Distortions of Colonial Modernity and Competitive Politics
Difference does not mean inferior. However, in certain worldviews, difference is often read as inferior. For instance, in the patriarchal worldviews, the difference between man and woman is often rendered in terms of woman being inferior to man. In fact, besides the theological views, many theories in social/human sciences are informed by a view that sees woman as incomplete replica of man. An idea of a “lack” is associated with womanhood in such worldviews (e.g., lack of “agency” or “strength”). The dated expression “weaker sex” alludes to such a worldview. Needless to say, traditional self-understanding of women is critically mediated by the idioms of these patriarchal worldviews, and reified through the concomitant imperatives and practices of its structural edifices. A classic example is the Manipuri expression, “Eidi tangjabi uri-ni” (“I am the climbing vine”; uri is a type of climbing plant which requires a tree to grow, tangjabi meaning dependent) which is often deployed in poems and lyrics. Like patriarchy, colonial modernity also produces difference as inferior.
To cut a long story short, Europeans encountered different peoples outside Europe in the process of their imperial expansions across the globe. The multiplicity of human beings in terms of their looks, cultures, socio-economic and political forms of life have led to the development of worldviews and epistemes that sought to provide some form of intelligibility to these diversities. The idea of “progress” and the theories of “cultural evolution” are some of those ideas and epistemes. With these cognitive schemes, non-Europeans were seen as “savages”, “barbarians”, and “people without history” while the Europeans were positioned as “civilized”, “advanced” and “people with history”.
Incidentally, such ideas are also partly a projection from their own histories. For instance, the idea of civilization was associated with those people in the Mediterranean region (e.g., the Greeks, the Romans). And those who lived outside of this region (e.g., various Germanic tribes, the Gauls, the Huns in the north, north-western etc) were seen as the “barbarians”.
These worldviews and schemes of knowledge have created hierarchical relationships amongst peoples, between the “civilized” Europeans and the “uncivilized” or the “primitive” others in Africa, Asia and the Americas. Such worldviews and epistemes also came to function as the justificatory systems for the European imperialism and colonial rules over the other peoples, the “native” non-Europeans in these continents. The well-known debate on the liaison between anthropology and colonialism is a reflection of this lineage.
Thus, when the colonial British appeared in the region (the present day India’s Northeast), they began to apply these schemes on the people and their lives. And like women who have internalized the patriarchal worldviews, many former colonized subjects have also internalized the ideas and values of colonial modernity, and the same has come to inform their understanding of their selves and the world. The “hill-valley divide” in Manipur is one classic example of the same.
Insidious Colonial Modernity and Its Misrepresentations
Historically, given its topography and the concomitant forms of life, there have been differences amongst the various segments of the population in the state. But these differences were presumably not reified. There was the fluidity of the “fuzzy communities” (see, Part 4). These aspects enabled human groups to merge or split or move back and forth between the valleys and the hills of the state. Even at the level of the State, there have been alliances between the monarch and rulers/chiefs of villages and principalities. The compositions of the labour and military forces during the military campaigns by the rulers of the kingdom are the testimonies of those associations. Besides, more significantly, these differences were not necessarily understood in terms of inferiority. However, all these were changed with the coming of the British, and the worldviews and practices which they had introduced in this part of the world.
There are two specific aspects of that interventions which have critical bearings on the present day “hill-valley divide”. First, they re-rendered and reified the differences between communities in terms of a civilizational dichotomy and hierarchy. For instance, the Meiteis were termed as the “civilized” people, those who were characterized by “organized society”. In contrast, many of the other cognate communities in the kingdom were described as “barbarians”, “naked tribes” “wild folks” etc. In short, one becomes “civilized” and the other becomes “primitive”/“uncivilized”. The oft quoted words of C.J. Lyall, a British official, was the best example of this new classification. He wrote,
(Referring to the Meiteis) this singular oasis of comparative civilization and organized society, set in the midst of a congeries of barbarous peoples, over whom its rulers exercise an authority which, if scarcely approaching the settled polity of more advanced com munities, is at least in the direction of peace and order. The valley of Manipur in several respects resembles in miniature its neighbour, that of the Irawadi. In both the civilized people who occupy the central settled and organized region are nearly akin to the wild folk who inhabit the hills which enclose the alluvial plain. (Italic added)
This categorization is rooted in the epistemes of colonial modernity. In other words, the non-European other is seen in terms of the Eurocentric worldviews. The parallel being drawn here was that of the “Greco-Roman” world surrounded by the congeries of “barbarians” (e.g., the Gauls, the Huns etc); the former seeking to defend against, and tame, the latter who raided and plundered the civilized Greco-Roman world. Besides, it was also informed by the 19th century theories of “cultural evolution” – which described different forms of life such as “savage”, “barbarian” and the “civilization”. Incidentally, the idea of “civilization” is informed by what Europe had become by then – urban and urbane, literate, with history etc. In contrast, those peoples in Africa, Asia and the Americas were seen as “primitive”, “uncivilized” and “people without history” etc, even as they began to discover past “civilizations” marked by urban and literate societies which were buried under these non-European “primitive” worlds (e.g., Indus civilization).
