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Understanding the Politics of Plebiscite —Towards Participatory Conflict Transformation—

Factors Triggering Plebiscite Proposal

Responding to the call of the former State Governor, Dr SS Sidhu, for insurgent groups to shun violence and find peaceful democratic solution to the problem, the United National Liberation Front, UNLF, had floated a four-point proposal for holding plebiscite under the auspices of the United Nations to resolve the Indo-Manipur conflict satisfactorily once and for all. In a speech delivered by the then Governor of Manipur on the Republic Day in 2005, His Excellency had indicated that insurgency problem should be resolved politically while addressing the insurgents as “dissatisfied brethren”.

The change demonstrated in addressing the insurgents as “dissatisfied brethren” and not as “misguided youth”, which earlier was the case was appreciated by the UNLF as a change in the attitude of the Governor/Government. What prompted the UNLF to initiate a new approach to find a way out of the conflict in Manipur was the appeal of the Governor to express their viewpoints and demands by non-violent and democratic means and also to resolve the current conflict through dialogue and negotiations. Such a gesture was interpreted as a positive signal and a change in attitude of the Government worthy of appreciation regardless of how little it might be.

The contextual understanding of why the UNLF made a shift in its approach towards resolving the conflict in Manipur can be sought in the social and political dynamics that unfolded in the preceding years. The Great June Uprising of 2001 against the extension of ceasefire between the Government of India and the NSCN-IM to Manipur and the Great July Movement of 2004 in the wake of Manorama’s Incident against the continued enforcement of AFSPA had provided UNLF with an opportunity to review its policy. These two events were considered by the UNLF as clear indications of a qualitative change in the mindset of the people. From the overall perspective, the UNLF believed that these two movements of the people against what it called “divisive and repressive colonial policies” were firm indicators of a revolutionary situation. It was on the basis of the emergence of such encouraging factors that informed the UNLF to formulate a new strategy to arouse and empower the people to assert their ultimate democratic right to directly participate in resolving the conflict on the basis of an UN-supervised plebiscite.

According to the UNLF, the emergence of such a revolutionary situation is made possible by the existence of armed struggle.

The UNLF regarded the armed struggle as the leading factor in the liberation struggle, but felt that armed struggle could not by itself overthrow the alien rule without the active participation of the people. Conceding that sovereignty lies with the masses, the UNLF regarded the people to be the basic source of strength and the most decisive factor of the liberation struggle. To UNLF’s strategic thinking, armed struggle and democratic struggle are two forms of struggle, complementary and supplementary to each other. Which one assumes primacy depends on the given stage of liberation struggle. The UNLF justified floating of plebiscite proposal on two grounds. First, it is the only internationally accepted method to take the vote of people on vital national issue. Second, the Manipur-India political conflict needs to be resolved according to the wishes of the people.

Significance of the Plebiscite Campaign

The plebiscite proposal floated by the UNLF heralded a new chapter in the history of insurgency in Manipur. It is a practical approach which aimed at resolving or transforming the prevailing conflict that has remained seemingly intractable for many decades. Though out rightly rejected by the Government of India (GoI) as unfeasible, the proposal for holding plebiscite has nevertheless produced far reaching implications on the overall conflict scenario in the State.

The plebiscite proposal was employed as a means to initiate widespread political discourse by the UNLF. The years 2005-2006 witnessed holding of spontaneous public meetings on the issue of plebiscite throughout the Manipur valley. The magnitude of the events was unprecedented in the history of Manipur as no such spectacular public response to the call of an insurgent group had ever been witnessed before. People of various hues came out to participate in the meetings held to discuss issues relating to plebiscite. Apart from social activists, University Professors took active role in spreading awareness to the masses on the prevailing conflict situation in addition to highlighting various aspects of the plebiscite proposal. The ensuing public debate and discussion mainly centered on the feasibility of holding plebiscite under the existing circumstances, the future of Manipur and also the historical trajectories leading to the present situation. Many intellectuals came forward to share their views on plebiscite through newspapers. The plebiscite campaign was able to stir up the mind of the masses and mobilized a huge section of the society towards generating a healthy debate on the political future of Manipur. However, in what can be described as an unfortunate development, the State Government had resorted to stringent repressive measures against the organizers of the plebiscite meeting by June 2006. Subsequently, the plebiscite campaign temporarily died out.

After a gap of about four years, the plebiscite campaign was revived in 2010 following the arrest of Uncle Sanayaima and resultant public uproar against his unlawful detention by the Indian Intelligence agencies. Many civil organizations have organized a number of public meetings at different places on the theme “Manipur-India conflict and people’s participation in its resolution”. The public meetings adopted certain resolutions which among others include endorsement of people’s participation in resolving the Manipur-India conflict; demand for holding of plebiscite to resolve the conflict; and seeking the co-operation of the United Nations and other international human rights organizations in the resolution of the conflict.

