(The write up published her e is the paper presented by M. S. Prabhakara on the Sixth Arambam Somorendra Singh Memorial Lecture held in Imphal on June 10, 2011)
Modestly Immodest Disclaimers?
I feel greatly honoured by the invitation of the Arambam Somorendra Trust to give the Sixth Arambam Somorendra Singh Memorial Lecture today , the eleventh anniversary of his death. I am also overwhelmed by a feeling of inadequacy . What little I know about Arambam Somorendra was gathered well after his death. Indeed, when he was killed I was not even in India. I have since then come to know that he was a distinguished playwright, a social worker and the founder general secretary of the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), one of the several organisations in Manipur engaged in an armed struggle to secure sovereignty and independence for Manipur .
I know a little bit more about Manipur, but not much, though I have visited the state many times. The first time was in 1967 when Manipur was still a Union Territory . I was then teaching at Guwahati University . I made the visit just out of curiosity about this ‘remote’ corner of the country , a fascination with the ‘geographical and cultural edge of the periphery’ that has persisted wherever I have lived. I have some vivid memories of that visit that was confined to Imphal. One, tasting for the first time an unusual dish marked on a board outside a small eatery in the Bazaar, I cannot recall which part. More memorable was meeting Maharajkumar Priyabrata Singh at his home. The suggestion that I should get him to talk to me for understanding the history and culture of Manipur was made by Smt. Devjani Chaliah / Meenakshi Basu, who I had come to know through a common friend, a colleague of her husband in the Indian Railways. In those days a person teaching at Guwahati University commanded some respect not merely in Assam but in the rest of the Northeast. If I remember right, Professor Gangmumei took me to his house, or I might have gone on my own. I remember the gracious courtesy , as also the lar ge number of dogs and puppies having a free run of the large room where we sat and talked. During that conversation he spoke mostly of matters historical, of the ceding of the fertile Kabaw Valley to Burma and, with greater feeling of Molcham village whose people had been virtually cut off from the rest of Manipur though they were very much Indian citizens. He spoke glowingly of the fertile soil and the fine quality rice grown in Kabaw Valley . He even of fered to take me there, warning that I should be prepared for a hard trek. He said nothing about himself, nothing about the circumstances of the annexation of Manipur . I did not then know that he could have told me a lot more.
After I gave up teaching in December 1975, became a professional journalist and joined The Hindu in June 1983, I have made several long visits and travelled a bit outside Imphal. Yet, I have always had a sense of inadequacy , of being an interloper, when writing on Manipur . Let me quote (and let me also confess, I have shamelessly plagiarised from my writings while writing this essay) from one of my more recent articles, “Insurgencies in Manipur: Politics and Ideology” ( The Hindu , 28 January , 2010):
Every time one travels to Manipur, one returns humbled. This has been the case since my first visit to Manipur in the late 1960s, long before becoming a journalist. Active insur gency was not even on the horizon then though some resentment against ‘India’ was evident. Between 1983 and mid-1994 (when I moved to Johannesburg, South Africa) I visited the state at lease once every year – more than once during some years. In the last eight years [that is, between 2002 and 2010] I have returned four [actually five] times. The feelings of inadequacy to confront and understand the complex situation in Manipur, the whys and wherefores of the insurgencies (the plural is advisedly used), the resilience of the ordinary people whose amazing creative energies thrive in the midst of all the pain and violence manifest in every walk of life, has only increased.
I am not posturing with false modesty; there are rational grounds for this sense of inadequacy . I stopped reporting on a day to day basis on developments in what for the sake of convenience we may call ‘Northeast India’ in June 1994, when I moved to Johannesburg as The Hindu ’s correspondent in South and Southern Africa following the election of Nelson Mandela as the first democratically elected President of South Africa. For the next eight years I did not live in NE India, though I did visit Guwahati briefly on holiday thrice during this period. My return to Guwahati in April 2002 also marked my formal retirement form The Hindu, which I had joined in July 1983 as its correspondent in Guwahati with the responsibility covering Assam and the neighbouring four states and two Union territories in the region, all of which in the heyday of ‘regional nationalism’ used to be projected as the Seven Sisters, bound together with a supposed commonality of history , culture and above all memories posited by the ideologues of that perspective as contrary to, indeed opposed to, the ‘pan-Indian’ history , culture and memories.
