Constitutional Crisis in Manipur
From the time I first visited Manipur I have been painfully aware of the divisions within the Manipur society. And I have also been aware how deeply ignorant the rest of us in India are about the history and geography of the area.
The first time I went to Ukhrul was in 1982 as a part of a women’s team to investigate into the human rights violations by the Indian armed forces during a counter-insurgency operation. The team was headed by Pramila Dandavate. In her first speech in Ukhrul she began by saying she was happy to be in the land of Arjun and Chitrangada. The people looked a little disturbed but politely translated the speech. She, like most of our team, was totally unaware that that one statement had many political connotations.
First of all, it was not until the eighteenth century that the kingdom was called by its present Sanskritised name of Manipur. Till then the kingdom was known as Meitrabak or Kangleibak. It was after the conversion of the Meitei King, Garib Niwaz, into Hinduism under the influence of one Shanti Das, a Brahman from Sylhet, that the culture underwent a process of Hinduisation. The traditional religious books were burnt, temples to the old Sanamahi God were destroyed, the Bengali script was imposed. This was done despite the strong opposition by the traditional priests and courtiers. The Meitei Kings started claiming they were descendants of Arjun’s son and they got integrated with the great traditions.
It was perhaps from this time that the cultural distance between the Hill people and the Valley people began to grow. A similar process can be seen in the relations between the Ahoms and the Nagas (and other tribal communities) after the Ahoms took to Hinduism. One of the most negative aspects of Hinduism was the caste system which denied the Nagas the right to equality and dignity. Added to the negative influence of Hinduism was the conversion of the Nagas to Christianity during the colonial rule.
Thus the present State of Manipur has five distinct nationalities with sub-groups in each. Broadly, in the Valley lives the majority community, the Vaishnavite Meiteis. However, there have been significant movements for a return to their pre-Hindu culture and revive their ancient script. Within the Meiteis there are the Brahmans which form a distinct community. The Meiteis have evolved a truly distinctive culture and civilisation with rich literary traditions and totally justified pride in their poetry, painting, theatre and dance forms. There are many Meitei armed groups, some of them asserting their pre-Hindu identity while others want separation from India.
The other community living in the Valley is the Manipuri Muslims who have a distinct history and cultural trajectory. In fact in recent years they have begun to assert their religious identity, especially after the first violence against Muslims in which Muslims were burnt alive and suffered all kinds of indignities. There are several Muslim armed groups representing the Muslims in Manipur.
There are five Hill districts which form the larger geographical area of Manipur. The district of Churachandpur is the home of many communities of the Chin-Kuki-Mizo group. These communities have affinities with the Mizos of Mizoram and Chins in Burma and in the past there have been movements for joining with Mizoram. These people are almost entirely Christian. There are several armed groups in the district reflecting the grievances of the people in the district.
The other four districts in Manipur—Ukhrul, Tamenglong, Senapati and Chandel—are inhabited by the Nagas. The Ukhrul district is the home of the Tangkhul Nagas; Tamenglong is home to the Zeliangrong group of tribes; the Senapati district is the home of four Naga tribes: Mao, Maram, Thangal, Poumai; Chandel is the home of eight Naga tribes: Aimol, Anal, Lamkang, Tarao, Kom, Maring, Moyon and Monsang. Some of these tribes have been described as Kukis by the British but they have opted to identify with the Nagas.
The fifth community is of the Indians, who include the shopkeepers, rickshaw pullers and a few industrialists. They maintain their own culture.
These communities do live side by side and do have relationships with each other, especially in the workplace, in the market and in public places. However, there is no composite culture that binds these five communities. Over the years the Meiteis have dominated the political life of the State, notwithstanding the fact that there has been a Naga Chief Minister or tribal civil servants. On a daily basis the tribal people suffer humiliations and indignities in their interaction with the dominant community.
In addition, the people of the Hill Districts have been systematically been denied their fair share in the development funds and all the good hospitals and medical facilities are available in the Valley; so also colleges and educational institutions; apart from the such facilities such as electricity and water. There is also a high degree of corruption which further marginalises the tribal communities.
The State Human Rights Commission is entirely dominated by the Meiteis and even for the short time that a Naga judge headed the Commission; he was not paid for more than six months.
