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Statehood in the Northeast and Manipur’s Path

On January 21, three Northeast states celebrated their statehood day. On this day in 1972, Meghalaya, Tripura and Manipur were incorporated as full-fledged states of the Indian Union. Two other states, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram, were also made Union Territories on that day, and they too ultimately came to be upgraded to full statehood 15 years later on 20 February 1987 after the Mizo Accord of 1986. Each had a unique path to statehood, some eventful, others routine.

Of these states, Tripura and Manipur were former Princely States, while Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram were part of undivided Assam. Though once part of a single British province, the colonial administration did treat these non-revenue hills differently from the revenue plains of Assam. Hence, by the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation 1873, an Inner Line was drawn to demarcate the “wild” hills from the “revenue” plains. The nomenclature Bengal is used in reference to Assam because after formal annexation in 1826, the latter was merged with the former. Only in 1874 was Assam made a separate chief commissioner’s province.

The territories beyond the Inner Line were generally treated as “unadministered”, though claimed as British possessions. By the Government of India Act, 1919, this nomenclature changed to “Backward Tracts” and by the Government of India Act, 1935, they came to be divided into “Excluded” and “Partially Excluded” areas. While the rest of the hills remained as “Excluded”, the territories that form today’s Meghalaya came to be classified as “Partially Excluded”.

In the history of Assam since its annexation, the relationship between the hills and plains has never been easy, but the ties plummeted in the early 1960s, when as a consequence of an ongoing linguistic nationalism rivalry between Assamese and Bengali speakers, Assam tried to make Assamese medium mandatory in education. The 1972 bifurcation of Assam in which its hill districts went separate ways is partly a result of this friction.

In 1949, when the status of Tripura and Manipur remained unsettled, the then Governor of Assam Sri Prakasa and his assistant Nari Rustomji went to seek advice from Union Home Minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. In Rustomji’s account in ‘Imperilled Frontiers’, the two sat on a cot next to Patel’s sickbed and told the ailing leader of the two states that had still not merged with India and that while Tripura was of little concern, Manipur may be troublesome. Patel simply but famously is quoted as having said: “Don’t we have a Brigadier in Shillong” and no more. After an awkward silence, the two left knowing what they were expected to do.

In Manipur at the time, politics thickened. There were many pulls and pressures within on the choice of its future. Broadly, these fell into three categories. 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 rapprochement, the then king, Maharaja Bodhchandra Singh, agreed to step down from absolute monarchy to usher in a constitutional one. Accordingly, on 12 December 1946, a Constituent Committee was formed by a Royal Order to draw up a constitution for Manipur. On 8 May 1947, the Manipur State Constitution Act was passed and on 26 July 1947, it was adopted. Thereafter, the state legislative and executive authority came to be vested with the Manipur State Council and then with the elected Manipur State Legislative Assembly after it was formed on 18 October 1948. The elections 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.

Although Manipur did sign the Instrument of Accession on 11 August 1947, no formal merger happened, and by mid-1949, the Indian Union was impatient to bring all former Princely States into the Union.

On 21 September 1949, the Manipur king was made to sign a Merger Agreement under house arrest at his Shillong residence, where he had gone for some work. This agreement became operational on 15 October 1949 and together with another former Princely State, Tripura, Manipur became a part of the Indian Union.

However, 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 reflects what Fali Nariman says in his book ‘The State of the Nation’ in the chapter on federalism. In it is a manifestation of an underlying fear of the Union, having just suffered a traumatic Partition, that it may further Balkanise. It therefore needed to ensure the Princely States it absorbed, especially rebellious ones, were made to lose their pride.

After the initial confusion subsided, public agitations began and when they reached a critical threshold, Manipur was upgraded to a Union Territory on 1 November 1956 with provision for a Territorial Council of 30 elected and two nominated members to assist a Chief Commissioner. The Council was constituted on 16 August 1957. When this was unable to pacify the discontent, in June 1963, this Territorial Council was upgraded to Territorial Legislative Assembly under a Lt. Governor. When widespread discontent refused to be allayed, full statehood was granted on 21 January 1972 with a Governor in charge.

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?

First published in The New Indian Express, the original story can be read here

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