As some friends in this audience may perhaps know , I was born and grew up in Kolara, a small district town in what at the time of my birth in 1936 the princely state of Mysore, now Karnataka. My home language is Kannada. Between 1962 and 2010 I lived in Guwahati barring two breaks of eight years each. Though, due to circumstances partly of my own thoughtless making and partly not in my control, I had to move in March last year to Kolara, to the old house by father built way back in 1939, even now I feel more at home in Guwahati, my home on and off for forty eight years, and other parts of this region than anywhere else, barring perhaps Bombay , Johannesburg and Cape Town where too I lived for several years. One’ s heart is where one’ s passions are engaged. During this period, I have made many friends, and also some enemies, in this region, for making enemies is the true sign of acculturation and absorption. I have also tried to study and understand the political, social and cultural environment and milieu of this region, in particular the interlinked issues of identity assertions, separatism, autonomy , sovereignty , culminating in insurgency movements, all inseparable from the history of the land and the memories of its people. However, I remain committed not so much to the Indian State, which is after all a mere geographical construct, but to the ides of a genuinely democratic India of a variety of pluralist, contrary and dissenting perspectives. My only identity is that of an Indian, in an inclusive and the broadest sense of the term. It is within that framework that I have tried to understand the sovereignty struggles in the region and the issues that animate them. To put the point without any ambiguity , I am a sympathetic student of these struggles trying to learn; I am not a partisan. I do not want my inclusive Indian-ness to be diminished in any manner, Nor do I want to live in an India where my fellow Indians too feel diminished, as is undoubtedly the case with many people in the region who do feel, due to various historical circumstances so diminished, who cannot with the same confidence (or it is arrogance?) assert that they are Indians.
When I arrived in Guwahati in January 1962 to join the Guwahati University , I did not know Assamese or any other language spoken in NE India. Though I acquired a working knowledge of Assamese towards the end of my fist stint in Guwahati (January 1962- December 1975) and that knowledge has slightly improved over the years, I still have only a ‘working knowledge’, a euphemism that conceals the reality of ignorance of the language. To some extent, as is the case with many who have Assamese, I can follow a bit of Bangla. But of the other numerous languages spoken in this region I know nothing. This is certainly the case with Manipuri, under whatever nomenclature.
I have thus the most superficial journalistic understanding of current events and developments in this state gathered from English language newspapers published from Imphal, Guwahati and Calcutta; some historical background gained from literature published in English, and, above all, from conversations with friends some of them going back to my GU days. Of the complex history and culture and memories of the state and the people that are in some cases not commonly shared by all the people, the milieu that my audience instinctively knows, I know less than nothing. More mortifying to me is the fact that in my active days as a reporter, I could not negotiate my way even in Imphal without the company and assistance of friends. When I travelled outside Imphal, I was totally at sea, a mere metaphor in this land locked state, without some friend to give tongue to me, in every sense of the term. Since I am going to speak on sovereignty struggles in the region including in Manipur, I thought I would place on record these serious impediments that have affected my understanding and analysis of what may broadly be called the Nationality Question in this region, the core issue that has given rise to these sovereignty struggles. These struggles have been going on for long, in the case of the Naga people long before the state of Nagaland was constituted. In a historical context such struggles are not even unique to this region, Scepticism about the emerging Great Indian Nation, and anxieties about what would happen to the smaller nationalities were evident even in the so-called mainstream India whose people, like those of Manipur, had actively participated in the freedom movement led by Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress Party .
I propose to discuss these struggles in the context of some recent developments since April 2002, when I returned to Guwahati after an eight year absence. This is because these struggles have taken a qualitatively different form, especially in their tactics, in their reading of the wider correlation of forces nationally , in the context of the growing consolidation of what is officially characterised as ‘left wing extremism’ (LWE) and internationally , in the context of the ‘dissolution of the Soviet Union (1990-91), and the subsequent disintegration of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia after a prolonged civil war (1991-95), beginning of the declaration of independence by three constituent republics of the Federation, Slovenia, Macedonia and Croatia and, above all, the developments in Montenegro in May 2006. It is not accidental that one of the few places in India where the referendum in Montenegro and its subsequent declaration of independence were discussed at a public meeting was this very city , Imphal.
