By Along Longkumer
It is with great honour and my deepest admiration of the Manipuri people that I present the Arambam Somorendra Memorial Lecture for 2016.
It is not easy to speak and write on sensitive and emotional topics such as on ‘integration’, whichever way you would like to view it from—the ‘integrity of Manipur’s present boundaries’ or the question of Naga integration and of course the Indo-Naga peace process, the possible outcome and repercussions.
Then you also have so many other conflict and turmoil going on, the most recent being the one related to the three Bills passed by the Manipur Legislative Assembly, which I am told is with the Government of India waiting for a decision at the Ministry of Home Affairs.
And therefore how to manage the delicate and complex political and social situation in Manipur is something that will pose a challenge not only to your government but I suppose to anyone, including experts and the best of minds.
To think of it, it is frightening, almost a hopeless-confused situation you are faced with….because the only news coming out of Manipur to the outside world is protests, bandhs, economic blockades, violence, the numerous Joint Action Committees, armed groups and of course the cycle of unrest.
There is therefore obviously a deep divide in the socio-political landscape of Manipur over some very pertinent issues. All this has led to a feeling of hurt sentiment and distrust on all sides.
And so when I was invited for the Arambam Somorendra Memorial Lecture, with all that is happening in our region, especially Manipur, my first thoughts were mostly about finding answers and alternatives (how we can move forward). The best course, I thought would be, not to get too caught up by the past, the conflict and the difficulties we are faced with presently.
So despite the anxiety of the present situation, I was nevertheless determined to come and express some of my thoughts and ideas.
As I prepared for this important lecture I also realised that many of our opinions on anything, whether it is to do with other people, situations or over an issue, can often be distorted by faulty assumptions, wrong information and the misinterpretation or misrepresentation of facts.
In an article that I read recently the question is asked. What causes ethnic conflict and why does it escalate? And immediately I was reminded of the latest conflict in Manipur over the three Bill. One of the key factors that contribute to ethnic conflict is apparently ‘information failure’ i.e when individuals or groups misrepresent or misinterpret information about other groups.
To help us understand this point better, if I may refer to a recent editorial ‘Divide over Bills’ in the Imphal Free Press, which speaks about how people residing in the State’s two geographical regions i.e. the valley and hills, see things so differently although they are reading from the same documents, here the three bills.
I will not go into the specifics or the set of arguments for or against the bill, but the larger point that I wish to make and which the editorial wonderfully explains is that we have to be extremely careful not to misrepresent or misinterpret facts because this can unnecessarily provoke a situation, further lead to fears and insecurity and polarise society. And thereby a dangerous atmosphere of distrust and suspicion is created and making it all the more difficult to resolve points of conflict.
Despite my inadequacy to speak on the intricate issues involved in Manipur, I speak and write on the hope that through this lecture, we can educate ourselves and be better informed on some of the issues at hand; try and talk of our differences, clarify on some of the misconception and look at peaceful resolutions.
The philosophy behind the Arambam Somorendra Memorial Lecture series is indeed very encouraging.
As per information given 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 Arambam Somorendra. As told to me, he was a leading playwright and social visionary of modern-day Manipur, who believed in the primacy of ideas and its passionate espousal. I also read that late Somorendra “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, sentiments or to our history. 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, breakthroughs, novelty in addressing our difficulties. If we can do this—a way out can be found.
The idea of ‘A Way Forward’ on several pertinent issues that confront us today in our immediate neighbourhood and the larger North East region is something that I will dwell on.
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 Government 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 right of the people of Manipur to self-determine, these are some of the things that I will touch upon.
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 provides a very critical sub-text in the Naga Independence struggle”.
I found this statement to be truthful and precise. And more important is that it recognizes 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 return to later, if I may be allowed to, in the context of what 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.
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 them wherever 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).
Right from the time of the Naga National Council (NNC) to the present peace process with the NSCN (IM), Naga integration has been the aspiration of the people. 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…they expressed the view that “other Naga 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 here from 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 (who) 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 customs.
