On 13th March 2020, titular king Leishemba Sanajaoba [henceforth Sanajaoba] filed Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidature to contest the lone seat to represent Manipur in the Indian Rajya Sabha. He decided to expand roles beyond the ‘titular tradition’ headquartered in his residence (or palace) known as Chonga Bon. His intention to get elected to the Indian Parliament to enjoy legislative power and other financial prerogatives became crystal clear. Such an unprecedented shifting of the focus from Chonga Bon to the Indian Parliament became controversial. A section of the population protested the decision. But there are reasons for Hindutva ‘zealots’, led by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and BJP cadres, to celebrate the candidature. They predicted a victory, as the ruling BJP led alliance would use any means to prevail numerical dominance over the opposition party in Manipur Assembly.
Indeed, the co-option of the titular king by the Hindutva flank has been accomplished. This accomplishment has been tactically worked out in a faster tempo ever since the BJP came to power in the Indian Parliament in 2014, followed by the installation of BJP led coalition government in Manipur. It is an unprecedented breakthrough in the Hindutva venture. Perhaps, ever since Manipur was annexed in 1949, the successive ‘kings’ have been apolitical but symbolic cultural ‘figure.’ Ever since Sanajaoba was crowned in 1996, it has been only around the early 2010s that he came under the schematic influence of RSS. His inclination to BJP became publicly revealing on the eve of the Manipur Assembly election in 2017. On 25th February 2017, Sanajaoba shared the dais with Prime Minister Narendra Modi while addressing a BJP election rally. Finally, Sanajaoba jumped into electoral politics representing BJP.
Why vie for an MP?
Sanajaoba vied for an MP. It is a personal choice. India is a democratic representative country. Any eligible person can enjoy the constitutional right to contest an election. What for? For power and money? Individual opportunism at the cost of ‘tradition’ and ‘Manipur’? These are some questions many asked. But Sanajaoba says that he would serve the people better by sincerely exercising the administrative power and fund of an MP. The logic of his personal choice and other possible compulsive reasons may be categorically analysed as follows:
First, the residence or palace of Sanajaoba is also known as Chonga Bon. It was the seat of power under British colonial rule for some decades. Sanajaoba inherited it from his father Okendro, who was the son and grandson of Bodhchandra and Churachand, respectively. But this palace was not an ancient building. It was a post-British colonial construction after the Anglo-Manipur war of 1891. The building became lively when Manipur administration was formally handed over to King Churachand in February 1908. By then, the supposedly original seat of power at Kangla Fort had been occupied by the British, which continued till the lapse of paramountcy in August 1947. After Independence, the British Indian Army which became Indian Army continued to occupy it, which continued till it was transferred to the Government of Manipur on 20th November 2004. But, Sanajaoba could not take control of Kangla. Therefore, Chonga Bon remains where it has been. Due to financial constraints, the palace could not be regularly renovated. While it remains dull, the area of the palace campus has been diminishing due to either selling off plots or encroachment. In 2004, the then Congress government decided to take over the palace as a heritage site and notified the king to evict or shift away from his residence. The king fought against it for more than a decade, to the extreme extent of carrying out fast unto death. He found an ally in RSS. Therefore, when he was offered an opportunity to become an MP, it is obvious that the king will use it to protect his palace.