The Meitei institutions and organisations exclude the tribals. For instance, the All Manipur Students Union does not include tribal students. The tribal students have their own All Tribal Students Association of Manipur.
In the imagination of a majority of Indians, the Manipur State is identified with Arjun, the Manipuri dolls with their unique costume and perhaps with the torch-bearing Meitei women called the nigh patrollers. We are unaware of the fact that four districts of Manipur are the home of the Nagas whose history is a different history from the history of the Meitei people of the Valley.
The Nagas in Manipur have been demanding that their districts be integrated with Nagaland which is contiguous. It is not the demand of the NSCN which was born only in the 1980s. The demand for integration of all Naga areas goes back to before India became independent. In fact the Naga National League under the leadership of Mr Daiho had raised the demand for integration of the Naga areas of Manipur in 1940s.
Although the Government did not concede to the demands of the Naga National League it did concede to the demand of the Naga National Council which demanded the merger of the Naga Hill district of Assam and the Tuensang district of the North-East Frontier Agency under the Ministry of External Affairs in 1957 and later this became the present State of Nagaland.
In August 1972 there was a joint agreement between the All India Congress Committee (AICC), the United Naga Integration Council and the Manipur Pradesh Congress Committee (MPCC). The agreement stated: “It is agreed upon that the Congress Party does not oppose the Naga integration movement and does not consider the Naga integration movement as anti-party, anti-national, anti-state and unconstitutional activity.”
Why was it possible for the Meiteis to agree to the integration of Naga areas in 1972 and why are they opposing it today? The successive governments of Manipur have sabotaged the Indo-Naga peace process by opposing the extension of ceasefire to the Naga inhabited areas of Manipur. On one occasion in June 18, 2001 they even burnt down their own Legislative Assembly because the Central Government declared the extension of ceasefire to the Naga inhabited areas (all of them, not only Manipur). Then the Meities demanded that the day be declared “Manipur Integrity Day”. I had the dubious distinction of having my effigy burnt along with Prime Minister Vajpayee, Th Muivah on that occasion! This was because I had spoken on national television on the constitutional crisis.
Now the constitutional crisis has become full blown. What are the issues?
1. In the Indo-Naga peace process whenever the Centre makes a promise the Manipur Government undermines it in the name of law and order problem. And the Government of India says it is helpless because law and order problem is a State subject. Thus the Central Government agreed to the NSCN’s demand that Th Muivah be allowed to visit his home in Ukhrul distirct. There was no apprehension of law and order because the Nagas had unanimously welcomed the decision and Th Muivah’s journey would have taken him through Naga areas. But the government of Ibobi sent his criminal force called the Indian Reserve Battalion which created a law and order problem by shooting into an unarmed crowd killing two students and injuring more than 75 villagers at the Mao gate.
2. The Legislative Assembly has 60 seats but the Nagas have only 10 MLAs. Therefore the MLAs are unable to represent the interests of their people. When the government speaks for “Manipur” in fact it does not speak for the Nagas because their MLAs’ voices are not heard. The Speaker refuses to even record their dissent. Seven MLAs have resigned. They have followed the procedure and the Speaker even accepted their resignation. But the Chief Minister did not want to have an official constitutional crisis, so the acceptance has been taken back.
All the major Naga organisations, including the Naga Hoho, the apex body of the Nagas, have given a statement that it is no longer possible for the Nagas in Manipur to live under the Meitei Government. It is a constitutional crisis which will not go away and it requires statesmanship and vision to resolve.
I have spent many years in Manipur and they have been the most meaningful ones in my life. I have learnt so much from the people living in that war-torn State. It genuinely pains me to write this article because it seems to be a betrayal of the friendship and warmth I have received from friends and acquaintances in the Valley. This article is as much an appeal to my fellow Indian citizens as to my Meitei friends to see that the integrity of Manipur lies by preserving Meitei culture and civilisation not by suppressing the development of other nationalities. I say this in much the same way I would say to my fellow Indians that the integrity of India can never be based on suppression of the democratic aspirations of Kashmiris, Bodos or other minority nationalities.
The author is a human rights lawyer and writer.