A very interesting aspect of the plebiscite campaign is the endorsement of the proposed plebiscite by the public. The spontaneous public response to the call of an insurgent group speaks volume of the popular support which the insurgent group is in command. The public response indicated two realities. One, it demonstrates that the UNLF enjoys a considerable extent of support from the masses from where it derives its legitimacy to sustain the liberation struggle. Two, open public endorsement of the plebiscite proposal is a clear reflection of the fact that the people of Manipur are still in favor of the idea of an independent Manipur as espoused by the insurgent group(s).

It deserves to be pointed out that the public response to the call of the UNLF for plebiscite has been spontaneous and widespread. This is rendered possible because of the popular support which the UNLF enjoys or because of the mass base which the insurgent group was able to build up over the years. Besides, the open endorsement of the plebiscite proposal by the people is a clear indication of the prevalence of certain degree of disagreement with the idea of India or Indianness. Huge sections of the people of Manipur seem to harbor deep grudges against the existing Indian rule in Manipur.

The significance of the plebiscite proposal lies in the fact that it is the first concrete model spelt out by an insurgent group in Manipur to resolve the prevailing conflict. No other insurgent groups had ever come forward with any tangible option to bring about an amicable solution to the political conflict involving India and Manipur. Not even the GoI had ever suggested a formula acceptable to both sides to end the standoff. The GoI, in its decades of engaging with the armed groups in Manipur, has not been able to convince the latter to resolve the conflict through a mutually acceptable political process.

The policy of the GoI towards insurgency in Manipur as well as the North East has never gone beyond initiating peace talk within the framework of the Indian Constitution. The definition of peace prescribed by the GoI has not implied more than securing the surrender of the armed groups and providing half-hearted rehabilitation package to the surrendered cadres. Moreover, Government of India’s policy on insurgency has been predominantly shaped by militaristic concerns. The Government relied more on counter insurgency operations rather than on a genuine and more proactive approach that lay more emphasis on resolving the impasse through proper democratic methods. So far, the solution suggested by the Government always remains confined within the framework of the Constitution. In other words, India’s notion of peace in the North East is more prescriptive rather than transformative in approach and practice. Given these stereotype realities, UNLF’s plebiscite proposal seems to be breaking new grounds for transforming the conflict in Manipur.

The plebiscite proposal of the UNLF can also be seen as a gesture of willingness or desire on the part of the insurgent group to make peace with India. This was the second attempt made by the UNLF to resolve the politico-military conflict between Manipur and India. The UNLF came up with the idea of plebiscite as its earlier demand for holding conditional talk was flatly rejected by India. It may be recalled that the UNLF had in 2001 proposed to hold talk on three conditions: 1) talk should be on the issue of the sovereignty of Manipur; 2) Manipur should be demilitarized implying that the Indian military forces should be withdrawn from Manipur; 3) there should be a third party mediation. There is no question of abandoning the armed struggle on the part of the UNLF, but the strategic shift in its approach indicated a firm belief in finding a peaceful political solution to Indo–Manipur conflict.

It is interesting to note that an armed group which is deeply absorbed in sustaining the armed struggle demonstrated a strong political will to resolve the conflict through a democratic exercise. The UNLF is of the view that there could never be a military solution to the protracted conflict as proven by decades of India’s military operations against the insurgent forces which has produced no tangible outcome. Deployment of heavy military forces and continued enforcement of AFSPA and other draconian Acts have failed to subdue the armed movement for decades. Therefore, it is the firm belief of the UNLF that only a political solution could put an end to the highly intractable conflict. To this end, the proposal for holding plebiscite was mooted as a democratic approach to resolve the longstanding political impasse by directly involving the masses. According to the UNLF, no other approach could be more democratic than the plebiscite proposal.

Conspicuously, the issue of plebiscite would necessarily entail minute discussion between the conflicting parties. In other words, the demand for plebiscite, even if agreed upon by the GoI, would undoubtedly involve certain degree of consensus that could only be arrived at after engaging in a series of political negotiation. A dialogue, in this context, seems always remain an essential pre-condition for holding of the proposed plebiscite. Viewed from this perspective, UNLF’s proposal for plebiscite implies a subtle indication of its willingness to engage in a political dialogue. A realistic view indicates that certain form of non-formal dialogue has already been set into motion through the media.

