(Text of the 11th Arambam Somorendra Memorial Lecture delivered today at Lamyanba Shanglen)
By : Along Longkumer
Founder Editor, Morung Express
It is with great honour and my deepest admiration of the Manipuri people that I stand before you to deliver the ArambamSomorendra Memorial Lecture for 2016.
As I began to prepare for this Lecture, I was greatly encouraged by the philosophy behind theArambamSomorendra Memorial Lecture series. As per information made available by the Trust, this Memorial Lecture has a single-point agenda: “To initiate and foster debate on any critical aspect of contemporary life in Manipur”. By inviting a non-Manipuri like me to such a forum, I believe you have made this process of dialogue even more inclusive.
Let me at the outset also say that I am greatly inspired by the life and work of late ArambamSomorendra. As told to me, he was a leading playwright and social visionary of contemporary Manipur, who believed in the primacy of ideas and its passionate espousal. I also read that late ArambamSomorendra “had an open mind and unquenchable thirst for actions”.
We can continue to discuss about people and events because they too are important to our consciousness or sentiments. But if we want to see a paradigm shift or transformative change in our situation we need to move to a higher level of understanding—openly discuss ideas and look for innovation, novelty in addressing our difficulties. If we can do this—a way out can be found.
When I was approached to deliver this lecture, I was given the freedom to select a topic of my choice. It took me only a few moments to decide that I should speak on the idea of ‘A Way Forward’ on several pertinent issues that confront us today in our immediate neighbourhood and the larger North East region.
The question of integration in the context of the Indo-Naga Peace Process and fostering dialogue, especially between the Meitei and Naga people; the opportunities provided by the Govenment of India’s Act East policy and the need for greater integration of the region and its people; revisiting the idea of a plural democratic order in Manipur, including the night of the people of Manipur to self-determine, these are some of the things that I will speak on.
Naga integration and Manipur : Finding the middle ground
To begin, I want to quote here a portion of the speech delivered by Dr. Lokendra Arambam during the inauguration of the Naga Archives & Research Centre Dimapur on November 7, 2015. This is what he said and I quote:” As a neighbor Manipur proviedes a very critical sub-text in the Naga Independence struggle”.
I found this statement to be truthful and precise. It is also an acknowledgement of the shared history between the Meitei and Naga people and all the need therefore to explore a framework for a shared future.
Before going any further on this point of a shared future, which we will revisit later, if I may be allowed to, in the context of what my learned teacher Dr Lokendra said about Manipur providing a “very critical sub-text in the Naga independence struggle, I would like to briefly state here the case for the unification of contiguous Naga inhabited areas and also present a way forward on this very difficult and sensitive question for our peoples.
You may agree or disagree with me on some of these points.
The Government of India’s acknowledgement of the unique history and situation of the Nagas is according to me, an affirmation of Naga integration. The land that belongs to the Naga people will belong to themwherever they are and under whatever administrative setup they may come under.
This is the reality.
That Nagas of Manipur have been living in Manipur for ages in peaceful co-existence with the other communities, including the Meiteis, this is also a reality we should not forget easily.
The so called demand for ‘Greater Nagalim’ or integration of Naga areas has been a subject of huge public interest as also the subject of intense media and public scrutiny. This topic is bound to generate renewed interest given the recent ‘Framework Agreement’ that was signed by the Government of India’s Interlocutor R.N Ravi and Th.Muivah, the Chief Negotiator of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (or NSCN-IM).
And so whether we like it or not, the question of Naga integration is of immense importance to the peace process with both past (during the NNC time) and present talks (with the NSCN-IM) with the Government of India, having underscored this point in their agenda.
Even the 16-Point Agreement, on the basis of which Nagaland State was formed, has a clause called ‘Consolidation of Contiguous Naga Areas’ where the then Naga leaders who were signatories to the agreement expressed the view that “other Nagas inhabiting contiguous areas should be enabled to join the new State” (Nagaland).
You will understand therefore that there is a basis to the present claims and the position taken by the Naga people on this issue.
I want to quote herefrom an article appearing in the online news portal, The Quint dated August 13, 2015. Former Union Home Secretary, K Padmanabhaiah, also the Government of India’s interlocutor for the Naga peace talks between 1999 and 2009 had this to say.
“A possible solution that has been suggested to them is the creation of a Naga Regional Council – comprising representatives from all major Naga tribes in the North East – which should be consulted by the concerned state governments on matters relating to the socio-economic development of Naga tribes living in those states”.
Coming from someone like Padmanabhaiah, the longest serving interlocutor for the Naga peace talks, the above proposal appears to be credible and a distinct possibility. In fact Padmanabhaiah goes on to say that the idea of a Naga Regional Council has been suggested to the NSCN (IM) as “a possible solution” to the question of Naga integration.
To add to what the former interlocutor has disclosed and in the light of the present inability to redraw state boundaries, the suggestion of a ‘non-territorial model’ has been put forward for quite some time now as a way forward in the ongoing Indo-Naga peace talks.
For instance, Late BG Verghese, a much respected Indian journalist had suggested a non-territorial approach that would strengthen the Naga way of life and would not affect the integrity of other states. He is also reported to have recommended the formation of a ‘Naga Regional Council’ that would have given the Nagas, beyond present Nagaland state, some say in non-political areas like culture and social mores.
