Another anniversary of the June 18 uprising to protest the unconditional extension of the NSCN(IM) ceasefire “without territorial limits” in 2001, a move of the then BJP government at the Centre which had seemed to many to be an imminent threat to the territorial integrity of Manipur, was observed today with the same solemnity that marks the observation each year. A total of 18 people had lost their lives in firing by security forces during the day’s fierce agitation and scores more were injured, demonstrating the public passion the issue commands, especially in the valley area of the state. The unmistakable statement sent out by those who were driven to take to the streets on the issue was loud and clear – Manipur will not be allowed to disintegrate at any cost.
It is now everybody’s knowledge that the clause “without territorial limits” to the extension of the ceasefire had to be withdrawn and a “status quo ante” on the matter announced by the then Union home minister, L.K. Advani, before passions ultimately cooled. But the fact is, the ethnic divide in Manipur being what it is, it must also be acknowledged that there are others who still stand on the other side of this issue too, although today the prospect of a unified and sovereign Naga homeland has receded considerably on account of many factors, and not necessarily only the objections from Manipur and other states which stand to lose territory if this became a reality. Because the question of Naga sovereignty has been ruled out, and because of internal contradictions within the conglomerate of tribes which call themselves Nagas, the passionate dynamics that fired the vision of Nagas coming under one administrative roof, are evaporating before everybody’s eyes.
This notwithstanding, Manipur’s cup of woe is predicted to overflow some more – unless of course the people realize the inevitable destiny of geography and come out of their respective prisons of perspective. It will hardly need any explanation that this meta-narrative of geographical bondage cannot be undone at anybody’s whim without causing huge and tragic tremors in ethnic relations which can leave irreversible traumatic consequences. The unrest in June 2001 gave us all a glimpse of what tragic turns history can take to the detriment of all.
The ray of hope is, even in the midst of the extreme ethnic tensions on that momentous occasion in 2001, no murderous mayhem resulted between the communities in the hills or in the valley although such a cataclysm was feared and probably very possible at that point. One little spark anywhere could have caused raging infernos. Although it cannot be denied that many Nagas fled the valley in the heat of that agitation, leaving their homes and properties unguarded, nobody even thought of taking over these premises empty and abandoned for months. Even amidst the lawlessness some bondages remained sacred and beyond violation. When normalcy returned, things were where they always stood and the nightmare of just a few weeks ago no sooner became distant memory.
June 18 must then also be a time to reflect on this unseen and unarticulated grace in ethnic relations beneath what seem to be mutually and uncompromisingly hostile frictions. The ultimate peace and reconciliation that must come about would have to begin with an acknowledgment of the existence of this umbilical cord, and then building on the sense of fraternity that this bondage promises.
Of course, this should also not mean homogenization of everything in the name of co-existence. This fraternity, if it must have any tangible meaning beyond its rhetoric, must also be about recognizing diversity and difference. Hence, the demand for autonomy by different communities must be given new thought and focus. However, as I have also written on so many other occasions, the territorial divide between hills and valley in ethnic terms is only as old as the advent of British land management system that laid a premium on separating “fiscal subjects” from “absent citizens”, therefore a new imagining is what is called for in today’s popular notion of territory and ownership.
The idea that anything hill must exclude the valley dwellers must end. The hills, especially those close to the valley or else embedded within the valley have also always been closely associated with the myths and legends of valley dwellers, and this reality must be given cognizance. If not, the opposite logic that anything valley must be reserved for the valley people must also apply. This does not however mean all existing ethnic territorial boundaries must be broken. My only contention is the rigidity and impermissibility of these boundaries must end. We also know from a generation which saw the state of things in the state in the 1940s and 1950s, many of whom are still alive, that many stretches of territory in the hills as well as in the valley which are now thickly populated, were virtually uninhabited, making our call for a reimagining of the notion of territory all the more relevant.
Perhaps the Meghalaya model of autonomy can be explored. Here 6th Schedule covers the entire state, except for the Shillong municipal area, so that the administrative boundaries of the 6th Schedule ADCs and those of the state government overlap almost completely. In Manipur too, perhaps all of its territory, hill as well as valley except the Imphal municipal area, can be given similar autonomy, not necessarily as exact replicas of the 6th Schedule ADCs but ones which take into consideration the state’s own peculiar geographical as well as cultural realities. There would be inconveniences which come with any such arrangements, as indeed those at the helm of Meghalaya administration will vouch, but the fact is, there can be a scenario in which different autonomous regions in a state can exist without being mutually exclusive.
If such an arrangement can give the sense of autonomous cultural spaces that so many in the state cry hoarse for, then there can be no harm experimenting with it. If this can resolve the issues of conflict and each community can within each of their autonomous cultural spheres, be themselves without worrying about annoying the other communities, nothing can be better. The state government can remain as the larger structure within which these culturally autonomous units can be find a federal unity.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author