Insurgency in Manipur has degenerated to such a level that it has become increasingly difficult to characterize it as a genuine movement for independence. The so called liberation movement has become synonymous with the practice of extortion, percentage cut, contract and supply works et al. I wonder if it is evolving into a sort of a “cottage industry” as sarcastically dubbed by the Central leaders. A handful of people with few guns can now form an armed group of their own under some high sounding principles and start distributing demand notes apparently for the cause of the people. The prevailing situation seems nothing more than simply a law and order issue. Majority of the people just do not know that there is a conflict situation in Manipur. Even certain informed quarters have refused to acknowledge the existence of conflict between Manipur and India. At such a critical juncture, the plebiscite campaign comes as a reminder that there has been, indeed, an armed conflict in Manipur involving the Government of India and the armed opposition groups of Manipur. Continuous holding of public meetings to discuss the issue of plebiscite brings to the notice of the people that they are living in a conflict situation which is far from being resolved. Besides, the awareness created by the plebiscite campaign enables one to draw a line of distinction between genuine insurgent groups, which among others, fulfill certain criteria like clear political objective, firm ideological principles, highly disciplined armed cadres, commitment to International Humanitarian Laws and most importantly people’s mandate; and those armed gangs, which lack the above cited criteria but nevertheless have been operating under the mask of a revolutionary outfit. Thus, the plebiscite campaign serves as a means to educate the masses about the objectivity of the prevailing conflict.

One main shortcoming of the insurgency movement in Manipur is its inability to transform the armed struggle or, to be more precise, armed propaganda into a full-fledged people’s movement.

The participation of the people is strictly contingent for the success of any movement. The armed organizations are merely the frontliners or the vanguards. In the tug of war between the State and the non-State forces, it is the people that will ultimately determine the outcome of the struggle. But, now-a-days, the masses are highly alienated from the movement. In other words, insurgency has mutated into a middle class phenomenon as if the armed struggle is of the middle class, for the middle class and by the middle class. Though, the movement claims to represent the hopes and aspirations of the masses, their views and opinions are not taken into account. Open criticism is something which is unthinkable in the present situation. Nobody dares to criticize the insurgent organizations for fear of stringent reprisal. In this regard, the so called “colonial Indian government” and the “puppet state government” are more tolerant to criticisms than the so-called progressive revolutionary forces operating in Manipur. Under such circumstances, the plebiscite campaign provides the appropriate platform to elicit the views and opinions of the masses on the issue of the ongoing conflict in Manipur. The plebiscite campaign can also be viewed as a mechanism to transform the elitist character of the armed movement into a genuine people’s movement. It serves dual purposes. First, the participation of the people in resolving the conflict is ensured. Second, people have the opportunity to offer constructive criticisms to the insurgent organizations.

Excessive monopolization of power by the non-State forces in every public sphere has eventually led to usurpation of the civil society space. The civil society organizations (CSOs) are meant to mediate between the non-State forces and the masses; between the State and the people and also between the State and the non-State forces. But the civil society organizations have come under tremendous fire from both the State and the non-State forces. However, it is the non-State actors that are largely responsible for the erosion or depletion of the civil society space. Everything comes to be dictated by those at the helm of the insurgent set-up. They have now started interfering in almost everything. There has been a tendency to transform all the civil society organizations into their front organizations (FO). But not all the CSOs can be expected to function as their FOs for the simple fact that a vibrant civil society space is a pre-requisite for the existence of a healthy society, or for that matter, a strong people’s movement. The most urgent need of our time, therefore, is to regenerate, restore and reclaim the civil society space. Thus, the plebiscite campaign can be understood as a move to re-assert the autonomy of the civil society organizations.

Although the proposed plebiscite is yet to see the light of the day, it can be regarded as a process of conflict transformation. Acceptance or non-acceptance of the proposal for holding plebiscite is not the issue. What is more important here is for the Government to grasp the plebiscite proposal as an opportunity or as an entry point to engage in a peace process. Here, the observation made by the Honorable Shri O Ibobi Chief Minister of Manipur, on the floor of the State Assembly that the plebiscite proposal is a ‘good sign’ is worthy of appreciation from all quarters.  The prevailing conflict in Manipur cannot be resolved or transformed overnight. However, a beginning needs to be made in right earnest. Recognition of the existence of an armed conflict in Manipur is the first step towards resolving the same. The second step is the recognition of the fact that the prevailing armed conflict in Manipur is a political issue requiring political solution. Lastly, a “participatory political dialogue” involving the Government of India, the armed opposition groups of Manipur and the general public (through appropriate platform) is the only practical approach to resolve the conflict.

*The article is written by Sanatomba Kangujam.

*The writer can be contacted through

(Courtesy: The Sangai Express)

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