These new cognitive schemes and categorizations obliterated the reality of centuries of intermingling, leading to fusions and fissions – both in terms of community formation and cultural systems amongst different communities in the state. In other words, the colonial classifications denied the fact that these communities were (still, are) not isolated and bounded enclaves but ones which had (still, have) overlapping boundaries and connections in terms of linguistic-cultural systems as well as socio-economic and political exchanges. For that matter, it misrepresented these so-called “barbarians” as if they were not marked by “organized” life guided by specific norms and regulations (e.g., “customary laws”) and polity (e.g., “village” as “republics”); or, for that matter, it erased the fact that the worldviews and practices of the “civilized” Meiteis had (still, have) what they called “primitive traits”. Moreover, it expunged the histories of cooperation as well as contestation amongst these communities that had shaped the evolution of the state.
Instead of these complex network of overlapping boundaries and linkages, under the categories of colonial modernity, these communities have become not only “different” but “separate”, “bounded”, “enumerated” and “hierarchically” located identities – one, “civilized” and “advanced” and the other, “primitive”, “uncivilized” and “backward”.
More crucially, this distinction in human population is complimented by associating them with topographical features. For instance, as it can be seen in Lyall’s words, the difference is also in terms of the “valley” (in the singular) and the “hills”. It obfuscated the fact that Meiteis were/are also in the hills (e.g., Kwatha village, albeit being the most well-known, is only one amongst others) just as many of the so-called “barbarians” were/are also inhabitants of the oval-shaped valley. It is this misrepresented fusion between landform and community which has critically informed of the central ideas of the “hill-valley divide” in the state (e.g., idea of the hills as the “tribal land”). The view that that since Koubru is in the hill, and hence it’s a “tribal land” flows from the same misplaced merging of landform and community.
These distortions — the misplaced dichotomies and hierarchically rendered identities and their fusion with landforms — were reinforced through various moves which were introduced in, or rather imposed on, the state after the war of 1891. For instance, in an attempt to restrict the power of the newly appointed king, having conflated the landforms with the communities, the territory of the state was effectively divided into the valley (in the singular) and the hills as the administration of the “hill tribes” was put under the authority of the President of the Manipur State Darbar, who was a British officer appointed by the Government of British India. This effectively ruled out any possibility of politico-military mobilization by the King amongst these people, as it was earlier done by his predecessors. It was a complimentary move to the demobilization of the state military forces after the war.
Incidentally, unlike the areas inhabited by the “hill tribes” which were administered by the President of the State Darbar in the name of the Maharajah, thereby nominally acknowledging his sovereignty over these people/areas, there was a crucial territory which was completely removed from his sovereign authority, namely, the British Reserve in the heart of the capital Imphal. This area consisted of the former citadel, the Kangla Fort, and its adjoining areas (such as the present day BT Road, M.G. Avenue, Thangal Bazar, Paona Bazar, Mapal Kangjeibung etc to the west, the present day official residence of the Chief Minister, Bengali High School and Babupura, the Secretariat buildings, first MR etc to the south and from Minuthong to Khuyathong etc to the north of Kangla).
