To the historian, there appear to be striking parallels between the ongoing (at the time of writing) blockade of the Imphal Valley and the blockade of the Kashmir Valley in August 2008. In Kashmir, the governor allotted forest land for the use of Amarnath pilgrims. In Manipur, the home ministry allowed the Naga leader T. Muivah to visit his ancestral village in Manipur. In both instances, the act of a central authority was revoked by the state government, who feared the wrath of local residents. This cancellation, in each case, provoked a blockade by people who felt insulted by the reversal of the original order.
In this comparison, the Meiteis of the Imphal Valley stand with the Kashmiris; the Nagas with the residents of Jammu. At first sight, it seemed reasonable to ask for extra land to temporarily accommodate weary pilgrims; and reasonable also to allow a man in his 70s to pay his respects at the graves of his parents. However, in each case, the request was seen as the thin edge of a wedge. The Kashmiris thought that if the land transfer was permitted, Hindus in general would demand changes in the law permitting their permanent settlement in the Valley. The Meiteis believed Muivah’s visit would give further impetus to the demand to detach Manipur’s hill districts and merge them with a greater Nagalim. These sentiments encouraged the state governments, dominated by Kashmiris and Meiteis respectively, to defy the central government. This, in turn, provoked a retaliatory blockade.
In either case, it is impossible for the historian — or citizen — to unambiguously take the side of one party to the dispute. The demand for a little land or a single visit seemed fair, and the cancellation of permission a sign of insecurity or even paranoia. However, the response far exceeded the original provocation. To keep hospitals without medicines, petrol stations without fuel, and ordinary householders without adequate food and supplies for weeks on end shows a shocking unconcern for human life and the elementary canons of human decency.
Behind the conflict in Manipur lie two competing national myths. In the last week of May, I gave a talk on the North-east at a new store in Bangalore that showcases products from the region. I observed that there were three major insurgencies, each of which demanded a sovereign nation. One was represented by the National Socialist Council of Nagaland; the other by the United Liberation Front of Assam; the third by the radical Meiteis of the Imphal Valley. I added that there had once been a fourth, of the Mizos, which at its height had seriously challenged the might of the Indian Army, but which had since been tamed and successfully brought into the democratic process.
A young Naga in the audience protested, saying that the struggles of his people could not be compared with any other. They, the Nagas, had always been free, they had always been united, and they had never provoked violence but only responded defensively to the violence of others. To buttress his claim of singularity he added that they, the Nagas, had declared their independence on August 14, 1947, itself.
It is hard to answer passion with reason, but I tried. I told the young man that many other national movements claimed to be pure and wholly virtuous. The Poles, the Croats, the Biafrans, the Bangladeshis — none admitted to ever having thrown the first stone or ever having submitted willingly to the rule of bigger states. Looking closer home, the Meiteis — with whom the Nagas are currently in dispute — also passionately argue that they were always sovereign and have long been democratic. Like the Nagas, they fought heroically against the British. Unlike the Nagas, they have had a state of their own-as visitors to Imphal’s Kangla Fort are routinely informed, this was where the kings of Manipur were crowned as long as 2,000 years ago. The Meiteis further argue that they organised an election based on adult franchise in 1949, three years before the informal plebiscite organised by the Naga leader A.Z. Phizo.
In its 60-year history, the Republic of India has successfully contained three national movements — those of the Sikhs, the Mizos, and the Tamils, all of whom finally came round to the view that allegiance to the Indian Constitution does not imply, in any way, an abandonment of one’s language, faith, culture or lifestyle. However, those conflicts were direct disputes between a particular nationality — or sub-nationality — and the Centre. What we have in Manipur now is a three-way argument, in which the Meiteis and the Nagas fight with the Government of India but also with each other.
How might these conflicts be resolved? Can the Centre persuade the Nagas and the Meiteis to, first, abandon their dreams of national sovereignty, and, second, to resolve their disagreements without resort to blockades or sectarian violence? Unfortunately, New Delhi’s own credibility, and claim to be an honest broker, is undermined by the somewhat wayward and often unaccountable behaviour of the security forces in the region, and by the shocking corruption and inefficiency of elected state governments (as often as not run by the Congress). Is it too much to ask for serious attempts to restore the Centre’s credibility? A start could be made through the repeal of the notorious and much misused Armed Forces Special Powers Act, a repeal which would be welcomed by the Meiteis and Nagas alike. This single measure would do a great deal to enhance the appeal of the Centre, and allow it to then initiate the further moves necessary to honourably reconcile all the peoples of the north-east to the Constitution and Republic of India.
Ramachandra Guha is the author of India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy
The views expressed by the author are personal