Understanding Manipur: 'Territorial integrity' and why it cannot be all about dominant Meiteis

Manipur, once formed, became equated with Meitei-ness, and the aspirations of the other groups was neither recognized nor respected.
Understanding Manipur: 'Territorial integrity' and why it cannot be all about dominant Meiteis
Understanding Manipur: 'Territorial integrity' and why it cannot be all about dominant Meiteis
Written by:

By Sam Ngaihte

One of the most emotive and also the most reiterated themes relating to the imbroglios (present and past) in Manipur in the northeast of India concerns the question of ‘territorial integrity’. From sections of the civil societies, and the armed militants, to the politicians, this recurring theme has reverberated with renewed vigour particularly with the signing of the Peace Accord between the BJP-led Government of India and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak Muivah on the August 3. The Chief Minister of Manipur, aggrieved that he was not consulted prior to the signing on the occasion of the celebration of the 69th Independence Day function, restated that “nobody could transgress the territorial integrity of Manipur”.

Now, with the recent passing of the three controversial bills - The Protection of Manipur People Bill 2015, The Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (7th Amendment) Bill 2015, and Manipur Shops and Establishments (2nd Amendment) Bill 2015- in the State Assembly on August 31, which has resulted in the collective uproar amongst all the tribals in Manipur, in a fight to protect their lands from what they perceive is an attempt by the state government to encroach and redefine its ownership, the issue of ‘territorial integrity’ is brought to the limelight once again.

While the notion of ‘territorial integrity’ in the discourse about Manipur suggests an evolving consciousness of an imagined homeland, the question of ‘whose consciousness’ and ‘whose homeland’ have not been given any serious consideration. It is in light of these concerns that the idiom of ‘territorial integrity’ as it relates to the idea of Manipur is briefly revisited and unpacked, even as it continues to be repeatedly vocalized, without insightful elaborations.

Whose consciousness?

As early as 1965, the All Manipur People’s Convention and the All Manipur Students’ Union have protested against what they perceived to be ‘threats’ to the ‘integrity’ of Manipur. In 1987, the Manipur People’s Party reiterated its political stand on the ‘imperative necessity for the preservation of the territorial integrity of Manipur’. The All Manipur United Clubs Organization, on the August 4, 1997, organized a protest rally in the valleys of Manipur declaring that the ‘unity and integrity of Manipur’ will be defended against all threats. A resolution to ‘protect the integrity of Manipur’ was pledged on the September 28, 2000 by a joint rally organized by the All Manipur Kanba Ima Lup and the National Identity Protection Committee.

While the various conventions, unions, organizations and committees listed above, with the carefully inserted prefix ‘All’, may give the impression that the emerging consciousness is a shared one amongst all the Manipur populace, the reality of its misrepresentation and the prejudice with which these ‘all Manipur’ groups seek to usher in a majoritarian propaganda becomes clearer only when we take a closer look at the population composition of the state.

The population of present-Manipur is a conglomeration of varied ethnic groups who may be clustered under three major categories, namely the non-tribal Meiteis, and the two tribal groups who designate themselves as Nagas and Zos (the Zos, who are understood to come from the same progenitor, includes the Kuki, Chin, Mizo and Zomi tribes).

The various ‘all Manipur’ groups that we have mentioned above have been formed exclusively by the non-tribal Meitei communities.

But how have the Meiteis, as just one of the three major ethnic groups in present-Manipur, been able to exert an influence to the extent that their exclusive concerns are sympathetically perceived and accepted as all-Manipur concerns, especially by the larger national public?

The Meiteis not only constitute 65% of the total population in the state, but they also inhabit all the four valley areas (10% of the total geographical area in present-Manipur, which historically constituted what was known as the Meitei Kingdom), which was employed as one of the main administrative centres of the British Raj in the Northeast ever since its conquest and occupation in 1891.

The hill areas and their tribal inhabitants, who were on completely different trajectories owing to their distinct traditions and demarcation of ancestral lands, lived independently of the Meitei Kingdom and were untouched (and unconcerned) by the politics that was at play in the valleys before and during the British rule. The policy of non or minimal interference adopted by the British allowed the hill tribes to continue to live on their own terms and develop their own customs and traditions, and these rights continued to be safeguarded through the system of separate administrative arrangements, even when they were brought within the fold of present Manipur that was carved out without their consultation and consent.

This dual privilege of being a majority population and inhabiting areas which was to become the nucleus of future political institutionalizing and decision-making meant that the construction of Manipur was exclusively Meitei valley-centric. This enabled them to become the politically predominant group in the state. While the interest of the hill tribes continued to be protected, both by the British and the Indian Union, through constitutional provisions (such as Article 371C) primarily to ensure the preservation of their lands, identities and traditions, these provisions alienated them from the majority Meitei populace, who were intent on expanding their dominion (and habitation) beyond the valleys, with the rationale of ‘more space, more power’ in the tradition of a Kingdom. This resulted in the beginning of the political marginalization of the hill tribes.

