The tension over the push for more autonomy for the hills of Manipur, must not be allowed to fester further. Whatever it is, whether the problem of developmental disparity is a result of the valley people using their majoritarian brute strength to ensure this condition, or whether there are more fundamental causes, including not the least the reluctance of the hill population to join the modern system especially in areas of land management, to be able to take full advantage of this system, the answer must be established in no uncertain terms and remedial measures sought. At this moment, the rift between the hills and valley seems to be widening, either side willing only to see the other side as the aggressor and therefore not try to see from each other’s vantage. This, if not moderated in time can only lead to nasty consequences. A comprehensive “White Paper” on the matter, incorporating data on what are the exact figures on the ground and what made things happen the way they did, is now a must. The fact is, most of the State and Central public institutions are located in the greater Imphal area. Let it however be remembered here that Imphal City is not synonymous with Imphal valley. The condition of rural areas of the valley is markedly different from what it is in the capital city, and few or none of the same institutions in question are located there as well. The unconscious presumption that Imphal City is equivalent to the valley falsely accentuates this picture of a developmental disparity. Similarly, to see the hills as uniformly behind on the developmental march would be equally false. For instance, Churachandpur is the second largest city in Manipur, far bigger and alive than all townships in the valley other than Imphal.
Of the public institutions in Manipur, the State’s own institutions would be far more spread out to the different districts than Central ones, most of the latter being concentrated in Imphal’s two institutional areas, Lamphelpat and Porompat. What were the driving logic for this to have come about the way it has? Has this to do with project feasibility, population concentration, accessibility etc.? Or, as often alleged, is this a result of discrimination against the hills by the valley majority? Answers to these questions would have to be sought. However, certain corollary questions which in some ways may serve as windows to the answers to the earlier set of questions, must also be asked. The most important of these is, how would local populations in Imphal have had any extra advantage by being in the neighbourhood of these public institutions. There probably would be some extra benefits from those institutions which have a service component, such as medical institutes with health care wings, but what about others such as the ICAR, SIB, NIT etc.? Have they been of any visible direct benefits to the immediate localities? There probably would be some indirect ones, such as local provision stores coming up in the vicinity to cater to residents of these campuses, or roads meant for these institutions also available for use by the public.
Let it be noted that growth disparities often are also a result of the universal phenomenon of urbanisation and urban migration. In a reciprocal way, as people tend to migrate to urban centres, trade and job opportunities especially in the informal service sector also grow in these centres, which in turn further initiates a strengthening of further urban migration tendencies starting off a cycle that continually accelerate growth of cities. This is happening everywhere, not just in Manipur. Within Manipur, even in the hills this would be happening. Tendencies for people, facilities and jobs to accumulate in the emerging urban centres of district headquarters need no elaboration, for this would have been witnessed by everybody in person. In neighbouring Nagaland, Mizoram or Assam, things are not much different. The rules governing an economy do not always follow the direction of politics, and instead are driven by its own logic. This is seen prominently in Nagaland’s commercial city of Dimapur outgrowing its capital city Kohima.
The “White Paper” that we propose, must take into considerations these angles too. Rather than seeing the familiar pattern of wealth accumulation in some private hands as a generalised norm of wealth creation, it must also make transparent the extent and depth of poverty in the different districts. How those below poverty line in the valley and the hills compare, and our guess is, despite all the claims and perceptions of disparity between the two regions, there may not be much to distinguish here. The only difference perhaps would be, the poor in the valley will have their individual plots of lands, homestead or farmland, as assets which can be easily sold and encashed, while those in the hills would be without this potential cash liquidity, though having much more land. Very significantly this would mean tremendous differences in access to loans against collaterals as well as cash-in-hand when needed to seek government employment through Manipur’s notorious bribe for job market, or in less sinister situations, to afford expensive family emergencies, such as healthcare from the open market.
Of the many public institutions in Imphal, the case of the NIT has an added interest for two reasons. One has to do with the news of periodic tensions between the students and staff of the institution located at the Langol hills overlooking Lamphelpat, with the neighbourhood. This became especially prominent during the agitation for Inner Line Permit System in the valley. Second reason is that when the institute was first conceived of and approved, there were many lobbies for it to be located in one of the hill districts, and among the lobby were many media organisations, including ours, in the belief this would begin offsetting the impression that Imphal was monopolising all developmental initiatives. The Congress political leadership at the time had more or less bought this argument, but the then adviser to the government, a former chief secretary and a non-local, swung the decision in favour or Langol Hills, Lamphelpat. I confronted him and queried him on this once during a private gathering at the wedding function of a Manipur cadre bureaucrat’s daughter in New Delhi. He expressed surprise that I should ask this but explained that the NIT is a national institute and its staff as well as students would be from all over the country. This being so, for a staff, but also student, from Maharashtra or Andhra Pradesh, Imphal itself is already remote and would not be their first choice, and if the NIT were to be away from Imphal in a district, its attraction would dip further still. Indeed, in neighbouring Nagaland, out of political considerations, the headquarters of the Nagaland Central University, was chosen to be located at Lumami in Zunheboto District, but today, its Kohima campus has emerged the virtual core. Most of Nagaland’s public institutions are also located either in Kohima or else Dimapur, a burgeoning commercial city which was also once part of Kohima district.
This logic notwithstanding, the need is for urban planners to think of spreading out these institutions away from urban pockets to the extent possible. Not only would this return a sense of participation amongst all outside of the capital region, but also halt the increasing congestion in Imphal city. Today, with its two districts totalling about 1.1 million population (Imphal West 623,403 and Imphal East 479,271), the city is fighting a losing battle in the upkeep of vital resources such as piped drinking water for its rapidly increasing population, or in its hunt for waste disposal means and sites. The expanding settlement area of the city is also continually encroaching into the verdant paddy fields that surround it, which have deservingly earned itself the epithet of being the “rice bowl” of the state. If our planners in the past had the foresight, they ought to have ensured all or at last most of the public institutions situated in Imphal city now were instead in the surrounding foothill areas, not too far away from the centre to make access to them difficult for the rest of the state but away from the valley area so that its already depleting farmlands and wetlands were not put under the severe strains they are today. It is late, but not too late to adopt such an outlook for location of future public institutions.
Beyond the immediate, there are certain matters for everybody to consider. First, as the cliché goes, the only lesson mankind has ever learnt from history is that we don’t learn from history. But we must. One of the vital lessons from history that all in Manipur are failing to acknowledge is again the fact that history is not a static phenomenon and that there is no way anybody can halt its progress. In similar vein, institutions of state building too have always had to reform periodically in accordance with the needs and evolving reality at any given time. Refusal to acknowledge the need for these periodic changes is asking for trouble and anarchy. The idea of democratic rule itself has followed such a trajectory. Since modern democracy came to be from Europe let us consider just one event which is considered the root of the modern democratic State – the treaty that is generally referred to as Magna Carta signed in 1215 by which the king of England agreed to conceded some of his powers to his noblemen in order that they remained together and did not fight. Many more such treaties followed, sometimes after deadly wars, realigning power structure within different States as well as between States to ultimately give us the modern democratic State. Even this varies from State to State though its broad philosophy is common – these are States ruled by leaders periodically elected by their people.
From this vantage, the valley Meiteis are prone to see their history as frozen somewhere in the past and not an evolving phenomenon requiring constant updates and refreshing. The idea of Manipur from this vantage is what was defined by that past and often one that is less than willing to factor in the evolving realities of the present times. Even the recent adoption of a song as the State Song came from such an understanding of the idea of Manipur which presumes what is seen through the lens of this Meitei hubris is, or should be, common to all else in the state without even bothering to confirm if this is actually so. While the song itself is ethnicity neutral and indeed makes for beautiful poetry, simply expressing nostalgia and love for the soil by the children of the soil, it would have left no room for raised eyebrows if the adoption was after consultations and a wider consensus. If this is the bane of the majority community in the valley, the hill communities too are stuck in their own time warps. In fact, our guess is, this would form a major factor in the much-resented developmental disparities between the hills and valley which is now again becoming a cause for friction. One of the features of this intransigence is a stubborn unwillingness to accept land reforms to make them more accommodative to modern economic planning.
In the modern land revenue system, all land is owned by the government, and individuals only lease their individual plots of land from the government. Whatever land is not thus leased to individuals as “patta” lands, are “khas lands” automatically owned by the government so it is far easier for the government to undertake projects on them, though after getting mandatory clearances, such as from the environment ministry. In the hills, we all know, the problem of acquiring land by the government is of a different dimension altogether. Like outlook to land, laws meant to address unique time bound contexts too must also be open to periodic updates in accordance to the changing times. If both sides were to introspect and try also to see where they themselves could have gone wrong rather than just their eagerness to blame each other for things that did not go right, most likely the hill-valley binary can diminish, and even fade away. Till such a time becomes a reality, the thought for a double tier governance structure, in which at one level hill and valley are two mutually autonomous administrative regions and at the higher level bound together under one State, must be given a serious consideration. Let us all admit it that the communities and their interests here are too deeply enmeshed to be physically separated peacefully and too far alienated from each other to be happy together under the same circumstances as they are in now. We do hope things change by the next generation, but from the atmosphere of prejudices the younger generation are being made to grow up in now, this seems unlikely to happen anytime soon.
While these options are being explored, Manipur needs also to imbibe the idea of the modern State and the responsibilities its citizens are called upon to shoulder. Among the most important of these is for the people to be “demos” and rise above being “ethnos”. The State must remain as a secular space, and in situations such as in Manipur, secularism’s definition must go beyond just religion but also ethnicity. Hence, just as religion, ethnicity must to the extent possible be left as a private matter and therefore not allowed to determine public life except by consensus. Public space on the other hand must remain impersonal, governed by impersonal rules of law designed to enhance efficacy of the State in reaching its benefits to its citizens equitably, not necessarily equally. The latter may not always be possible or desirably. As for instance, a person who works harder must deserve bigger rewards. If not the system will invariably sink into mediocrity. In Max Weber’s words, as cited by scholar Jelle Wouters in In the “Shadow of Naga Insurgency: Tribes, State, and Violence in Northeast India” the modern state is characterized by impersonal rules which explicitly define duties, responsibilities, standardized procedures and conduct of office holders, and the government servants first, but indeed all citizen, are required to place their faith in this understanding of the State. Failing this, only anarchy awaits.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author