Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

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King as Gladiator in Manipur’s Theatre State

Judging by the way events have been progressing in the wake of the preparations for the forthcoming election to Manipur’s lone seat in the Rajya Sabha, it does seem the state is all set to enter another round of well-orchestrated social churning, for the better or for the worse, depending on who is appreciating these developments. In a surprise move, the ruling BJP has chosen to field Manipur’s titular king, Leishemba Sanajaoba as its candidate. Unfortunately for the BJP, the move is threatening to become the proverbial stirring of the hornets’ nest. While some do support the move, a grater majority of civil society bodies have come out openly demanding Sanajaoba either to retract his acceptance of the BJP candidature, or else to first abdicate his titular kingship and then only to go ahead aligning himself so completely with a political party.

A lot many rightly feel that the stake in this unseemly tussle is not just the institution of the titular kingship, which in any case is already out of the constitutional sphere, but also a living heritage of indigeneity preserved in symbols and memories of the people of the state in general.

Sanajaoba, is a direct descendant of the last king of Manipur, Maharaja Bodhchandra Singh, who signed the merger agreement with the Indian Union on September 21, 1949 in Shillong, under controversial circumstances of captivity and duress, a matter of considerable resentment in the state, serving among others as fuel for many protests, including of insurgency hues.

Though Sanajaoba is no longer the monarch of Manipur legally, unlike in most other former Princely States of India, the institution of kingship remains powerful in the emotional sphere as a cultural symbol of the erstwhile kingdom, and commands substantial following among those still nostalgic of a bygone era and an abiding sense of loss of sovereignty that comes with it. To this day, Sanajaoba therefore continues to be the symbolic and spiritual head of many ritualistic traditions of the old Manipur kingdom and these are still practiced with faith by many adherents to the memory of that lapsed antiquity. According to an estimate, these traditional rituals number over 50.

The power and influence of this intangible constituency is such that in modern times, the state government has actually adopted some of the most prominent of its rituals, in particular a festival called Mera Houchongba, a celebration of harvest in which hill and valley communities meet and exchange gifts, presided over by the titular king. This festival and many more like it are today interpreted as remembrance by ritualistic re-enactments of a common origin and fraternal bonds these communities once shared before a group of them migrated from the hills into the fertile valley as it dried and became suitable for settlement and stable wet rice agriculture.

Understandably, the pulse of this revivalist tradition is especially strong amongst followers of the pre-Hindu Meitei faith. The Meiteis became Hindus in the early 18th Century after one of their kings, Pamheiba or Mayampa who later called himself Garibniwaz, arguably one of the most powerful rulers the erstwhile kingdom, not only embraced the faith but also made it mandatory for all his Meitei subjects. The hills however remained outside this sphere, and only in the early 20th Century went the Christian way, thanks largely to the yeoman work by a dedicated missionary, William Pettigrew. Religion in this way also became an important seed behind the infamous fault-line between Manipur’s hill and valley populations.

It is against this unique historical experience that the BJP’s move to enlist Manipur’s titular king into its fold as well as the protest against this move must be understood. Many in this intangible constituency of customary bondages and ritualistic enactments which Clifford Geertz called the “theatre state” in the strikingly similar context of 19th Century Bali, see the new move of the BJP as a strategy to undermine this symbolic sphere, therefore the demand for Sanajaoba to abdicate his customary kingship and cease to be the leader of this ritualistic domain they hold dear. Without doubt, as Geertz showed, theatre states draw their legitimacy as well as life giving cohesion through these ritualistic enactments of the States’ hold over mind and matter of their subjects.

Manipur’s peculiar situation today is, this ritualistic State which exists on the symbolic plane and the institutions of the modern State which form everybody’s quotidian reality, exist as parallel universes within the same chronological timeframe, and till the current controversy, without infringing seriously on each other’s spaces. If in the second world people organise themselves under the banner of political parties hotly and often bitterly contesting for state power, in the first, these same rivals stand on a common platform of faith and are loyal to a shared archaic memory. It is this world, or state of mind as many would call it, which feels threatened by Sanajaoba’s move to contest for Manipur’s Rajya Sabha seat under the banner of the BJP. Indeed, the move can very likely leave this world deflated of its energy and splintered beyond recovery, signs of which are already visible.

The BJP’s motive in choosing Sanajoaba seems quite obvious. The party wants to win over this emotional constituency. Beyond this, it is unlikely the party has an interest in the candidate – a man who has shown little skill or inclination towards politics, much less the electoral variety. The party’s hope is that with this move they would be able to harness a great part of the new surge of energy in recent decades which drives the indigenous people’s movement in the state, as elsewhere in the country and the world. But judging from the response so far, this plan is set to backfire. What probably it will achieve in the end is to leave this territory splintered and destroyed.

If the intent, as stated by the BJP, was to enlist the goodwill of this constituency to the national cause, Sanajaoba’s nomination could have come from the President to fill one of the 12 seats at his discretion to bring in people of extraordinary achievements and merit in the fields of arts, culture and social service etc. This unfortunately was not the case. The BJP seems only to want to field Sanajaoba as their favourite gladiator in the state’s electoral arena.

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