Noted anthropologist B K Roy Burman, has gone on to suggest the creation of an institution modelled on the Saami Council, similar to the case of the Saami people living in Sweden, Finland and Norway. Other writers in India have also commented on this ‘non-territorial’ approach to resolve the present demand of the Nagas for some kind of a common platform to administer them.
Within this broad imagination of a ‘non-territorial’ model includes talk of a ‘Pan-Naga Hoho’, Supra-State body and many more, including the disclosure by Padmanabhaiah of a possible Naga Regional Council.
Of course, till now no clarity exists on the specifics of how to evolve a system that works on the ground. The parties to the current negotiation, i.e., the Government of India and the NSCN (IM), I am sure would have studied the matter in-depth on the so called ‘non-territorial model’.
Similar to the ‘non-territorial model’ is the idea that has evolved in Europe, of ‘cross-border regions’. According to the Madrid Convention which provides a legal framework for its establishment in Europe, the basic purpose of ‘cross-border regions’ is to deepen and broaden integration through cross-border institution or cooperation without the need to redraw international or state boundaries.
The reasons for the attention given to cross-border cooperation in Europe should be seen in its historical background. Many centuries of wars havecreated Europe’s present boundaries. In many parts of Europe political boundaries have created unnatural divisions in ethnic and cultural regions. TheNagas in India and Burma or the Kurds in the Middle-East are similar cases.
It is quite clear that the Naga case for unification of its contiguous lands for now will have to come through a similar innovation of a cross-border arrangement. The question now is if Nagas are willing to bargain for suchan eventuality, will the people in Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh also come half way to support such a move to create a non-territorial model.
This is a way forward—on how a ‘non-territorial’ or even say ‘cross-border regional’ model can be worked out that best suits the present reality of the Nagas, their neighbours and the working of Indian federalism.
As a Naga commentator, you may question some of the arguments put forward. My intention is simply to encourage an informed dialogue and greater understanding on this particular issue so that some formulations can be worked out.
We have seen thus far that whether it is for the Meiteis or Nagas, the ‘integration’ question, which-ever way you would like to interpret it from, is an emotive issue and so it is all the more necessary that we treat this with outmost care and matured deliberation without disturbing peaceful coexistence. As I see it, if you bring in party politics or take extreme and exclusive positions then it will become very difficult to resolve this problem confronting us.
Can we therefore look at a ‘middle-path’ solution in the context of the Naga peace process? That is a question I put before you.
Is it possible that without disturbing existing State boundaries, a federal solution through a non-territorial approach can be worked out for the Nagas of Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh in India and those eastern Nagas in Burma?
Having studied and analysed this complex and sensitive issue, my own opinion is that for now, the next best bargain for Nagas is to have some form of localized integration as defined under Article 244A along with perhaps the idea of a Special Administrative Region and one that does not disturb the existing State boundaries.
I am sure some formulations will have to be worked out. If we can do this, it will also lead to the larger goal of peace, unity and integration of the North East in general and Manipur-Nagaland in particular while allowing our people to coexist as neighbours.
Federalism and democracy – A relook at State systems
Another important point that I want to pick out from Dr Lokendra’s speech that he made at the inauguration of the Naga Archives & Research Centre Dimapur on November 7, 2015, is the one where he has mentioned about Manipur as a “historically established entity” and how the “the issue of ethnic relations had become mired with issues of the modern state’s inability to design a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-linguistic polity and community….”
Correct me if I am wrong but what I understand here is that the numerous challenges that Manipur is presently faced with, including the aspiration of various sections of people, will require an appropriate response that goes beyond the present constitutional arrangement. Without going into the specifics, the present state of affairs in Manipur I believe requires a ‘tectonic shift’ somewhere.
And as Dr Lokendra alluded to in his speech, the need to design a multi-ethnic polity “is demanded by the very nature of Manipur’s geography and polity nursed since its ancient history and their emergence into the globalized world of today”.
This for me is a fitting analysis of everything that is going on in Manipur. More importantly, it points to the need to explore and write new political alternatives.
To give the benefit of doubt, Manipur is perhaps one of the few States in India with both a multi-ethnic demography and geography and therefore poses its own challenge when it comes to governing the State. It is not surprising to witness so many upheavals taking place in Manipur, especially the increasing division and acrimony between the people in Manipur valley and the surrounding Hill tribes.
Having recently read about it, social scientists and researchers are probably right when they state that historical forces over the centuries, including British rule are also to be blamed for the unequal relation between the hill and the valley. As AK Ray in a research paper titled “Ethnicity: A Manipur Case” points out that “in the field of politics, administration, law and religion the hill people were kept apart from the rest”.
Despite all these historical flaws that were inherited, I must also point out the observation made by Sir James Johnstone, political officer of Manipur for several years, who wrote about the “remarkable aptitude the Manipuris possess or have for dealing with the hill-tribes”. It is said that the Burmese tried in vain to subdue the Tangkhuls. And as stated in Johnstone’s book, in one case, a force of seven hundred men that were sent against them, were entirely destroyed. However, as the Manipuris advanced, the different tribes quietly submitted. There was peace and order.
Can we reclaim that era of peace and order?
Power, politics and aspirations all change with time and it is no exception to Manipur and the people who live here. But the fundamental thing that should not change is fraternity and to live in peaceful co-existence. This applies to the Meiteis, Kukis, Nagas. We need to restore that relationship—to live in peace and amity but perhaps in a new political arrangement.
And so coming back to the question of a political alternative—a way forward has to be found to end the vicious cycle of strife and unrest in Manipur. (To be contd…)