding, bear arms in their fourteen crore hands for her defence. Around the time the poem was written, the population of Bengal, east and west, and perhaps including in the Bengali nationalist narrative those inhabiting territories further to the east, would be about seven crore. In other words, the Bengali nationalist narrative is the Indian nationalist narrative. In contrast, the Indian nationalist imagination as found expression of a Kannada poet living in Dharwad, then and to some extent even now a small town in North Karnataka envisaged an India that was inclusive in every sense of the word, thirty three crore being approximately the population of India when the poem was written. I leave it to the audience to make what inferences it wishes.
I end this section with its over-solemn discussions involving very learned sounding terms like nationalist imagination and narrative with a bit of comic relief encapsulated in the two photographs above. The one at the top is from the website of a perfervidly patriotic website with explicit Hindutva orientation, [http://yuvashakti.wordpress.com/], celebrating some Indian triumph, perhaps an Indian victory over Pakistan in a cricket match, perhaps some other real or imagined Indian victory over issues more serious than Pakistan. What matters is not the context, but the image, for the image is all. The one below is the famous photograph of the planting of the US flag atop Mount Suribachiyama, the highest point on Iwo Jima, a Japanese island in West Pacific ocean, after it was taken possession of by the United States Marines during the Second World War, also a triumphal image, but the triumph is real.
The celebration of patriotic fervour in the simulated first photograph where the Indian tricolour appropriated a triumph to which it is not entitled raises interesting questions about the nature and direction of extreme nationalism, and its implication not merely for the smaller nationalities that may feel oppressed, but even for the very triumphalism of the kind represented by both the pictures, one fake and ersatz, the other all too real.
Such triumphalism creates its own victims. What happened after the end of the civil war in Yugoslavia to Serbia, the largest republic of the former Federal Republic, when Croatia, Macedonia and Slovenia declared their independence, may or may not have relevance to the variety of struggles going on in this region, their aspirations covering a wide spectrum from demands for autonomy or when such autonomy already exists shifting gears and seeking independence. The inescapable fact in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was that the Great National Chauvinism of Serbia had consistently diminished the smaller nationalities of the Federal Republic and had alienated them. This combined with other factors like foreign intervention and also, one should admit, the insular Little National Chauvinism of the smaller republics like Croatia led to the unilateral declarations of independence, civil war, open and covert foreign interventions, and in the end the destruction of a sense of nationhood that had served Yugoslavia well, even to the extent of enabling Tito (not a Serbian but a Croatian) to weld a Yugoslav nationalism in opposition to the perceived oppression of Great Russian Nationalism that could not be eliminated even by Stalin in the Soviet Union.

Ideas Do Not Die, Ever
I return in this section to two points made in the previous section where I have tried to deal with some events and developments of contemporary history (that many in my audience would know more about) to amplify some other features of what I call varieties of separatism. The first is that separatist sentiments, real or opportunistically manipulated, are sometimes used as a bargaining tactic in areas where the objective reality provides no rationale for such separatism. In such areas separatism dies away sooner or later. The second point, that the primary cause for the unravelling of the Yugoslav state was the overweening Serb chauvinism that led inescapably to the barely dormant chauvinisms of individual little nationalisms. This happened despite the fact that the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia formally comprised six Socialist republics and two autonomous provinces, a clear recognition that the Yugoslav state at least in its constitutional provisions was truly federal in letter and spirit, had recognised the reality of the complex ethnic mix of its population and had mandated the required constitutional provisions. However, this constitutional recognition of the uniqueness of the identities of the various constituent autonomous republics and autonomous provinces meant less than nothing in practice when confronted by the national chauvinism of the largest and most powerful of the nationalities, the Serbs. One may see some corresponding similarities in the way Centre-State relations have worked, or have not worked, in India. Interestingly, and to the extent I remember, the Chapter on Centre-State relations in the Indian Constitution does not even use the term, federal and derivatives thereof, in any of its articles, though commentators and judicial pronouncements on its provisions use the term freely.
In other words, the decisive contribution to the unravelling and disintegration of the Federal Republic came from within Yugoslavia, from the dominant Serbian nationalism that, like other great nationalisms, degenerated to Serb chauvinism. The process did not stop in 1991; it went on and eventually forced Montenegro which had not seceded in 1991 but had remained as the Republic of Serbia and Montenegro to walk away in 2006. One wonders if these seemingly obscure developments in an area so removed from India have some relevance for process of nationality formations in India, and the problems that this is encountering as much in Assam as in other parts of this region.
Separatist sentiments or aspirations in most parts of India whose people – always
meaning by the term ‘people’ about half the population or less many of whom, even while suffering from denial and oppression, have developed some stakes in the system – have little objective cause for feeling alienated or even diminished in terms of their individual or collective identities may be dead, or may only be dormant. This is certainly not a live issue. However, they came into the public domain and stayed there for awhile before dying out – or staying dormant. The reason why Tamil nationalism and separatism are not live issues is not because such sentiments are fully dead – my own reading is that ideas do not die, ever – but that they cannot be an issue to be pursued By Whatever Means Necessary (to use that cliché), because the objective situation in the land of the Tamils does not admit such extreme manifestations of non-existent grievances. Put simply, it is not possible to rouse the Tamil people into discontent on the ground that they are a despised and diminished minority that just does not count. The numbers, not to speak of the reality, are simply against such arguments. This is the case in the rest of India which is well integrated into the path of capitalist development that India has made its own, this despite the reality that is also routinely reiterated in the very structures created by the same Indian state (like the NAC) that inequalities too are growing.
This happy coexistence of a predatory class whose composition is too complex a subject to go into, but broadly comprising both the amoral and the modestly well-heeled ‘conscience-stricken’, at least for form’s sake, intellectuals, writers and artists, the NGOs briskly networking with international donor agencies and so on, maybe I should also add journalists and the media, had for long been able to contain discontent taking an explicitly political direction. The developments in recent years in what the glossies breathlessly describe as ‘abujland’ pose a challenge to this happy coexistence. It is not for nothing that the Prime Minister has been frequently speaking of LWE as the ‘greatest threat’ facing India. I am not sure this is the case. Poverty, inequalities of income and opportunities, structural discrimination against the vulnerable and defenceless, gender and caste oppression, alienation of the religious minorities, these pose the greatest challenge to even the kind of India that this alliance is trying to build even if the partners of this alliance carry different signboards. The recent setbacks to the organised left have emboldened this predatory class even further.
Could it be, therefore, that a measure of economic development, even if it were to be very modest and benefit further the pitiful ‘creamy layer’, that one has to look hard to find in this region, and a reigning in of the tendencies I have mentioned in the preceding paragraph weaken what separatist sentiments that still persist in the region? I am reluctant to make any suggestion, for I honestly do not know the ground reality even in Assam, my home for many years, let alone in Manipur where I have always been a visitor, not a resident. One is not sure of the reverse correlation between separatism and insurgency, and economic development. As that trite wisdom says, fair economic development touching the people is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition to meet the situation. After all, Punjab, a restively prosperous state also was a fertile ground for separate insurgency. The problem is that one knows so little about the correlations between the Indian State and the complex network of security agencies it has created to defend itself against forces committed to subvert this State. However, this very Indian State has also sometimes been found complicit in the creation of factions of such subversive forces, manufacturing grievances when necessary. Examples abound in this very region, not to speak of the by now well-known origins of the Khalistan movement.
Some friends have challenged such formulations, especially the one suggesting that separatism or insurgency is a bargaining counter, or that it is an instrumental agency cynically used (if not actually constructed) by those who have benefited from the Indian state, or that even the kind of development that this part of the country has seen would not have been possible without the separatism and insurgency, that there are strongly entrenched and powerful forces in the region well integrated into the patronage alliance of the Indian state who have developed a vested interest in the continuance of separatism and insurgency, only which can explain their persistence, despite many grievous setbacks. Perhaps it is possible to draw such inferences from this or that rather superficially argued articles, for I am no theorist, much less a thinker, but that ‘harmless hack, a mere journalist’. But certainly, some inference may be drawn from the very instructive trajectory of the Dravidian movement which in its origins had a strong separatist, if not secessionist component but whose two major political manifestations are now the two natural parties of government, vying with each other but shutting out all other players, including major players at the national level, from having any significant role in the politics of Tamilnadu.
Thou hast committed Fornication:
but that was in another country;
and besides, the wench is dead.
As a distant but friendly observer I have sometimes wondered about the persistence of the separatist mindset and sovereignty aspirations, even while bearing in mind the epigraph to the previous section. Yes, one admits the eternal durability of ideas, but one also wonders why ignoring the all too obvious objective reality that stares one in the face, separatism not so much as an idea but as self-destructive insurgency persists. To take the situation in this very state which I now find is utterly, totally, different from what I vaguely three or four decades ago. During my first visit to Kolara during the Puja holidays in 1963 a little over a year after I moved to Guwahati to spend some time with my mother, I was asked the strangest of questions by friends. The family doctor, for instance, asked me if he had to put extra postage stamps on the envelope addressed to me in Guwahati. A person from Guwahati was in those days a bit of a novelty even in Bangalore. Now people from this region are setting up businesses not merely in Bangalore but in other cities and towns as well. There are scores of stories I can tell about the strangest of encounters from persons of this region in the most unlikely of places and circumstances in Bangalore and even small towns in Karnataka.
This is only a small instance of a much larger process of integration of this region with the rest of the country, working both ways, though the influx of non-Manipuris into Manipur has been a process and enterprise going on over a much longer period, having ramifications going far beyond merely trade and investment, and having profound cultural implications. No need for me to spell these things out to this audience.
( To be contd )

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