Indeed, post 1891 war was an epochal shift in the history of the state. That the British Political Agent had acquired an additional role in the administration of the state (i.e., that he was not merely an envoy but a part of the administration of the state) showed the erosion of sovereignty of the kingdom after the 1891 War. Incidentally, following that war, whether Manipur should be annexed or not was discussed in the British parliament. Ultimately the idea of annexation was abandoned. However, even if the state was not officially or technically annexed by the victorious British, Manipur was stripped of its basic sovereign character. In fact, the state was as good as being a part of “British India”. Not only the King was appointed by them but the military was also disbanded just as large parts of the territory were also removed from his direct control.
It is these ideas and practices of colonial modernity which were introduced or imposed by the colonial British which have given birth to the “hill-valley divide” in the state. Having lived under such regimes of ideas and practices, people have internalized these discourses/discursive practices of colonial modernity. Consequently, “hill-valley divide” has become essentialized and reified.
Return of Coloniality and Arrested Peoplehood
The reification of the classificatory categories of the colonial modernity has been further strengthened by the developments during the postcolonial period in the state. In an act of providing a new clothing over the old layers of colonial distinction, those who have been termed as “barbarians” by the colonial authorities have been classified as the “scheduled tribes” and are given certain protections and benefits under the affirmative policies of the newly created postcolonial Indian State while those who were termed “civilized” were put in the “general” category who enjoyed no benefits from the affirmative policies. However, after the latter (along with the Pangals) have been classified as the Other Backward Communities (OBC), albeit it had taken almost 40 years of their postcolonial life to arrive at a condition of “backwardness” or affirm their “backwardness”, they could avail of the benefits under the affirmative policies of the Indian State.
This postcolonial differentiation amongst the population is further consolidated by reproducing the old association between community and landform. Thus, Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms Act, 1960 (MLRLR Act, 1960), a law enacted as a part of the larger measure of land reforms initiated across the country in 1960s, was not extended to the “hill areas”, a category which has made the implicit colonial conflation between community and land more explicit and reified. Incidentally, in an act that smacks of a policy continuity, like the authority exercised by the then Government of British India through its Political Agent, the President of India through the centrally appointed office of the Governor of the State has a say in the administration of these “hill areas” (e.g., Article 371c).
However, a clarification must be made here: the “hill areas” do not mean that these are “tribal land” insofar as these are not “tribal properties”. It simply means that as and when the members of the ST communities use it, it becomes their property, and that there is no land ceiling to regulate that ownership just as the kind of revenue regimes envisaged in the said Act does not apply to the “tribal” properties in those areas wherein the said Act has not been extended. Otherwise, all lands belong to the state and regulated under its laws, including those which sanction customary laws. In fact, in terms of law, including under MLRLR Act (1960), “tribal lands” include those properties own by the members of the scheduled tribes in the areas wherein the said Act has been extended. In that, many of the “tribal” colonies/villages in Imphal or districts such as Thoubal, Kakching, Bishnupur etc are also “tribal lands”. These cannot be sold to non-ST (to sell such property to non-ST requires prior sanction from the appropriate authority of the state such as the District Commissioner).
Thus, both in terms of ideas, policies and practices, there is a continuity between the colonial and the postcolonial in the state. Incidentally, indicating the dogged nature of the colonial ideas and discourses, certain sections amongst the Meiteis demanded that the Meiteis should be declared as “scheduled tribe” as they too have “primitive traits”! This invocation of the ideas like “primitive traits”, especially by referring to what have been alluded as “pre-Hindu” elements amongst the Meiteis, is revealing. It positions “Hindusim” as an aspect of “civilization” which has produced a civilizing effect on the Meiteis (hence, the reference to “pre-Hindu” traits as “primitive traits”) just as Christianity is seen as having similar impact on the “tribal communities” in the state.
Ironically, there is also a pride amongst the Meiteis that they are a people with “2000 years old civilization”, people who have “script”, “written texts” and “written history” etc. This premium that has been put on these aspects (i.e., scripts, history etc) are the same value that epistemes of colonial modernity have invented and reinforced. It is worth reminding that the value we place on these aspects have a corresponding side — the degradation of those who do not have scripts and history (but “past”) as inferior beings/societies. The biases and the insecurities created by such worldviews have led to anxious search for, and even invent, “histories”, “written texts”, “traditions” etc.
