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Public Morality and Death of Politics – Part 4

Sitting in front of his house in the picturesque hill with the green valley down there at a distance and the blue sky promising to turn crimson in the horizon as a backdrop, (late) Ng Mono Monsang took a journey back to a poignant moment in the history of the state. “Tiankham-na Speaker oire, Major Kathing se eikhoi-gi party niko, maana Hill Minister oire, aaduga Arambam kana kana aatei Meitei kharasu Minister oibani” (Tiankham was the Speaker, Maj. Kathing was a member of our party; he was the Minister in charge of Hills, and there was Arambam and some Meiteis who were also Ministers), he started off. Then the only surviving member of the Manipur State Assembly of 1948-1949, Mr. Monsang was responding to my query on that short-lived Assembly. As these words came out as “traces of the past” from the proverbial horse’s mouth, I couldn’t help but feel a surreal sense of encounter with history in flesh and blood. After all, it was a meeting with a man, then turning 90 years of age, who was a member of the much talked about Assembly, the first of its kind in this part of the world, constituted through an election based on the universal adult franchise under the Manipur Constitution Act, 1947.

As I listened to him, my thoughts veered off to imagine, among others, a much younger Mr. Monsang sitting amongst other members of that Assembly listening to the Maharajah’s inaugural speech on 18th October, 1948. And with his soft voice almost coming to me as a reverberating echo from a bygone era, the wrinkles on his face were suffused with a past that lives in the present. Indeed, nothing registered this fact so profoundly than what he said next, “aadu sak-mai munna khang-nadringeida Assembly du kaikhrabani, tha taaramathoi khak chatlamlaga” (But even before we got to know each other well, the Assembly was dissolved after it ran for 11 months’)! Just as an analysand’s “resistance” would register on the analyst’s “free-floating attention” during a psychoanalytical session, this remark struck me as I interviewed him for my film Langoi-Challabi, Paradise Under Siege, 2004.

In fact, like what happens when an ethnographer goes through her/his field notes, or a clinician reflects on the notes taken during a therapeutic/counseling session, the full significance of this remark began to get unfolded in all its richness as I went through the rushes of the interview on the editing table. Thus, his words “sak-mai munna khang-nadringeida” (“before we got to know each other well”), “assembly”, “kaikhrabani” (literally, “it was broken”) and “tha taaramathoi” (“eleven months”) began to acquire meanings and significance to understand the ills that afflict the body politics of Manipur today, particularly the split psyche of a fragmented self and the inability to function with the sense and sensibility of modern ethos and democratic norms.

“Merger”: Mutation of Paramount Power and Its Subversion

One of the critical shifts in global politics of 20th century was decolonization which led to the emergence of European colonies as new and independent (“nation”) States, especially in Asia and Africa. It picked up its momentum around the mid-20th century. This shift was marked by the reproduction of modern democratic and republican ideas and values across the world, especially in those places which were under the imperial and colonial European dispensations. Along with these ideas, colonized people reclaimed their rights to self-determination. Not only self-rule but democratic assertions against feudal and monarchical orders were part and parcel of the same churning. Manipur was no exception to this tectonic shift that sought to change the very edifice of collective life in 20th century.

After years of struggle against the feudal-monarchical dispensation under the shadow of British colonial authority, Manipur finally achieved a milestone in its history — that of having a constitutional monarchy with an Assembly primarily constituted through an election based on universal adult franchise in 1948. Indeed, just as Maharaja Bodhchandra described in his address to the Assembly in its inaugural session on 18th October, 1948, it was a dawn. People became citizens with rights guaranteed by Manipur Constitution Act, 1947. From being “subjects” of a sovereign monarch, and who could know each other in that terms — that is, as subjects of a ruler, it was a moment when individuals not only became citizens but also simultaneously declared themselves constituting “we, the people” with sovereign rights. It was truly a moment of a new beginning, a movement away from not only the feudal order but also the paramount power of the external colonial forces, and a baby step towards a postcolonial future.

It is this crucial shift which was subverted by the controversial “Merger Agreement” of 1949 which was extracted from the Maharaja on 21st September, 1949 and implemented on 15th October of the same year. Following that “agreement”, the Assembly was unceremoniously dissolved on 15 October, 1949 and the Dominion Government of India took over the administration of the state on the same day. When the world was moving towards self-rule with their own elected representatives, Manipur was placed under a bureaucratic rule (first under a Chief Commissioners, and then Lt. Governors, officials from outside the state appointed by New Delhi). It continued for almost a quarter of a century of the postcolonial period.

