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Crackdown in Manipur gets ugly

Crackdown in Manipur gets ugly
Manipur, especially the Imphal valley, is in the throes of an extraordinary mass movement which has erupted around the Inner Line permit (ILP) issue. This mass movement continues in the face of relentless curfews. Protesters have been killed and wounded by the men in khaki uniform. That we do not hear more about it in the national news is because there is no senile “Gandhian” or tricolour self-righteousness involved.

Of course, the other probable reason is the “insignificance” of Manipur in the “national” scene. This “national scene” effectively came into being in the Indian Union after the Republic was proclaimed in 1950. Even before the Indian Union was a Republic, it had managed to summarily dismiss the democratically elected government of Manipur led by the Praja Shanti party. The Congress had then fought the elections of Manipur and lost. Manipur, with an elected government and at that point not an integral part of the Union, was annexed by the Union of India.

 The Indian Union brought “democracy” to Manipur by kidnapping the  King of Manipur when he was in Shillong and making him sign a document of accession under coercion and threat of force. This happened at a time when Manipur had an elected sovereign government. New Delhi-sponsored democracy has been like an unstoppable juggernaut in Manipur ever since. Surgeries gone wrong often cause particularly bad ulcers. Excision is not an option for a “modern nation state” that has creation myths going back to the age of dinosaurs. Hence, “insignificant” ulcers bleed on as the rest of the body is on <g data-gr-id="95">sugar-pills</g>, reading history and civics dutifully from officially prescribed textbooks.

The ILP is an Indian Union government issued travel document that outsiders need to enter Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland (except Dimapur). The non-partisan political coalition called JCILP has ushered in a powerful movement that is rocking the Imphal valley. It wants the ILP system to be promulgated in Manipur too. The ILP system was introduced during the late 19th century: a time when the British were making new territorial acquisitions in the <g data-gr-id="64">present day</g> Northeast by force and adding these newly acquired areas to their Empire. The ILP was in part developed to secure British commercial interests by maintaining peace without spending military resources. British acquisitions that were beyond the <g data-gr-id="66">inner-line</g> enjoyed considerable internal autonomy in their own administration <g data-gr-id="84">and as a result</g> enjoyed relatively more “<g data-gr-id="65">swaraj</g>”. This was much before Indian nationalists also wanted it for them too. Such a state of swaraj lapsed with the advent of a “New Delhi Raj” of allegedly questionable legality.

Manipur didn’t have the ILP system because when the British were busy expanding their empire India into these areas, the sovereign ruler of Manipur managed to preserve Manipur’s centuries old distinctiveness, politically, culturally and otherwise. Manipur was not a part of British India. Hence, the ILP did not apply to Manipur. It had its own ways of self-preservation. The loss of Manipur’s autonomy in 1949 with the merger agreement put it at a disadvantage. It had no ILP and hence had no method of regulating the entry of outsiders. Though signed under allegedly dubious circumstances that make the validity of any signature questionable, Article VIII of the accession document did state that the Government of India undertakes “to preserve various laws, customs and conventions prevailing in the State pertaining to the social, economic and religious life of the people”. The ILP demand is about preserving the way of the life of the communities of Manipur. 

One can perhaps for the sake of public discourse ask, are we not all Indians, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari?  Whether we are one people or not, depend on who you ask the question to but what is certain is that we are co-citizens and should enjoy similar freedoms. The youth of Imphal <g data-gr-id="94">do</g> not enjoy the freedoms available to the youth of Delhi. Probing those differences may bring out unpalatable truths. I have always found it very interesting how the Indian Union and its “national media” showers more concern on the treatment of Manipuri students in Delhi than the condition of actual Manipur. Do we even know what is going on in the Northeast? It is public knowledge that the legitimacy of the Indian Union’s control over certain territories of the Indian Union’s northeast is strongly challenged by many members of the public in those areas. Whoever wants to deny this is simply being absurd. No serious discussion can start with a denial of this ground truth. It is not hard to guess who benefits the most from the tensions between Nagas and Meiteis (all bonafide citizens of the Indian Union, by the way).

While sections of the ILP movement points to “non-Indian” outsiders as its primary concern, that is a narrative of tactical convenience, given that Manipur is at present a part of the Indian Union. The population of Uttar Pradesh is 75 times that of Manipur. For communities who once enjoyed autonomy in their territory to suddenly become ‘small’ or even minority in their own territory is extremely disconcerting. Interestingly, Angami Zapu Phizo, the elder statesman of the Nagas, stated in 1951 that “we can easily be submerged and get lost”. No one wants to become a pariah in their own homeland. It is this pluralistic vision of the future that has to be remembered. Can Tamil-speakers imagine a Tamil Nadu where they will be a minority?

In the aforementioned accession document, the Indian Union had pledged to preserve the Manipuri way of life. <g data-gr-id="71">Introduction</g> of ILP is crucial to that socio-cultural preservation. It has also supported the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which accepts that indigenous people “have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinct political, legal, economic, social and cultural institutions, while retaining their rights to participate fully, if they choose to, in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the state”. To redeem that pledge by the Indian Union, in letter and in spirit, is the only honourable solution. ILP for Manipur is an idea whose time has come. IPA
Garga Chatterjee

Garga Chatterjee

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