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Monuments, Memory and Forgetting in Postcolonial North-East India

This paper looks at how "official" memories are produced in state-sponsored public spaces and how a multi-ethnic, multicultural north-east India responded to it. Official memory sites like museums, monuments and memorials not only reflected but also shaped ethnic relations to a great extent. The emerging states in the region have assiduously favoured the historical imagination of a politically dominant community, which is masculine, and remains persistently insensitive to the marginal "others" in the state. This, on the one hand, encouraged the dominant community to assimilate and thereby produced ethnonationalism around that notion of shared pasts. On the other, it generated a sense of neglect in the minorities who responded with vernacular memorials to embody their historical imagination and likewise developed their own ethnic nationalism around it. This parallel rise to prominence of often competing ethnonationalisms within the region, or sometime within the state, has thereby produced violent forms of contestation often dangerously imbued with fissiparous tendencies.


Monuments, Memory and Forgetting in Postcolonial North-East India

Jangkhomang Guite

This paper looks at how “official” memories are produced in state-sponsored public spaces and how a multi-ethnic, multicultural north-east India responded to it. Official memory sites like museums, monuments and memorials not only reflected but also shaped ethnic relations to a great extent. The emerging states in the region have assiduously favoured the historical imagination of a politically dominant community, which is masculine, and remains persistently insensitive to the marginal “others” in the state. This, on the one hand, encouraged the dominant community to assimilate and thereby produced ethnonationalism around that notion of shared pasts. On the other, it generated a sense of neglect in the minorities who responded with vernacular memorials to embody their historical imagination and likewise developed their own ethnic nationalism around it. This parallel rise to prominence of often competing ethnonationalisms within the region, or sometime within the state, has thereby produced violent forms of contestation often dangerously imbued with fissiparous tendencies.

I have benefited from the discussions and comments given on an earlier draft by some friends, especially my colleagues in the university: Sajal Nag, S Pathak, Bijen Meetei and B Dutta, and also H K Suan.

Jangkhomang Guite ( teaches at the Assam University, Silchar.

hen the Government of India floated the idea of a Telangana state in 2010 it sparked off similar demands from different parts of the country. Nine years earlier, in 2001 when it decided to extend the ceasefire with the National Socialist Council of Nagalim, Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM), “without territorial limit” it sent similar waves of protest across the northeast region. On 18 June that year several government buildings were set on fire and reduced to rubble by an outraged public in Manipur. If the Indian state has to resolve one major issue today it is the question of fulfilling these hydra-headed demands for statehood or local autonomy in different parts of the country. The situation in north-east India is especially tricky in that most movements, besides their secessionist content, took the form of armed struggle. The question of economic backwardness, indeed the root cause of marginality, is overwhelmed by the tangled question of ethnic nationalism largely originated from the colonial mania of classification and completed within the framework of the emerging states in the region. If the emerging states promoted the interests of a politically dominant ethnic community in the state it generated opposition from the ethnic minorities who reacted violently generally imbued with a disintegrative tendency. This paper is concerned with how collective memories are produced, sustained and responded to in state-sponsored public spaces like museums, memorials and monuments. In other words, it is concerned with how the past events are represented in statesponsored public spaces and how this not only reflects the historical imagination of the postcolonial state but also shapes and animates social and ethnic relation in a multi-ethnic, multicultural society as in north-east India. I will concentrate on the role of Manipur state as a test case not so much for the presence of large numbers of “memory sites” (which are indeed few) but due to the fact that the politics of remembering could more easily be established from its public spaces and the relationship between state commemorations and the shape of ethnic relations can be better ascertained. My interest is to explore new possibilities for further investigation, partly, in the scholarship of memory, partly, in dissecting the problems of ethnicity in the region.

Monuments and Memory

If there is one area where history is tamed for the timid it is in the state-sponsored public space. It was here that common people, especially the illiterate sections of the society, were trained to see the past, the history, of a community. As such modern society has spent huge amounts of public money on elaborate “memory sites”. Yet commemorative representation of the past in public spaces is

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often taken for granted as a neutral and objective space; the political function of remembering is often overlooked. Maurice Halbwachs (1925), who ushered in the study on memory, shows that collective memory is a living social process and it is always selective. Collective memory is thus a constructed memory in a way. Michael Kammen (1991) has remarked that “societies in fact reconstruct their pasts rather than faithfully record them, and (that) they do so with the needs of contemporary culture clearly in mind – manipulating the past in order to mould the present”. This means that many historical events are “cast into oblivion”, are forgotten. Paul Ricoeur (2006) examines the reciprocal relationship between remembering and forgetting showing how it affects both the perception of historical experience and the production of historical narrative. He pointed out that history and its representation in official commemoration “overly remembers” some historical events like the Holocaust while maintaining a persistent silence on others. John Petrovato (2006) has also noted about the Israeli national museums that Palestinians are “invisible” or wherever they are visible they are “misrepresented” as “Arabs” and “dehumanised” as “unproductive” hordes, both in the interest of Israeli nationalist enterprises that “trained” its citizens and outsiders not to “see” Palestinians.

While manipulation of the past at the “official” memory site is well known how do state commemorations actually shape a community rather than just reflecting them? In his path-breaking work Eviatar Zerubavel (2004: 3) pointed out that “(a)cquiring a group’s memories and thereby identifying with its collective past is part of the process of acquiring any social identity, and familiarising members with that past is a major part of communities efforts to assimilate them”. Hence, the act of selective remembering, deliberate forgetting, misrepresentation, and the reconstruction of a society has been understood to be part of the process of constructing a collective memory in public spaces. But the role of state commemorations in shaping and animating the relationship between different communities in multi-ethnic multicultural society is seldom taken seriously. In a multi-ethnic multicultural society like India this alleged collectivity generally favours the historical imagination of politically dominant group(s) which generally produces opposition from those who refuse to identify with it. This generally comes from the politically subordinated groups or ethnic minorities who insist on retaining their identity and thereby feel ignored by the State. It is an accepted view that minorities who have a deep attachment to their own identity will continue “to participate in politics in their vernacular” despite all the “respects” accorded by the State so that such a state is left with no option other than adopting “multination” or “multination federalism” (Kymlicka 2001: 232-34).