It was a development which was nothing less than a tragic and ironical reinstatement of the paramount power that the British colonial authority used to exercise over the Maharaja. It’s worth recollecting that the British paramount power had lapsed on the intervening night between 14th and 15th August 1947 (as per the Indian Independence Act). In fact, the “merger” was worse. During the colonial period, despite the paramount power, the state was at least ruled by a native king and his durbar. The developments of Sept-Oct, 1949 had done away with that element of self-rule as well. Indeed, this gave a tragic and sinister twist to what postcolonial scholars like Partha Chatterjee and Ashis Nandy described as continuity between the colonial and the postcolonial in South Asia.

Consequently, such a continuity had, and still has, telling effects on the polity, society and culture in the state. To name a few, armed confrontation between the Indian State and the armed political groups, the fractured polity and estranged inter-community relations, and lawlessness (see part 1 & 2) are classic indicators of those effects.

Loss of Community and Unbridled Violence

Incidentally, the emergence of nationalism around the idea of nation (state) in Europe is said to be linked to the demise of traditional communities and corresponding forms of life. As people began to experience a sense of loss of community (belonging), “nation” became a pseudo-community that enabled people to retain a semblance of community and belongingness. And this is partly facilitated by the deepening of democratization of society and polity, especially with the French Revolution in late 18th century (notwithstanding the fact that liberalism and nationalism may not have a smooth or uncomplicated relationship).

The tragedy with Manipur is this, just as the traditional communities encounter new ideas and aspirations, and old bonds and mores break down (for instance, those cited in Part 3), the alternate sense of belonging to a community of “we, the people” of the state was not there. For, the prospect of evolving into that new sense of community based on democratic ideas and practices was subverted by the “merger” of 1949 and events that followed afterwards. This is where words of Mr. Monsang become meaningful.

The word assembly alludes to gathering of people (that is, people coming together), an association etc. It is a collective. And as an association, that collective is woven together by norms and obligations based on certain principles. Manipur did not have the opportunity to develop that (sense of a modern) collective, its norms and obligations according to the genius of its people. For, just as it took the baby steps towards that being, it was subverted. That subversion is what the “merger” of 1949 is all about. That is what Mr. Mongsang words powerfully convey.

When he said, “assembly du kaikhrabani” (assembly was dismissed or dissolved), he was speaking of a nascent collective which was being destroyed then. Here I say nascent precisely because it was too short a moment and an incomplete process (in his words, “tha taaramathoi khak chatlamlaga”, meaning, after running for only eleven months, not even completed a year) to get familiarized and internalized themselves as right bearing citizens (his words “aadu sak-mai munna khang-nadringeida” (even before we get to know each other) to constitute and consolidate as a collective persona (his word, “assembly” as a body of people’s representatives as a synecdoche of the entire population). Additionally, it was also a subversion democratic ethos in the state. The consequences of that dual subversions — that of a new collective and democratic ethos — are all there for us to see.

One obvious example is the issue of (territorial) “integrity” of the state. That there are communities that seek to break-up the state (to form “separate states” or “administrative arrangements” etc) only tell us that there is a lack of a sense of community as “we, the people” to sustain and legitimize the existence of the present state of Manipur. Even the armed political groups which talk of “national liberation” are also more or less seen, not without reasons, as belonging to so and so communities or “valley” or “hill” based groups etc.

Besides, “merger” was also an act of subverting the democratic ethos, including that of self-rule and the rule of law. Representative democracy was substituted by a bureaucratic rule under the tutelage of New Delhi for almost a quarter of a century. This has reinvented the ethos of paramount power that subverts the agency of the people to govern themselves according to their genius. Consequently, it has given birth to a subservient political culture that informed the ruling elites of the state. Like patriarchy that instills a subservient ethos of “what our men would say” amongst women, “what Delhi would say” becomes a salient aspect of the state’s persona. In fact, like all the rulers under the paramount power of the British, who, at the slightest sign of trouble, ran to British Residency or Kolkata (then “Calcutta”), it is not uncommon to see the (local) political leadership today running to New Delhi to resolve their problems and issues.