Varieties of Separatism
Though any reporting, or even serious academic discussion, of the problems of separatism in post-independence India concentrates almost exclusively on this phenomenon in this region, beginning with the Naga insur gency , the fact is that the sense of diminishment within the larger context of the Indian state that I referred to earlier is not unique to the people of this region. One of the oldest separatist movements in the country , going well back into the years before independence, is the so-called Dravidian movement in the old Madras Presidency , superficially seeming to be inspired by anti-Brahmin, anti-Hindi and anti ‘North India’ sentiments but with profound economic and cultural dimensions. This has had many offshoots. Apart from the DMK, and the AIADMK, the two ‘natural parties’ of government in Tamilnadu, there are several other clones of this mindset occupying significant political space in the state even now . Separatism itself may now be a dormant sentiment, but even at the suggestion of a possible threat to Tamil ‘national’ interests like the dispute over the sharing of the waters of the Kaveri, for instance, these assert themselves forcing even the so-called national parties to follow suit. Though the Dravidian parties in India have more or less given up on these aspirations in terms of practical politics, the vast Tamil Diaspora with rich material and intellectual resources still cherishes fantasies of some kind of a sovereign Tamil state that would include the Tamil speaking areas of Sri Lanka, this despite the fact that Sri Lankan Tamils have a low opinion of the Indian Tamils, disdaining them as contaminated by their larger non-Tamil environment, and so less Tamil than themselves.
Indeed, anxieties about what would happen to the smaller nationalities vis a vis the numerically larger nationalities inhabiting the so-called Presidency provinces, what Professor Amalendu Guha has theorised as the complex linkages and rivalries between Great Nationalism and Little Nationalism in India, revolving round religion, language and caste, and ‘ethnicity’ were present even during colonial times. These acquired a peculiar urgency in the years before the transfer of power . Those two seminal, and also self-serving, accounts by V. P. Menon, The Transfer of Power in India and The Story of the Integration of Indian States, provide numerous instances of such anxieties and rivalries, as also of the manoeuvres and plain skulduggery that accompanied the integration of states into what was designed to be a homogenous Indian nation state. People of Manipur (and Tripura) would know too well the sordid details. Menon’ s book devotes just a paragraph to the ‘sorting out’ of the problems of Manipur and Tripura in Shillong.
Anxieties about ‘fissiparous tendencies’ was not a post-independence phenomenon; they were a constant in the political deliberations of the Congress party and used to feature even in the most rambling of Jawaharlal Nehru’ s speeches. One need not go into the well-known challenges posed to the process of integration of states in the princely states of Hyderabad, Jammu and Kashmir and Junagad, all of which tried to be independent countries. One of them, J&K, still festers. The case of the so-called Khalistan is part of the living memory , though it was the creation of the ruling party itself to weaken an entrenched regional political formation in Punjab. However, there were other, probably equally serious moves to secure independence from many other princely states as well during the integration process, especially in the various kingdoms and principalities of what was then known as Rajputana. The case of Jodhpur state with a common border to Pakistan is well-known. Indeed, such sovereignty aspirations were present in the most unlikely cases like the State of Travancore in Deep South. It is not as if these arose only because of the unique and volatile conditions that prevailed in the period between the formal granting of independence, the lapse of paramountcy , and the complex process of negotiating with these princely states their position in the new Indian state. Indeed, though not as straightforward sovereignty aspirations, such sentiments about the loss of real or imagined sovereignty in a feudal past, that was oppressive and is moreover dead and gone, are even now dormant in some cases. Nostalgia for the past comes easily , especially when one is certain that the past cannot come back. For instance, since my return to Karnataka a little over a year ago I have sometimes sensed a corresponding sense of alienation vis-à- vis ‘India’, a resentment against the dominant presence of non-Kannadigas in Bangalore, the capital of Karnataka, in crucial sectors of the economy (like the IT sector) among the ‘indigene’ of Karnataka. One has only to read the Kannada language press and even more so, the numerous Kannada blogs, to sense such sentiments. While the special circumstances relating to Manipur ’s annexation/accession to the Union of India did not obtain in the princely state of Mysore, in some perspectives the ‘core’ of the State of Karnataka, there does exist a peculiar and quite unjustified nostalgia about the state’ s feudal past, even its colonial past as in Bangalore where the word ‘colonial’ especially in relation to urban architecture has acquired connotations of beauty , romance, elegance, even chivalry , though when this past is stretched farther back to cover the regimes of Hyder Ali and Tippu Sultan, also feudal, other passions and anxieties prevail. In other words, separatist aspirations from within the component units of a constituted state are not unique.
