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Oh, Manipur! Will It Turn The Corner?

Image Credit: Outlook India

It is often with a resigned ‘Oh, Manipur’ and a shrug that observers refer to what is widely perceived to be the Northeast’s most difficult problem area. The record of violence, alienation, multiple insurgencies, human rights violations, ethnic conflict, extortion, corruption, missed development opportunities, stand-offs, protest and despair is certainly worrying. However, the picture can be overdrawn as a recent visit to Imphal suggests. Behind the turmoil and seeming sense of helplessness is a perhaps fugitive yet discernible feeling that a turnaround is possible, and in fairly short measure.

Some background. Manipur is one of the oldest principalities in India with a proud and unbroken history of nearly 2000 years. It was invested during the Second World by the Japanese who were finally turned back from the gates of Imphal as of Kohima. This churning sparked revolutionary fervor throughout the region. On August 11, 1947, the Manipur Maharaja signed an instrument of accession ceding defense, foreign affairs and communications to the Indian Union but adopted a new state constitution under which elections were held with adult franchise to install a popular government. The Manipur Congress won 24 seats in the 53 member Assembly, the Hill areas returned 18 representatives and the left leaning Krishak Sabha, headed by the Communist Irobot Singh, five. A non-Congress coalition was formed but its left leanings caused the Manipur Congress to seek merger with the Union. This was effected on October 15 1949, the Maharaja allegedly signing under duress.

Many Manipuris still resent what they perceive to be a forced merger that denied them the autonomous political space they sought. Other aggravating factors are recounted as part of the historical imagination underlying and continuing Meitei protest. An ancient kingdom was brought under a chief commissioner and not granted the statehood until much later. The Meitei language was not given 8th Schedule status until still later. Burma’s de facto sovereignty over the Kabaw Valley was made de jure in 1953. The Valley Meiteis lost out to the scheduled tribe Hill people in terms of land purchase rights and reservations. And Kangla Fort, the symbol of Meitei pride was occupied by the Assam Rifles until a few years ago.

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Manipur is one of the oldest principalities in India with a proud and unbroken history of nearly 2000 years. It was invested during the Second World by the Japanese who were finally turned back from the gates of Imphal as of Kohima. This churning sparked revolutionary fervor throughout the region.

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Hurt pride rankled and provided the emotional basis for Meitei separatism even as sharpening and, sometimes, competing identity formation in the Hills led to further polarization. Te numerous insurgent groups in Manipur, mostly Meitei, made up of the United National Liberation Front, Peoples Liberation Army, the Kangleipak Communist Party, the Kangleipak Young Communist League and PREPAK are ideologically left oriented, with varying undertones of pre-Vaishnavite Meitei revivalism and native ‘nationalism’. The Nagas are divided between the NSCN (IM) and NSCN (K) who, like a clutch of southern Kuki groups, have entered into ceasefire or suspension of operation agreements with the Government. Insurrectionary violence is therefore mainly limited to the Valley though internecine conflicts, extortion and kidnappings are rampant. The almost open Myanmar border allows various underground groups to find sanctuary on the other side and engage in smuggling narcotics, arms and other goods.

The NSCN (IM) has probably come to realize that integration of all Naga inhabited areas or Nagalim is not on the cards. Manipur, for one, cannot be divided. The social, cultural and even political objective of Naga togetherness can, however, be largely attained through a variety of non-territorial adjustments that do not undermine existing state boundaries with the various Naga ho-hos (tribal assemblies) providing a certain bonding even with the so-called Eastern Nagas in Myanmar from where Muivah hails. Nephi Rio, former Nagaland CM, has interestingly registered his Nagaland People’s Party as the Naga People’s Party in Manipur, Arunachal and Assam.

Many issues have been resolved over time. The outstanding grievance relates to continuance of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which has lately been withdrawn from the Greater Imphal municipal area and is largely inoperative in the Hill areas that are under suspension of operation arrangements. Yet it looms large as a huge political affront and psychological hurt, with Irom Sharmila on hunger fast for a decade and Meitei women disrobing before security forces to demonstrate their indignation.

The Jeevan Reddy Committee in 2005 recommended AFSPA’s repeal and incorporation of certain of its provisions in the existing Unlawful Activities Act, something endorsed by the Moily Administrative Reforms Commission’s report on Pubic Order. The Centre has promised action but must act expeditiously. This one gesture will be a balm, enable Sharrmila to break her fast and transform Meitei sentiment. With arms resolving nothing, the newly-formed association of Senior Citizens for Society has called for a political settlement through unconditional dialogue with Meitei groups.

Various grievances need to be addressed, together with the imperative of development to generate productive jobs for the rising tide of educated unemployed in this highly literate state. Development is not a panacea but can be a solvent for many ills. The Tipaimukh project, regarding which residual objections appear more ideological and nominal than real on account of inadequate communication, purposeful implementation of the Look East policy and speedy upgradation of the Silchar-Imphal Highway could provide a welcome development thrust.

Talks with the NSCN (IM) must be carried forward on the basis of the proposals exchanged. Kuki groups must also come to the negotiating table and should not be too difficult to satisfy. Hard liners on all sides are likely to be isolated by a groundswell in favor of peace and progress. The old hurt about ‘forced merger’ could hopefully be removed should the Assembly adopt a resolution ‘˜reaffirming’ Manipur’s merger in 1949 simultaneously with the announcement of the proposed political and economic package for the state. With concerted action, the hope that Manipur might turn the corner within the next three to four years may not be just a pipe dream given a benign spell of President’s rule followed by general elections.

*The article is written by B G Verghese

*The article was originally published in the Deccan Herald on February 10, 2010

*You may visit B G Verghese’s website at www.bgverghese.com for further readings.

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