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The Homeland and the State: The Meiteis and the Nagas in Manipur

As the events of the past two months have shown, Manipur is now a divided house. The seeds for this division were visible even before the merger of the state with the Indian Union in 1949. Today, in this insurgency-torn state, the liberation that a section of the population seeks is not the liberation another wants. The politics behind the 68-day economic blockade over the issue of revival of the Autonomous District Councils in the hill districts, which further hardened after the state government refused to allow the Naga nationalist leader, Thuingaleng Muivah, to visit his "home" village located in Manipur revealed the complex and antagonistic nature of ethnic aspirations that seem to make the state destined for conflict.

COMMENTARY

The Homeland and the State: The Meiteis and the Nagas in Manipur

Pradip Phanjoubam

What then is the present conflict in M anipur about? First, the immediate manifestation began with the Government of Manipur declaring elections to six Autonomous District Councils (ADCs). This then hardened after the government refused to allow Thuingaleng Muivah, leader of the Naga insurgent group, National Socialist Council of Nagalim

As the events of the past two months have shown, Manipur is now a divided house. The seeds for this division were visible even before the merger of the state with the Indian Union in 1949. Today, in this insurgency-torn state, the liberation that a section of the population seeks is not the liberation another wants. The politics behind the 68-day economic blockade over the issue of revival of the Autonomous District Councils in the hill districts, which further hardened after the state government refused to allow the Naga nationalist leader, Thuingaleng Muivah, to visit his “home” village located in Manipur revealed the complex and antagonistic nature of ethnic aspirations that seem to make the state destined for conflict.

Pradip Phanjoubam (phanjoubam@gmail.com) is editor of the Imphal Free Press.

T
he events of the last two months have left Manipur mauled, both emotionally and physically. Although the tension has been defused, the bitter aftertaste will probably not wash away easily – in the hills as well as in the valley, possibly for generations. But now that the tension has subsided and there is little likelihood of violence, it is time for the communities to drop the deceitful smokescreen of feigned fraternity and do some hard talking as well as soul-searching. If there is even an ember of hope that the relationship can be salvaged, the rebuilding of bridges which had been burnt can begin. If not, a new social restructuring process would have to be the next mission. Whatever the architecture of this new structure is to be, it must be enough to ensure that nobody is left with an unjust deal.

A parting of ways between the Meiteis and Nagas, even if desired by many, will not be easy because of the enmeshed nature of geography, both physical and human. By human geography I mean the physical space needed to ensure a realistic sense of security to a community. Disregarding this need is a sure recipe for deadly conflict. This geography is not just about the physical space anybody occupies. It is instead about a sense of control of the vital arteries that feed and sustain a social organism, or civilisation as it were.

The recently concluded 68-day blockade of M anipur, for instance, would have given everybody a sense of what this geography would be for the civilisation nurtured in the Imphal valley. If a parting of ways has to happen, both these geographies would have to be addressed adequately and taken care of without leaving anybody mutilated and made helpless. This is not a question of pity or mercy, but of sound judgment designed to avoid deadly conflicts.

(Isak-Muivah faction) – NSCN(IM) – to enter Manipur to visit his village, Somdal in Ukhrul district.

The ADCs are local self-governance b odies which have evolved as a parallel of the panchayati raj as the latter is not w elcomed by the hill communities. They came into being in 1973 as per The M anipur (Hill Area) Autonomous District Council Act 1971 of the Government of Manipur, when Manipur was still a union territory. The Act hence is of union g overnment vintage.

Defunct Councils

However, since 1989 the district councils have been defunct because of agitations in the hill districts that against elections to the ADCs demanding that they should be replaced by district councils u nder the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, which would give these councils a measure of legislative and judicial powers as per tribal customary laws. This never happened, hence the hills have remained without the benefit of any statutory grassroots local self-governance mechanism all this while. More than two decades later, the government decided to reinstate the ADCs, but the 1971 Act had in the meantime undergone an amendment in 2008.