Nation State: Questions, questions
India is a Sovereign Nation State. But what is a Nation State? What is Sovereignty? The traditional, one may say, the classic view, of the Sovereign Nation State is derived from a series of treaties that ended the Thirty Years War (1618-48) involving what later came to be known as Prussia and still later as Germany but in mid seventeenth century were actually various principalities and city states in Middle Europe. As taught in elementary textbooks of political science, the two prerequisites for a sovereign nation state are a clearly defined territory, with clearly defined borders, in short territoriality, and an uncompromised sovereign status, which is the founding principle of the related concept, nationalism, prefigured in the expression, nation state.
The India into which I was born might have been a nation state of the imaginations of the Indian people, though ‘the Indian people’ may be seen in some perspectives as another imagined construct; but it was clearly not sovereign. Even its territoriality, one may argue, was also the result of colonial occupation, conquest and expansionist ambitions and security concerns over a ‘border’ that the colonial rulers themselves did not clearly know and kept on pushing outwards, though there was an ‘inherent territoriality’ of Indian nationalist imagination derived from myths, literature and memories. India of my birth included what eleven years later became Pakistan. Had I been born a year earlier, that India of my birth would have included Burma/Myanmar.
Pakistan that diminished the territoriality of Indian imagination and harsh colonial reality was, less than a quarter century of its birth, was also a Nation State. But its territoriality too was diminished by the emergence of another Nation State, Bangladesh. Put simply, nation states, like every other material and intellectual artefacts are constructs of the human history and endeavour, and of imagination, and also some cunning initiatives. Nation states are real, reflecting the memories of the past, real or imagined is immaterial, of the living realities of the present and the hopes and aspirations and, in many cases, the aggressive ambitions about the future. They are also, as argued by Benedict Anderson, imagined communities that are not the less real for being constructs of human imagination. Indeed, some Indian organisations still carry maps of ‘India’ in their offices whose territory, clearly going beyond the imaginations of theorists of states as essentially imagined communities, includes not merely the modern states of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh but also Burma/Myanmar, Sri Lanka and even Afghanistan.
There is nothing surprising about the elasticity of these human constructs, nor about their imaginations and aspirations. After all, what are now, or till very recently, the stable borders of sovereign states of Europe came to be recognised so only in 1871, with the consolidation of the German state under Bismarck. And we all know what happened to that German State less than fifty years after Bismarck’s death under a tyrant who imagined that his Reich would last a thousand years. We also know what is happening to other nation states in Europe and elsewhere that were viewed as inviolable, permanently cast in stone.
As a student of literature, I have found that the ‘truth of fiction’ sometimes tells me more than the more conventional historical narratives. Eric Ambler’s “The Schirmer Inheritance” (1953) spans a period of over a century of violent European history, from the times of Napoleon Bonaparte to Hitler and the Second World War. One of its themes is the plasticity and elasticity of the concept of nationhood at a time when it was not unusual for a person born in a principality or city state of Middle Europe enlisting to fight for another principality or city state at war with his ‘native state’. Nationalism was an unknown concept; there were no ‘national armies’ but only ‘professional’ soldiers, a euphemism for mercenaries, who were ready to enlist in the ‘enemy’ army, ready to die but hoping to survive, make money and return to hearth and home.
Eric Ambler’s novel narrates the story of Franz Schirmer, rather of two Franz Schirmers, both Sergeants. The first, a dragoon of the principality of Ansbach, had enlisted in the Prussian army. He deserts after the Battle of Eylau in 1806 when the army was retreating in defeat. After many vicissitudes that include changing his name slightly towards the end of his life, an initiative central to the tension of the narrative, he survives and prospers and dies in his bed in the fullness of years. The second Schirmer is his great-great-grandson, also named Franz. Born in 1917, he enlists in the German army at the age of eighteen, and after being wounded assigned to non-combatant duties that he finds demeaning. Finally, while the beaten German army is retreating from Macedonia in October 1944 by when it was clear that Hitler had lost the war, the truck convoy he is leading is blasted by a landmine planted by Communist partisans, is gravely wounded and left for dead. He is not dead, fights for his life, survives and even thrives as a bandit in the Macedonian mountains straddling Yugoslavia, Albania and Greece, with a fantastically opportunistic cover he has created for himself as a revolutionary, still fighting away for liberating Greece from the new home grown fascists of Greece.
