Elections and the question of territorial integrity in Manipur

Territorial integrity has its own discourse in Manipur. It is a term that is now to stay in Manipur. With the state assembly election fast approaching, every political parties contesting the election crusade behind ‘protecting the territorial integrity’ of Manipur. The latest one to make entry is the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi himself who tries to cajole in his speech on his visit to the state in 25 February his party commitment to protect Manipur territorial integrity. The question of territorial integrity of Manipur indeed was a renewed anxiety created by the BJP itself after it signed the Framework Agreement with the National Socialist Council of Nagalim-Isak Muivah (NSCN-IM) in August, 2015. The Framework Agreement between the Government of India (GoI) and NSCN-IM tries to provide a solution to the oldest running armed struggles in the northeast. However, the framework agreement has resulted into a mass hysteria among the Meiteis in Manipur. This in fact is not the first time in the history of Manipur. Prior to this, it was during the BJP tenure in the centre that a ceasefire agreement was signed between GoI and NSCN-IM in the year 2001 that extend beyond territorial limits. Tension and violence flare up in the valley areas of Manipur over the agreement as it was considered as legitimizing the Naga demand of territorial integration. A mass protest ensued which resulted into the loss of 18 lives. A ceremonial rite is performed annually every 18 June as a mark of remembrance which is also now marked as ‘territorial integrity day’. Later, the state government declared the day as ‘integrity day’. Since then, the idea of territorial integrity has gained new currency in the everyday politics of Manipur which is further entrenched in this upcoming state assembly election.

The state assembly election will see the contestation between both national and regional political parties. The BJP tries to make this election as an opportune moment to make inroads into a state where Congress has been un-challenged for the last fifteen years. In his maiden visit on 25 February, the Prime Minister reference to the framework agreement is clearly evident to clear the anxiety over the Accord. As he goes to say, there is not even a word that mention about Manipur in the framework agreement. This was similar to the earlier remark by the then Home Minister Rajnath Singh who was welcomed by angry protestors led by the All Manipur Students Union (AMSU) who demanded the content of the agreement to be made public. While the contest between the BJP and the Congress seems to be tight, a new party led by Irom Sharmila, the Peoples Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA) has tried to make an electoral debut in this assembly election. Despite the contest, a uniformity that can be observed across the political parties is their commitment to protect the territorial integrity of Manipur.

The valley and the hills is representative of the great divide that exists in Manipur.

The last few years of Manipur have been that of conflict, violence and tension. The demand for the implementation of Inner Line Permit (ILP) has put the valley areas into standstill for months which later on translated translated into three bills, The Protection of Manipur Peoples Bill, 2015, Manipur Land Revenue & Land Reforms Bill (Seventh Amendment) 2015, and Manipur Shop & Establishment Bill (Second Amendment) 2015 has not been well received by the tribals of the state. Protest soon erupted in the hill districts of Churachandpur and elsewhere which continue even today. The latest stroke came with the declaration of seven new districts by the Government of Manipur on 8 November that greatly ire the Nagas and other tribal groups of the state. Resentful with the state government action, the Nagas has launched economic blockade which is still undergoing. This multiple issue too figures in the new election. Yet, it is the question of territorial integrity that remains the central issue cutting across political parties. It is therefore prudent to bring into focus why territorial integrity becomes such a major issue, in fact, a possible deciding factor in the context of Manipur election.

The hill-valley divide

The hills and the valleys is a useful vantage from which Manipur has and can be understood. The valley and the hills is representative of the great divide that exists in Manipur. The valley areas historically have been heart of Meitei kingdom and comprise of 10 per cent of Manipur geography while the reset 90 per cent are hilly areas. As such, we have two contrasting political systems, one having a centralized monarchical system and the latter ruled by independent chiefs. What does this have to tell about contemporary politics of Manipur? How does the notion of past fits into the narratives of the present? This can be looked from two angles. Firstly, there is an unparalled assumption that the valley has the authoritative status to rule. Secondly, Manipur is a territorial identity with a strong primordial roots.

To elaborate, there is a notion of civilisational hierarchy between the valley and the hill. And this notion plays out differently and is utilized as and when it serves certain political agenda. For instance, there is always an invocation about a glorious past of the kingdom with a strong literate tradition among other features such as a centralized state with proper political structure. In short, a civilization flourishes in the valley which is at par with other great civilizations around the world. Such features are not possessed by the hill tribes who are ruled by independent chiefs with no literate tradition. As such, the histories of the tribes are cannot be constitutive to such history, in this case, Manipur history. One should however be mindful here of how these past play out in contemporary politics.

For the valley dwellers, tribes lived under the rule of the kingdom or pay tributaries to the Meitei Kings. Despite claims about pluralism of the state, the history of Manipur is more or less the history of the valley dwellers. Often than not, this particular reading of history is based upon a subscription to a single narrative of history. In other words, a historical narrative of the above privileges the history of valley. For the tribes, their independence is put forward to make a legitimate claim for separate state or autonomy. A counter-narrative of tribes is often lambasted as without ‘historical fact’ due to their non-possession of written evidence. As such, it is often considered that it is prerogative for the valley inhabitants to rule the state. Despite this, such historical narrative of rule and un-rule continue to resonate deeply in the politics of Manipur.