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.
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 such an idea (cross-border regions) is to deepen and broaden integration through cross-border institution or collaboration 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 have created Europe’s present boundaries. The reason being that in many parts of Europe, political boundaries have created unnatural divisions in ethnic and cultural regions. The Nagas 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 that if Nagas are willing to bargain for such an 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.
I also want to clarify here that without any disrespect to the other communities such as the Kukis or Zomis who may have similar aspirations of their own my lecture is limited to arguing the case of the Nagas.
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, Nagas or Kukis, the question of land and ‘integration’, which-ever way you 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.
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, one that involves land and geography. We will be only perpetuating our positions and closing our doors on peaceful negotiations and resolutions.
Can we therefore look at a ‘middle-path’ solution in the context of the Naga peace process?
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?
Here I would like to mention about what former Union Home Secretary GK Pillai said during a seminar in Delhi a few years back. Referring to its possible outcome, he said that the Naga peace talk is something that is going to keep the territorial integrity of Manipur and give enough flexibility to Naga aspiration.
And so the basic idea really of all stakeholders, the Government of India, the Nagas and other communities in the neighbourhood should be to try and arrive at a compromise solution.
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 within the territorial integrity of present State boundaries.
As stated at the outset, what Dr Lokendra said about Manipur providing a very critical sub-text in the Naga Independence struggle, another person, Mr GK Pillai summed it up quite well when he said that “the ongoing peace process with the Nagas has a bearing on the contours of peace in Manipur”.
In this regard, I take the liberty to share this thought. That rather than treating it as an antithesis to peace in Manipur, the Indo-Naga peace process and the possible settlement with the Nagas should be used as a facilitator towards peaceful resolution of the other conflicts in the region.
I am sure the Government of India knows that the Naga peace talks and its outcome would have implication for the wider region and therefore inclusion of other stakeholders is going to be very critical. The Naga people should also realize the wisdom of taking into confidence, its neighbours in formulating peaceful resolution of the intricate issues involved.
And so the bottom-line is that 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 wish to borrow 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 (or hindered) 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 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 has 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 therefore 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 possibly right when they say 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 or order.
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.
In a way it is good that the differences have come out into the open, including the present divide over the three Bills. And therefore we know that peaceful resolutions have to be found to these issues confronting Manipur.
I don’t know whether I should go into the subject of ethnic conflict at this point, but it may be helpful to get some insights into its causes. According to a study done, it is argued that ethnic conflict is usually caused by collective fears for the future. It then goes on to suggest that ‘confidence-building measures’ can promote the rights and positions of minority groups, reassuring them about their physical and cultural security’.
I believe civil society in Manipur, especially the Meiteis should also recognize the inherent conflict that exist and do more in finding solutions by way of encouraging dialogue and collaboration. The Meiteis should take the initiative to reach out to the other communities and to reassure them. I am sure if there is a genuine offer for dialogue there is no reason why the Kukis or Nagas should not respond.
All differences will not go away but if we can find more meeting points, a way forward can happen.
Here as an observer, I want to plant some ideas that can be debated in the near future.
It will be helpful if the idea of a federal model can be revisited and studied in-depth so that the multi-national and ethnic character of Manipur can be enhanced (that is improved upon) and protected. In fact one of the CBM suggested in the study I referred to earlier mentions about the need to promote regional autonomy and federalism.
Federalism is not something new to us. India is also a Federal Union of States. Centre-State relations function on the principle of division of powers. What we have to do is take a re-look at federalism at the State level i.e giving more autonomy to regions.
A few years ago (November 5, 2007 to be precise) former Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh while speaking at the inauguration of the International Conference on Federalism in New Delhi had this to say.
“We need, at times, creative thinking and redesign of institutions to allow the federal concept to adjust to emerging realities”.
