Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

Prayer flags of different clans at Thangjing Temple of the then Moirang principality

Koubru Calling: Beyond the twisted lens of Colonial Modernity and myopia of Competitive Politics – Part 4

Evolution of the State and Recasting Historical Narratives

Analysis of the present often casts a shadow in the past. Indeed, dealing with the issues that we encounter here-and-now often entails us to look at, as French philosopher Michel Foucault suggests, the genealogical roots in the past. On a generic level, such approaches are adopted by various professionals in their works. Medical professionals use it as a method of clinical assessment (e.g., “case history”) and social scientists also resort to historicization or historical contextualization of a given phenomenon under study. Incidentally, this act of looking at the preceding moments of a phenomenon can reveal paradoxes. For instance, historical accounts not only serve as the “causes” of a given phenomenon but also become the constituent elements of that phenomenon itself. In a way, both the past and the present can exist not as different points in a continuum but as elements of a here-and-now configuration. The “hill-valley divide” in Manipur illustrates this point. For, not only history provides us with the genealogy of the said “divide” but also reveals itself as an embodiment of the schism in the state.

In a way, history is a site of the divide itself. For, the estrangements that we see in Manipur is often marked by contestations in historical accounts. Amongst those who want the state to be bifurcated or trifurcated often question the familiar narratives, including those coming from the professional historians, which account for the existence of Manipur as a historically evolved “State”. They termed such narrative as “concocted” or assert that the people in the hills and the oval-shaped valley have never been under a common polity or political authority or that they were/are “living together separately” at best or at worst, were/are “forced to live together”. On the other hand, many of those who seek to defend the “integrity” (mostly articulated as “territorial integrity”) of Manipur often tend to fossilize the state by anachronistically presenting it as a “nation-state” that has been in existence for 2000 years. Such histories are often written/articulated from a nationalist lens — albeit, this nationalist tendency is by no means unique to Manipur only — and/or in a tenor that smacks of an imperial nostalgia, barely acknowledging that neither the nature of the sovereign power nor its rationale that informs its territoriality remained the same over the course of its evolution.

These histories or approaches to history writing deny or gloss over the complexities and nuances, the fluidity of identities, and the contestations which have accompanied the emergence and evolution of the state in history. Needless to say, both are renderings, as we shall see in the following paragraphs, which have fueled, nurtured and sustained the schism in the state.

Evolution of the State and Topographical Roots

In a critical sense, then, addressing the “divide” requires us to resist and deconstruct the distortions of nationalist anachronism and those which are blatant misrepresentation of verifiable facts. One way to do this is to provide a narrative which takes into account the dynamic nature of the identities, spaces and territorialities as well as the contestations. And for this, we may not necessarily require “regressive history”, i.e., an act of writing history from the present to the past. We can reconstruct the evolution of the state based on plausible evidences pertaining to the geological evolution of the land, human settlement patterns and trajectories, as well as oral and written sources.

Based on these materials and/or sources, a reasonable account on how this state must have evolved and how it has come to be what it is today can be achieved, especially in the light of the available social scientific perspectives/theories. Based on these considerations, a helpful premise to start that account is to acknowledge that the evolution of the State is inextricably tied to the nature of the topography and human settlement patterns.

Different human settlements are associated with different forms of life. From the hunting gathering mode of the Paleolithic settlers, it shifted to agricultural activities and permanent dwellings in the Neolithic period. As archeologists and anthropologists suggest, this agricultural revolution often brings about food surplus and population growth as well. These factors led to the need to have more “organized” collective life. Birth of “villages” and “states” are evolutionary products of that development and subsequent needs. These perspectives can also inform the emergence of “state” in this part of the world, particularly in the “oval-shaped valley”.

To start with, there is a possible difference between those who lived on the slops or lower regions of the hills and/or nearby narrow valleys and those who settled at the periphery of the oval-shaped valley, particularly during the Neolithic period. Given the difference in the areas available for cultivation and dwellings, there could be differential development between the two in terms of food surplus and population. The growth of population and food surplus must have been presumably more in the latter than the former. And, as the population increased, including through migration from other areas such as the surrounding hills, people expanded the settlement areas and organized themselves into different “villages” more in this oval-shaped valley than the hills. It is this increase in the population and corresponding clusters of “villages” that set up the condition for the emergence of “State”. For, the need to mobilize labour forces (for food production and its related activities like irrigation and management) and need to enforce order and compliance also led to the formation of the “military” to deploy, to use an expression from Max Weber’s definition of state, “physical force”.

The contact and conflict amongst these “villages” — those which had been established earlier and those which were newly formed by the ones who had newly shifted there from the hills or shifted from other narrow valleys etc — had finally led to the clusters of “villages” forming various “states” or “principalities”. These formations involved “war”, a phenomenon some theorists suggest as a pre-condition for the formation of “state”.

From the available sources, amongst such “states” or “principalities” or self-governing “villages”, one “state” had emerged as a dominant entity, namely the “state” with its citadel or power centre at Kangla. There are oral and mythological sources as well as written texts that provide us with the glimpses of “conflicts” or “wars” that preceded and/or accompanied the emergence of what historians called the “Ningthouja Dynasty” at Kangla (e.g., between Poirenton and Pakhangba, and Pakhangba and his band with the Khabas). The political history of present day state of Manipur can be traced to the rise and dominance of this “state” under the said dynasty (not to be equated with what we know now as the Meiteis) over the other “states” or “principalities” or self-governing “villages” in the oval-shaped valley as well as the surrounding hills and other valleys.