Here is a passage from the opening pages of this novel:
The relations between this unit (The dragoons of Ansbach) and the rest of the Prussian army was absurd, but in the middle Europe of the period not unusually so. Not many years before, and well within the memories of the older soldiers in it, the regiment had been the only mounted force in the independent principality of Ansbach, and had taken its oaths of allegiance to the ruling Margrave. Then Ansbach had fallen upon evil times and the last Margrave had sold his land and his people to the King of Prussia. Fresh oaths of allegiance had had to be sworn. Yet their new lord had eventually proved as fickle as the old. In the year before Eylau the Dragoons had experienced a further change of status. The province of Ansbach had been ceded by the Prussians to Bavaria. As Bavaria was an ally of Napoleon, this meant that, strictly speaking, the Ansbachers should be fighting against the Prussians, not beside them. However, the Dragoons were themselves as indifferent to the anomaly they constituted as they were to the cause for which they fought. The conception of nationality meant little to them. They were professional soldiers in the eighteenth century meaning of the term. If they had marched and fought and suffered and died for two days and a night, it was neither for love of the Prussians nor from hatred of Napoleon; it was because they had been trained to do so, because they hoped for the spoils of victory, and because they feared the consequences of disobedience. [Emphasis added]
I conclude this section with a brief account of two other narratives of Indian nationalism, one from Bengal and the other from Karnataka. Vande Mataram, from Bankimchandra Chattopadhya’s novel, “Ananda Math” (1882), is India’s National Song. It was, and even now is, sung regularly at sessions of the Indian National Congress. As is well-known, when the issue of free India’s National Anthem was discussed in the Constituent Assembly, a strong case was made for adopting Vande Mataram as National Anthem, though many Muslims were averse to the song because of its blatant idolatry which, for Islam, is an anathema. In the event, “Jana Gana Mana” by Rabindranath Thakur was adopted as the National Anthem while Vande Mataram was given an ‘equivalent position’ (whatever it means) as India’s National Song.
Normally only the first two stanzas of Vande Mataram are sung. When I was very young, in the years before independence, we used to sing the full song, for by singing the song we were defying foreign rule, though technically as citizens of the princely state of Mysore we were only under indirect foreign rule. However, even at that age I was puzzled by these lines that follow immediately after the first two stanzas:
Sapta koti kantha kalakala ninada karale
Dwisapta koti bhujaidruta kharakarawale
Ka bole ma tumi abale
Bahubala dhaarineem namami tarineem
What puzzled that seven year old boy was the reference to the ‘seven crore voices’ crying in unison in celebration of Goddess Durga who symbolises the Nation that was, is and will forever be India, and the fourteen crore hands bearing arms in defence of that Mother. I knew even then that India’s population was substantially higher than seven crore, for I also knew the Kannada poem, makkalivarenamma makkalivarenamma muvattu muru koti, [Are these the thirty three crore children I have given birth to…] by the highly regarded Kannada poet, Dattatreya Ramachandra Bendre, and included in gari (feather), a collection of his poems published in 1932. Bendre too, in the words cited, invokes Bharata Mata, who plaintively wonders why despite giving birth to thirty three crore children she is still enslaved. In the Vande Mataram narrative, to the extent I have been able to understand, Ma Durga, symbolising the Indian nation, has about seven crore devotees to do her bidding, bear arms in their fourteen crore hands for her defence. Around the time the poem was written, the population of Bengal, east and west, and perhaps including in the Bengali nationalist narrative those inhabiting territories further to the east, would be about seven crore. In other words, the Bengali nationalist narrative is the Indian nationalist narrative. In contrast, the Indian nationalist imagination as found expression of a Kannada poet living in Dharwad, then and to some extent even now a small town in North Karnataka envisaged an India that was inclusive in every sense of the word, thirty three crore being approximately the population of India when the poem was written. I leave it to the audience to make what inferences it wishes.
I end this section with its over-solemn discussions involving very learned sounding terms like nationalist imagination and narrative with a bit of comic relief encapsulated in the two photographs above. The one at the top is from the website of a perfervidly patriotic website with explicit Hindutva orientation, [http://yuvashakti.wordpress.com/], celebrating some Indian triumph, perhaps an Indian victory over Pakistan in a cricket match, perhaps some other real or imagined Indian victory over issues more serious than Pakistan. What matters is not the context, but the image, for the image is all. The one below is the famous photograph of the planting of the US flag atop Mount Suribachiyama, the highest point on Iwo Jima, a Japanese island in West Pacific ocean, after it was taken possession of by the United States Marines during the Second World War, also a triumphal image, but the triumph is real.
The celebration of patriotic fervour in the simulated first photograph where the Indian tricolour appropriated a triumph to which it is not entitled raises interesting questions about the nature and direction of extreme nationalism, and its implication not merely for the smaller nationalities that may feel oppressed, but even for the very triumphalism of the kind represented by both the pictures, one fake and ersatz, the other all too real.