This amendment very broadly seeks to transfer some of the traditional powers of the village chieftainship to the elected d istrict council of tribal leaders. This is what the All Naga Students Association, M anipur (ANSAM) and the United Naga Council (UNC), objected to and demanded the amendment be scrapped before the ADC elections were held. The government disagreed saying the hard-won election process should not be delayed, but it v erbally promised necessary rectifications to the ADC Act can be made after the district councils have been formed. On this

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Economic & Political Weekly

COMMENTARY

disagreement, the ANSAM and UNC i mposed the economic blockade that lasted 68 days beginning from the midnight of 11-12 April.

In the midst of this trouble, on 29 April, the union government informed the M anipur government by a crash wireless message that Thuingaleng Muivah, the general secretary of the NSCN(IM), would be visiting his village Somdal in Manipur on 3 May. Muivah was also to address two public rallies, one at Ukhrul on 8 May and another at Senapati on 10 May. Perhaps it is a coincidence that Muivah who has n ever expressed a desire to visit his village for 44 years, even though on many occasions in the recent past he had camped next door in the NSCN(IM) headquarters in Hebron close to Nagaland’s commercial capital, Dimapur, wanted to enter M anipur at this juncture. This being the case, it is also understandable for the Manipur government to presume that the economic blockade over the ADC elections and M uivah’s intended visit are part of one common design. The Manipur government decided to block Muivah’s entry. The decision led to the tragic Mao Gate incident on 6 May in which two Naga students were killed in clashes with the state police forces, and scores of others injured.

Ehnic Hue

Soon enough, the fight also began to acquire an ethnic hue. The ADC elections as well as the blocking of Muivah’s visit b egan thus to be portrayed as aggression by the Meiteis (valley dwellers who form the majority population in the state) against the Nagas. This is to some extent understandable for while the Meiteis were somewhat indifferent to the ADC issue, the blocking of Muivah who has been the leading campaigner for Greater Nagaland to be formed by merging territories in Manipur, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Myanmar – which the Nagas consider as the ancestral territories of the Nagas – with the present state of Nagaland, received strong support from the valley community.

However, contrary to propaganda by interested parties, the police force at Mao Gate that blocked Muivah’s entry was not a Meitei force. Manipur follows a 31% job reservation for scheduled tribes (STs).

This would have roughly ensured that the police force at Mao Gate on 6 May had at least between 31% non-Meiteis. The two IPS o fficers – the operations overall commander and his second-in-charge (2-IC) – on the day of the confrontation were both from the hill communities too. It is also untrue that the ADC elections are being forced on the hills with valley interest in mind. All hill affairs, including the amendments to the ADC Act, in Manipur are looked after by the Hill Area Committee (HAC) formed by all 20 hill MLAs of the Manipur assembly (which is 60 strong – 20 reserved seats and 40 general). As a government clarification stated recently, the HAC functions like a mini assembly within the Manipur assembly, and the latter cannot interfere in the decisions of the former. In the ADCs, there would also be no representation at all of the valley communities.

State and Non-State

The question remains, why does the hillvalley binary so easily comes to the fore, even where this should not have been? The answer perhaps has a lot to do with the troubled nature of formerly “non-state” people waking to the new reality of the “state”, and acquiring their own nationalist aspirations. The “state” and the “nation”, are two different notions. The “nation” as Benedict Anderson described it is an imagined community and it is this imagination that binds people together into political identities. But for this imagined community to have a tangible sustainable architecture, it must have a “state” as its backbone. The “state” in this sense is a p olitical mechanism invariably involving a centralised bureaucracy (or government) with a definite hierarchy of functionaries and institutions to run its political and economic administrations optimally. When this twin project of “national imagining” and “state” formation not only succeed but also become congruent, a “nation-state” can result. It is also true that just as the state can fail, so can the “imagining” that makes a nation.

