Burdens of the past

Published : Sep 10, 2004 00:00 IST

It is perceived wrongs and feelings of hurt over a long period of its history, and not just one event or one draconian law, that have caused the outburst of rage in Manipur.

in Guwahati

THE immediate focus of the current unrest in Manipur, now in its second month, is a truly nasty and terrifying piece of legislation called the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA). The protests spurred by the alleged rape, torture and murder in the small hours of July 11 of a young woman, Thangjam Manorama, within hours of her being arrested and taken away from her home by personnel of the Assam Rifles, have now taken the appearance of a near mass uprising. The authorities allege, almost as if in extenuation of the killing, that Manorama was an active cadre of the banned People's Liberation Army (PLA), one of the dozen or so terrorist/militant organisations active in the State, and was killed when she tried to flee from custody. That she could be taken away from her house in the dead of night and killed within hours of being taken into custody, with impunity and without any fear of possible legal or administrative action against such arbitrary conduct, is entirely because of the total immunity that the AFSPA provides perpetrators of such actions in areas notified as `disturbed'.

Not a day has passed since that dramatic and visceral intervention on the morning of July 15 by a group of women who appeared naked in front of Kangla Fort, the headquarters of the Assam Rifles in Manipur, holding up banners shaming the authorities and indeed the Indian state, without some manifestation of strident protest and resistance. Although initially women groups took the lead, the protests have now become a more generalised phenomenon with the leadership being provided by `Apunba Lup', a loose alliance of some 32 socio-cultural and political organisations. Concessions from the State government, such as the decision to de-notify the Greater Imphal area, which accounts for seven Assembly segments, and take it out from the purview of the AFSPA, have had little impact on the mass protests. Indeed, these seeming concessions, in particular the announcement of the de-notification of the Greater Imphal area from the ambit of the AFSPA, appear to have caused much consternation in New Delhi where the authorities are poised to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), even though that nasty law, benignity personified when compared to AFSPA, has only a few weeks to run before it becomes defunct, but are stubbornly refusing to do anything about the demand to repeal the AFSPA. Quite simply, the political constituency adversely affected by POTA is numerically larger and politically more powerful. In contrast, those affected by the AFSPA, potentially the whole population of the seven States of the northeastern region, account for less than 40 million, a mere drop in the bucket in the broader Indian electoral context. Size does matter.

Another interesting feature of the reaction, such as it is, of the Union government is the contrary voices heard about the situation in Manipur from the Union Home Minister and the Defence Minister. These can perhaps be explained by the fact that while the Assam Rifles is under the administrative control of the Home Ministry, operationally it is under the Defence Ministry. This is a small turf war, though perhaps reflecting the larger battles going on in Delhi. But it is the people of Manipur who suffer the consequences.

The death by immolation of a youth in Bishenpur, voyeuristically filmed by a television channel and continuously broadcast, and the cremation of his body (which his family refused to receive) by the authorities has further inflamed passions. Clearly, Imphal and the rest of the Valley, as much as the rest of the State, is suffering from grievous hurt and wounds, inflicted as much by the state as by a people outraged beyond reason by the damage done to their lives and inner selves by a state and a system that they no longer seem to comprehend - except as abhorrent structures.

The irreducible minimum demand is now for the de-notification of the whole State from the purview of the AFSPA - nothing more, nothing less. This was indeed the response of Jagat Thoundam, the spokesperson of the Apunba Lup, to the Union government's offer to `hold talks'. "We do not have a long list of demands. We are just asking for the withdrawal of the Act and for that there is no need for talks," a news agency report on August 20 quoted him as saying.

Allied to this is the demand, a longstanding one, that the Assam Rifles should move out of Kangla, a site and a monument with profound spiritual and historical significance for the people of the State, in particular for the people of the Imphal Valley.

The Assam Rifles authorities have announced several times that they have taken a decision to move out. Even dates for vacating the premises have been announced more than once. But all to no avail; the Assam Rifles remains entrenched in the heart of the city. Indeed this is the situation in every State of the region where the Assam Rifles continues to occupy a prominent salient overlooking the cities.

The opposition to this menacing piece of legislation is not new. The demand for the withdrawal of the AFSPA was the central point of a long conversation that this correspondent had with the late Nameirakpam Bisheshar Singh of the PLA nearly 20 years ago (The Hindu, March 21, 1985). `Civil society' in the State has consistently opposed this Act and demanded its repeal, though this, like so many other aspects of political mobilisation and expression in the State, has inescapably been region-specific. Even now, the ferment in the Imphal Valley does stand in contrast with the relative indifference to the issue in the Hill districts surrounding the Valley in some of which the AFSPA has been in force for much longer, though there have been instances of some participation in these protests by groups of tribal women in Imphal, a symbolic unity in opposition in respect of the demand for the withdrawal of the AFSPA even among those who cherish hostilities or indifference of quite another kind towards each other.