Besides, collective memory is understood to consist of the external and internal, or what John Bodnar (1993) has called “official” and “vernacular”: “official” memory is motivated by the need of the State to mythologies itself and maintain the loyalty of its citizens and is displayed in public commemorations, and “vernacular” memory is determined by the need of ordinary people to pursue their local concerns and largely remain hidden from the public eye. But the reciprocal relationship between “official” and “vernacular” memories is often taken for granted.

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The rise to prominence of historical events in public spaces is rather a two-way traffic: what was vernacular in the colonial period becomes official today and what was official memory then has been cast into oblivion now. The commemorative monuments, which functioned as the “official” version of collective memory, are indeed the last stage of “vernacular” memories in its rise to eminence. Until it becomes official a vernacular memory remains what Paul Connerton (1989) called “incorporated practices” which is transmitted as “traditions” conveyed and sustained by “bodily” ritual performances. Besides, there can also be a middle path: some incorporated practices are sometime transmitted into what may be called vernacular memorials and monuments, a monument halfway into “official” memory site, a monument erected by ordinary members of the society for local memory, a monument sometime erected in response to the “official” act of forgetting.

Reminiscing Colonialism in Postcolonial Societies

“Colonialism is dead, long live anti-colonial movements” is apparently the right expression to describe how the postcolonial state has called on its people to marshal a new nation. This is done, besides other forms by ensuring that public spaces and official memory sites are dominated by memories of anti-colonial movements and personalities involved in it. The “rebels” of colonialism are now accorded the status of “freedom fighters” and the “rebellions” as “wars of independence”. This is a necessary step to mobilise the freed people to support the new social reconstruction projects in which patriotism and loyalty towards the new state is indispensable. The memory of their rise to power over the imposing foreign rule provided a common ground for these people who had suffered under the same yoke, fought together against it, and freed themselves. In this context, some of the precolonial pasts have also emerged insofar as they are useful to the new state to legitimise its position and defame colonialism and hence colonialism again becomes a reference point. Sometimes the memories of colonial armies as in Malaysia, colonial institutions, maps, and ideas as in most countries become beneficial in rallying the people for a national goal.1 Colonialism and opposition to it have therefore emerged as shared memories to negotiate with, to mobilise, to organise the freed people, and even to yoke them towards a totalising national project.

The situation in north-east India is interesting. Like in other postcolonial societies the historical imagination of the emerging states in the region rests on those anti-colonial movements. Yet the region is unique in that the Indian nationalised public memories are invisible in the state-sponsored public spaces as much as the memories of the minority communities within each state are neglected, both in the interest of a particular, generally politically dominant, ethnic community in the state. This is due to the belief that the new state is founded on the pretext of the dominant community, the fruit of their resistance movement against colonialism. But on the basis of which this assumption is taken, one can see at least four forms of historical imagination in the region in relation to the new state. The first group claims that the new state is the legitimate successor of the precolonial state subdued by the British raj and wants the citizens to see the linear rise to power of the new state from antiquity, which was, and should also be, under the control of the dominant group, the heir to that legacy. The state of Manipur comes under this category. The second group feels that the new state is purely the product of the anti-colonial resistance movement under the leadership of the dominant group and was granted largely in recognition of their efforts. In this context the precolonial state becomes irrelevant and it is time for the dominant group to lead the new state. Tripura state comes under this category. The third group feels that the new state is a communally owned heritage from antiquity in which hundreds of “chiefs” had ruled “independently” and despite persistent feuds among them belonged to “one” and the “same race”. The British had recognised this, the new state is in recognition of this, and that it should remain exclusively with them. Under this category fall the tribal states of Mizoram, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh. The state of Assam comes under a separate category. While it is close to the first category in preferring precolonial pasts it is also suffused with postcolonial anti-migration movements, both shaping the other. In this context the anti-colonial movement has gradually become less and less relevant as the other two factors are emphasised more. But these divisions are not watertight, and may overlap at different points and ranges. Yet what is peculiar to all these states is the “anti-outsider” posture and predominant community politics within each state, again strangely validated and sustained with colonial ideas and institutions.

Remembering the Freedom Fighters

The valley of Manipur was a melting pot in which there was constant movement of people from the hills to the valley and possibly from the valley to the hills; the first settlers of the valley were also from the hills. The coming of Hinduism, later furthered by colonialism, ended this natural process of absorbing the hillmen into the fold of the plains society. The plainsmen came to be known as “Meitheis” or Meiteis, the “northern tribes” as Nagas, and the “southern tribes” as Kukis. Manipur witnessed, by and large, six major anti-colonial movements: the Anglo-Manipur War (1891), the Kuki Rising (1917-19), the Naga Raj Movement (1927-31), the Nupi Lal (1939), the Socialist Movement under Hijam Irabot (1938-51) and the Indian National Army (INA) movement (1943-45). But of these events the 1891 war and the INA movement finally triumphed in postcolonial state-sponsored public spaces, the Nupi Lal hesitatingly came later and others continued to remain invisible. While the emphasis is on anticolonial movements why are some events “overly remembered” whereas some took much longer time to emerge in the public space and why are still others persistently forgotten? This is indeed a disturbing question before the emerging states striving for integration. An attempt is made in the following pages to answer it.

Anglo-Manipur War – The Official Memory Par Excellence:

The memory of the 1891 war undoubtedly occupied a central place in the historical imagination of postcolonial Manipur. Though Manipur finally lost her independence on this fateful occasion it was not given up easily; several people sacrificed their lives. They fought the three British columns especially in the decisive battle of Khongjom, but Manipur was defeated. The leaders were hanged in public and others were imprisoned for life (Ruddin 1988: 113-34; Reid 1942: 54-73). The memory of the war was “cast into oblivion” during the colonial period. Nevertheless, it continued to remain vibrant in vernacular memories which have emerged into prominence in the postcolonial period. The “rebellion” has become the “war of independence” and the “rebels” have been recast as “patriots”. Accordingly, monuments were set up in memory of the war.

