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Revisiting the Issue of Manipur Merger, 1949

“He who speaks of the past has a future in mind. He who speaks of the future has no right to forget the past.’ –V.Chulkov.

 

As India’s independence was closing with the coming of WW II, people of Manipur became restive and soon raised a demand for a responsible government in Manipur. Rightly sensing the mood of the time, maharaj Bodhachandra Singh abolished the Manipur state durbar and set up an interim council consisting of some selected elites both from the valley and hills. Maharaj Kumar Priyo Brata Singh (P.B.Singh), younger brother of Maharaj Bodhachandra, headed the interim council which was to function till popular government was installed in Manipur.  The maharaja also made an order to form a constitution making committee consisting of 21 members including one representative each from Churachandpur, Mao, Tamenglong and Ukhrul and Southeast area chaired by F.F Pearson, former president of Manipur state durbar on 12 December, 1946. Accordingly, the Manipur State Constitution (MSC), 1947 was ready and adopted on 26 July, 1947. The constitution provided the establishment of the Manipur state legislative assembly (MSLA) with 53 members to be directly elected on the basis of adult franchise by the people of Manipur. One nominee was to be made by the maharaja. In this way, the assembly became the sovereign decision-making body with its council of ministers holding the highest executive power within the state of independent Manipur..

In the meantime, as per the provision of the new Manipur state constitution, 1947, general election was held during June-July, 1948 for the first time in the history of modern Manipur. Party-wise election result was as given below: (a) Manipur State Congress Party (MSCP) – 13; (b) Krishak Sabha Party – 5; (c) Praja Shanti -12; (d) Socialist Party – 3; (e). Hill Independents’ Union – 18. After two months’ of heated confabulations and intense bickering, a coalition Prajashanti (non-Congress) ministry was finally formed with the support of 1 MLA nominee made by the maharaja. The council of ministers were: Captain M.K Priya Brata Singh (younger brother of maharaj Bodhachandra Singh)- Chief Minister, Major R. Khathing, Teba Kilong, A. Ibotomba Singh, Dr.N Leiren Singh, A. Gourabiddhu Singh and Md Alimuddin as ministers. T.C.Tiankham got elected as speaker and T.Bokul as deputy speaker. Since then maharaja became a constitutional monarch guided by the advice of his council of ministers. What is most crucial was the future relation between Manipur and India which was to be settled sooner or later

Well aware of the fast changing political situation and the installation of popular government, the Government of India strongly felt the need for immediate appointment of a dewan (more or less like a prime minister) in Manipur to represent, according to them, India and to advise the maharaja of Manipur. So they sent a letter on 2 July, 1947 for the purpose. Initially, Sir Akbar Haidari, governor of Assam appointed P.B. Singh who was to combine the two roles as chief minister and a dewan for a time being.

 

Succeeding Hydari as governor, Sri Prakasa, who happened to be an old friend of Bodhachandra, visited Manipur in March, 1949 and assured the latter that “the Union Government had no designs on the state, and later put in writing that the ‘distinct identity of Manipur would be preserved, and that no merger with the Centre or any other territory would be effected, except military relations for the defence of India as a whole” (John Paratt & Arambam Saroj Nalini Paratt, Integration or Annexation? Manipur’s Relation with India, 1947-1949, in Self-Determination Movement in Manipur (edited by A.K.Singh,etc.), 2015:51). At the same time, Prakasa told Bodhachandra that he wanted to appoint a new dewan in place of P.B.Singh. Maharaja Bodhachandra then told Sri Prakasa that the person so appointed as dewan should be acceptable to him and should not interfere in the internal affaris of the state.

Prakasa was not a man of his words. Deliberately ignoring Bodhachandra’s plea, Prakasa appointed Major General Rwal Amar Singh as the new dewan who was instructed to superintendent, guide and control the administration of the state with an overall control over law and order, administration of hills and distribution of portfolios of ministers. Besides these, the dewan could demand any paper or information from any ministry of the state. As his last resort, Bodhachandra then retorted that there was no provision of appointment of a dewan in the new constitution. Despite Bodhachandra’s protest, R.A.Singh’s appointment as the new deawn was pushed through. In this connection Prof Senjam Mangi Singh observes thus “Once R.A Singh was appointed as the dewan, the administration was to be done under his general superintendence, guidance and control. They should have realized earlier that the appointment of such an official would be in contradiction not only with the provisions of the Manipur State Constitution of 1947, but also with their own existence. Having failed to do this, perhaps they realized that it was too late in the day to assert their meaningful existence by the time the merger agreement was about to be implemented”.(Annexation of Manipur, 1949,p.90).

To worsen the situation, the new government had one potential opponent within the assembly right from the beginning –a pro-merger Manipur State Congress Party (MSCP). Even on India’s Independence day at Polo-ground on 15 August, 1947, the MSCP had already declared that they would launch a movement for the merger of Manipur into India. Whereas the new government’s firm stand was that Manipur must remain as a state enjoying a responsible government with His Highness, the maharaja of Manipur as a constitutional head and with her sovereignty undisturbed.

So the Congressmen and the central agent (the dewan) left no stone unturned to fish in Manipur’s troubled waters and exploited any chance or flimsy excuses to discredit the government. Further emboldened, the Congress party also began to charge the government that it failed in all fronts, and so Manipur had remained under constant threat of the infiltration of communists from Burma. The Congress party also alleged that Neta Hijam Irabot Singh, who went underground, collided with Burmese leaders.  Irabot’s political stand was to preserve the sovereignty of Manipur by any means. So his communist ideology was also highly colored by his Manipuri nationalism. In fact, his long-cherished dream was the establishment of socialist republic of independent Manipur. (Gangmumei Kamei, Leftist Movement and Hijam Irabot Singh in History of Modern Manipur, 2019, p.166). The Congress party vehemently demanded that integration of Manipur with India was the only way to bring peace and development in Manipur. The party in its meeting on 29 April, 1949 had also decided to send a three-member delegation to the leaders of All India Congress Committee for immediate merger of Manipur into India.

Not surprisingly, the new government as a true representative of the people could not effectively counter the Congress’s propaganda and charges. It also failed to take up the merger issue on the floor of the assembly when it had sufficient time to do so. Of course, T.C Tiankham, speaker, wrote to the private secretary of maharaja, saying:”Since we have got an assembly elected on adult franchise, will it not be advisable for His Highness to call the assembly to discuss the matter first?.”The ruling government then authorized N.Ibomcha and S.L.Luneh to prepare a memorandum clearly giving the reasons why Manipur should not be merged with India and the copy of the memorandum was also sent to the prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.(J.Paratt and A.S.N Paratt, ibid.p.52). All the hill MLAs including a Muslim representatives solidly stood against the merger proposal. As a matter of fact, A.Daiho and the Mao leaders who boycotted the 1948 election, also opposed the merger proposal and even went underground for integration of Mao Naga inhabited areas with Naga Hills.

Having come to know that the merger agreement was being finalized, the Manipur state legislative assembly hurriedly met at the assembly chamber on 29 September,1949 with T.C Tiankham, speaker, on the chair and declared the draft merger agreement null and avoid. (Pros. of the 4th sitting of the 3rd session of the MSLA, 1949). Sadly it was too late. Nothing was done beyond this to stand against the merger accord. In this connection Prof S.Mangi Singh again lamentably remarks thus, “Manipur, during the time of her merger into the dominion of India, had a very low level of political culture. Except for a small politically aware section of the population who were showing signs of having subject political culture, the common people remained politically ignorant”. (Annexation of Manipur, p.92). When the fate of Manipur was being decided, no serious protest, nothing of the sort was seen in Imphal. From what has been discussed above, it is quite clear that the so-called merger agreement was made between the maharaja as an individual and the government of India. It did not have people’s mandate. Sadly enough, to quote John Paratt and A.S.N.Paratt, “the Government of independent India which proclaimed democracy as a major plank in its platform, was now declaring itself unwilling to recognize the democratically elected government of a state on its border.(John Paratt,p.52).

According to senior advocate, A. Nilamani Singh, such an act of great magnitude affecting the liberty and fundamental rights of the nation which had been an independent kingdom for almost two thousand years, should have been discussed and debated upon and its final implementation ought to be done by a plebiscite. Besides the agreement was more in the nature of a treaty between two sovereign states of Manipur and India; and it ought to be rectified.  Also having signed the document willingly or unwillingly, the maharaja of Manipur also had acted in excess of the power conferred upon him by the Manipur state constitution of 1947 and hence it could not be treated as a valid document. If the people of Manipur felt that Manipur was forcibly annexed to India, A. Nilamani concludes thus, “they had every right to revolt against India as a political community struggling to retain or retrieve the lost separate independent statehood by reasserting their right to self-determination”.(ibid,p.141). In a final analysis, the merger of Manipur into India was the result of India’s expansionist policy based on a dictum of ‘bigger fish swallowing smaller ones”. The merger of Manipur into India in 1949 reminds me of the innocent lamb’s helpless pleadings before the hungry wolf in Aesop’s fable. This was what happened on the fateful day of 15 October, 1949. Let the people rethink of it afresh to learn new lessons.

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