Such triumphalism creates its own victims. What happened after the end of the civil war in Yugoslavia to Serbia, the largest republic of the former Federal Republic, when Croatia, Macedonia and Slovenia declared their independence, may or may not have relevance to the variety of struggles going on in this region, their aspirations covering a wide spectrum from demands for autonomy or when such autonomy already exists shifting gears and seeking independence. The inescapable fact in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was that the Great National Chauvinism of Serbia had consistently diminished the smaller nationalities of the Federal Republic and had alienated them. This combined with other factors like foreign intervention and also, one should admit, the insular Little National Chauvinism of the smaller republics like Croatia led to the unilateral declarations of independence, civil war, open and covert foreign interventions, and in the end the destruction of a sense of nationhood that had served Yugoslavia well, even to the extent of enabling Tito (not a Serbian but a Croatian) to weld a Yugoslav nationalism in opposition to the perceived oppression of Great Russian Nationalism that could not be eliminated even by Stalin in the Soviet Union.
Ideas Do Not Die, Ever
I return in this section to two points made in the previous section where I have tried to deal with some events and developments of contemporary history (that many in my audience would know more about) to amplify some other features of what I call varieties of separatism. The first is that separatist sentiments, real or opportunistically manipulated, are sometimes used as a bargaining tactic in areas where the objective reality provides no rationale for such separatism. In such areas separatism dies away sooner or later. The second point, that the primary cause for the unravelling of the Yugoslav state was the overweening Serb chauvinism that led inescapably to the barely dormant chauvinisms of individual little nationalisms. This happened despite the fact that the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia formally comprised six Socialist republics and two autonomous provinces, a clear recognition that the Yugoslav state at least in its constitutional provisions was truly federal in letter and spirit, had recognised the reality of the complex ethnic mix of its population and had mandated the required constitutional provisions. However, this constitutional recognition of the uniqueness of the identities of the various constituent autonomous republics and autonomous provinces meant less than nothing in practice when confronted by the national chauvinism of the largest and most powerful of the nationalities, the Serbs. One may see some corresponding similarities in the way Centre-State relations have worked, or have not worked, in India. Interestingly, and to the extent I remember, the Chapter on Centre-State relations in the Indian Constitution does not even use the term, federal and derivatives thereof, in any of its articles, though commentators and judicial pronouncements on its provisions use the term freely.
In other words, the decisive contribution to the unravelling and disintegration of the Federal Republic came from within Yugoslavia, from the dominant Serbian nationalism that, like other great nationalisms, degenerated to Serb chauvinism. The process did not stop in 1991; it went on and eventually forced Montenegro which had not seceded in 1991 but had remained as the Republic of Serbia and Montenegro to walk away in 2006. One wonders if these seemingly obscure developments in an area so removed from India have some relevance for process of nationality formations in India, and the problems that this is encountering as much in Assam as in other parts of this region.
Separatist sentiments or aspirations in most parts of India whose people – always
meaning by the term ‘people’ about half the population or less many of whom, even while suffering from denial and oppression, have developed some stakes in the system – have little objective cause for feeling alienated or even diminished in terms of their individual or collective identities may be dead, or may only be dormant. This is certainly not a live issue. However, they came into the public domain and stayed there for awhile before dying out – or staying dormant. The reason why Tamil nationalism and separatism are not live issues is not because such sentiments are fully dead – my own reading is that ideas do not die, ever – but that they cannot be an issue to be pursued By Whatever Means Necessary (to use that cliché), because the objective situation in the land of the Tamils does not admit such extreme manifestations of non-existent grievances. Put simply, it is not possible to rouse the Tamil people into discontent on the ground that they are a despised and diminished minority that just does not count. The numbers, not to speak of the reality, are simply against such arguments. This is the case in the rest of India which is well integrated into the path of capitalist development that India has made its own, this despite the reality that is also routinely reiterated in the very structures created by the same Indian state (like the NAC) that inequalities too are growing.
This happy coexistence of a predatory class whose composition is too complex a subject to go into, but broadly comprising both the amoral and the modestly well-heeled ‘conscience-stricken’, at least for form’s sake, intellectuals, writers and artists, the NGOs briskly networking with international donor agencies and so on, maybe I should also add journalists and the media, had for long been able to contain discontent taking an explicitly political direction. The developments in recent years in what the glossies breathlessly describe as ‘abujland’ pose a challenge to this happy coexistence. It is not for nothing that the Prime Minister has been frequently speaking of LWE as the ‘greatest threat’ facing India. I am not sure this is the case. Poverty, inequalities of income and opportunities, structural discrimination against the vulnerable and defenceless, gender and caste oppression, alienation of the religious minorities, these pose the greatest challenge to even the kind of India that this alliance is trying to build even if the partners of this alliance carry different signboards. The recent setbacks to the organised left have emboldened this predatory class even further.
Could it be, therefore, that a measure of economic development, even if it were to be very modest and benefit further the pitiful ‘creamy layer’, that one has to look hard to find in this region, and a reigning in of the tendencies I have mentioned in the preceding paragraph weaken what separatist sentiments that still persist in the region? I am reluctant to make any suggestion, for I honestly do not know the ground reality even in Assam, my home for many years, let alone in Manipur where I have always been a visitor, not a resident. One is not sure of the reverse correlation between separatism and insurgency, and economic development. As that trite wisdom says, fair economic development touching the people is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition to meet the situation. After all, Punjab, a restively prosperous state also was a fertile ground for separate insurgency. The problem is that one knows so little about the correlations between the Indian State and the complex network of security agencies it has created to defend itself against forces committed to subvert this State. However, this very Indian State has also sometimes been found complicit in the creation of factions of such subversive forces, manufacturing grievances when necessary. Examples abound in this very region, not to speak of the by now well-known origins of the Khalistan movement.
Some friends have challenged such formulations, especially the one suggesting that separatism or insurgency is a bargaining counter, or that it is an instrumental agency cynically used (if not actually constructed) by those who have benefited from the Indian state, or that even the kind of development that this part of the country has seen would not have been possible without the separatism and insurgency, that there are strongly entrenched and powerful forces in the region well integrated into the patronage alliance of the Indian state who have developed a vested interest in the continuance of separatism and insurgency, only which can explain their persistence, despite many grievous setbacks. Perhaps it is possible to draw such inferences from this or that rather superficially argued articles, for I am no theorist, much less a thinker, but that ‘harmless hack, a mere journalist’. But certainly, some inference may be drawn from the very instructive trajectory of the Dravidian movement which in its origins had a strong separatist, if not secessionist component but whose two major political manifestations are now the two natural parties of government, vying with each other but shutting out all other players, including major players at the national level, from having any significant role in the politics of Tamilnadu.
Thou hast committed Fornication:
but that was in another country;
and besides, the wench is dead.
As a distant but friendly observer I have sometimes wondered about the persistence of the separatist mindset and sovereignty aspirations, even while bearing in mind the epigraph to the previous section. Yes, one admits the eternal durability of ideas, but one also wonders why ignoring the all too obvious objective reality that stares one in the face, separatism not so much as an idea but as self-destructive insurgency persists. To take the situation in this very state which I now find is utterly, totally, different from what I vaguely three or four decades ago. During my first visit to Kolara during the Puja holidays in 1963 a little over a year after I moved to Guwahati to spend some time with my mother, I was asked the strangest of questions by friends. The family doctor, for instance, asked me if he had to put extra postage stamps on the envelope addressed to me in Guwahati. A person from Guwahati was in those days a bit of a novelty even in Bangalore. Now people from this region are setting up businesses not merely in Bangalore but in other cities and towns as well. There are scores of stories I can tell about the strangest of encounters from persons of this region in the most unlikely of places and circumstances in Bangalore and even small towns in Karnataka.
This is only a small instance of a much larger process of integration of this region with the rest of the country, working both ways, though the influx of non-Manipuris into Manipur has been a process and enterprise going on over a much longer period, having ramifications going far beyond merely trade and investment, and having profound cultural implications. No need for me to spell these things out to this audience.
Sometime in 1990 or 1991 when it was clear that the Soviet Union was unravelling, I had a conversation with an important functionary of the United Liberation Front, Asom (ULFA). Talking of this and that, we naturally talked about the developments in the Soviet Union about which I could not hide my sadness. He on the other hand was very positive, for according to him, such unravelling would also ‘inevitably’ follow in India, which was all the good for ULFA’s objective of securing sovereignty for Assam. I have come across similar ‘optimism’ among others who are not actively engaged in securing sovereignty for Assam, but are sympathetic to ULFA’s objectives.