In 1972, immediately after Manipur attained statehood, the Martyr’s Memorial column was erected at Khongjom, about 32 kms from Imphal, where about 130 Manipuri soldiers including Paona Brajabasi had sacrificed their lives on 23 April 1891. To this was added a large “open air theatre” in 1996, a huge statue of Paona (carrying a sword and shield) in 2000. A large memorial hall and a majestic gateway (at NH-39 junction) are under construction. In 1980 (the foundation was laid in 1975), the Martyr’s Memorial pillar (renamed Saheed Minar) was erected near the Pologround, Imphal, where Jubaraj Tikendrajit and Thangal General were publicly hanged on 13 August 1891. A beautiful gateway with an elaborate park was added in 2006. The Bir Tikendrajit tomb complex was erected in 2006 at Hicham Yaicham Pat, Imphal, where he was cremated, and a large statue of Thangal General (with a sword in hand) was also erected at Palace Gate, Imphal in 2009. At the foot of the Paona statue at Khongjom (2000) a bronze plate reads, “Major General Paona Brajabasi age 58 the valiant hero of Manipur died for (his) fatherland on Thursday the 23rd April 1891. Superhuman in battle devoted unto death.” It is significant that the “major” of the 1972 memorial column is promoted to “major general” in 2000. The two days, 23 April and 13 August are annually observed as “Khongjom day” and “patriot’s day” respectively with statewide commemoration and a public holiday. Apart from visits by individuals round the year, thousands of people annually throng these sites to pay homage during such annual state commemoration.2

As one moves from open spaces to museums the story becomes more visible and clear. Two museums are especially noteworthy: the Manipur State Museum and the recently established Kangla Museum, both in Imphal. The items from the erstwhile historical and archaeological section of the state museum were in store when I visited. They are about to find its way to the newly constructed building in the same premise. These materials, as noted by K Sobita Devi (1991: 180-86) include artefacts ranging from prehistoric times to the modern period. Along with the paintings and ethnological items of the people of Manipur the museum tells the story of the rise to eminence of Manipur from antiquity. What is evident from the ethnology gallery is the story of a martial race (depicted by the dioramic portraits of “warrior in action”, traditional weapons of different kinds and royal headdresses) and the people who are self-reliant and sufficient in all respects (depicted by daily used items like musical instruments, ornaments, decorations, utensils, implements of agriculture, hunting, weaving, basketry and textiles). But what is not clearly spelt out in the museum is the centre of power. This deficiency is addressed in the newly set up Kangla Museum.

As one enters the Kangla Museum one is met with the story of the rise to power of Manipuri kings from mythical origins, first

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over the people of Manipur valley and then later over the hillmen until the British raj took over in 1891. The genealogy of the Meitei kings from 33 AD to 1891 is clearly shown along with four colonial maps: of 1500 AD, 1580 AD, 1822 AD and 1856 AD. The four maps show the position of Manipur in relation to her neighbours: three maps include Kabaw valley (presently in Myanmar) and the present hill areas as part of Manipur kingdom and the fourth map shows Manipur under the “Empire of Ava”. Interestingly, below the map of 1500 AD is displayed the pages from the book of R B Pemberton (1835: 20-21) which record the extent of Manipur’s boundary with its unclear northern border. This is complemented by pages from James Johnstone (1896: 23), (displayed alongside Pemberton’s book): “Ghumbeer Singh reduced several villages to submission, including the largest of all, Kohima, at which place he stood upon a stone and had his footprints sculptured on it, in token of conquest” and the “Nagas greatly respected this stone and cleaned it from time to time”. At the opposite side of the same page is the picture of the “Kohima Stone”. Along with this is displayed a photocopy of the agreement signed between the British government and Gambhir Singh dated 18 April 1833 regarding the settlement of Manipur boundary. Below the 1822 map are shown the pages from Alexander Mackenzie’s North-East Frontier of India, again related to the Manipur boundary. An engraved stone from the Manipur-Lushai boundary is also displayed in the gallery. Its caption reads “Inscription of Maharajah Chandrakirti symbolising the victory over Lushai Hills”.3

The rest of the Kangla Museum is filled with material and photographs mainly related to the 1891 war and the personalities involved in it, a few archaeological finds from Kangla, the table model of Kangla, and so on.4 Note that there is an absence of firearms in both the museums and the other monuments. As one moves out of the museum the idea of the Manipuri kings’ rise to power against all odds and their final defeat at the hands of the British power in 1891 is indelibly imprinted on one’s memory. This is further strengthened by the hectic renovation process in the Kangla Palace area: the Kangla Sha, Kangla (coronation hall), the fort walls, the religious centres like Sri Govindajee temple, the Sanamahi temple, parks and so on. In the end what is explicit in the museum and the overall reinvention of the Kangla premise is the story of the rise to dominance of Manipur’s maharajahs over the hill tribes and the Kabaw valley, which came to an end in 1891. Overall it is the triumph of the 1891 war over others.

Remembering the Armies of the Second World War: The memorial of the second world war was in fact the earliest of its kind in Manipur. Interestingly, just as there were three major armies during the war (the Japanese army, the INA attached to it and the Allied forces) a competition for dominance among them is also visible in the public spaces. There are two second world war cemeteries in Imphal (constructed by the British immediately after the war and now maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission), the INA War Memorial Complex at Moirang (started by war veterans and taken over by the state government since 1985) and the Japanese memorial or “India Peace Memorial” at Red Hill (constructed by the Japanese government). As in most postcolonial states, the war cemetery,

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constructed in memory of the “colonial armies”, despite being the earliest monumental structures in the state, has lost its relevance today among the people of Manipur. Even if “Their Name Liveth Forever More” in the memory of their bereaved families, the esteemed “colonial armies” are today “cast into oblivion” in the imagination of the postcolonial state.