Second, Sanajaoba is a titular king without political, administrative, and financial powers. ‘Absolute monarchy,’ which is believed to have been historically recorded since 33 A.D., had given way to a short-lived post-independence constitutional monarchy in 1948. But India’s de facto regime took it over. Sanajaoba’s grandfather, king Bodhachandra, “on behalf of himself, his heirs and successors”, signed a secret ‘agreement’ with the Dominion of India on 21st September 1949, leading to the arbitrary abolition of Manipur government on 15th October 1949. While governance—political, administrative, and judicial power— was ceded to the Government of India, the king retained “personal rights, privileges, dignities, titles, authority over religious observances, customs, usages, rites, and ceremonies and institutions.” Most of these rights involving financial prerogatives (privy purse) were abolished by the 26th Amendment of the Indian Constitution in 1971. Sanajaoba, therefore, inherits from his father ‘titular rights’ that are cultural to provide a symbiotic platform of ‘traditions’ involving people across communities. The financial burden of maintaining the palace, royal court, and the symbiotic platform has been burdensome, compounded by mismanagement of royal assets leading to gradual impoverishment. When BJP offered him an opportunity to become an MP, it is obvious that the king decided for it to subsequently promote the symbiotic platform centred around him and the palace.
Third, there may be another angle. This presumption is based on the documents released by the so-called ‘exiled de jure’ Government of Manipur, which is currently based in the United Kingdom (UK). According to these documents, on the occasion of the proclamation made on 6th August 1996, Sanajaoba stated that he was “lawfully and rightfully upholding and preserving de jure sovereignty of the State of Manipur and de sovereignty of the Maharaja by virtue of the Manipur State Constitution Act 1947 and by virtue of the bilateral agreement of 1st July and 2nd July 1947 which is a perpetual and irrevocable agreement.” On 14th March 2012, Sanajaoba ‘secretly’ formed a Manipur State Council for the administration of Manipur, and appointed a Chief Minister with the provision to further appoint ministers of Personnel, Home, Finance, Foreign Affairs, Defense, Hill Administers, and Council Office. On 29th October 2019, the Chief Minister of the Council announced the shifting of the office of the ‘de jure Government of Manipur’ to the United Kingdom from 27th September 2019. They announced an ‘exiled de jure Government,’ and thereafter, they submitted memorandums and released continuous propaganda against the Government of India, demanding restoration of the “sovereignty of the State and political rights of the people of Manipur.” An underground insurgent party openly supported it. Sanajaoba publicly denied a role in it. But his previous links cannot be denied. However, he was already vulnerable, for based on these documents, an investigation could have very well been initiated against him. He could have been apprehensive, or maybe even faced some veiled threats that charges would be framed against him as a suspect. This would have exposed him to fears and insecurities of being booked and jailed under NSA 1980 and UAPA 1967, which would have taken him prolonged years of legal battles to prove innocence. Two things could have possibly have followed. First, Sanajaoba might have voluntarily changed his mind and decided to enter electoral politics to prove innocence. Second, some agents might have put coercive pressure on him to choose either (1) be an accused and suffer, or (2) be a BJP MP and prosper. Sensing personal prospects, he might have chosen to become a BJP MP.
Why and who chose him?
The king was unanimously chosen as a BJP candidate to fight the Rajya Sabha MP election. The BJP high command decided it based on inputs from various sources. The contentious partisan groups who vied for respective candidature were all silenced. And it served various interests, which are being discussed as follows:
Covert or overt social and cultural tacticians were active in devising tactics to defend and promote the integrity of the Indian capitalist empire. There is a mixture of nationalism and personal prospect in doing this. Remnants of collective memories, historical consciousness, and concurrent tendencies that may challenge the legitimacy of the empire (the idea of India) must be deconstructed, dismantled, and suppressed. In the context of Manipur, the king and palace harboured a collective memory of controversial annexation and symbolic remnants that act as the rallying point of ‘liberation discourse.’ For instance, the arbitrary ‘merger agreement’ of 1949 and the abolition of the privy purse in 1971 did not wipe out the titular symbolism and certain prerogatives of the king. Sanajaoba inherits and enjoys it for years. Many continue to believe in the divine lineage of king and ‘traditional’ lordship. This believe interplays with an advocated historical consciousness to invoke Manipur patriotism. Some pro-liberation mass organisations routinely visited the king for reasons revealed in routine ‘political rituals.’ The demand for ‘pre-merger’ status, polemics of arbitrary annexation, observance of Manipur independence day on 14th August, and all narratives and events to promote Manipur nationalism used the ‘king’ as a symbolic rallying point. Therefore, there are enough reasons to believe that nationalist tacticians in India suspected the king as the central symbolic figure of conspiracies plotted against India. The symbolic significance had to be completely wiped. The left-overs of 1949 and 1971 have to be completely taken over by absorbing the king into the Indian mainstream electoral politics.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) believes in the ideology of Hindutva that seeks to establish the hegemony of Hindus and the Hindu way of life in the Indian empire. It is a mixture of religious, cultural, and political objectives backed up by a section of the chauvinist elements within Indian capitalism. While promoting the ideology, they construe the primordial Hindu religio-cultural connection between India and Manipur. They trace the cosmology of Manipur in the pristine vedantic rituals and Mahabharata epic, i.e., Hinduism. The practice of Hinduism among a vast chunk of Meeteis in Manipur, which root is generally traced in the royal patronage and forced mass conversion in the 18th century, gives RSS an opportunity to recruit local cadres to execute Hindutva programmes. They had to overcome the threat posed by Meetei neo-traditional or revivalist or Sanamahi movement that radically attacked Hinduism since the early 1960s. The neo-traditionalist reconversion ritual of 23rd April 1992 was a big challenge to Hindutva, as Sanajaoba’s father king Okendrajit on that day denounced Hinduism and upheld the worshipping of Lainingthou or Sanamahism as the ‘state religion’ of Manipur. At the same time Meetei neo-traditional movement had shared objectives with certain pro-liberation protagonists who identified the Indian empire with Hinduism. Subsequently, Hindutva protagonists changed the strategy of homogenisation and began to advocate that Sanamahism was not a different religion but an integral version of Hinduism. The local zealots share the objectives of these socio-cultural tacticians and BJP to influence the king through aids and political supports gradually. They held high the banner of Hindutva or Indian empire vis-à-vis the rivals. They must play a role in converting the king from an apolitical status to a political figure.
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is the political front of Hindutva. It has been taking part in the electoral politics of Manipur since the formation in 1980. However, the party has not been politically predominant until 2014. Indeed, the BJP political wave in Manipur became intensified after it captured Parliamentary power under the leadership of Narendra Modi in 2014. The so-called ‘Modi wave’ was the predominant theme of BJP electoral campaigns during the 11th Manipur State Assembly election in 2017. Usually, in Manipur, the party that holds power in the Parliament has a greater chance of winning the state Assembly election. In the election, BJP secured the second position but managed to capture power as the Congress, which was the largest party, was not given the opportunity to prove its strength to form the government. BJP won the seat of the Inner Manipur Parliamentary Constituency in the 17th Lok Sabha Election held in 2019. However, BJP has suffered from inner-party instability due to partisan politics, sectarianism, and leadership crises since the formation of the government in 2017. The centralising tendency of the incumbent Chief Minister and alleged favouritism to handpicks in dispensing power and allocation of profitable projects became a rallying point of discontent. Frequently partisan groups visited central leaders and lobbied for a change in leadership and ministerial portfolios. As the crisis or partisan politics could not be resolved, which became more acute on the eve of the Rajya Sabha election, the central leaders might have found it difficult to nominate a candidate from any of the existing inner-party contenders. The central leaders might have thought about nominating someone apparently neutral or someone who had never been at the forefront of lobbying. The king was an obvious choice. In this, the BJP’s immediate electoral exigencies served the objectives of these tacticians and RSS. The result is, Sanajaoba was nominated as BJP candidate to the Rajya Sabha MP election.