A redesign of the present federal system is required at the State level in order to govern some of the difficult regions in India, especially in the restive North East such as Assam and Manipur with its multi-ethnic geography and demography. I have already spoken (in the earlier context of Naga integration) about the provisions of Article 244A that can be applied for giving more autonomy to regions.
The challenge for Manipur as I see it is this.
Without having to blindly adopt western systems, in a State like Manipur which has its own unique problems as well as the genius of minds, something that you have already demonstrated by enacting an indigenous constitution (in 1947), I believe that federalism as a concept has to show ingenuity (originality) and innovation in managing these complex problems and contradictions you are faced with.
Your history is proof that Manipur can evolve as a dynamic entity because you have always shown that all communities can live in peaceful co-existence. You have done it before and you can do it again. But yes, the new found aspiration of different sections of people will have to be heard and accommodated.
And through this, hopefully you will be able to evolve a unified framework and continue to promote the ideals of a peaceful and inclusive society.
If we can write a new political narrative, the ideals of peace, democracy and integration, so crucial to Manipur at this juncture, can be put in place.
These are ideas that I put forward with an open mind. And of course they are only the broad contours of what will require more in-depth discussion, other ideas and wide ranging consultations at all levels. The aim though is to foster and allow diversity to coexist in a unified framework—one that perhaps does not exist at present or at least is insufficient.
Whether this will be helpful or not but in the backdrop of the current agitation and divide over the three Bills, I would like to revisit the ‘wisdom’ behind the Manipur State Constitution Act 1947 that was framed by the genius of the Manipuri people before the present system was imposed upon you.
It is quite remarkable actually as I have been enlightened that “Manipur became perhaps the first among the Native States to have a secular and democratic government within the framework of a constitutional monarchy”. I am indeed inspired by the majestic history of Manipur.
A quick reading of this indigenous ‘constitution’ will demonstrate the political aptitude shown by Manipuri leaders at that time to create a system that was inclusive and sensitive to the aspiration of all sections.
Take for instance the Article that provides for membership to the State Assembly (or Parliament), the highest law making body. Of the 51 members to be elected, 30 seats were for the general category; 18 for the Hills and 3 for Mohammedan constituencies. In the Council of Ministers, of the 6 Ministers, 2 or one-third was kept for representatives of the Hill people.
These were democratic safeguards built into the political system so as to provide for a voice to all sections of people in the running of the legislature and government. I know that the spirit of these democratic ideals have been passed on to the present system as well.
Since this is relevant to the current issue of the 3 Bills, I want to revisit the law making process of the Manipur State Constitution Act 1947, which was certainly much more democratic than what we have witnessed.
Any Bill to be drafted or passed had to be laid before the Assembly and “a reasonable time” given for consideration thereof. The Council (in this case the government I presume) shall then “cause to be made such alterations or amendments as may be deemed necessary in the light of the advise tendered by the Assembly, and the Chief Minister shall submit the Bill in its final form for the assent of the Maharajah”.
According to one of the Articles, “should the Maharajah in any case withhold his Assent to a Bill that Bill shall lapse as if it had not been passed”. However, if the Assent of the Maharaja is not forthcoming within one calendar month of the Bill being submitted to him, he shall be deemed to have withheld his Assent”.
Then another scenario is provided for i.e. “where the Assent of the Maharaja to any Bill is withheld, the Council may cause the selfsame Bill to be introduced in the next session of the Assembly and if passed without amendment by 75 per cent majority of the Assembly, the Bill shall be certified over the Seal of the Council and shall become law”.
The point I want to convey is simply this. That the process of law making then was very sophisticated and well designed with enough checks and balances to avoid the abuse of power. The legislative and political process also demonstrates the in-built mechanism that existed for matured deliberation on all matters of public interest.
As an outsider, it is not fair for me to come and judge on your present system of democracy at work. But I am sure you will agree with me that we need to revisit the wisdom of our past institutions or practices, at least the ones that are relevant and will be helpful to the present challenges or conflicts we are faced with.