But the mania of the anti-colonial movements has transformed the Japanese army and the INA from “invaders” to “liberators”.5 Yet the real heroes of the Great War for the people of Manipur are the local heroes who have assisted the “liberators”. They are honoured as “freedom fighters of Manipur” and ultimately occupy a central place among the soldiers of second world war. In their memory the INA Martyrs’ Memorial complex was constituted at Moirang consisting of the Netaji Library (1968), the INA War Museum (1969), the Netaji Statue (1972, 1993) and an auditorium. The whole complex was reworked and dedicated to the nation in 2005.6 This is the place where Netaji had first hoisted the tricolour on Indian soil during the war. The first Netaji statue was destroyed in 1993 by some “unknown” persons (the bust is now housed in the museum) and a new statue was erected in the same year. A special gallery in the museum, dedicated to the local heroes, displays the photographs of 12 “freedom fighters of Manipur” (11 Meiteis, one Kuki). Besides this weapons, ammunitions, and various pictures of the INA in action are on display. Today this complex is regularly visited by a large number of people.

The Nupi Lal Memorial: On 12 December 1939 “hundreds of bazaar women” besieged the president of Manipur State Darbar and other officers at the Telegraph Office in the British Reserve. The officers were compelled by the women to get the approval of the maharajah (through telegram) on the resolution taken by them relating to the ban on export of rice from Manipur. In a clash with the Assam Rifles personnel 21 women were injured, five of them seriously and were admitted to a hospital. The next day thousands of people demonstrated at Police Bazaar in support of the imas (mothers). Their voice was strong: the export of rice was stopped and the rice mills ceased working. But the agitation, taken over by political elements, persisted well into 1940 (Reid 1942: 91; Singh 1998: 135-54).7 Thirty-five years earlier, on 5 and 6 October 1904, there was another women’s agitation, against the temporary resuscitation of lallup (free labour), in which many of the women were injured (ibid: 75-81). The two events are known in Manipur’s history as Nupi Lal (women’s war). They were reduced to a mere agitation of the “bazaar women” during the colonial period. But this could not erase the imas from the memory of the people especially when Irabot continued to call on them in his public campaign. One of his lines read:

Ngasi Ahing lelle/Numit Ama chatkhre/Sham Punshillu Devi/Epha pharibado/December 12 ama houkhre/December 12 ama lakle/(This night has passed/a day has passed/Devi, put your hair in a bun/one December 12 has passed/another December 12 has come).8

But when it comes to remembrance in a state-sanctioned public space the imas had to fight another lal against the male-dominated postcolonial state. The nupis (women), under the leadership of three surviving imas, fought for many years against the indifferent state government in order to get their rightful place: petitions, agitations, hunger strikes, and so on sadly consumed the fag end of the imas life. After a long struggle the imas were finally given a plot of land (where the 1939 incident took place) on which the Nupi Lal Memorial Complex came up in 1999. The complex has an auditorium, a museum, and rooftop fountains in front of which are displayed five life-size bronze statues, depicting three imas, battling with an armed British officer and a Gorkha rifleman. Subsequent to this was the declaration of 12 December as a state holiday and today it is commemorated statewide as Nupi Lal’s Day.9 With this the nupis, have finally found their rightful place and become visible among the masculine public spaces and the “bazaar women” have become “freedom fighters”, a recognition long overdue.

Memories in the Vernacular

Apart from the events narrated above other events remain invisible as far as the state-sponsored public spaces are concerned. Even if the postcolonial state has ignored them these still remain fresh in the memory of the people. This is reflected in the form of vernacular monuments, texts and other “incorporated practices”. These events include the socialist movement under Hijam Irabot, the Kuki rising, and the Naga Raj movement.

Forgetting Irabot, the Beloved of the People

Hijam Irabot (also spelt Irawat) had fought against the established authority from 1938 to 1951 (Singh 1998: 113-62, 191-246).10 He died in 1951 at Tangbo (Burma) while preparing the way for his “Red Guard”; on his grave is entered “Comrade I Singh”. But the postcolonial state continued to refuse him place in the sacrosanct public space just because he was tainted as “communist” by the organisation he had himself founded in 1934 – the Nikhil Manipuri Mahasabha (NMM). The NMM was rechristened as the Manipur State Congress, which largely controlled the state government in the postcolonial period. Yet this cannot prevent the common people from remembering him. As one passes through the valley, and beyond, one finds that his statues have cropped up in different towns and market places, addressing the crowd in a neta posture. In Imphal city alone there are more than five Irabot statues in different localities and premises. Irabot statues, are also found in Jiribam, Nambol, Kakching, Khurai, Lamlai, etc; in fact, his statues are the most numerous. Significantly, most of these statues came up in the 1990s. He is variously remembered in these memorials as jana neta (people’s leader), lamyanba (pathfinder), and miyamgi luchingba (mass leader). His birth anniversary has been celebrated since the 1970s under the aegis of the Communist Party of India (CPI), was declared a state holiday in the 1980s under its pressure, and since the 1990s has been commemorated all over the state by the party. Besides the tributes in most localities, contingents from different parts of the state – students, farmers, workers, officials and politicians – come together at Imphal for a grand celebration.11 Even if Irabot’s status is tangled in the whirlpool of party politics he has become the beloved of the people.

The Kuki Rising, Forgotten Heroes, and a Neglected Hill Chapter: In the early weeks of March 1917 a meeting of an unusual kind took place in the hills among the Kukis to decide whether they should supply labourers for the tuito gal (overseas war, Kuki term for first world war) or fight against the colonial raj. The tribal conclave finally decided to wage war against the raj. This was followed by an armed resistance movement for about two years; spread out in the then Naga Hills of Assam and Kabaw valley, the Somra tracts and the Chin Hills in Burma. Variously known by the Kukis as Thadou Gal, Zou Gal, or Haka Gal (gal: war), it was, the “most serious incident in the history of Manipur and its relations with its Hill subjects” (Reid 1942: 79).12 If the Anglo-Manipur War of 1891 ended the independence of the Manipuri kings, the Kuki Rising ended the independence of the Kuki chiefs in particular and the hillmen in general: three hill subdivisions were created after this, briefly discontinued and revived in 1932 with four subdivisions, and along with seven Assam Rifles outposts now sentinel the hills.13 But when it comes to remembering in the postcolonial state the Kuki Rising is marked by invisibility in the public spaces. Nevertheless, as far back as 1958 the Kuki Political Sufferers’ Association of Manipur (KPSAM) demanded a “War Memorial in the heart of Imphal town to commemorate Kuki Matyrs and Sufferers”.14 Accordingly, a plot was given at Imphal in which the Kuki Inn came up in 1963. Recently, the central government has again sanctioned funds for a war memorial complex which includes a museum, a library and a committee hall in the same premises. Besides the vernacular memories, the “incorporated practices”, of the Kukis’ historical imagination has also gradually surfaced in some vernacular memorials: a statue of Chengjapao Doungel, “King of Kuki and leader of the Kuki Rising, 1917-19” (as its plaque reads), in the heart of Moreh town and Zou Gal Memorial Hall in Lamka are cases in point. The names of the heroes of the rising were also given to streets, public places, clubs, associations, and sports tournaments.

Forgetting the Rani, the Daughter of the Hills: Rani Gaidinliu who fought the British after the death of her mentor Haipou Jadonang was arrested on 17 October 1932, and spent 14 years in prison. For this she was accorded the title of “Rani” by Jawaharlal Nehru, honoured with the Tamrapatra Freedom Fighter Award (1972), Padma Bhushan (1981), Vivekananda Seva Award (1983), the Birsa Munda Award, and recently with the status of “freedom fighter of India” by the Congress Party. Her funeral on 29 February 1993 was attended by the governor and other dignitaries of Manipur, the home secretary of Nagaland, beside others, in her village and a state holiday was declared at Imphal.15 But it is strange that she has been denied an honourable public space in her own state. This was despite frequent demands from her kinsmen. In 2006, the Kabui Mothers’ Association of Manipur demanded an annual state holiday, a statue, a library, a market in her honour and the naming of NH-53 as Gaidinliu Road.16 The Rani is also not welcome in the NC Hills; the foundation for her statue at Haflong was destroyed during the recent ethnic conflict. She was also initially denied public honour in Nagaland for declaring herself against Christianity or mentioning her religion as “Hindu”. Nevertheless, the Rani continues to be remembered by her kinsmen: since 2005 her birth anniversary is celebrated by the Kabui Nagas and today she is the “living goddess, a legendary figure and a revered mother symbol of the oppressed people”.17

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As Naga nationalism gained momentum the Rani has become more revered in the historical imagination of the Naga world; a memorial hall in her honour is coming up in Kohima, the capital of Nagaland.18

This brings us to Haipou Jadonang. His birth anniversary was declared a state holiday in Manipur only to be discontinued. But in 2006 the state government constructed a small park (behind the Imphal jail where he was hanged on 29 August 1931) in his honour. Unfortunately, a Naga politician I approached for information refused to meet me. But if the view of some people is to be taken seriously the recognition was largely an attempt to “appease” the Nagas or a certain section of the Nagas. Whatever may be the truth it is important that the state has learned the necessity of inclusive politics.

Maharajahs in the Shadow of the Raj

We have seen that the 1891 Anglo-Manipur war overshadowed the historical imagination of the postcolonial Manipur state. This explains two important things. Like most anti-colonial movements in other parts of the world, the 1891 war is an event (so the state thought) that is central to the memory of the people and hence useful for organising them to support its postcolonial social reconstruction process. On the other hand, the choice of this event reflected the elitist yet masculine orientation of the new state. In choosing the elitist past the new state wanted to inform the people of its own position in the new situation: the new state is not new, it has its roots in the precolonial Manipur state which was defeated by the raj in 1891; it is the legacy of those who defended the “fatherland”. In this context, the strange absence of the maharajah in the public space is noteworthy: since he deserted the throne, or more accurately sought shelter with the raj, he seems to deserve no state honour. Contrarily, it was the “valiant hero of Manipur” who died “for the fatherland” who deserves the honour of the new state that is heir to that legacy. In this way the new state constantly sought to legitimise its position with regard to the precolonial Manipur state although it adopted most of the colonial institutions and ideas in its functioning.

At the same time an emphasis on masculinity is an attribute of a “martial race”. The new state wanted to reinvent a society that was martial in its outlook, had a history of its own, and was selfreliant. In this case, the conspicuous absence of firearms and cannons, the symbols of colonial power which were largely used by the Manipuri forces during the war, in the state memorials and now overshadowed by traditional weapons like swords, spears, shields, etc, again deserves notice. Indigenising the past in state-sponsored public spaces is not only the means to trace the continuity of the old system in a new situation but also to legitimise, and thereby to mobilise the people to support the new state and its causes. Indigenising the masculine past is also the means to claim space in the masculine world of postcolonial societies. In other words, confronting the world imperial power is a highly approved strategy in most postcolonial states to prop up once subjugated people on the path to a self-reliant nation. This objective was clear from the beginning in Manipur and has been gaining more significance as ethnic nationalism gets stronger in the region.

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The message of patriotism for a “fatherland” is forcefully spread in Manipur through the moving lines of Paona and F M Rundall both inscribed at the foot of the Paona statue at Khongjom:

The enemy’s shell can land in our camp whereas ours cannot in theirs…my fellow countrymen! It is a disgrace to die fleeing…. Death is now certain for us. But we will never retreat (Paona). Many of the old soldiers who have seen much fighting in previous campaigns tell me they have never either seen or taken part in a fight where such a determine and stubborn resistance was shown (Rundall).

If the patriots felt it a “disgrace to die fleeing” and resolved to “never retreat”, and even if the world imperial power admired such “determine and stubborn” patriotism, it becomes the clarion call of the new state to the freed people in reconstructing a new society. Patriotism with masculinity thus becomes a necessary element in the nation-building process and this is provided by such clarion calls from the past.