When I read about the near celebratory welcome accorded to the developments in Montenegro, which drove the final nail into the coffin of the remnants of Republic of Serbia and Montenegro, I was reminded of this perspective of sections of ULFA who too, twenty years ago, saw the unravelling of the Soviet Union as the curtain raiser for the ‘inevitable’ unravelling of India, and so a ‘good thing’ for the people of this region striving to ‘throw off the yoke of Indian colonialism’. I wonder how he sees the situation two decades later, when the unravelled Soviet Union, now the Russian Republic, and the yet unravelled India are both stronger than ever. To diminish is not necessarily to weaken, a lesson that India has learnt after actively assisting in the dismemberment of Pakistan.
Let me end this rambling discourse with an anecdote, actually something that I was an unwilling and rather disgusted witness to and participant in when I was living in Bombay, working with Economic and Political Weekly. This was during the days of the Janata Party government under Morarji Desai, sometime after the Morarji-Phizo meeting in London (June 1977). A senior journalist from Delhi dad dropped by at the office, a common event, and since this gentleman was supposed to ‘specialise’ in developments in this region, perhaps meaning that he wrote those execrable editorials in that paper that always upset me, and since I had joined EPW after working at GU for fourteen years during which period I began to write seriously on developments in Assam and the NE region, Editor Krishna Raj asked me to join him at his corner in the Office when this gentleman arrived. I was for the most part a silent listener, Raj was always the silent listener, but our visitor made up for our silence with his confident loquacity. Sure enough, Morarji Desai’s meeting with Phizo and the situation in Nagaland came up, as also the situation in Manipur whose restiveness was evident even in those days, even in Bombay. This gentleman said he had the solution to all these problems, the conversation was in the peculiar Hindi spoken by most Delhi journalists, with a strong Punjabi touch, so this account does not catch that flavour. Liberally sprinkling spittle all over me in his passionate patriotic intensity, the gentleman said: Corrupt them, yaar, corrupt them. Send more money. Corrupt them. Insurgency khatam ho jayega, or something like that. I did not even try to contradict him, though everyone knows that pouring money has never solved any problem, including what in those was beginning to be identified as Moneypour. Now few speak such language, perhaps a small advance; but whether such thinking has changed, I do not know.
Initially I had planned to speak of the sovereignty struggles in Assam, Manipur and Nagaland, and had made elaborate notes. However, when one begins to write, ideas sometimes take control of the writer who is only notionally in control of what she or he is writing. If this essay has dealt, even if superficially, only with the situation in Manipur, this is natural. For the sovereignty struggles in Manipur that have persisted so long have yet to define and resolve the serious contradictions arising out of the classic views of the land and its people, and the challenges these are facing from within. There are, as is the case with other, apparently more internally coherent Indian nationalities, varieties of Manipur and its people whose nationalist and territorial imaginations are not always in harmony. I think I will leave it at that.
Permit me, Sir, to end this disorganised discourse with a tribute to two women of this land: Thongjam Manorama, raped and killed, after being taken away from her home in the dead of night on 11 July 2004 three havildars of Assam Rifles. A few hours later her dead body was found not far from her house. Four days later was the famous public demonstration by twelve women who had bared their bodies, protesting the rape and murder, challenging the security forces to do the same to them, an event that shamed the nation (one hopes). Whatever be the procedural wrangles at the level of the government and the courts, the Armed Forces (Assam and Manipur) Special Powers Act, 1958 (AFSPA) is now fully in the national public domain. As I write this, I read in the papers that yesterday, 24 May, there was a demonstration in Bangalore against AFSPA calling for its repeal. The dialogue from Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta that I have used as the epigraph to this section may not be actually used as part of the defence of the accused if they ever come to trial, though such rationalisation of fornication and murder would be legitimate for that odious person from Delhi that ruined my working afternoon in Bombay. Indeed, such defence could well be the most explicit validation of the demand for Manipur’s sovereignty and independence.
And what can I say about Irom Sharmila that has not been said before, that I myself have not said and written before. Persons at the highest levels of the government have expressed their ‘concern’, retired army and police officers have said that AFSPA is not necessary, for India has other laws covering the same areas and providing similar immunities to armed personnel; but AFSPA stays. Irom Sharmila, like the dead Thangjam Manorama, shames this nation state that is India, my and your India.
As in much of what I have spoken earlier, I end with more questions for myself than answers for my audience. But I am sure no one here expected me to provide any answers. I thank you, friends, for your generosity in inviting me, and for your patience in listening to me articulate my inchoate thoughts. (Concluded)
(The write up published here is the paper presented by M. S. Prabhakara on the Sixth Arambam Somorendra Singh Memorial Lecture held in Imphal on June 10, 2011)