Indeed, when we say whichever political party/parties form the government in New Delhi, the same party/parties will form the government in Imphal reaffirms that the “Sarkar” is in New Delhi just as it was in “Calcutta” during the colonial period. And having marked by a subverted agency, the self has lost the capacity to meaningfully and tangibly shape and follow normative life, that of deciding what is right and wrong; it can only be decided meaningfully by that “Sarkar” or authority outside the state! Ironically, the situation has become such that the same external “authority” that subverts the “local authority” which can ensure normative life in Manipur! In other words, sense of ensuring justice ultimately lies with the intervention of the Government of India (including, its organs like CBI), the Supreme Court or for that matter the “national” media (to have a semblance of acknowledgement of injustices). In short, loss of (self) agency is critically linked to the decline of normative order in the state. And the “merger” of 1949 was the beginning of that loss of (self) agency, and hence normative life as well.

Incidentally, the above critical subversions are barely looked at as “merger” is predominantly talked about in the state as a moment “Manipur” became a “part” of “India”, a popular but problematic reading. I say problematic not only because it deflects one from confronting the above subversions but also because the reading does not tally with the available historical facts. For instance, a given “princely state” became a part of the either Dominions (of “India” or “Pakistan”) through the “Instrument of Accession”, not “Merger” agreement. The case of Jammu and Kashmir is one example. It became a part of the Indian “Dominion” through an instrument of Accession, not “Merger”. Erstwhile article 370 was a testimony of that fact. Maharaja Bodhchandra had already signed the Instrument of Accession on 11 August, 1947, a little over a year before he was coaxed to sign the “Merger Agreement” under duress on 21st September, 1949.

It is worth reminding that Instrument of Accession was derived from the Government of India Act, 1935, a legislation which envisaged a federation involving the “princely”/“native”/“Indian” states and the British India, two separate territories demarcated since 1858. Maharaja of Manipur was a member of the Chamber of Princes (inaugurated in 1921) whose representatives were involved in the negotiation that preceded the adoption of that Act.

Or for that matter, the elites in Manipur were not immune to the idea of India, under the influence of the then pan-Indian nationalist movement. This was quite evident at least since 1930s onwards. Take for instance, a song sung at the first session of the Nikhil Hindu Manipuri Mahasabha, of which Lamyanba Irabot was a key figure, described Manipur as a daughter of Bharat (“Bharat ki mamom”). This is besides the samples of “patriotic” lyrics/poems of the period in Manipur that sing of Bharat. This does not mean that such stream of consciousness is the only one that existed amongst the elites. But arguably it was a prominent, if not dominant, consciousness amongst that generation. This became obvious and critical during the churnings in 1940s. Thus, in this sense, reading “merger” as a moment “Manipur” became a “part” of “India” is against the grains of historiography. Besides, as it has been noted earlier, it deflects us from the actual subversions that “merger” has done (in the form of the so-called “ethnic” divide or schism, the lawlessness, loss of self-agency, subservient ethos etc). Any act of recovery of self will entail a critical engagement with these subversions.

In this sense, armed conflict in the state is a by-product of the above subversions. One might even say that had there been no “merger” of 1949, armed conflict in the state might not have happened, at least in the way it has happened. That many of the armed political group denounced the “merger” (some called it “annexation” while some termed it as “occupation”) alludes to this possibility.

Incidentally, if “merger” has led to armed resistance, consequently armed conflict, in the state, the subversion of 1949 has been augmented further by a legal fiction called the Armed Forces Special Powers Acts (AFSPA), which unleashes state violence by redefining the idea of state as that which “claims…the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force”. This “lawless law” (as an MP in Lok Sabha from Manipur described it on 18th August, 1958 on the floor of the House) is such a redefinition precisely because it compromises the “rule of law” as the “institutional restraints on power”. In other words, AFSPA has bred and justified a regime of unbridled violence. It is this culture of unbridled violence, which has been exercised by state as well as non-state actors which have further subverted normative life in the state. Not only that, citing and reducing the very historically rooted political phenomenon, which “merger” has at least partly created, as a “law and order problem”, this legal fiction has inaugurated a “state of exception” as a “paradigm of government” to deal with the population in the state.

And since by definition “exception” is a state wherein rules and norms are being withdrawn, lawlessness — and subsequently normlessness — comes to define life and times in Manipur.

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