Indeed, the state version of the 1891 war has become so central to the collective memory of the people that anyone who speaks against this official version may even run the risk of public ordeal. A book published in 1991, which seems to have disputed the state version of the 1891 war, was a case in point. Although the controversy sprang from the politics within the Directorate of Education where one of the authors was a director, it spilled out into the public domain leading to the burning of the said book and effigies, demand for a public apology and even threats of more violence. Consequently, the book was banned and the director-author stepped down. Hence the centenary year of the war was celebrated with public outrage in defence of the official version of its history.

If identifying with the collective past is “part of the process of acquiring any social identity” and familiarising with that past is “a major part of communities’ efforts to assimilate them”, then the Manipur state wants to reconstruct a society which is based on the rise to dominance of the Meitei community. So what Kirk Savage (1994: 135) has noted about public monuments is also true of Manipur: “public monuments do not arise as if by natural law to celebrate the deserving, they are built by people with sufficient power to marshal (or impose) public consent for their erection”. Meiteis are the politically dominant group in Manipur and the state policy was dominated by their viewpoint. In this context, the proliferation of public commemorations and monuments in the state since the 1990s is noteworthy. This new assertion not only reflected but also reinforced the resurgence of Meitei nationalism during the same time.

If the new state wanted to reconstruct a society which is elitist and masculine then the “wars” fought by women, peasants and tribals, and the subalterns, could not fit into its historical imagination. But the new wave of ethnic consciousness has also brought up some of these neglected chapters. The Nupi Lal Memorial Complex (1999) is a case in point. If the imas had come out to salvage Manipur from the grips of inflation in 1939 they are now called on to help the state in the troubled present. Such recognition is apparent in the emerging role of women in the public domain. Similarly, if the rightist state politically excluded Irabot, his birthday is observed as a state holiday and annual statewide commemorations took place under the leftists. The increasing popularity of his idea of sovereign Manipur has also earned him great recognition among the people as is shown by the proliferation of his statues in the 1990s.

But the tribals’ past continues to remain invisible in statesponsored public spaces although their movements against colonialism could have been used to gain their support to the cause of the new state. It seems apparent that their past achievements do not support the state’s notion of historical experience. The politics of ethnicity seems to have forcefully driven the state’s sense of imagination and contemporary social and political direction. Ethnic politics has become so visible that the proposal to honour the birth anniversary of Jadonang was mooted during the tenure of a Naga chief minister, and was withdrawn immediately after a Meitei chief minister came to power. The Jadonang Park came up in 2006 at Imphal apparently “to appease” the Nagas or some sections of them at any rate. The case of the suspension of pensions to 148 Kuki INA pensioners in the state is also informative.19 In 1998, the government had en masse suspended their pensions and despite appeals from the hapless “freedom fighters” the suspension is still in force.20 The reason for this, I was informed, was due to “lack of evidences” or “fake evidences”. But if the earlier government was paying the pension what is the need for new “evidences”? Here ethnic politics again come to the fore. The cases against the hapless “freedom fighters” had begun in 1997 during the tenure of a Naga chief minister and a top Naga civil servant and it is suspected that ethnic enmity between the two tribes since 1992 have played a central role into the making and unmaking of “freedom fighters”. If the Naga-dominated government disposed the hapless Kuki INA pensioners, the Meiteidominated state government which came after that is equally evasive. It is noteworthy that out of 79 Kukis among the 97 INA “freedom fighters of Manipur” (published in a booklet by the government) only one Kuki appears in the INA war museum.21 In fact, ethnic politics such as this is not new to Manipur. The contest for dominance and the politics of downplaying the claims of “others” on ethnic lines was also reflected in the Memorandum of the Kuki Political Sufferer’s Association (KPSAM) to the prime minister of India in 1958:

Compared with her (Rani Gaidinliu) services or the services of the twenty-four aforesaid Manipuris (who have been recognised as freedom fighters by central government), those of the Kuki political sufferers and martyrs…were by no means insignificant and…the contribution of these Kuki patriots to the cause of Freedom Movement of the country deserve similar recognition from the Government of India.22

Accordingly, the Rani was dubbed as a “traditional oracle”.23 Similarly, Nagas were also accused of helping the British during the second world war.24 When asked why the Kukis have not applied to the state government for a state monument or commemoration to honour their “patriots” the Kuki notables answered that the Meiteis or Nagas who dominated the state government would never accept such demands. So they demanded such recognition from the central government. This is apparently in keeping with the reality of ethnic relations in the state where downplaying the achievements of the “others” is usually used as a strategy not only for dominance but also to highlight the differences. Therefore, it is not strange to see that the Meitei-dominated Manipur state has deliberately ignored the important hill chapters in the statesanctioned public spaces.

It is therefore apparent that the role of the state in selecting past events for representation in its sanctioned public spaces is informed by its contemporary concern in promoting the rise to dominance of the Meitei community. It must have been decided that in such a process of reconstruction there cannot be any parallel rise to dominance of two or more powers in a single state. Hence, “not to see” the tribals, and to make them invisible in public spaces is but a part of the same process of reinventing a society which would “see” only the linear rise to power of the politically-dominant Meitei community. It follows that the presence of the tribals’ pasts in public spaces is likely to obstruct this linear path to power. Thus the state government was and is guided by what George Orwell (1984) has noted about the agency which controls historical experience: “those who control the past, control the future”.25 So what is common to most national monuments which are usually built by a politically dominant group to legitimise their rise to dominance by remembering their pasts or forgetting and misrepresenting the past memories of a minority or the subordinated “others” is also applicable to Manipur.

Ethnicity Imagined, Ethnicity Animated

If the politics of remembering necessarily involves promoting the interests of a politically-dominant community, then how do these state commemorations shape the dominant community and its relationship with other communities? This may pose a great challenge before the state in two ways: the dominant community gets assimilated around the state’s historical imagination and the marginal communities feel neglected. In the case of Manipur it is the dominant Meitei community which got affected by the new reconstruction process. Initially, they gathered around the statesponsored collective memory and gradually assimilated themselves in ethnic Meitei nationalism. The idea that the Meiteis are a dominant power in the history of Manipur and have emerged as such in the past against all odds, as has been portrayed in public spaces, encouraged Meitei nationalism which had undergone a metamorphic change since the 1990s.

On the other hand, if the state historical imagination keeps the tribes out of public spaces, training the people not to see anything other than the linear rise to power of the Meitei community, it reduces the tribals to mere “subjects” who occupy not the “house” but the imagined “garden” of the house.26 In this context the spatial ideology of the state becomes informative. If we take the representations in the museums seriously the idea of territoriality becomes dominant: the Manipur state boundary as it exists today has its historical roots in the precolonial period, it was the result of the Meitei kings’ rise to dominance over the hillmen. Significantly, these kingly rights are asserted again and again in the state assembly. In 2002, for instance, a resolution in this regard was taken up noting the fact that “the present territorial boundaries” were based on “the erstwhile princely state of Manipur” which “continued to be maintained without being challenged by any authority even after the merger of the State of Manipur with the Union of India” under the Merger Agreement in 1949, under

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Part C State of India in 1959, and is protected by various acts until 1972 when Manipur attained statehood.27 If the new state thought that it is the legitimate heir to the earlier state and that to protect the “territorial integrity” of the “erstwhile” state is its legitimate right, then the representations in its sponsored public spaces must also be of hegemony-ridden pasts in which the hillmen, as a “conquered” and “subjected” populations, are expected to accept the totalising state projects without themselves having any representation.

But such a theory seems to have left the hillmen unimpressed. They felt that they were misrepresented as not having any “glorious” pasts or any past at all. This is due to two important factors: first, the hillmen are yet to be emotionally integrated with the plainsmen to be able to accept such projects, and second, they have been continuously pulled farther away from doing so by the increasing centrifugal forces beyond the state boundary.28 The feeling of marginality in the state only furthered this situation. If the hegemonic-ridden state’s historical imagination represents the “kingly” version of the historical past, then the hillmen, who now thought of themselves as “citizens” (not “subjects”), would sees the pasts, the histories, and the memories, selectively represented in the state-sponsored public spaces as the Meitei’s pasts, not theirs. Thus the state’s space has become a site of contestation to the various competing ethnic actors in the state. The opposition from the tribal communities to the role of the state in honouring the “martyrs” of 18 June 2001 uprising with a public memorial at Kekrupat, Imphal, is a recent case in point.

The gradual rise to prominence of some vernacular memorials among the tribes is important in understanding the process of how their rising consciousness. If the state refused to honour tribal heroes, the tribes sought to distance themselves from the state projects. If the state has ignored the Kuki Rising, for instance, Chengjapao Doungel, the leader of the rising, has been recast by the Kukis as “King of Kukis”. This is significant in that the Kukis have created their own centre of power in the past as against or in competition with, the projection of the maharajahs of Manipur as the centre of power by the state. Similarly, Jadonang and Gaidinliu occupy the same historical position in the Naga world. Besides, the historical personalities belonging to ethnic Meiteis or those appropriated by the state are deliberately avoided by the tribals in this reconstruction process. Among the Kukis, legendry figures like Galngam and Hangsai or historical personalities like Chengjapao, Pache, Tintong, Goukhothang, et al emerged significantly. This extends even to the naming of old places: the Kukis, for instance, prefer “Lamka” instead of “Churachandpur” (the second town of Manipur) and “Kangui” instead of “Kangpokpi”. Hence what comes out as a sequel to the state’s perception of the past is a competing historical imagination of the hillmen and thereby a parallel, disjointed and competing ethnonationalism in the process. And the promotion of masculinity in the collective memory of the people, in turn, produced a virulent form of ethnonationalism in which each community, instead of pursuing a democratic way, took to armed struggle dangerously imbued with fissiparous tendencies. No wonder, the state’s assertion to control the past as a means to control the

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present also comes under attack. Kymlicka (2001: 2) says “behind every minority that is causing trouble for the state, we are likely to find a state that is putting pressure on the minority”.29

The virulent nature of ethnic relations in the state becomes visible in many forms. The cases of violent ethnic conflicts between Meitei-Pangal (1993), Kuki-Naga (1992-97) and Paite-Thadou (1997) are testimony of this violent ethnic nationalism. In 2001, Meiteis and Kukis fought against the extension of ceasefire beyond Nagaland: Meiteis and Kukis were opposed to giving up even “an inch” of the “existing” Manipur state boundary and their “inhabited” territory respectively to “Nagalim”. Tension and suspicion, between these groups are so entrenched that a trivial matter is potential enough to spark off ethnic feud in the state. The presence of more than 20 underground organisations in the state further worsened the situation. This is how the tiny state of Manipur has turned into a hotbed of insurgency, ethnic conflicts and a low intensity war zone. Yet the State continued to pretend ignorance but resorted to conventional weapons and the armed forces, to suppress the untamed spirit of misunderstanding among the people. Certainly, the revival of hegemonic-ridden traditions like the Mera Haochongba (renamed Houchongba) would further aggravate the situation although the plain motive behind its revival invited appreciation as a step towards an inclusive politics.30


The discussion thus far has presented the political function of representation in public spaces and its role in shaping ethnic relations in a multi-ethnic multicultural society. It has been pointed out that the historical imagination of the postcolonial state in the region has largely favoured the memory of anti-colonial movements as common ground to organise the freed people. But whereas the elitist-masculine pasts of the politically-dominant ethnic community has been “overly” remembered, the “wars” fought by women, peasants and tribals or ethnic minorities have been deliberately ignored, misrepresented or reluctantly recognised. This exclusivist politics of remembering has, on the one hand, assimilated the dominant ethnic community around such shared pasts, but, on the other, generated opposition from those who felt neglected. The minorities who felt ignored by the State and who persevered by participating in politics in the vernacular, have contested the totalising state projects by developing their own vernacular space, and vernacular memorials, to embody their historical imagination in response to the “official” act of forgetting. Consequent to this contested historical imaginations and the emphasis on a masculine past is the rise to prominence of a parallel, and often competing, ethnic nationalism across the region, or within a state, which was (and is) virulent and often brutal. So long as the postcolonial states in north-east India remain insensitive to the existence of several ethnic minorities within their own boundaries or beyond and as long as these minorities participate in politics in their vernacular the politics of remembering would also remain a site of contestation. It is possible that concessions may slide down the “slippery slope” but the State cannot continue to ignore the presence of the minority “others” who constantly insist on identifying with it.