While the sources and evidences to construct the earlier periods may be scanty, but there are enough materials to say that by the end of 18th century, its dominance over the other entities in the oval-shaped valley and its immediate surrounding hills were palpable. In fact, its presence as a power was felt all the way up to the present day upper Assam in the Northwest and the Chindwin to the east. Sending troops to relieve the besieged Ahom King and the raids in Ava in present day Myanmar were signs of its prominent presence during that century (i.e., 18th century).

By nineteenth century, the presence of this state became more visible as a key player in the geopolitics in this part of the world. Although its rulers had entered into an agreement or a pact with the British under the East India Company in the mid-18th century itself (e.g., the treaty of 14th September, 1762), it was only around second decade of 19th century that the two actually became allies on the ground. From that period onwards, the ruling dispensation of the state not only consolidated itself but also played a major role in facilitating the British to exert its influence and power over the Burmese as well as the others in present day India’s Northeast (such as the Angamis, the Lushais and the Khasis). And following the confrontation between these two allies in 1891 (The Anglo-Manipur War), this state (i.e., Manipur) became a “Princely State” of the British Indian Empire (from the last decade of 19th century till the mid-20th century).

Beyond the Distortions of Anachronism and Vested Interests

What does this political history tells us? Unlike the anachronistic representation of its history, neither the nature of the polity nor the territoriality of the state remained the same in course of its historical evolution. Correspondingly, neither the sovereign power inhabited in “each and every square centimeters” (equally) throughout the territories under its sway in history nor the rationale or ideology that informed the exercise of that power remained the same throughout its evolution. Similarly, facts of the pasts (or historical facts) call out the blatant lies of those who insist that the state was confined to the oval-shaped valley only or that no other communities other than the present day Meiteis (such as the “tribal people”) were under the suzerainty of the ruler of this state called Manipur.

Similarly, just as the sovereign power or territoriality did not remain unchanged, the nature of the communities (or identities) also did not remain the same throughout the historical evolution of the state. In the past, the social order and life world of the people were presumably marked by a world of, to borrow from Sudipta Kaviraj, “fuzzy communities”. Does this mean that people had no sense of identity in the past? No, people did have sense of “difference”. But it was a different sense of identity which was fluid or less rigid, that is, in contrast to our contemporary sense of identities which are characterized by “fixities” (e.g., categorical, bounded and enumerated). Presumably, the fluid identities mediated or produced a different kind of social intercourse amongst these communities, and such intermingling enabled communities to be merged or split (based on needs, activities, contexts).

In fact, what we called “Meiteis” today have emerged through such as processes of fusion and fission of communities (of villages, “principalities, “states”) in the course of history. In short, it’s a historical product of acculturation and assimilation. Incidentally, it seems that as late as early part of 20th century, some people in the periphery of the oval-shaped valley, who are part of the Meiteis today, even used to refer to people from Imphal as Meiteis in contrast to themselves! Indeed, the Meiteis of today include more people than what the traditionalists would like to imagine it to be: an amalgamation of seven clans. For, we have lots of Meiteis who are not part of the said seven clans, or, for that matter, even the Bamons are identified as a part of the generic identity of Meiteis (in everyday or otherwise life).

This nature of identity, its fluidity and evolutionary nature, is true of what we called Meitei clans or Yek-salai today (e.g., the Angoms) or communities in the hills (e.g., Tangkhuls). In fact, there are sociological/anthropological works which point to the fluidity of identities amongst the scheduled tribes even today (i.e., the permeability of identity boundaries or even “artificial” nature of “tribal identity”).

If this is so, is it legitimate to describe the evolution of the State as a “Meitei State”? However, tempting or popular it seems, it is a problematic rendering. One crucial reason being the nature of the population and identities thereof. And the other is the nature of state itself — its machineries and institutions, including the manifestations or operation of the sovereign power. This is notwithstanding the fact that in the past, during the kingship, much of its ruling elites/officials were drawn from those who identified themselves as Meiteis. But the structure of the state also include the many other village chiefs and rulers in the valleys and the hills under its suzerainty. Incidentally, even areas in and around present day Kakching was ruled by a chief under the title Budhiraj. Besides these ruling elites, there were the plebian class and toiling masses who served as part of the labour force and military conscripts. Members of these labour forces and military conscripts were drawn from various communities across the valleys and the hills under his suzerainty, albeit the standing and core constituents came from the oval-shaped valley.

The above nature of the state was seen on numerous occasions, especially during military expeditions. However, one classic example stood out: the Durbar held at Cachar in 1874 wherein the then Viceroy Lord Northbrook met Maharajah Chandrakirti. During this formal meeting, the nature of the state was in full display. In an act of ritual enactment, the King presented himself (and thereby his state) by forming his entourage in what looked like a pyramid, with lines of soldiers drawn from the hills in the front followed by gradually broadening lines and flanks of troops — foot soldiers and cavalry — drawn from the oval-shaped valley, ultimately broadening the formation like a base that end with rows of horses and elephants perpendicular to the lines of troops in the front. It is on these horses and elephants, the King and his high officials sat.

It is this nature of the state, its underlying polity and social world marked by fluid identities, which was interrupted, and ultimately distorted in critical ways, by the colonial intervention, especially after Anglo-Manipur War of 1891. Needless to say, the saga of “hill-valley divide” that haunts even today has deep roots in those distortions.

To be continued

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