Manipur, once formed, became equated with Meitei-ness, and the aspirations of the other groups was neither recognized nor respected. This resulted, not in the affirmation of pluralities towards a harmonious co-existence, but in the imposition of an imagined (Meitei) nationhood that does not offer space or agency to the narratives of the rest of the populace. The voices of the minorities were contained and their stories were prevented from being heard. This is reflected in the continued refusal by the State government to implement the Delimitation Committee’s Report, 2001 to usher more equitable representation (between the hills and the valleys) in the State Assembly Constituencies, as well the extension of the Sixth Schedule constitutional provisions in the hill areas, even after the go-ahead notifications from the Central government. Today, the hill tribes of Manipur continue to be the only scheduled tribes to neither be under the 5th or the 6th Schedule provisions.

The lack of concern and exposure on the 9 innocent lives that were lost,while protesting against the three bills on the 31st and 1st of September 2015 (and who still remain unburied till date), as a consequence of the brutalities of the state commandos,is a more recent example of how state forces are often exercised to enforce majoritarian agendas (the three controversial bills were collaboratively drafted and passed in the State Assembly as a consequence of agitations from the Meitei communities).

Whose homeland?

While the Nagas, claiming to be distinct people-groups that were never under the rule and dominance of any outside power, introduced the goal of self-rule in a memorandum submitted to the Simon Statutory Commission in 1929, and have fought for their right to freely determine their own future ever since, the Zos, in a conference organized in Fort William in 1892, have already discussed the possibility of unifying the entire ‘Chin-Lushai country’ under one administrative head, and the Meiteis, living as independent kingdoms until the British brought them under their rule as a princely state, have fought the Burmese and have challenged the 1949 merger with the Indian Union through armed separatist movements. The nature of the ‘merger’ remains an unforgotten grievance by most of the Meitei armed militants even till date.Each of these groups, as distinct ethnic groups, have been contending with diverging aspirations and are all on unique trajectories in their quest to protect and freely govern the lands that they have inhabited from their ancestors.

The only thing that the three ethnic groups share with each other is the circumstance of being assembled together as a consequence of the colonial politics of mapping. And while the Meiteis are a majority in present-Manipur (primarily because they are not overtly spread out in significant numbers in other areas beyond the valleys), the Nagas and the Zos, as minorities in present-Manipur, nonetheless boast a large population spread out across Mizoram and Nagaland (and pockets of the Northeast, Burmaas well as Bangladesh).

While the Meitei’s current position in light of this political assemblage of disconnected groups is to preserve the status quo and maintain their dominance at all costs rather than dialogically resolve the mix-up, the Naga and the Zo tribes, while acknowledging that they both have their primary aspirations of re-uniting with their ethnic families from across the borders, nonetheless are now firmly united in their quest to seek justice for the social and institutional discrimination they face together as hill tribals. The recent agitation(which is still continuing) across the hill districts by the entire hill tribes, which was sparked by the incidents in Churachandpur, is a manifestation of this unity.

The way forward

Given the distorted representation of the ‘all Manipur’ consciousness and the tripartite homeland narratives that we have briefly pointed out, the very attempt to talk about a singular and essential notion of territorial integrity in Manipur is misguided.In the construction of statehood as problematic and as delicate as present-Manipur, the only integrity that has been understood, affirmed and respected by both the British and the Central government has been the disconnect (the clear demarcation) between the hills and the valleys, both culturally and territorially. It is this reality of disconnect between the separate hill and valley territories that is under threat from being dismissed and undermined by an uncritical sloganeering of ‘territorial integrity’ and its ‘threats’.

Rather than engaging the plurality and seeking to acknowledge and clarify the differences that this disconnect engenders, the response by the majority Meiteis to any form of difference (which they interpret as dissent and law-and-order problems) is ever newer attempts to undermine those differences and rights of the minorities (the content, intent and manner of passing the three bills in the State Assembly on the August 31, 2015 is the most recent example).

Peaceful and respectful co-existence is a responsibility that the majority population and their dominated state government have failed to shoulder, in all these years of its statehood.

The way forward from this lack of dialogical engagement and mishandling of diversities is firstly, to acknowledge and affirm the reality of the hill-valley disconnect in all the differences it engenders, and secondly, to re-evaluate the severity of these differences, and to re-imagine the most practical and peaceful means of existing together.

Peaceful existing together here can either take the form of a re-organization of the present administrative set-up to promote more equitable representation (and share of political power) and respectful affirmation and promotion of all groups to declare present-Manipur a Meitei-Zomi-Naga state or it can take the form of a responsible redrawing of the map of present-Manipur in a way that acknowledges the territorial hill-valley disconnect and officially divide the tribal inhabited hills and non-tribal inhabited valleys into separate neighbouring states or union territories.

The writer is a PhD candidate based in Oxford, and New Delhi.

Related Stories

No stories found.
The News Minute