Notes of Freedom Fighters of Manipur in Indian Struggle Memory of the Malay Regiment in Modern Malay

1 For memories of “colonial armies” see Blackburn (2005: 302-26).

2 See photos of state commemorations at http:// Special_Occasion.html. (viewed on 27 January 2010).

3 This stone was engraved during the Lushai Expedition 1872. Carey and Porteous visited the place in 1894 and the translation read: “His Highness… reduced to subjection the Lushai towards the south… took as tribute elephant tusks and gongs… [and] subdued… in all 122 villages”. To this Carey noted that “the Manipuris claim to have done more conquering than our records credit them with. The Soktes say that the ivory tusks alluded to were given as ransom for Nokutung”. See, Carey and Tuck (1895: 123, fn 3).

4 See also the Catalogue of Kangla Museum, published by Kangla Fort Board, 2009. 5 For detail on Imphal Campaign, see Ghosh (1969), Lebra (1971) and Bayly and Harper (2007).

6 See M S Mairembam, “The Synthesising Role of the I N A Martyrs’ Memorial: Moirang and the Indo-Japanese Peace Cenotaph: Lotpaching (Red Hill)” at asp? src=manipur.History_of_Manipur (viewed on 27 January 2010). See also A Tribute to the INA Freedom Fighters of Manipur (2010), and INA Martyr’s Memorial (2009), both published by Department of Art and Culture, Manipur.

7 See various articles on Nupi lal at http://e-pao. net/epSubPageExtractor.asp?src=manipur.History_ of_Manipur (viewed on 27 January 2010).

8 As quoted in Oinam Anand’s “Another December 12”, posted on asp?src=manipur.History_of_Manipur (viewes on 27 January 2010).

9 See newspapers reports and photos on Nupilal Day celebrations at (viewed on 27 January 2010).

10 See also Parratt and Arambam, “Hijam Irabot and the Radical Socialist Democratic Movement in Manipur” at asp?src=manipur.History_of_Manipur (viewed on 27 January 2010).

11 See newspapers reports and photographs on the celebrations at

12 For details of Kuki Rising see Bhadra (1975), Haokip (1998: 75-193), Vumson (1986: 133-37). For military operation see Shakespear (1929: 209-38) and Palit (1984: 61-83).

13 The four subdivisions were Churachandpur, Tamenglong, Ukhrul and Sadar, and seven AR outposts were at Ukhrul, Kamjong or Chassad, Mombi, Churachandpur, Hengthan, Tamenglong or Laijang, and Nantiram.

14 Memorandum of the Kuki Political Sufferer’s Association, Manipur to Prime Minister of India entitles “The Grant for Relief to the Kuki Political Sufferers of Manipur”, 16 November 1958.

15 See “Rani Gaidinliu”, Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, Gaidinliu (viewed on 28/01/2010).

16 Memorandum to Governor of Manipur, 26 January 2006.

17 Paper released by Haipei Rani Gaidinliu Birth Anniversary Celebration Committee at http://www. History_of_Manipur (viewed on 28 January 2010).

18 I am thankful to late Th Tiba for bringing this to my knowledge. His untimely demise is a great lost to all us in the Department of History, Assam University: Goodbye Tiba!

19 For the list of 148 Kuki INA pensioners see Haokip (2008: 279-84).

20 Since 1999 the Joint Action Committee on Suspension of Pension (INA), Manipur State Unit, has submitted several representations to the state government.

21 The non-availability of photographs was cited for the invisibility. But these photographs are easily procurable from the printed volume of Who’s Who


for Freedom, published by Freedom Fighter Cell of Manipur Pradesh Congress Committee (Indira), 1986. See also a booklet A Tribute to the INA Freedom Fighters of Manipur published by Department of Art and Culture, Manipur, 2010.

22 Memorandum of the Kuki Political Sufferer’s Association, 16 November 1958, p 2. 23 Ibid: 2.

24 See the memorandum of Joint Action Committee on Suspension of Pension (INA), Manipur State Unit, to the Chief Minister of Manipur, 23 December 1999.

25 As quoted in Petrovato’s “Producing National Identity”,

26 This sort of hill-valley binary is forcefully inherent in the spatial ideology of the postcolonial states in the region.

27 This territorial question was asserted again and again in the state assembly: 24-3-95, 14-3-97, 17-798, 17-12-98, 22-3-01, 12-6-02, and 23-6-2005. See the resolutions at the official website of Manipur State Assembly, (viewed on 9 May 2010).

28 I am referring to Naga and Kuki integration movements.

29 This aspects of state’s totalising projects and its opposition is insightful in H Kham Khan Suan’s “Hills-Valley Divide as a Site of Conflict: Emerging Dialogic Space in Manipur” in Sanjib Baruah (ed.), Beyond Counter-insurgency: Breaking the Impasse in Northeast India (New Delhi: OUP, 2009), pp 263-89.

30 The state government had recently revived Mera Haochongba festival, declared state holiday on 23 October. Haochongba is the old Manipur festival when “men of the various tribes came down to Imphal to perform feats of strength and agility” and “the day was conclude with a feast, at which they are regaled with the flesh of cows, buffaloes, dogs, cats, &c, which have died in the valley… dried and preserved on purpose for this feast, and being supplied with plenty of spirits”. Although a legend of common origin for Nagas, Kukis and Meiteis was invented to explain this “curious” custom the practice points to a rather civilisational discourse in which the hillmen came down to show their “subjection” and uncouth habit of savouring on carcasses. See McCulloch (1859: 24), Hudson (1911: 9, 60).


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