Sometime in 1990 or 1991 when it was clear that the Soviet Union was unravelling, I had a conversation with an important functionary of the United Liberation Front, Asom (ULFA). Talking of this and that, we naturally talked about the developments in the Soviet Union about which I could not hide my sadness. He on the other hand was very positive, for according to him, such unravelling would also ‘inevitably’ follow in India, which was all the good for ULFA’s objective of securing sovereignty for Assam. I have come across similar ‘optimism’ among others who are not actively engaged in securing sovereignty for Assam, but are sympathetic to ULFA’s objectives.
When I read about the near celebratory welcome accorded to the developments in Montenegro, which drove the final nail into the coffin of the remnants of Republic of Serbia and Montenegro, I was reminded of this perspective of sections of ULFA who too, twenty years ago, saw the unravelling of the Soviet Union as the curtain raiser for the ‘inevitable’ unravelling of India, and so a ‘good thing’ for the people of this region striving to ‘throw off the yoke of Indian colonialism’. I wonder how he sees the situation two decades later, when the unravelled Soviet Union, now the Russian Republic, and the yet unravelled India are both stronger than ever. To diminish is not necessarily to weaken, a lesson that India has learnt after actively assisting in the dismemberment of Pakistan.
Let me end this rambling discourse with an anecdote, actually something that I was an unwilling and rather disgusted witness to and participant in when I was living in Bombay, working with Economic and Political Weekly. This was during the days of the Janata Party government under Morarji Desai, sometime after the Morarji-Phizo meeting in London (June 1977). A senior journalist from Delhi dad dropped by at the office, a common event, and since this gentleman was supposed to ‘specialise’ in developments in this region, perhaps meaning that he wrote those execrable editorials in that paper that always upset me, and since I had joined EPW after working at GU for fourteen years during which period I began to write seriously on developments in Assam and the NE region, Editor Krishna Raj asked me to join him at his corner in the Office when this gentleman arrived. I was for the most part a silent listener, Raj was always the silent listener, but our visitor made up for our silence with his confident loquacity. Sure enough, Morarji Desai’s meeting with Phizo and the situation in Nagaland came up, as also the situation in Manipur whose restiveness was evident even in those days, even in Bombay. This gentleman said he had the solution to all these problems, the conversation was in the peculiar Hindi spoken by most Delhi journalists, with a strong Punjabi touch, so this account does not catch that flavour. Liberally sprinkling spittle all over me in his passionate patriotic intensity, the gentleman said: Corrupt them, yaar, corrupt them. Send more money. Corrupt them. Insurgency khatam ho jayega, or something like that. I did not even try to contradict him, though everyone knows that pouring money has never solved any problem, including what in those was beginning to be identified as Moneypour. Now few speak such language, perhaps a small advance; but whether such thinking has changed, I do not know.
Initially I had planned to speak of the sovereignty struggles in Assam, Manipur and Nagaland, and had made elaborate notes. However, when one begins to write, ideas sometimes take control of the writer who is only notionally in control of what she or he is writing. If this essay has dealt, even if superficially, only with the situation in Manipur, this is natural. For the sovereignty struggles in Manipur that have persisted so long have yet to define and resolve the serious contradictions arising out of the classic views of the land and its people, and the challenges these are facing from within. There are, as is the case with other, apparently more internally coherent Indian nationalities, varieties of Manipur and its people whose nationalist and territorial imaginations are not always in harmony. I think I will leave it at that.
Permit me, Sir, to end this disorganised discourse with a tribute to two women of this land: Thongjam Manorama, raped and killed, after being taken away from her home in the dead of night on 11 July 2004 three havildars of Assam Rifles. A few hours later her dead body was found not far from her house. Four days later was the famous public demonstration by twelve women who had bared their bodies, protesting the rape and murder, challenging the security forces to do the same to them, an event that shamed the nation (one hopes). Whatever be the procedural wrangles at the level of the government and the courts, the Armed Forces (Assam and Manipur) Special Powers Act, 1958 (AFSPA) is now fully in the national public domain. As I write this, I read in the papers that yesterday, 24 May, there was a demonstration in Bangalore against AFSPA calling for its repeal. The dialogue from Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta that I have used as the epigraph to this section may not be actually used as part of the defence of the accused if they ever come to trial, though such rationalisation of fornication and murder would be legitimate for that odious person from Delhi that ruined my working afternoon in Bombay. Indeed, such defence could well be the most explicit validation of the demand for Manipur’s sovereignty and independence.
And what can I say about Irom Sharmila that has not been said before, that I myself have not said and written before. Persons at the highest levels of the government have expressed their ‘concern’, retired army and police officers have said that AFSPA is not necessary, for India has other laws covering the same areas and providing similar immunities to armed personnel; but AFSPA stays. Irom Sharmila, like the dead Thangjam Manorama, shames this nation state that is India, my and your India.
As in much of what I have spoken earlier, I end with more questions for myself than answers for my audience. But I am sure no one here expected me to provide any answers. I thank you, friends, for your generosity in inviting me, and for your patience in listening to me articulate my inchoate thoughts. (Concluded)
(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)