Imphal Review of Arts and Politics


Manipur’s Journey to Statehood Led to a Pavlovian Conditioning, Predicating its Infamous Street Protest Culture

Manipur turned 50 on January 21 as a State of the Union of India. The antiquity of the State’s history, of course go far beyond this, and through its long journey, understandably it went through good as well as bad times. In human terms, 50 is late middle age and as the cliché goes, it is also a period prone to mid-life existential crisis, marked by many uncertainties. This is a time when the ambitions and ideals of the Spring years, the heartbreaks and disillusionments of the Summer years, have all begun to give way to Autumn, the ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ in the words of the English poet John Keats, when resolutions begin to be sought through constructive and realistic compromises. It is a time to look back and assess the road left behind, never to be travelled again for unfortunately time is a vehicle without a reverse gear, and to look ahead to the road to be travelled still. The onset of these Autumn years is also a time in anybody’s life when the next generation and the one after that become important, therefore also the time to begin seeing the future not just from the his or her interest but from those of his children and their children. Is middle aged Manipur ready for such a soul search and strike the refresh button? Or even reboot, if necessary? It needs to.

This search is essential and important even if many of its problems are inherited from past disruptions of its historical march, and the tumults that resulted from it.  In fact, even the culture of protest so pervasive in this State is also in many ways a Pavlovian conditioned response. On practically every forum, few or no concessions ever came from the Centre without a protest. A brief tour of the Statehood history of Manipur will demonstrate this.

After World War II, India found itself faced with another momentous challenge, more so because British India was not a simple unitary state. Besides the territories under its direct administration forming the core of its colonial State, there were also a conglomeration of as many as 565 Princely States under British suzerainty. As Indian independence became imminent, many of these Princely States were either reluctant or opposed to the idea of joining the new Union of India. Among the most prominent of these were Travancore, Junaghad, Hyderabad, Kashmir and so many more. Manipur was also among these. By Ausgust 15, 1947, all of these except a few were integrated into India. Among them were three from the Northeast region – Sikkim, Tripura and Manipur.

In Manipur, immediately after coming out of the turmoil of its own WWII experience then, politics thickened in preparation for a place for itself in the new world order. There were many pulls and pressures within between stakeholders to have the future of Manipur shaped as they visualise was best for the place. Broadly, these fell into three categories, though the lines that separated them were not always clear cut. One, with the winds of modernism having reached Manipur, there was a strong anti-Monarchy movement. Two, there were integrationists who believed Manipur’s best future was with India. Three, those who believed Manipur should retain its sovereign status as a modern State.

The pressing need at the time was for Manipur to remove all ambiguities regarding status as a sovereign state. As a rapprochement, between the different interest groups, a process for voluntary abdication of absolute monarchy by the then king, Maharaja Bodhhandra Singh, to usher in its place a Constitutional Monarchy, was set in motion. Hence on December 12, 1946 a Constituent Committee was formally constituted by a Royal Order, to draw up a constitution for Manipur. On May 8, 1947 the Manipur State Constitution Act drawn up by this committee was passed and on July 26, 1947 adopted. The Maharaja thereafter was relegated to a Constitutional Ruler and the legislative as well as executive authority came to be vested first with the Manipur State Council and then with the elected Manipur State Legislative Assembly after it was formed in October 18, 1948.

The election of 53 members of the Manipur State Legislative Assembly, as per provisions of the Manipur State Constitution Act 1947, were held in four phases, June 11 and 18 for the valley areas, and July 26 and 27 for the hill areas.

Manipur’s desire to remain sovereign however clashed with India’s to unite all of what was once British India to become the modern Indian state. On August 11, 1947, just a few days before India was to be free of British colonial yoke, the Manipur king was made to sign the Instrument of Accession, in which the king pledged that he is agreeable to Manipur joining the Dominion of India when it attains independence on August 15 midnight, 1947. The legality of this however is challenged, as the Manipur was then a Constitutional Monarchy and the king no longer had the right to negotiate independently of the Assembly on matters of the state.

By mid 1949, the Indian Union was impatient to bring all former Princely States into the Union. On September 21, 1949, Manipur King was again made to sign the Merger Agreement under house arrest at his Shillong residence, where he had gone on some business. This agreement became operational on October 15, 1949 and together with another former Princely State, Tripura, became a part of the Indian Union. Here too, the Manipur King’s authority to negotiate and sign agreements on behalf of the people without ratification of the elected Assembly remains disputed.

The last of the Princely States to remain outside the Indian Union, Sikkim, too was brought into the Union in 1975 by the provision of Article 2 of the Indian Constitution.

After merger with India, Manipur became a Part-C state, and not a full-fledged Indian state. From a sovereign state, with a responsible elected government, Manipur suddenly found itself under the administration of a single bureaucrat (Dewan) and his appointed council. This move probably was a result of what Fali Nariman says in his book ‘The State of the Nation’ in the chapter on federaism, is a manifestation of an underlying fear of the Union, having just gone through the traumatic Partition, that it may further balkanize. It therefore needed to ensure that the Princely States it absorbed, especially rebellious ones, were made to feel subservient to the Union.

When the initial shock and confusion subsided, it led ultimately to protests and when public agitation reached a critical threshold, Manipur was upgraded to a Union Territory on November 1, 1956 with a Territorial Council, with 30 elected and 2 nominated members, to assist a Chief Commissioner. This Territorial Council was constituted in August 16, 1957. When this was unable to pacify the discontent, in June 1963 this Territorial Council was upgraded to Territorial Legislative Assembly, now under a Lt. Governor. When widespread discontents in Manipur refused to be allayed, full Statehood was granted to it on January 21, 1972 now under the charge of a Governor.

The residue of discontents from its tumultuous recent history, as well as more caused by awakening of numerous ethnic identities and politics that accompany them, are far from over, and these remain some of its biggest challenges for Manipur to resolve.

Could this Statehood history have taken a different trajectory? Would Manipur’s protest culture have been any different if it was given full Statehood with honour in 1949 itself when it came into the Indian Union?

Whatever the answer, Manipur must get over the scourge of this protest culture and get on to living life normally and healthily. This has not been easy, but it is almost a survival need for it to accomplish this. What Manipur is going through would fall into what trauma writers such as Saul Friedlander, have pointed out, is a condition called ‘fidelity to trauma’. This makes the victim remain literally faithful to the memories of traumatic events of the past, in the belief that the present is solely a by-product of the past. The victim therefore begins to perpetuate his/her victimhood, harming himself and his prospects for the future. Friedlander and others have a suggestion which Manipur can learn from. The victim must work through this condition, and without betraying the past, dissociate it from the present and therefore the future. The dead past, the living present must not be allowed to be trapped in benumbing ‘melancholia’ perpetually. There must come a time to say farewell to the dead so the living can live on. Moreover the present is not just a legacy of the past, but also an autonomous creative entity forging its own future. The State must work toward a spirit of reconciliation with the goal to ensure the ultimate triumph of life and life-sustaining forces it has in abundance.

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