To get a sense of what I have said let me cite you an instance. In a paper ‘Narratives of Self-Determination Struggles in Manipur’ written by Dr Lokendra Arambam, the author speaks about how “the surrounding hills were progressively getting into the form of ethnic selfhoods” and seeing these trends, the then Maharajah Bodhchandra Singh (1941-55) “renegotiated” I presume, the state of affairs, “through conciliation and compromise”, as Dr Lokendra explains.
We all understand that politics is about power-struggle and winning elections. And so if we leave everything to our politicians, our situation may not change or improve. What we require is statesmanship on the part of our leaders. I believe Maharajah Bodhchandra Singh chose the path of reconciliation and finding the middle ground and saved the situation through his statesmanship.
There is this famous quotation. “The difference between a politician and a statesman is that a politician thinks about the next election while the statesman thinks about the next generation.”
Our conflicts and problems in the region will not go away unless we are able to re-orient our politics.
The need of our times is to have leaders who can embrace the idea of dialogue, reconciliation, building consensus and finding the middle ground.
Are we ready to give-and-take?
As Dr Lokendra explained about how your then Maharajah Bodhchandra Singh responded to the ethnic selfhoods or uprising, the present unrest will also require a similar gesture of renegotiation through conciliation and compromise.
A Greater Northeast—The idea of ‘region-states’
Any discussion on the North East will be incomplete if we do not make a mention of the Look East Policy, which has now changed to the Act East Policy under the present Narendra Modi led BJP government.
Despite the criticisms that may be there I believe that by and large, this policy has the potential to bring both economic benefits and greater integration to the region.
A book titled: “Beyond Borders—Look East Policy and North East India” begins with this profound statement: “Southeast Asia begins where North East India ends”. According to the editor of that book Dilip Gogoi, “this distinctiveness places the North East in a unique geographical and political space”.
Also consider the fact that the North East region shares 98 percent international borders with Bangladesh, Myanmar, China, Bhutan and Nepal but it shares just 2 percent of its borders with mainland India.
The question is whether we in the region have tapped into this socio-economic potential to unite and grow?
The theme of today’s lecture FRAMEWORK FOR A SHARED FUTURE—is very much relevant in the context of India’s Act East Policy.
If I may add here, the success the Act East Policy will depend to a large extent on how New Delhi, the respective State governments and people in the region are able to foster the elements of peace, democracy and integration in their policy framework and public discourse.
I believe that grand development projects such as building roads and railway lines; power transmission; oil exploration; mobile/telecom connectivity or securing the borders; these will be the ‘hardware’ elements if we go by the language and logic of computer science.
And therefore in order to successfully run this hardware we will require the software components to be in place i.e peace, resolutions, a democratic order and integration of the people.
A holistic approach is therefore required.
I would like to touch upon a few things that will help us in this regard.
Despite our diversity or differences as people, whether Meitei, Naga, Kuki, Mizo, Karbi, Ahom, we should tap into what I believe is an underlying sense of unity. It may not be a political unity but certainly one that is based on shared values, common history and geography, cultural affinities, history of peaceful coexistence as neighbours and the hope of a common future.
I believe a kind of subconscious unity among the North East people already exist.
And the proof of that is my presence at the Memorial Lecture to celebrate the memory of a Manipuri leader Arambam Somorendra. I believe this is the result of that fraternity we enjoy…the affinity we share as belonging to the North East.
We need to build on this underlying sense of unity. All we need is greater dialogue and interaction. I believe that our common identity as people of the North East region is a comparative advantage that needs to be tapped.
Then of course, economic development of the North East region should be the other unifying force.
The more I think of it the more I am drawn into this idea of a Greater North East region.
The Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, during the inauguration of the Hornbill Festival at Kohima on December 2014 described the entire Northeast region as a “Natural Economic Zone” and mentioning that this potential had so far remained untapped. He went on to say that the Government of India’s priority is to nourish the NEZ for the benefit of the NE (North East).
So you see even at the highest political level there is recognition of evolving some kind of integration that goes beyond borders. The question is whether the Meiteis, Nagas, Kukis or for that matter the other neighbours are ready for such initiatives?
In the book ‘Beyond Borders…’ that I have referred to earlier, one of the strategies suggested is that of having a shared economic integration with an imagined future ‘region-states’.
The concept of ‘region-states’, coined by Kenichi Ohmae, is worth studying in the context of North East India. According to him, region-states are natural economic zones and they may fall within a country or they may straddle the borders of two or more countries.
Perhaps Prime Minister Modi was referring to this idea of ‘region-states’ when he described the entire North East region as a ‘Natural Economic Zone’.
Cross-border and inter-regional cooperation, which is also central to the idea of ‘Naga integration’ as earlier mentioned, will hopefully assist in a significant way in the process of moving towards greater unity and connectivity, not just of the Naga areas but the North-Eastern States of Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh and its people.
At least in Europe, a conscious effort has been made to frame policies on cross-border cooperation with the larger goal of working towards “European territorial co-operation”.
As also mentioned in the context of Naga integration, the idea or premise behind such approaches, whether we call it region-states or cross-border cooperation, is to dilute the border effect and promote both social and economic cohesion; to contribute towards peace, security and respect for the rights of minorities.
Policy makers in India should also study such arrangements and incorporate similar ideas into its system wherever it is required and feasible to do so. Also some of the problems in India that are related to economic backwardness, ethnic unrest, geographical isolation, administrative disconnect and political alienation could do with out-of-the-box imaginative solutions like the ones mentioned above.
I think the sky is the limit when it comes to developing the North East region as an entity. If we can resolve and set aside our differences and work on commonalities, there is hope for the future. Looking at the larger picture of the region as a whole therefore, finding answers to the question of peace, democracy and integration is going to determine to a large extent our place in the world.
We need to work on a ‘framework for a shared future’ of the region.
Before I conclude, I would like to move away slightly for a brief moment to another related topic which at the outset I had I said I will speak on. It is also something that has a bearing on the current unrest and turmoil that Manipur has faced all these years and that is the right of the people of Manipur to self-determine their political destiny.
To quote again the former Union Home Secretary G.K Pillai, if I recall correctly, while on a recent lecture tour to the North East he had described Manipur as “perhaps the most problematic state in the North East as no genuine dialogue has yet taken place with the insurgent groups”.
Further, I want to refer to an assertion made in the book ‘Self Determination Movement in Manipur” published by the Conflict and Human Rights Studies Network, Manipur. It says that “peace can once again return to the picturesque hills and valleys of the region….only when India opts for a political solution to this political problem of the indigenous peoples in the region”.
Interestingly, former Prime Minister of India Dr Manmohan Singh spoke about ‘dispute resolution’ and engaging in a ‘political process’ to solve problems as he put it “the issue of identities is not just a matter of law”.
Similarly, the question of Manipur’s historical identity or the controversy surrounding its accession to India is not just a matter of law but demands a political approach.
Manipur I believe has its own case to demand for a discussion on restoring the pre-1949 status of Manipur. As some prominent writers and commentators that I have come across have mentioned, “the circumstances under which Manipur merged into India completely bypassing the elected representatives still remains contentious”.
Also the fact that “resourceful Kabaw valley” was given away to Burma in 1953 in some kind of appeasement or trade-off without consulting the people is quite shocking. Manipur’s claim over the resourceful Kabaw Valley is therefore a historical right…
As is well known, the “provisions of the unpublicized treaty are not yet made known to the people of Manipur as well as to the citizens of India”. You will be aware that recently the BJP led NDA government in Delhi had declassified sensitive files on Subhash Chandra Bose. Can a similar demand be made by the people of Manipur on some of the controversial acts?
A way forward as I see it is to begin the process of rebuilding trust. And this can happen if India can admit and apologise for the mistakes it has made. I am not knowledgeable enough to speak on this subject but I guess that for any conflict to be resolved, the core issues will have to be dealt with between the Government of India and the people of Manipur.
The repeal of the AFSPA is long overdue and this could perhaps be the starting point to restore trust and relationship.
Finally, in conclusion, I respect and salute the determination of the people of Manipur to find their rightful place and my firm belief is that with due consideration you will reciprocate the same towards the other struggling peoples, including the historical and political rights of the Nagas and their aspiration to live as one people.
In conclusion, a way forward is proposed.
The ideas that have been brought out in this lecture will hopefully lead us into action in the not so distant future.
Whether it is ‘Naga integration from within’ or in other words the idea of a ‘localised integration’ without disturbing existing State boundaries;
Whether it is working towards a federal solution to issues of ethnic identities in Manipur or
Whether it is the idea of region-states or a Greater North East as just mentioned in the last segment, all these are inter-connected to one another and also to the larger theme of peace, democracy and integration that has been discussed.
Moreover the ideas I have presented is aimed at peaceful resolutions to the current conflicts in our neighbourhood and region.
To write new political and social narratives based on the themes mentioned above is not going to be easy by any stretch of imagination. Let’s be realistic. It is going to take time; mutual understanding and goodwill; removing the trust deficit and restoring relationships.
The larger goal of restoring relationships can happen if we can invoke the principles of peace and fraternity. I am hopeful.
To repeat Walter Lippman’s famous prophecy, “the waves of the future are not of war or violence, but of peace and peaceful co-existence”.
The Meities, Nagas, Kukis should also embrace this prophecy and work towards that.
Of course, a lot of effort at different levels will be required.
I want to revisit an event that I attended in Manipur’s Senapati town sometime in November 2012. Then the Editor of The Morung Express, when I was invited to speak (where) I had suggested the formation of a forum between the Meiteis and the Nagas in order to address our differences. The next day I was told that the media in Manipur gave a lot of prominence to this story and it was positively highlighted.
It is somewhat surprising that despite having a shared history, the comparative advantage of our geography and despite the strides in human thinking as also the connectivity provided by globalization, the Meiteis and the Nagas in particular have not been able to communicate well enough or think and work on a common vision and platform for a shared future.
Maybe 50-60 years back this was not required because of the mutual understanding and the political consensus that prevailed. I am sure most of us present here will agree that Manipur in the 1960s is very different from Manipur of 2012 or 2016.
Given the situation, like the one prevailing in Manipur, it is very important to have more of people to people contact or else our problems and conflicts will not get resolved.
Meitei and Naga civil society or for that matter Kukis and Nagas, Meiteis and Kukis or even the three together, there has to be a common forum to talk and resolve. All need to explore a framework for a shared future.
We should not allow the present conflicts to linger on because any conflict situation does no good to our peoples. It is counter-productive for peace, development and the shared future of our peoples in the neighbourhood in particular and the North East region in general.
If we want to change the conflict situation or resolve the differences that exist, we need to start imagining with an open mind and start discussing ideas as late Arambam Somorendra would have liked. We simply cannot wish for peace and do nothing about it. The existing situation demands a search for alternatives.
(Along Longkumer is the Founding Editor of The Morung Express, an English newspaper published from Nagaland. He is also the author of the book ‘A Way Forward: The Idea of a Peace Accord between India and the Nagas’. The above is an extract of the lecture delivered on June 10, 2016 at Imphal, Manipur on the occasion of the Arambam Somorendra Memorial Lecture 2016)
Note: Arambam Somorendra was a revolutionary leader from Manipur. He expressed his message through writings in drama, poetry, songs and newspapers. He was also one of the founding members of UNLF. He was assassinated on June 10, 2000 by unknown armed men. Since 2006, the Arambam Somorendra Trust holds annual lectures in memory of late Arambam Somorendra, who was a leading playwright and social visionary of contemporary Manipur.