There are also a few interesting deductions to be made in both the processes of “nation” formation and “state” formation and there can be few other places to match the north-east region to make these

o bservations. One of these deductions is that, “nation” formation would normally precede “state” formation. Another is that, in the process of social evolution, people have existed outside of any national “imagining” and thereby lived outside of the understanding of the “state” as well. This condition of an apolitical organisation of society is indeed an attribute of many if not most indigenous populations. In other words, both the birth of the national “imagining” and “state” formation happen at different times for different peoples, and the evolution of these conditions depend largely on the status of the economy (Friedrich Engel, Evolution of Family, Private Property and State). At its crux, this theory says that the state is a mechanism for managing the surplus economy implying that subsistence hunting-gathering or primitive non-productive tribal economies, are hardly conducive for the evolution of the “state” or the “nation” consciousness.

The third interesting observation is that, history is an account of “states” and that “states” recognise other “states” only, either as friends or enemies. This is also why “non-state” communities seldom figure in any known history. While everybody has a past, the past is not always history. Similarly, all facts are not historical facts, which is why, as E H Carr so illustratively pointed out, Caesar crossing the insignificant stream Rubicon is a historical fact and not the everyday fact of millions of others who in the course of their lives would have crossed the same stream. This should explain why in the written royal chronicles (with all their limitations and biases) available in the region only established kingdoms figured substantially. In chronicle of the 1819 devastating invasion by the Ava (Burma) mention is found only of the Manipur and Ahom kingdoms, and how these latter principalities were devastated, etc. This historic event is also chronicled by the British for it led to the First Anglo Burma war that culminated in the Treaty of Yandaboo, 1826. It is as if beyond these few feudal principalities of the time, the rest of the map of the region had only blank spaces. In the account of the Ahoms when they first entered Assam to establish their kingdom in the 13th century, the story was very much the same. “States” fight or make friends with “states”.

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This was also evident in the case of the Nagas. The British took cognisance of the Angamis as a force to reckon with only when Angami villages such as Khonoma, Kohima, Jotsoma, Mezoma, etc, started forming a confederation and showed signs of state formation in the first half of the 19th century. The first expedition of the British into the Naga hills was in 1839 (History of Assam Rifles) by L W Shakespeare: British interest in the region was already beginning to be entrenched with the tea industry (launched under the pioneering Bruce brothers) expanding in Assam and coal and oil also discovered. Hence the shadow of state formation amongst the Angamis troubled them. The same can also be said of the manner in which the British became concerned by the hint of state formation under the leadership of J adonang and Gaidinliu amongst the Zeliangrong Nagas during their 1931-1933 rebellion (Jadonang a Mystic Naga Rebel) by Gangmumei Kamei.

New Imaginings

The fact that these “non-state” spaces never occurred in these historical accounts does not necessarily mean they were never conquered and were always independent as claimed by many scholars. In most cases, they were just presumed to be part of one state or another. The changes of suzerainty over the then empty non-political space of Kabaw Valley between Manipur and Ava kingdoms should serve as an i llustration of this. The fact is that until the political organisation of these “nonstate” spaces began centralising to acquire attributes of a “state”, there was nothing much for a “state” to conquer or take cognisance of. As the “non-state” peoples invariably begin awakening to the brave new world of the modern times and cross into the territory of “history” and national “imaginings”, most of the time they wake up within territories of already formed “states” and “imagined communities”. The challenge facing much of the modern world is to accommodate this new phenomenon. Assimilating new “imaginings” within old existing ones is never likely to be easy and has tremendous conflict potential. The north-east and Manipur know this only too well.

But despite this commonly understood phenomenon, there is still immense bitterness amongst the hill tribes, including the Nagas, of perceived discrimination by the valley dweller Hindu Meiteis. This has a background. The Meiteis are ethnically and linguistically very close to the hill tribes, but after they converted to Hinduism in the early 19th century, they imported a caste system in which the hill tribes were treated as outcastes, leaving deep scars amongst the hill community. Quite ironically, Pamheiba, one of the most powerful kings of Manipur who ascended the throne in 1714, who waged successful wars against Ava (Burma) during 1725 and 1749, and who not only converted to Hinduism but also made it the state religion of his kingdom, was of Naga descent (A History of Assam by Edward Gait). He not only banned the original Meitei animistic religion Sanamahi but to complete the annihilation of the religion, religious books in Meitei script called the Puya which recorded cultural norms, the tantric rites practised at the time, prophesies, etc, were made a bonfire of in 1726. He also paved the way for replacement of the script with the Bengali script. The religion survives to this day, so also the script. The religious discriminations are also a thing of the past. Still bitter memories of the time persist.

Land Reform Issue

There are yet other issues feeding the Hill-Valley binary. The resistance to the ADC election is mostly on ground that this would lead to a compromise of tribal lands. In the land tenure system of a modern state, all land within the territorial boundary of the state would belong to the state. Individual landowners would effectively be only tenants leasing the little plots of land their homes or farms sit on, from the state with certain rights of ownership over them but this ownership is not absolute. The state can, if it considers it necessary in the interest of public good, acquire the land back through legally laid out norms and after paying due compensation.

Obviously, different states would have different land laws, but they would be variations of this basic principle and nothing radically different. The modern system is pretty clear-cut and there is hardly likely to be any dispute, which cannot be settled by just the plain application of the rule of law. It is when we enter the world of customary indigenous laws that things get a little nebulous and messy.

Manipur, as in all other north-east states, has both these notions of land and ownership coexisting with each other. The valley has embraced the modern, the hills stick on to the customary. While there are mechanisms for settling disputes within each of the systems, this is not so when the two are pitted against each other. This is relevant in the wake of the Manipur integrity-Naga integration opposition. The question is, in case this demarcation becomes absolutely necessary, what would be the criterion that defines notions such as “ancestral land”? Would it be in terms of actual physical occupation of a particular tract of land for a particular length of time? In this case, a majority of the land in Manipur hills would be physically unoccupied, and if modern law were to be applied these would be government land. Or would it be defined in terms of occurrences in myths and legends of the communities? In this case too, much of these tracts of land and mountains would occur in the ancient myths of many different communities. Koubru Mountain is one such instance. If this mountain range is considered the ancestral land of the Nagas, it is also registered in the Meitei archetypal memory as the sacred abode of traditional deities. As a matter of fact the mountain itself is an ancient deity. Quite obviously it would also be woven inextricably into the daily lives of the Kukis and Nepalis who now have made it their homes. The same can be said of many other sparsely inhabited or uninhabited ranges such as the Thangjing, Laimaton, and Nongmaijing, etc. This would be true of many rivers and lakes in the valley too.

Recent Hybrid

The psychological demarcation of territories between the hills and the valley, and the association of each of these geographical regions with different ethnic communities cannot but be a recent and unnatural hybrid of the modern and traditional outlooks.

Again, notions of ancestral lands and homelands of different communities, especially indigenous ones, overlap, sometimes totally, and there is no way justice

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can be done by seeking to divide them using instruments of the modern land tenure mechanisms such as with definite and mathematically precise boundaries, marked by pillars and fences, etc.

These notions were not meant to be pushed through this way and any attempt

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to do so would throw up conflict situations. The Kuki-Naga feuds in the 1990s and indeed the “Naga integration-Manipur integrity” tensions now over the demand for a Greater Nagaland, etc, are tragedies that have resulted or are waiting to result out of this insistence on dividing what are

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-fundamentally indivisible. Since the notions of ancestral lands and homelands of traditional ancestral neighbours overlap, the only way peaceful coexistence can result is to agree to allow these overlaps to continue in the spirit of sharing and a ccommodation.

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JUNE 26, 2010 vol xlv nos 26 & 27

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