Sycophants are those who act “obsequiously towards someone important to gain an advantage.” There are thousands of sycophants, including those in the royal council and community delegates, who expressed support for Sanjaoba’s entry into politics as they could foresee a victory. They have less to do with Hindutva ideology and BJP politics but blindly supported the king because they liked him or wanted his attention. They either released solidarity press statements or visited in person to upload photos or commented on personal supports on social media. It might also be many of these were orchestrated propaganda tools by those machinating his nomination. Knowingly or unknowingly they are subsumed into the camp of sycophants whose public support boosted the morale of Sanajaoba and those who fielded him to fight the election. Therefore, the apolitical sycophants become political boosters in a situation where contested propaganda became the order of the day.
Why some protested?
The king and Chonga Bon are historically rooted visual mnemonic artefacts for various reasons. The mnemonic effect is materialised in catalysing collective memories. The collective memory must interplay with devised historical consciousness and vice versa to organise people to build up collective existence. The Chonga Bon, with the king as the central figure, by fitting into pedagogic narratives, can continuously harbour collective memories that had the visual impacts of displaying contemporary binaries—those of sovereign past and present subjugation, colonialism and liberation, despair and hope, cultural imperialism and ‘revivalism’ (neo-traditionalism), ethnic conflict and integrity. All these have been devised to disseminate historical consciousness as the subjective precondition to organise social realisation and promote liberation movement. No one must deconstruct such a well-preserved collective memory or historical consciousness. However, Hindutva all of sudden began attacking it. When the king becomes a BJP member and enters Parliamentary politics, the deconstruction and co-option into Indian mainstream are almost completed. Therefore, there are protests. Let me elaborate it in the following paragraphs:
Meetei neo-traditionalist or revivalist movements have been active in Manipur. The movement has two crisscrossings, overlapping and reinforcing projects: (a) emancipation – both spiritual and temporal, and (b) consolidation of the imagined national community. They identified Hinduism with Mayang people and condemned the association of Meeteis with Hinduism. They attacked king Pamehiba and his spiritual priest Santidas Gosai of the 18th century, who were charged of being responsible for the forced conversion of the Meeteis to Hinduism. They deconstructed the sanskritised name of their land, god, goddesses, kings, and places, which were thought of as carrying Mayang or Hindu or Indian meaning. From 1960 onwards, many began to organise public rituals and festivals dedicated to Meetei deities, reconversion ritual called Nongkhrang Pareihanba, taking over of the traditional lais (deities) and laiphams (place of worship) by force from the hands of the Bamons (Meetei Brahmins) and Meetei Hindus. They carried out series of activities related to publication of sacred texts called puyas, desanskritisation of Manipur history, promotion of Meetei language and script, reclamation of Kangla Fort, and other cultural elements such as rituals, festival, and dress, etc. They held that Hindutva and the Government of India were responsible for uprooting indigenous traditions and subsequent ethnic divides in Manipur. They claimed the divine origin of the king and held him high as the symbolic head of their faith, tradition, and rituals. They designed the reconversion ritual of 23rd April 1992 when king Okendrajit denounced Hinduism and upheld the worshipping of Lainingthou or Sanamahism as the ‘state religion’ of Manipur. Therefore, they are disappointed with Hindutva connection of Sanajaoba, particularly his MP election contest as a BJP candidate.
Insurgents in Manipur identified India with colonial power and Hindutva or RSS and BJP with colonial forces. They trace the genesis of Manipur ‘nation’ in Ningthouja kingdom and formulate a theory of annexation that challenges the legal and constitutional validities of India’s takeover of Manipur under the terms of the controversial ‘merger agreement.’ First, the ‘merger’ was signed by the king under compulsion, and use of force, coercion, and misrepresentation of facts. It depicts the king as a defenceless human being with a lost sense of courage to confront an invincible Indian force. Secondly, the king was not representing Manipur at Shillong as Manipur was a ‘nation’ governed by a responsible popular government. Third, there had been certain procedural loopholes that called for the revocation of the ‘merger.’ The loopholes are two. (a) The Accord, ‘which partook of the nature of a treaty between two sovereign states of Manipur and India has got to be ratified, and it can have no binding effect unless it has been ratified.’ (b) The Manipur Constitution Act 1947 had not been amended to suit the Manipur Administration Order of 1949, nor had it been repealed. The public resolution of 1993 invalidated the legal and constitutional validity of the ‘merger.’ Some insurgents believe that demanding pre-merger status will not only revert the evils of annexation but also create the historical consciousness of Manipur nationalism. Some mass organisations took extra miles in attempting popular movement for ‘pre-merger’ status and organised public programmes such as Manipur independence day on 14th August. Henceforth, the king and palace became rallying points of recreating a collective memory of a binary condition, that is, pre-colonial sovereign past and present colonial situation. Some of them shared specific common objectives with the neo-traditionalists in fighting the agenda of Hindutva. It became a blow to them—particularly annexation theory, collective memory, liberation programs that had increasingly rallied on the king and palace—when Sanajaoba entered into Indian parliamentary election as a BJP candidate. They protested it. They condemned him as a colonial Trojan horse who has surrendered the political future of Manipur for personal glory.
The exiled or fugitive de jure Government of Manipur in UK has been approaching the Royal Council of UK and other international bodies to initiate arbitration to restore the de jure and de facto sovereignty of Manipur. They identified the sovereignty of Manipur with the sovereignty of the king. They showed themselves as the legitimate representative of the king through the Manipur State Council. They pointed out legal and constitutional inconsistencies of the ‘merger agreement’ and continuous ‘illegal’ de facto governance executed by the Government of India. They do not believe in armed liberation but a legal and constitutional fight to achieve liberation. Their move is somewhat similar to some persons in the past who had wanted the king to seek asylum in a foreign country to fight for freedom through propaganda and petition from abroad. Similarly, the ‘de jure government’ expected an active role of the king, to the extent of organising mass movement and letting him go to jail to internationalise the issue. Unfortunately, Sanajaoba had a different plan. If he had indeed been actually involved in the formation of the ‘de jure government, his retreat is a betrayal to the cause. Otherwise, the case would be of the adventurous fugitives misusing the name of the king. However, things had a negative turn. The fugitives expressed a sudden shock when Sanajaoba publicly denied any role in the formation of the ‘de jure government.’ But they continued with propaganda and petitions to expose what they considered a constitutional and legal crisis that had to be resolved through non-violent legal means. They needed the support and consent of the king to advance the cause further. A particular insurgent party openly supported it. While other insurgents maintained a strict silence on this move, they are happy that the propaganda of the ‘de jure government’ could attract some amount of international attention about the national liberation movement. All of them used the king as the rallying point for advocating Manipur nationalism and international propaganda. It became a serious blow to them when Sanajaoba expressed loyalty to India, co-opted with RSS, and became a BJP candidate.
Both the king and Chonga-bon has for decades, been an apolitical organic composition providing a platform of collective traditions across the community and ethnic boundaries. The king lacks power, and the palace is not elaborate and extravagant. However, no one has contested the inherent titular rights enjoyed by the king. Many across political parties have shown relentless respect for it. It exists like a living museum manifesting unity in diversity. In a society infested with ethnic divisions and communal politics, the platform has been a crucial viable means of weaving together and bridging divides. These are clearly revealed in the regular visits of community delegates and representations. There are traditions and rituals where the king and palace are central points. The king has a wide network of apolitical sympathisers and sycophants and popular inclination, who would somehow listen to his call for internecine harmony. He has traditional links with several village chiefs far and wide. To convert the king and palace into a political composition representing a particular political party will have an obvious impact of reversing everything towards sectarianism and partisan politics. But these nationalist socio-cultural tacticians, RSS, and BJP had a different agenda. They do not want the king to abdicate the throne but to enjoy the dual position of titular kingship and BJP member. They knew it quite well that Sanajaoba without the throne has neither symbolic value nor practical merits. They want to co-opt the king and the palace either to destroy the apolitical symbiotic collective platform or to win over on their side certain elements of the king’s sympathisers and sycophants. The king could have been nominated directly to the Rajya Sabha without a party banner if it were for showing respect and empowerment. On the contrary, the electoral candidature has created for the king political rivals, thus, showing the seed of division and discord. From the liberal angle, this politics of appropriation, deconstruction, and sacralisation of the sanctity of the apolitical throne and palace is chauvinistic and dangerous.
