The Indian Republic turned 69 on January 26. Five days earlier, on January 21, Manipur also commemorated its 47th year as an Indian state. The first, as has become customary, was marked by protests and boycotts by insurgent groups. But this year, as in other Northeast states, many civil organisations joined the boycott, unhappy with the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016, which the BJP government at the Centre seemed determined to push through the Rajya Sabha, after ensuring an easy passage for it in the Lok Sabha.
That the Bill ultimately did not make it past the Rajya Sabha, not because the government relented, but for shortage of time, is another matter. As in many other Northeast states, the streets of Imphal too would have been barren on Republic Day, if the government had not managed to have government school children and other state institutions to complete the official march-past formalities of the celebration.
The second event largely escaped public notice as in every year, except for the fact that the day was a state holiday and reports of the official function featured on the front pages of local newspapers, though listlessly.
The joy of emancipation these two momentous events are supposed to symbolise were conspicuous by their absence. While this has come to be the general indifference in most Northeast states, the Manipur case is illustrative. What exactly went wrong that things should be thus in Manipur, with its large Hindu population ever since King Pamheiba in 1729 made Hinduism the erstwhile kingdom’s state religion, and had become quite closely wedded to the predominant cultural ethos of the rest of Hindu India?
Fali S Nariman’s 2013 book The State of the Nation may have some clues. He says modern India started on a very uncertain wicket.
Its Partition in 1947 was traumatic, but later, it was still left with the prospect of uniting 560 or so princely states, many either indifferent or unwilling to join the new nation—Hyderabad, Kashmir, Travancore and more. Manipur was one of these. The Constitution, written at such a time, was expected to reflect this insecurity, Nariman notes. Article 1 of the Constitution which says “India, that is Bharat, will be a union of states” indicates India is federal. However, one article later, Article 3, refutes this spirit. The latter empowers the Union to split existing states, merge them, alter their boundaries, or even change their names, with or without their consent.
Other than the anticipation of the need for reorganising its states in the days ahead, the unarticulated but clear message to the former princely states is, if any misbehaved, the Union can abolish them. This existential angst is also reflected in other provisions of the Constitution, Nariman says. For instance, the Commission of Enquiry Act, 1952, allows the Union to institute enquiries even into state subjects listed in the Seventh Schedule; or the institution of governor, who, among others is also the ear and eye of the Union in the states. Seven decades since Independence, as an aspiring global power, India is not the same anymore and Nariman suggests even if dropping these features is no longer feasible, they should at least be archived, so that India can claim to be a truly confident federal republic.
Manipur’s predicament is closely linked to this march of the republic. The erstwhile princely state signed the Instrument of Accession but not the Merger Agreement until 1949, this too under duress. Maharaja Bodhchandra Singh had gone to Shillong for some work in September but there he was kept under house arrest in his summer residence and not released till he signed the agreement on September 21, to be put into force from October 15. Prior to this, an anti-monarchy movement had compelled the king to give way to an elected legislature to run the state as specified in a constitution drawn up hurriedly on the eve of India’s Independence.
This legislative body as well as the constitution were abolished unceremoniously upon merger with India. For reasons that probably had to do with showing the rebellious former kingdom its place as Nariman predicted, it was not given full statehood and was made a Part-C state, its administration handled by a dewan appointed by the Union. Protests were not immediate, probably because Manipur’s affinity with the idea of India was prominent, but demand for full statehood began soon.
When public agitation reached a critical threshold, Manipur was upgraded to a union territory in 1957. When this was not able to put matters to rest, in 1963, a 30-member territorial council was introduced to give the local elite some say in the administration under the guardianship of a chief commissioner. The same year, on December 1, the Naga Hills District of Assam, after a powerful secessionist movement, was granted full statehood after merging it with the Mon and Tuensang subdivisions of NEFA (now Arunachal Pradesh).
But trouble in Manipur did not end, and secessionist sentiments began growing. It was then that full-fledged statehood was granted to it in 1972 together with Meghalaya and Tripura. By then the psychological conditioning that no concession from the Union can be had without violent agitations had become ingrained. Perhaps, only a sustained and imaginative policy not burdened by a vision of the Northeast as a frontier of doubtful loyalty can purge the region of its oppressive protest culture. In late Col. Haobam Bhuban’s book The Merger of Manipur, the author had made a prescient observation that had the union of Manipur with India been handled more sensitively, things in the state could have been very different today.
Senior journalist and author of The Northeast Question: Conflicts and Frontiers