THE legislation, originally named Armed Forces (Assam and Manipur) Special Powers Act, was passed in 1958. Two minor verbal amendments later (in 1972, when Manipur became a full-fledged State, and in 1986, when Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh became full-fledged States), it is now known as the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, with the substance of the legislation remaining unaltered.

The immediate predecessor to this legislation was the Assam Disturbed Areas Act, 1955, passed by the Assam Assembly to meet the exigencies of the Naga insurgency, then under the leadership of the late A.Z. Phizo. This State Act was followed three years later by the Armed Forces (Assam and Manipur) Special Powers Act, 1958, a piece of Central legislation, identical to the State legislation in all essential respects, ostensibly to deal with the disturbed conditions in the Naga-inhabited areas of Manipur, then a Union Territory. Incidentally, the Assam Disturbed Areas Act, 1955, is very much a `living' piece of legislation, with the required notifications designating the `disturbed areas (in this case, the reserve forests on the Assam-Nagaland border) renewed every six months and duly published in the Assam Gazette. Since those who control and manipulate even protest movements view these areas as `remote', there is hardly a ripple of protest in the State about the continuing application of the Disturbed Areas Act in a part of the State.

It is true that the Assam Disturbed Areas Act, 1955, in turn, followed the `guidelines' set by an ordinance passed by the colonial government in August 1942, to counter the opposition to the war effort by the Congress, then leading the freedom movement. However, credit for replicating this terrifying colonial invention legitimising murder to meet the perceived security concerns of independent India should properly go to Jawaharlal Nehru. In Assam itself, of which the present-day Nagaland was then just a district (and a bit more), another well-known Gandhian leader, Bishnuram Medhi, was then at the helm. Both these leaders, for quite different reasons closely related to their personalities and backgrounds and, in Nehru's case, an unfortunate first, and only first hand, exposure to Naga political astuteness, became profoundly unsympathetic to Naga nationalistic aspirations. In due course, another piece of legislation, again replicating in all its substantial aspects the earlier Ordinance (1942), the State Act (1955), and the Central Act (1958), was passed by Parliament covering the state of Jammu and Kashmir .

When the AFSPA was passed, the Naga-inhabited Ukhrul district was straightway notified under the Act, to be joined later by other Naga-inhabited areas of the then Union Territory where, it was judged, the Naga insurgency needed such severe measures for its control. However, there was then little opposition to these notifications in the politically important Imphal Valley inhabited predominantly by the Meitei who constitute about 65 per cent of Manipur's population. The indifference in the rest of the country when the legislation was passed, or even among the Members of Parliament who passed the legislation, was more than matched by the bland hypocrisy and the circular reasoning with which assurances were given - and accepted by the MPs, barring the late Jaipal Singh, the tribal leader from Ranchi who insisted on recording his `No' vote - that the legislation was benevolence itself. Thus, Govind Ballabh Pant, then Union Home Minister, while piloting the Bill said:

"This is a very simple measure. It only seeks to protect the steps the armed forces might have to take in the disturbed areas... . It will be applied only to such parts as have been declared by the administrations concerned as being disturbed... After such a declaration has been made, then alone the provisions of this Bill will be applicable to that particular area. I do not think it is necessary for me to say more in this connection. It is a simple measure" (`Debate in Parliament' in Nagaland File, Luingam Luithui and Nandita Haksar, Lancer, New Delhi, 1984, pages 160-71).

However, when, following widespread unrest in the Imphal Valley in 1979-80, coinciding and to some extent inspired by the anti-foreigner agitation in Assam which has had an impact in every State of the region, the majority Meitei people woke up to the terrifying implications of the AFSPA. The official view of these disturbances are best summed up in the Governor's address to the Manipur Assembly on February 18, 1981, the first session after the whole State was notified as a `disturbed area' under the AFSPA, which began with a reference to the `firm security measures' taken by the government to contain the activities of extremists. The Governor, in his address, said:

"You are already aware that violent activities of the extremists had occasionally disrupted normal life, especially in the valley areas in the year gone by. The situation deteriorated to such a degree that it was difficult to tackle it with the normal law-enforcing agencies. As a result, the entire State had to be declared as Disturbed Area from the month of September 1980 and the Army called in to assist the civil administration in counter-Insurgency measures. The Combined forces of police, army and paramilitary units have since launched vigorous drives with the help and co-operation of the people against the insurgents. As a result, a number of extremists including some hardcore leaders have been apprehended and unauthorised arms and ammunitions seized from them. A number of them had also surrendered with arms and ammunitions and they are being suitably rehabilitated."

For good measure, the Governor also noted that "the law and order situation was further complicated due to widespread students' unrest in the North East, especially Assam". For over 20 years since then, the whole state of Manipur, and not merely the `outlying' Naga-inhabited areas has remained under the shadow of the AFSPA.

IT would however be facile to attribute the outburst of this rage merely to the killing of a young woman, or even to the AFSPA as such. These, the nearly-half-a-century-old legislation and its operation in the Imphal Valley since September 1980 and the cruelties perpetrated under its protective cover, are proximate causes, mere symptoms of a prolonged social and political crisis, that have catalysed and given a sharp edge to the rages whose roots are complex, and which lie very deep.

Almost every account of modern Manipur written by Manipuri scholars begins with a recital of the circumstances under which the territory lost its independent status and was merged into the Union of India. The thrust of these accounts is that the merger of Manipur was accomplished with a combination of cajolement, promises that were not kept, and plain trickery. Such a view of the past is shared by many of the princes and princelings of feudal India as well. However, in the case of Manipur there is a little more substance to such grievances.

An account of the Constitutional and Legal History of Manipur by M. Ibohal Singh begins thus: "We find the regular history of Manipur only from the 33 A.D." Another scholar exhorts that Manipur's political history should be read "from 24 A.D". These may sound suspiciously close to the first sentence of a History of Ethiopia. "The first certain knowledge we have of Ethiopian history is when Cush ascended on the throne immediately after the Deluge," mockingly quoted by Evelyn Waugh in his account of the coronation of Haile Selassie. But history in Manipur is not mere myth and legend and folk memory; it is also elaborately recorded with an unbroken continuity unto modern times, through all the vicissitudes of two millennia, by royal chroniclers.

The first written Constitution of Manipur, promulgated during the reign of Loyiamba in the 11th century, was in force up to 1891. Lest we forget (though the people in Manipur will never let us forget), another written Constitution was adopted in March 1947, well before India formally became independent.

Underlying the present unrest is the very strong conviction, widely shared in the Imphal Valley, that the provisions of this Constitution were ignored, if not violated, when the Merger Agreement was forced upon a weak and apparently reluctant monarch on September 21, 1949.

Strictly speaking, the status of Manipur as an independent kingdom came to an end following the Anglo-Manipur conflict of 1891 when the British government, "illegally and improperly confiscating the kingdom", though for form's sake, installed the infant prince, Churachand, as the future king. Though Manipur survived the trauma of that misadventure and the harsh penalties that followed, and the prince evolved into a progressive and forward-looking monarch, the kingdom was even then set on the path that led inescapably to the present. Developments taking place outside the territory over which the kingdom had no control, like the World War in which Manipur was an important theatre, only hastened this process. The last straw was the decision of the colonial power to `cut and quit'.

In the scramble that followed in the princely orders seeking an accommodation with the new rulers, Manipur, dim and remote, got a raw deal. Indeed, most people in Manipur, in particular in the Imphal Valley, even now believe that the State and its people were sold short in the Merger Agreement signed on September 21, 1949, with the formal transfer of jurisdiction taking place on October 15, 1949, incidentally the same day on which Tripura too merged with the new Dominion of India. This is how Ibohal Singh summarises this perspective:

"[S]ome say that the Merger Agreement was undemocratic and inequitable, on these grounds: First, there was no plebiscite of the then people of Manipur on the merger issue. Second, the Merger Agreement violated the Manipur State Constitution, 1947, under which a form of responsible government had started functioning in the State of Manipur. In this respect, it may be pointed out that the power to cede the State of Manipur to the Dominion of India must have been exercised by the Maharaja in accordance with the Manipur State Constitution, 1947."

To put it simply, the reason why over a dozen organisations, the oldest of which are also intensely political, are even now actively pushing the line for an independent and sovereign Manipur lies in what continues to be seen as the shabby history of Manipur's merger with India. This urge to regain sovereignty, though remnants of the old royalty are unlikely to have any role in the envisaged sovereign Manipur, animates all these organisations. Being highly intelligent, the leadership also knows that a sovereign Manipur is neither desirable nor feasible, given the correlation of forces between Manipur on the one hand and the States on its borders. Nevertheless, exploitation of these ancient resentments is also an important tool to mobilise support from sections of the population who are both sceptical of, and fascinated by, such an ideology of revivalist nationalism.

Ignorance and indifference from Delhi has also helped. One even now wonders why Manipur, with such an ancient history and civilisation (that has nothing to do with the puranic history hoisted on its people by a pan-Indian elite), had to wait for a quarter of a century before it could be constituted as one of the States of the Indian Union in 1972, after putting up an apprenticeship as a Part-C State and a Union Territory. In contrast, the Naga Hills, a mere district of Assam, became a full-fledged State in December 1963. One can scarcely miss the object lesson that the two examples offer.

RAGE and violence having become so embedded in the daily experience of most people in the northeastern region (and perhaps in many other parts of the country as well), and with an amoral and inordinately ravenous visual media feeding and being fed by the frenzy that it creates, one overlooks that ordinary life goes on, even in Imphal. As always, the ancient poets spoke the most profound truths using the simplest language: That passed, this too will pass. However, it is impossible to be so glib and phlegmatic about the cumulative impact of such marginalisation and rejection on a people, so richly endowed in their past, and enveloped in so depressing a present and a future. That is the real fear for the future.

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