Co-option of the titular king and attempted deconstruction of anti-colonial collective memory have been accomplished to a large extent when Sanajaoba filed the nomination paper. The election held on 19th June 2020 has revealed once again the ugly character of bourgeoisie politics to capture power by using dirty tricks of horse-trading. Sanajaoba has won the election and will soon be sworn-in as a member of parliament to serve the Rajya Sabha for the next six years. Whether he will abdicate the throne to concentrate in parliamentary matters fully or will he be dethroned due to pressure or will the matter be resolved without a whimper, only time will tell.
Those who believe in people’s democratic revolution to establish a self-reliant Manipur free from dependence and social inequity need not perceive the co-option and deconstruction as a dark beginning. Co-option had been a natural norm always practiced by rulers to fulfil their objective needs. It happened in the 1940s, quite different from the narratives of the annexation theorists who defended the king as coerced and forced upon to sign the merger agreement. What exactly happened in 1949 was that the Administration Order was arbitrary as it was not based on either the consent of the Manipur Assembly or popular plebiscite. In 2020, Sanajaoba was co-opted because some people have increasingly promoted him to the level of a symbolic figurehead only to make him an easy prey of co-option and deconstruction of the sets of collective memory centred on him and palace. This has resulted from the fact that the ongoing armed liberation movement and integrity campaigns have been lacking in a proper study of the objective conditions of colonialism and the adoption of people’s democratic revolutionary path (political and economic program along with popular militancy) to address the problems of colonial conditions scientifically.
So far, the king and chonga-bon as components of collective memory (myth of sovereign past) and annexation theory (as a historical consciousness) alone could not progress the armed liberation movement. This has been exemplified by the fact that hundreds of activists of the so-called apex organisations, who are the mass fronts of the outlawed armed groups, have been co-opted and are involved in electoral politics and commission seeking businesses. When this is the situation, it is unwise to expect too much from Sanajaoba, who had never shown a commitment to national liberation. It is equally unwise to make him a sacrificing lamb for the sake of the people whose subjective consciousness is not fully inclined towards the liberation movement. It is difficult to expect heroes to emerge out of nowhere when those leading armed vanguard parties are yet to educate the masses by adopting convincing revolutionary ideology and conducive objective programs.
The pre-existing collective memories and historical consciousness need rethinking. We have not been progressing politically for decades despite the continuous projection and promotion of the collective memory and historical consciousness, as cited above. The struggle for the appropriation of symbols and articulations (such as flag and rituals) have been continued occasionally and spectacularly without visible merits in the tempo and magnitude of the armed liberation movement. All these ill-designed politics for the appropriation of symbols and rituals cannot serve as people cannot live eternally feeding on a particular version of myths and collective memory alone. People look for adapting to changes that could deliver them progress, security, freedom, and peace. People’s democratic revolution cannot be going back to a dimmed past, but for a qualitative change better than the existing constraints. What had happened in 1949 and what has just happened on 19th June 2020 are mere reference points in constructing a particular narrative of context, but what is more important is to go beyond it. Constraints and antagonistic contradictions are inherent in the existing system. Hindutva ways of dealing with the situation cannot be everlasting. Let them have what revolutionaries should have left-over for anyone who would blindly consume redundant and meaningless relics. The point is, what have we as thinking persons had to offer the masses to understand both the objective and subjective conditions? People must move forward.
The writer is an independent researcher, Ph. D. in History from the University of Delhi and a former fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla