A Brief Story of Political Conflicts in Modern Manipur
The less said the better is about the conflict situation in Manipur today. The province is home to numerous armed organisations fighting for issues ranging from sovereignty demands to the formation of autonomous districts. For the government all these issues just boil down to problems of unemployment, bad law-and-order condition or at worst, domestic issues of the union. Such an approach, without the consideration of political and historical standpoints, is utterly ineffective, which is quite apparent from the fact that the region is also home to some of the oldest armed movements in the whole world today.
We can start with some facts. After the British Raj finally decided to return to its cold storage, Manipur as an old Asiatic kingdom became an independent and sovereign state. It existed as one for two years. Before the Union of India drafted its omnipresent Constitution, Manipur had had its own constitution and elected its representatives in one of the earliest democratic elections held in Asia. However in 1949, King Boddhachandra was coerced to sign the controversial Merger Agreement after he was kept under house arrest in Shillong.
Born Supreme But Live on Ultimatum
Once a proud kingdom, it was reduced to a part-C state, a province administered under a chief commissioner in the Indian polity. That was 15 October 1949, which is still remembered as the Black Day in the province. First, the forced agreement and then this humiliation blended as the perfect ingredient for resistance movements in the months and years to come. A leader such as Hijam Irabot had foreseen the political implications but ignorance was proverbially blissful in those days with regards to the general public. The province became a union territory in 1956 but this new administrative concept of UT was an amalgamation of Part-C and D states, in accordance with the then newly enacted State Reorganisations Act of the same year. Finally, after years of grievances and demands, Manipur became a state in 1972 and apparently it was too late and too little.
By then, indeed in 1964, India had initiated one of the first ceasefire agreements with the Naga National Council (NNC), which later become the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN), and Manipur saw the birth of the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), under the leadership of Angami Zapu Phizo and Arambam Somorendro respectively. When war broke out between India and Pakistan in 1971, which resulted in the formation of Bangladesh, many members of the resistance groups were using the erstwhile East Pakistan that became Bangladesh as their safe haven. The war displaced them and the militants had to shift their bases or turn to other safer zones for their survival.
So a year before the death of Mao Tse-tung, some of these Manipuri rebels reached China and got in touch with the Chinese military. One of the outcomes of the visit and subsequent return was the formation of People’s Liberation Army, which started an intense armed campaign and propaganda against the union of India. The PLA was formed in 1978 with Nameirakpam Bisheshwar as its chairman. Around the same time, armed movement finally found its permanent root with the establishment of the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK) and Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP) in 1977 and 1980, and under the direction of Rajkumar Tulachandra and Yendrembam Ibohanbi respectively. Soon, exactly as the official reports go by, the region saw a steep decline in the law and order situation.
The best thing the governments in New Delhi and Imphal initiated was the imposition of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) in 1980—which the Human Rights Watch refers it to as a ‘tool of state abuse, oppression and discrimination’. This act was an offshoot of a British ordinance that the colonial masters employed against the Indian freedom struggle in the wake of Quit India Movement in 1942. The act was imposed in September 1980, apparently after 38 years of Indian ‘masala’ conditioning in Manipur. One month later in the same year, the state also saw the establishment of Tactical Headquarters Manipur Sector of the Indian army, which has now been transformed into, from its façade, Hollywood-inspired Leimakhong. More military battalions and divisions of the establishment were further set up in, amongst others, Mao Maram area, Thoubal and Koirengei. Overall it was the beginning of the end of sanity in the region.
Now they are all over the hills and mountains and strategic areas and their number is swelling so much that they are literally leaving no hills or mounds ‘unturned’ to set up their bases.
On one hand, several leaders of the Meitei-based groups in and around the Imphal valley were either captured or killed in alleged encounters and attacks; and so was the rising toll of the civilians. In the Eighties, the incidents at Tekcham where N Bisheshwar was nabbed; Kadampoki where his successor, Thoudam Kunjabihari along with nine PLA rebels were killed; and Oinam where mass-scale human rights violations by army and paramilitary forces were first reported had almost become a folklore. Many more stories had been submerged in the sands of time. On the other, in the hill region, the NSCN that was formed by the anti-Shillong Accord group started creating their bases in Senapati, Ukhrul, Tamenglong and elsewhere.
The later part of decade also saw the rise of PLA’s political wing, Revolutionary People’s Front and the UNLF’s armed unit, the Manipur People’s Army. If the constant fight between the state and non-state actors was one side of the coin, the other was the emergence of fratricidal and factional killings as well as ethnic hostilities.
The Naga rebels’ penchant for imposing tax resulted in the bloody Naga-Kuki clash in the early Nineties with a heavy casualty on the latter’s side. It created a humanitarian crisis while a mainland bureaucrat in one of her writings on the then ongoing conflict, mentioned that the two groups are ‘war-like’ people in a style no different from how the British employed the Indian subjects in anthropological studies. Soon the period saw the foundation of the Kukis’ movement for their homeland and districts, further making the ethnic matrix as complex as the origin of universe.
It is certain that many Kukis will disagree with the couple of points mentioned above because their consciousness has been developing ever since the outbreak of the Great Kuki Rebellion of 1917–1919 — or possibly, way, way back in 1777, as some of them claim so. In 1960 on the record, some of its representatives under the aegis of the Kuki National Assembly had submitted a memorandum to Jawaharlal Nehru for creating a separate Kuki state under the Indian Constitution.
The Meiteis have a two-thousand-year-old civilisation of Kangleipak; the Nagas have a unique history of Nagalim and the Kukis have, perhaps, become Old and New Kukis of Zale’n-gam, regardless of contradictions and logical deprivations. Only a kind of Dostoevsky can write our tales of gloom and doom. A common concern is probably our ‘interference’ in Burma because all of us claim to have our territory in this country while simultaneously we play victims in India. For that matter contemporary studies also show that the so-called region of Northeast India is an extension of conflicts that run all the way from Burma to Indonesia.
In one of his essays, The Myth of Ethnic Conflict in Manipur, Sanatomba Kangujam put it succinctly on the confrontation between these groups:
The Meiteis, the Nagas and the Kukis are identified as the struggling communities in a sense that they have been struggling against feudal oppression, colonial subjugation and class exploitation in one way or the other. But the absence of a sustained effort to resolve the basic contradictions between different communities through mutually acceptable political process has gradually transformed the struggling communities into conflicting communities.
Insurgent organisations are set up by the contesting elites as a political technology to be deployed for realising their imagined political space. The establishment of insurgent machineries and infrastructures led to intensification of the conflict. It needs to be clarified that conflict was already in existence much prior to the establishment of insurgent machineries. Insurgency emerged only when attempts to resolve the basic incompatibility underlying the conflict met with a failure.
(Source: The Sangai Express / Matamgi Manipur, September 2011)
All of us have further sub-groups who do not see each other eye to eye. Observers noted that the Nineties’ clash between the Nagas and Kukis was a result of turf war in drug smuggling involving the militants of these two groups, particularly in the border trade town of Moreh in eastern Manipur—this is the same town which many stakeholders want to be a municipality and which the Kukis see it as an encroachment on their ancestral terra firma. (Footnote: The legal security establishment is perhaps not interested in territory but it has been making ground in drug smuggling.)
Another outcome of the feud was the formation of a few Kuki resistance groups, which long after years of demanding for a separate state of Kukiland started the armed movement for sovereignty or the formation of Zale’n-ngam. Their spokespersons, as a rejoinder to the never-ending Naga arguments, contend that real Manipur is just the valley region. Rightly so; because at the drop of a hat, both of them have the power to cut off the valley by imposing economic blockades on the two highways that connect the province to the rest of the world.
We are intentionally ignorant of history for cheap political goals but ignorance is not always blissful. To quote Martin Luther King, Jr: ‘Nothing in the entire world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.’
There’s also a caveat—just like the Nagas have different demands from its subgroups, the case is no different from those of the Kukis. In fact only a few years after the Naga-Kuki ‘semi-final’, the Kukis played the final match with the Paites or Zomis. The ethnic clash that went on for nearly fifteen months in 1997–98 resulted in the death of a thousand more civilians and the outbreak of another humanitarian crisis. In this kind of situation it is an easy pie for the government and the numerous self-styled authorities to play the ‘master-monkey’ who mediated a fight between two cats.
Change of Hearts
The first decade of 21st century started with a full-blown ethnic tension. From the beginning the armed struggle was against the union but suddenly the language of resistance changes—the conflict became an issue of territorial pissing and a clash between the natives while the union takes a back seat. It was a delightful moment for the Indian establishment and in its excitement, agreed to the Nagas’ demand that the ceasefire agreement should extend to the hill districts of Manipur. In the valley the indifferent approach of the union resulted in the death of eighteen people in 2001 during a series of street protests and objections against the ever-nonchalant government. Unsurprisingly the Nagas, so do the the Kukis as always, blamed the Meiteis for the latter’s interference in solving their problems. The government was left with no option but to drop the controversial phrase ‘without territorial limit’ from the ceasefire lexicon that it has developed from its engagement with a sole Naga group in this land of 1,000 revolts.
As much as the Naga groups are legendary for their tax collection on the highways, the rebel groups in the Manipur valley are known for their demand letters. Even the chief minister is not spared from extortion as newspaper and Wikileaks reports had exposed some years ago. The Meiteis are a dominant group and have a superiority complex, enjoying a ‘general’ category with natural socio-cultural privileges than the so-called tribes of Nagas and Kukis, who have the benefits of most of the government’s material privileges. (Manipuri Muslims are also in the general category.) Still it is noteworthy that these privileges have created nothing—nothing else but only an elite class in each group.
We, the Meiteis, are very melodramatic and sentimental people too. We sing our songs of hill-valley fraternity on our lips while in our heart we are supremacists, though this does not imply the Nagas and Kukis are angels. We cannot simply accept the fact that Manipur was underdeveloped because of our attachment to the concept of Kangleipak, a formidable, ancient Asiatic kingdom and that the hills were not part of the erstwhile Meitei sovereignty because there are not a ‘unique’ but a ‘written’ history of our civilisation in our own language and script as well as studies documented by credible historians.
Prof Gangmumei Kangmei classifies the history of Manipur into certain categories such as traditional Meitei historiography, colonial historiography, post-colonial historiography and tribal historiography still we know that any kind of assertion and argument will only aggravate the already deteriorating conditions. That’s the tragedy.
Of Swords, Daggers and Spears
The Nagas and Kukis have a tendency to believe that all’s well with the Meiteis but it is a universal truth that we do not need to trample on others to put our point across the table. This statement will, well, set again another round of countercharges, but what is important here is an objective view of the existing realities.
As mentioned the less said the better about the conflicts; still for a hint, the valley has been protesting against state terrorism; more than a thousand of people that had been killed in fake encounters are making to the latest headlines; the government is chronically diseased with corruption; institutional breakdown has pushed us towards savagery; security agencies along with their armed antagonists have created a mayhem; the government is in a threesome with contractors and militants on one hand and with the bureaucrats and contractors on the other; social revolution has been redefined to imply extortion from the public and hurling grenades at private residences against noncompliance; certain smugglers have left the drug and arms trade and they are into petrol and essential commodities these days, and the list goes on. As a reminder, this list does not even include the mother of all crises, the Merger Agreement or the overall socioeconomic and political underdevelopment or the daily tragedies.
A scan of the number of protests on the streets of Imphal on any given day should be revealing for anybody sensitive enough to notice this emerging frightening confusion. If there are a group of people staging a ‘sit-in protest’ on the side of an Imphal street against the growing menace of kidnapping government officials for (astronomical) ransoms, in another corner of the city there would be another group protesting against an equally frightening and seemingly officially sanctioned campaign of custodial executions under cover of (fake) encounters.
Elsewhere there would be another group calling for the total repeal of the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act, AFSPA, but there would also at the same time be others wanting a highway protection force as the highways are now no longer under the control of the state authorities but in the hands of coercive underground ‘taxmen’ and more often uncommitted fulltime extortionists.
(Insane Manipur, Editorial, Imphal Free Press, 16 March 2014)
Again, the only intervention from the authority is in sending and ‘manufacturing’ more security personnel, while ‘sectarian’ civil and students’ organisations are neck-deep immersed in governance and administration. To cut it short, what has been experiencing in the five hill districts of Chandel, Churachandpur, Senapati, Tamenglong and Ukhrul are no different in the four valley districts of Bishnupur, Imphal East, Imphal West and Thoubal. The slightly different element is the distortion of histories or pre-histories to fit one’s ideology.
If these are insufficient, consider the tragedies of Tera Bazaar on 25 March 1993, Ukhrul on 9 May 1995, Bashikhong on 19 February 1995, Tabokpikhong on 12 August 1997, Nungleiban on 15 October 1997, Churachandpur on 21 July 1999 and Tonsen Lamkhai on 3 September 2000. If these incidents of death and mayhem do not show we are on the same sinking boat, nothing will. Never in our narratives have been there a nationalistic struggle, of any group, and this fact makes the complex issues more complicate.
Provisions like the imposition of AFSPA were supposed to contain insurgency, yet it is an open secret how the trends of violence have rather intensified and the number of active armed organisations and their factions have increased every few years. We are in a multiple layers of conflicts and crises and going by these tendencies we are still pathetically short of any sensible solution in the near future, leave alone the dreams of peaceful coexistence. The ethnic hostilities in this condition are anything but an insult to the injury, rendering the idea of Manipur as complete only in the political map while on the ground it is as fragmented as our unique histories and memories—though already it is, in the name of identity and self-image.
This fragmentation was exposed again in the wake of anti-ILP protest in Manipur last year. The protesters (read the Kukis of Churachandpur) presented a counter-argument to the Meitei’s desperation to put the Inner Line Permit System in place and check the unrestrained flow of outsiders in the interest of indigenous societies in Manipur. The Kuki’s contention is that such a campaign will only serve the Meiteis while discriminating the Kuki and Naga tribals. For the latter, the Protection of Manipur People Bill 2015 relating to the ILP System is nothing but the whims of the Meitei hegemonic power that will eventually compromise the tribal’s identity and territory.
Nowhere, however, it was mentioned that many Kukis have infiltrated Manipur in droves from Burma sans any legal procedure over the last few decades. Sometimes it is too ridiculous to be true but sadly it is. The Meiteis have no issues with the Nagas and Kukis in this regard. To take a direct reference, that we fear is a Tripura-like condition where the original natives have become a minority with the mass migration of mainlanders.
Today, the ILP issue has simmered down with no resolution like most of the issues do (currently we are occupied with a 2009 fake encounter case after an exposé by the Imphal Free Press). Yet the issue will re-explode and the authority will be caught with their pants down again. Historically the system was in place in Manipur but it was scrapped one year after the erstwhile sovereign country was forcefully annexed to the union of India. The rationale for scrapping the permit system was to accommodate refugees in the aftermath of Indian partition. To reiterate, this kind of issues on ethnic confrontation was unheard of prior to the 90s and now the union must be delighted to see that its job of separating the people has been done effortlessly without its involvement and that it has inherited the colonial legacy of divide and rule so well.
India had successfully annexed Manipur in those days of almost non-existent transportation and communication system. It is still not fully developed but India simply cannot afford to redraw the boundaries. The union has never acknowledged the Indo-Manipuri political conflict nor ever tried to solve the problems honestly or logically. From day one, for instance, without any sense it agreed to incorporate the phrase ‘without territorial limit’ in the Indo-Naga ceasefire agreement way back in 1997 but it had to retreat so absurdly. It has been still repeating the same kind of blunders over and over again.
We live in a world of contradiction where everybody is guilty yet nobody is in the wrong and everything is possible still nothing is feasible. The sole essential proactive action will be to talk to each other—not brandishing swords, daggers and spears but coming together with an open mind. Revenge and resentment come easy but these will hardly solve the issues. It is also only easy to suggest that initiatives should come from both individual and community levels yet we are out of option in our present society but to reiterate the necessity of taking those initiatives that will be mutually beneficial. Precisely what we need is to take a couple of steps back and make a middle ground.
The Last Word
The weak Indian political institution is neither going to help us so the onus is on our collective lives. In a way, the societies of different ethnic groups are interpreting their stories in accordance with the realisation of modern state, though an entity like Manipur is diagonally opposite to this kind of new-found political consciousness. The issue is more about neocolonialism and about appropriating land and resources for state-supported expansion of influence and control. Alternatively, Manipur, according to its dominant group prefer to explain history with the concept of a kingdom, when by a simple ceremony of unfurling a flag in a particular region, a ruler can claim it as his territory. This is also why the Westphalian concept lacks its credibility tragically, because even before we can define a kingdom, we have to face the monster of a modern state where there are a specific boundary and a population, in addition to the monkey business of the Indian union.
Now, in this brouhaha, who is going to be responsible for carrying the message to New Delhi that we are facing a political conflict and that it needs a political solution to end it and that a military intervention will never work?
• Bleeding Manipur by Phanjoubam Tarapot (Har-Anand Publications 2007)
• Colonial and Post-Colonial Historiography of Manipur, a paper by Professor Gangmumei Kamei (from the the author’s National Fellows Lecture series entitled ‘The Philosophy of History and the Historiography of Manipur’ presented at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study at Shimla in September 2010; Kangla Online http://kanglaonline.com/2010/10/colonial-and-post-colonial-historiography-of-manipur/)
• Ethnic Relations Among the People of North East India edited by Naorem Joykumar (Chenara Publications 2008)
• How History Repeats Itself? an article by Angomcha Bimol Akoijam (Economic & Political Weekly http://www.epw.in/journal/2001/30/commentary/manipur-how-history-repeats-itself.html in July 2001)
• Insane Manipur, Editorial, Imphal Free Press, 16 March 2014, http://ifp.co.in/
• Lost Opportunities: 50 Years of Insurgency in the North-East and India’s Response by Brig SP Sinha (Lancer International 2009)
• Myth of Ethnic Conflict in Manipur, The, an essay by Sanatomba Kangujam (The Sangai Express/Matamgi Manipur http://matamgimanipur.blogspot.in/2011/09/myth-of-ethnic-conflict-in-manipur.html 2011)