An important aspect that needs to be underlined here is the seat-sharing arrangement. Manipur has a 60 house assembly seats. Out of this, 40 are in the valley areas while 20 are in the hill areas with 19 reserved for Schedule Tribe population. The valley areas enjoy numerical dominance in the assembly houses. As can be understood, it is now wonder why territorial integrity becomes such a prominent issue in the election. With the Naga framework agreement and other discontents of the hill tribes in hand, political parties are tying up their manifesto so as to capture the valley seats. This is precisely because a win in the valley imply a rule over the state. The tribes therefore are made electorally irrelevant. This politics of majoritarian appeasement may prove to be fruitful for political parties to win elections, but it can have far deeper consequences than imagined.

For instance, the question of three bills passed by the state government remains in limbo till today. In Churachandpur district, protest continues and as it stands today, this will have a great influence on voting behavior of the people, atleast in Lamka which is the heart of the protest. Their opposition to the three bills has relegated them to be against the interest of Manipur as protest for the implementation of ILP is projected as ‘to save Manipur’/ ‘to save indigenous communities of Manipur’. Similar is the case with Nagas whose acts of imposing blockade has often resulted into their demonization in the public domain including the media. Hence, for the valley dwellers, the tribals in toto are against the interest of the state for which they carry the burden of protecting the territorial integrity of the state. Most importantly, it is clear that the issues and concerns of the tribes are not only suppressed but are silenced in the dominant political discourse of the state. Quite possibly, it may be that political parties fear to lose the majoritarian votes and this election is an example to how political affairs have remained lopsided in the case of Manipur.

Trib(e)xit

Question of territorial integrity is posed against the tribal aspiration of separation from the state of Manipur. This is particularly in the case of the Nagas who for long has been demanding not only separation from Manipur but from Indian Union. As of now, the discourse has now shifted to territorial integration of all Naga inhabited areas. In their protest against the three bills passed by the state government in August, 2015, the tribals of Churachandpur district mostly inhabited by the Zo tribes have also raised demand for separate administration. All this does pose question to the territorial integrity of the state of Manipur. Yet, in the present context, it is pertinent to examine the context in which separation from Manipur are made. To put it differently, why should tribes have the desire to continue to be a part of Manipur?

Manipuri is projected as a pan-ethnic name, as an inclusive identity embraced by all communities of the state. Its acceptance and rejection is often overlooked and dismissed.

Leaving aside the case of the aspiration of separation from Manipur for a while, there are various other inter-connected issues that require a highlight. Of this, the question of rights of the tribals remains one of the most central. The recent turn of events in Manipur University over the reservation issue, the demand of inclusion of Meitei in Schedule Tribe (ST) list and the demand for uniform land laws under the Manipur Land Reform and Land Revenue (MLR&LR) all have complicated the relationship between the tribes and Meiteis. The tribes consider such demands as an attempt to enforce their rule over the hills which so far has been protected due to their tribal identity. For instance, the grant of ST status to Meitei will imply the loss of protection of tribes over their culture, identity and land so is the case with MLR&LR acts. The logic of such demand is that Meitei require protection as much as their trial counterparts. Also, a uniform land laws and an inclusion of Meitei into the ST as argued is that it will end the differentiation that exist between the hills and the valleys.

What promise does this election have for the tribals of Manipur?

The often used term Manipuri too for instance is another case in point here. Often than not, there are easy reference made to all the inhabitants of the state as Manipuri. Accordingly, Manipuri is projected as a pan-ethnic name, as an inclusive identity embraced by all communities of the state. Its acceptance and rejection is often overlooked and dismissed. Identity is all about consciousness and this consciousness encompasses the idea of being and belonging. The use of Manipuri to refer and represent the entire communities of Manipur has within itself an inherent assumption about a shared and common consciousness. Common consciousness is also about common interest and aspirations. This are lacking when it comes to Manipur. For instance, while the Meitei could easily subscribe to Manipuri or refer to them as Manipuri, the hill tribes more or less refused to be identified as one. The simple reason being that tribes could not relate themselves to the term Manipur due to its Sanskritic roots. Even when alternate names such as Kangleipak are used and proposed, it does not have much appeal to the tribes with Kangleipak being the old name of once valley kingdom. Its blanket application is seen as homogenizing tendencies of the Meitei towards the tribes, all in the name of ‘un-differentiation’.

What promise does this election have for the tribals of Manipur? Will there be a break to the current political impasse post-election? What does this election hold for the future of Manipur? These are pertinent question that remain to be ask in the light of the upcoming election in the state. As far as the current trend goes, there is no doubt that the political parties contesting the election are racing towards wooing the votes of the valley inhabitants. They have charted their manifesto towards appeasing the valley inhabitants. While this act may be beneficial for an electoral success, how far they will succeed in winning the confidence of the tribals is yet to be seen. The more tribals voice are subdued and ignored, the anxiety over ‘territorial integrity’ will be there to stay.

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Roluahpuia Written by:

Roluahpuia is a doctoral student at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), North East Regional Campus (NERC), Guwahati

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