For more than two months, till mid-June, the people in Manipur survived without basic necessities as result of economic blockade imposed by blocking the two national highways that connect the state with the rest of the Northeast. Yet even after the suspension of the blockade, there seems to be no easy solution to dissipate the tense atmosphere and prevent another crisis, with a distinct lack of initiative to find a solution. New Delhi maintained an almost complete public silence throughout the impasse. And while the state government in Imphal took a strong position on the issue of territorial integrity, it seemed largely indifferent to the suffering, other than some publicity-friendly but largely insignificant acts such as the airlifting of essential commodities and theatrical acts such as a one-time effort leading a few hundred trucks down National Highway 53. But such actions served a more sentimental value and did little to address the issue at hand. As the situation unfolded, however, it became increasingly clear that such emotional reactions have become the dominant form of political mobilisation, to the detriment of all sides.
The Manipur deadlock is a manifestation of the larger politics in the Indian Northeast, particularly in Manipur. This became especially visible with regards to the plan by Thuingaleng Muivah, the leader of the armed pro-independence National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), to visit his home village in Manipur. Those who opposed the visit maintained that Manipur’s territorial integrity could not be compromised, warning of the dangers inherent in the politics that Muivah espouses, and the threat to the historically founded territory of Manipur. Supporters of Muivah, on the other hand, see all this as further proof of the continuation of the Meitei’s historical domination over other groups in Manipur, including the Naga. Each party sees the other as advocating politics of ethnic exclusion, with both mobilising differing histories to substantiate their points.
Indeed, history has become one of the fundamental roots of the problem. In the domain of exclusivist politics, history often serves either as a resource for dominance or legitimacy, or as a source of blame. Within the chaotic political scenario of the Northeast, marred by violence of various types, history has a close affinity with the politics of nation-making. Narrating the past has become fundamental to identifying and propagating one’s own political goals; each version of the past is evoked and spread, often with violence. Within such a forceful reproduction of the past, anyone casting doubt on a particular historical event or action, or differing from a particular perspective, invites danger.
This intolerance of dissent produces a simplistic, homogeneous and unilinear view of the past. The trope of ‘time immemorial’ or the ‘uniqueness’ of the historical experience of each community is a vocabulary that one constantly encounters. These modes of engaging with history have proved to be handy techniques to flatten out the multiple facets of collaboration and contestation, coercion and resistance between the communities.
The current impasse in Manipur is also centred on the question of history and territoriality. The supporters of Muivah’s movement base their politics on a primordial notion of territoriality and the language of historical injustice, particularly in Manipur; whereas those who oppose him stress their claim on historically evolved polity and social relations. One is often forced to choose between two simplistic but dangerous positions — for instance, those in support of or opposition to Muivah’s visit. The same applies to the question of Manipur’s territorial integrity. Such threatening and one-dimensional choices not only encourage ethnic tensions, but also limit political expression only to ethnic-based articulations.
There is today a need to refuse to take a partisan position between these two ‘choices’ – not because of one’s pretension of being neutral, but to change the very terrain of identifying and addressing the problem in the first place. This deadlock must then be addressed only under the condition that there is a simultaneous engagement with other pressing and fundamental issues such as militarism, economic impoverishment, ethnicisation. etc.
Only legitimate identity In this exercise, one also needs to take into account the policies and practices of the Indian state vis·O·vis the Northeast. There has. of course. been a continuing presece of political con!l1ct at multiple layers in the area – a history of repression by the Indian state. inter-ethnic clashes. armed rebellion, killings that have gone unaccounted for. The prese11ce of atrocities perpetrated by the Indian state are perhaps easy to understand, given the militaristic attitude that has guided New Delhi’s approach to the region. Given the strong suspicion amidst which the peoples of the Northeast were incorporated into the Indian union, it is no surprise that the military is the most visible and powerful institution in the region. While the area was treated as a frontier territory during the colonial era. the Indian state’s attitude has since oscillated between continuation of the colonial frontier regime marked by distant yet firm political control, and nationalisation of the frontier. The imposition of a militaristic law such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1958 (AFSPA) in the Northeast not so long after Independence, alongside the introduction of a farcical democracy, exemplify this dual approach.
Throughout the six decades since Independence, there have certainly been differing voices, from those who have challenged the very idea of India. The Naga nation’1list movement led by A Z Phizo in the Naga Hills: the peasant revolutionary movement led by Hijam Irabot Singh in Manipur; those is who opposed the merger of Manipur, a princely state within the British Indian empire, with the newly independent India – each is an example of the diffrring shades of those political voices of resistance. Of late, however, one a sees a significant and dangerous shift or political focus towards a politics solely on ethnic exclusivity in the Northeast, which in turn has freed the Indian armed forces to focus more on ‘development’ works and peace Iinitiatives. The phenomenon of ethnic clashes, beginning from the early 1990s, stands as testimony to this dangerous trend. One needs only to look as far as the slogan of the Assam Rifles – ‘Friends of the hill people’. a play on the stereotypical portrayal of a the hills inhabited by ‘tribes’ and the plains by the Meitei – to see its role in fomenting this ethnic turn. Meanwhile, groups that were previously fighting against the Indian state have now begun to fight amongst themselves. Interestingly, the Indian state has gone from being a party to the conflict to taking on a self ascribed role as mediator. And therein lies the l role of ethnicity in today’s Northeast: There is an over-representation of ethnic and communitarian politics. However, few seem to be interested pin locating the causes of this politics. The role of the Indian state in promoting ethnicity as the sole vocabulary of social, cultural and political articulation is not examined. Likewise, the constructed – socially, culturally, politically – nature of ethnicity is hardly discussed. There is no denying that ethnic-based communities can’t offer a sense of security and comfort.
But as a consequence of the various institutional mechanisms and electoral politics in today’s Northeast, ethnic policy seems to have become the only legitimate identity .Politics based on.ethnicity and communitarian mobilisation have not been able to address the issues of class, economic impoverishment. gender, democracy, etc – and it is unlikely that they ever will.
There has also been a gradual shift from a history of politico-economic neglect of the Northeast to massive funding by the Indian state in the name of fighting counter-insurgency and development. This has created a particular class of people who benefit from the continuing socio-political crisis in each of the states. Moreover. there is a real and immediate threat of invasive global capital. For instance, the Indian government’s Look East policy. which is guided by both strategic and economic concerns, plans to make the region a gateway to Southeast Asia and China. The planned construction of numerous dams, exploitative mining. economic liberalisation will bring about monumental changes with its own models of territorial and social re· organisation in the Northeast. Under this new regime. one can see signs of very dangerous and potentially violent ethnic relations. It is important to ask. then: What kind of political formation will be able to fight against such a military-backed capitalist regime?
The situation demands that collective mechanisms be evolved in order to address the issue of historical injustice and relations between different groups of people. As noted previously, when conflicts become ethnic in nature one is often expected to choose the positions of one of the parties involved: but rarely do we see the role of the state through its numerous institutions and policies. As such, we often fail to realise that ethnic configurations and conflicts on the one hand, and the fetish for territoriality on the other, typically stem from state machinations – and such a politics is likely only to produce more bloodshed between communities. Considering this and the real dangers of an impending onslaught due to the effects of global capital. it has become extremely urgent to articulate a new form of collective resistance to such social, political and economic changes.