The issue that Manipur confronts is not merely a question of the familiar continuity between the colonial and the postcolonial in many parts of the world which were once under the colonial rule of the European powers (see, Part 1). There is something specific to this land which can perhaps be called the coloniality of the postcolonial, an experience associated with an ironical “arrival” of coloniality at a time when the colonial regimes (of ideas, practices and dispensation) “departed”. It is this experience which has disrupted an inner or self-initiated attempt to shape a peoplehood in terms of new idioms based on the modern rights based discourses (e.g., an idea of “we, the people” based on what some scholars have called “civic nationalism”). The consequent arrested peoplehood marked by fragmentation amongst the population on, for the want of a better expression, “ethinic” lines has exacerbated the “hill-valley divide” in the state.
This paradox of a departure coinciding with an arrival of coloniality in South Asia can be illustrated with examples from the constitutional schemes and legal practices. For instance, the Constituent Assembly adopted article 395 (repealing the Indian Independence Act, 1947, and the Government of India Act, 1935) as a provision of the Constitution of the postcolonial Indian state. This marks a departure insofar as it constitutes an act of severing the relationship with its colonial past and embarking on a new journey based on what India as a free country has adopted for itself and by itself. (Incidentally, the Manipur Constitution Act, 1947 did not have a clear expression of a similar spirit.) While article 395 affirmed a critical rupture to mark the departure, the Assembly also incorporated article 372 which set up the possibility of not only sustaining the continuity with the past but also a capacity to (re-)invent the colonial legal instruments. Accordingly, many laws which have moorings in the colonial past have been re-invented or re-enacted by the postcolonial state. The notorious Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958 (AFSPA), which is a re-invention of the colonial juridical measure called the Armed Forces Special Powers Ordinance, 1942 (AFSPO), is an example. We need to take note that it is not a question of continuity; it is an issue of (re)invention. And therefore, AFSPA has new elements which was not there in AFSPO. The former accompanied with more stringent provisions than its colonial avatar, and unparalleled violence and subversions as its consequences.
The political decision behind such (juridical) (re-)inventions speaks of the sovereign power of the new political dispensation. It is this power that have resulted into what could be called an “arrival” of coloniality through (re-)invention and other political acts that speak of what jurists and political scientists called, “sovereign decisionism”. The “Merger” — some called it “annexation” — of Manipur in 1949 is one example. It subverted an attempt to imagine a community based on rights discourses through a modicum of self-governance during the nascent postcolonial life of the state.
It’s worth reminding that one critical aspect of the anti-colonial movements across the globe was a longing for self-governance. South Asia had seen reflections of such longing (e.g., “home rule movement”). And Manipur too is no stranger to such yearning. For instance, demand for a “responsible government” during the mid-1930s by the Nikhil Manipuri Mahasabha was one such example. The resolutions adopted by the Mahasabha in its 4th Session at Chinga (1938) was a turning point. It not only demanded “responsible government” (i.e., democratically constituted dispensation) but also the abolition of the dual administration that separated the “hills” and the “valley”. Besides, it dropped the word “Hindu” from its name and terming “Rani” Gaidinliu as a “political prisoner” demanded her release. The subsequent struggle to realize those demand ultimately led to the adoption of the Manipur Constitution Act (1947) and the subsequent self-governance from the intervening night of 14-15 August 1947 till 15 October, 1949. It was a short lived but crucial moment of seeking to create, shape and nurture a sense of “we, the people” to serve as the political ideology to sustain and justify the very existence of the state. That imagined community could not evolve, and hence, the contemporary fragmentations.
Indeed, that nascent post-colonial experience was subverted with the introduction of a bureaucratic rule over the state by New Delhi on 15 October, 1949 by dismissing the then Government of Manipur and the Legislative State Assembly (which were constituted as per the Manipur Constitution Act, 1947). This move of the Dominion Government of India was preceded by the controversial “Merger Agreement” which was extracted earlier from the then Constitutional Head of the State, Maharajah Bodhchandra on 21st September, 1949 in Shillong.
Incidentally, it was not that the Maharajah was refusing to join the then emerging Dominion of India. Unlike the Nizam of Hyderabad or the Maharajah of Jammu and Kashmir, he had already signed the Instrument of Accession on 11 August, 1947. And besides being a response to the popular demand within his own state for the establishment of a representative form of government, instituting the constitutional order in his state was well within the purview of the terms of the Instrument of Accession. And yet, the then newly emerged postcolonial Indian state barely respected the democratic ethos of self-governance, and simply decided to “take over” the state by flexing its might and dismissing the legitimate constitutional and democratic mechanisms of self-governance in the state. Moreover, this act was not a short lived event; this rule by New Delhi over the state continued till 1972, almost a quarter of a century in what has been termed as the “postcolonial period”. The subversion of the state following the 1891 war was almost reinvented with such acts that smack of the return of the colonial ethos at the dawn of the postcolonial in the state.
Indeed, noted anthropologist (late) Prof. B.K. Roy Burman described the manner in which this “merger” was carried out as a “less than desirable” move. And referring to some of the above re-inventions and acts of the Government of India towards the state, the former Union Home Secretary G.K Pillai admitted that “mistakes” had been made in the past. In fact, he went on to suggest that the “way forward” to resolve issues in the state must begin with an apology to the people of the state by either the Prime Minister or the Union Home Minister of country.
Notwithstanding this unprecedented admission and suggested apology — which might produce a huge impact on the psyche of the people, the fact is that such postcolonial experiences have subverted the possibility of creating a sense of peoplehood and consequently sustained the “hill-valley divide” to this day.
Religious Schism and False Narrative of Lazy Scholarship
Unfortunately, the political disquiet represented by various identity based movements that resulted from the above subversions have further ironically aggravated the schism. This is because these movements tend to pursue identity politics without adequately questioning the epistemes of colonial modernity. Thus, some write and propagate “history” (or “historical narratives”) with a tinge of anachronism and/or imperial nostalgia (that so and so “areas” or places and “people” were under “us” or “ours” etc), something that is clearly an affront to the contemporary sensibilities. Similarly, some other seek to spread falsehood with no tangible “facts of the past” or “historical facts” or by distorting the same to invent “histories” in the service of exclusivist identity politics.
Simultaneously, some lazy scholarship has also produced theories and ideas which have facilitated the fragmentations at multiple levels in society. For example, there is this simplistic idea that “Hinduism” has resulted in the “hill-valley divide”, especially with its practice of “mangba-sengba” (roughly translated as “purity-impurity”). Such ideas barely acknowledge that like all societies, the people whom we called Meiteis could have “indigenous” ideas of what constitute appropriate rituals (which sort of construe some idea of “ritual purity”) or taboos associated with certain kind of food (something that should not be consumed, and infringement could lead to social exclusion or disapproval) or body parts and bodily discharge as “impure” (e.g., menstruation as “mangba” or toilet as “aamang-sang”). The simplistic narrative of “Hinduism” and its practice of “mangba-sengba” have created the “hill-valley divide” do not look at the questions as to why the Europeans were treated as “mangba” (“impure”) or why not only the Meiteis, but also the Bamons (Brahmins) were ostracized as “mangba”. Or for that matter, if people were “impure” (hence, “untouchable”), how did inter-marriage happen, or how do people visit each other to exchange gifts (for, instance, the so-called “tribal” chiefs/people visiting Kangla or the King visiting “tribal” chiefs), or how come Kangla also housed “Hao-macha Loisang” in its premise or how did they eat and drink together or work together (such as in military campaigns)? In short, such uncritical scholarship does not bother to contextualize the practice in terms of the specificities of its nature, the contexts within which the said practices operate/manifest, including how it has come to intersect with other factors/dimensions within specific (historical and social) contexts to produce certain specific experiences (such as exclusion and humiliation).
Here, it must be reiterated that far more than some religious practice, it is the categories of colonial modernity which have driven an outlook and conduct that treat some people as “uncivilized”, “primitive”, people without “script” and “written history” etc., or in short, inferior people. This does not however mean that religion does not play a divisive role in society.
Indeed, mass conversions to Christianity, especially during the last century, has also sharpened the “hill-valley divide” as disparate communities with traditional indigenous faiths have come to be identified as one religious block that stands in contrast to those who have already been unified under one or two major faiths. In fact, there are already identity based mobilizations which have invoked religion in their politics. Besides, the outlook towards people of other faiths differ amongst these different religious groups. For instance, Abrahamic religions have specific attitudes towards pagan faiths. This could be very different from how “Sanamahism” or “Hinduism” look at other religions. These different attitudes towards other faiths can accompany contemptuous outlook towards the other faiths, which, in turn, can fuel divisions and conflicts in society.
That religion has come to play or has the potential to play a divisive role in society runs beyond inter-community relations in the state; it has implications for the intra-community relation as well. This latter aspect is felt more acutely amongst the Meiteis than the rest of the communities in the state. Ridiculing those who follow “Hinduism” or worship “Hindu” deities or those who follow “Sanamahism” or “Meitei Laining” are not unfamiliar aspects in the life of the Meiteis. In that sense, the lazy scholarship has allowed, wittingly or unwittingly, to foster the schism within the Meiteis by creating an uncritical narrative that some faith (e.g., “Hinduism” and its practice of “mangba-sengba”) has created the schism between the Meities and the “tribal”.
Incidentally, this poor scholarship that fosters the blame game theory of seeking to brand a faith as villain for the tragedy of the community has another popular narrative, namely, “Hinduism”, particularly the role of Meidingu Pamheiba as a “Hindu” king under the influence of a “Hindu evangelist” named Santidas, as responsible for the disappearance of the old or indigenous script. It fails to take note of the empirical facts to ask the questions as to why the old script was still used in stone inscriptions or used to write texts, including the first translation of Ramayana into Meiteilon or Cheitharol Kumpaba during the reigns of “Hinduised” kings, long after Pamheiba died. It barely acknowledges the fact that the popularity, and subsequent substitution of the old script by Bengali script, has more to do with the introduction of mass education (beginning towards the end of the 19th century) which required books to be printed and since the font of the old indigenous script was not available, it was done in Bengali scripts, and that modern education came under the influence of Bengali literati and those educated in Bengal.
Past, Here-and-Now and Beyond
Inability to distinguish matters of religion, culture, society, economy, and political from one another, and their intersectionalities, have not only created confusions and chaos but also deepen the schisms in the state. This is over and above the uncritical acceptance, and propagation, of the ideas and discourses of colonial modernity and those of the coloniality of the postcolonial. Sadly, these aspects have been exploited by the myopia of competitive politics, particularly those related to electoral politics and their surrogates. Besides, such exploitation is by no means confined to the mainstream democratic politics of the state. Various identity based political mobilizations by armed groups also deploy these categories and discourses.
On the other hand, exploiting and cultivating sectarian concerns and identities are often deployed to serve the interests of those who push their self-interests in the name of the people in such competitive politics. That such forces might be at work in the latest controversy over Koubru cannot be ruled out. Fact is, state assembly election is round the corner. Reflecting the shifts in politics elsewhere in the country, evoking religious idioms in politics has also come to be more pronounced in the last few years in the state as well. Thus, the issue could very well be exploited by those established politicians and those newly emerging ones as parts of their pre-election strategic manoeuvring. Some of the key players involved in the latest episode have given enough clues to that possibility.
Indeed, Koubru episode has brought out a range of issues which have trapped and drained the people of the state for decades, if not more than a century now, in a cycle of twisted and multilayered conflicts. It is a scenario that has also distracted the people from taking note of the threatening challenges posed to them by the regional and global churnings, particularly the evolving dynamics of geo-strategic configuration occasioned by the rise of China and increasing proximity between India and Us with Israel in company as well as the extractive thrusts of the global capitals under the presiding deity of neo-liberal political economy. India’s Northeast is a crucial site of these developments which can obliterate the indigenous populations in this part of the world.
These developments entail one to confront the misrepresentations and false narratives to address and end the cycle of conflicts amongst the denizens of the state. Only then, they could hope to see the emerging challenges and confront the same collectively. Indeed, if Koubru reminds them of a “common origin”, of an intimacy between the hills, the valleys, the rivers and the lakes, and those inhabitants who have survived and existed by virtue of that intimacy, it must also remind them of the necessity of searching and working towards common interests, purposes and goals so that the people, not only in the state but also throughout this mountainous region with the river valleys can led a life with dignity and well-being as proud members of humanity at large. For that, it’s high time for them to collectively listen to the Koubru calling…
The author is a social and political psychologist who teaches social psychology and sociology at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi