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WHAT'S THE PROBLEM IN MANIPUR?

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Women protest against Indian Army rape, Manipur 2004

This Q&A was written as a backgrounder for the MANIPUR FIELD TRIP in 2004.

It had in mind the traveled, humanist, cosmopolitan who is sympathetic to plight, but has little mental space to digest the details and names of yet another area of ethnic conflict. In all likelihood, s/he also probably sees nationalism much like religion: one may not get it, but we ignore its abiding importance to some people at our own collective peril.

WHAT IS THE PROBLEM IN MANIPUR?

Manipur, like some other of the eight Upland states in the northeast of India, has separatist movements that seek various degrees of autonomy from India. There are about two dozen rebel groups in Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Assam.


WHY IS SECESSION FROM INDIA SOUGHT?

Manipuris feel that the Manipuri king was strong-armed into signing into the Indian Union in 1949. The separatists want to reclaim that sovereignty.


HOW BIG IS MANIPUR? THE NORTHEAST?

Manipur is about the size of Long Island or New Jersey. The 8 states of the northeastern India are together about the size of Spain. The region has a largely Tibeto-Burman population of about 40 million, more than half of which is in the valley state of Assam. The population is mostly tribal, and even in feudal Manipur there are about 30 tribes.


IS SECESSION FROM INDIA REALISTIC FOR MANIPUR OR THE NORTHEAST?

Most locals would see the question as a brown version of the white man's burden. Among the various tribes or feudal bationalities, separatism is more fragmented than united for the region as a whole. Secessionist demands are often coded. The self-determination espoused is widely understood to mean independence from India. As in Assam, sovereignty in Manipur is understood to be based on historical feudal boundaries. Read this way, these aspirations are difficult to reconcile with changed boundaries, populations and identities. Unburdened by a feudal history, Naga and Mizo separatism seek new national identities under Christianity, at the expense of their tribal heritage.


IS THE DREAM OF INDEPENDENCE WIDELY HELD?

Yes, some form of self-determination is widely supported, or insurgent activity would not have existed for close on 50 years. Whether Manipuris have a clearly articulated and affirmative common destiny to replace their feudal nation is still a question. Some political parties call for regional autonomy, short of independence, building on India' s constitutional federalism. There is also some transnational thinking beyond nationhood and territorial concerns - somewhat like that of the Saami Council in the Arctic.


WHAT IS INDIAN POLICY TOWARDS THE NORTHEAST?

With widespread ignorance of the region, the official Indian approach seems to be either to pump in money or send in the army. New Delhi accounts about 90% of Manipur's income. The thinking is that if there is economic development, the problems will disappear. The generic problems in India of weak institutions, graft and centralized planning have made development elusive in this eastern Himalayan state.


HOW DOES INDIA SEE THE NORTHEAST?

Like other imperial civilizations, India is paternalistic to its own people and peripheral folk alike. Its social hierarchy ranks their tribes, likes Gonds and Bastars, below their lower and untouchable castes. Indian social attitudes largely hold tribes as primitive, backward, and sexually permissive. However, this traditional Indian perception of their own tribes is alien to the tribal people of the Northeast as the latter had historically been their own masters. They in turn see mainstream Indians as untrustworthy and exploitative. It is safe to say the way India perceives the Northeast is not the same as the way the people in this Eastern Himalayan region see themselves.


IS THIS LIKE KASHMIR OR OTHER REGIONAL PROBLEMS IN INDIA?

Like the West and China, as another larger civilization with a sense of historical entitlement, India has an imperial cast of mind. Note recent adventures in Sikkim and Sri Lanka for instance. The situation in Manipur is similar to Kashmir in that a king also signed into the union without the approval of his populace. But it is different from other regional differences in India in that the population is ethno-linguistically Tibeto-Burman. It is also in a region that historically not been part of an Indian Empire prior to the British. In much of the tribal areas, there was little by way of boundaries until the British came along.


WHAT IS THE PERSPECTIVE OF THE SECESSIONISTS?

The conflict is expressed mostly in sentimental and emotional ways. Maoist ideology is still not discredited here - think Nepal or the Shining Path in Peru. Their rhetoric is of Indian colonization and exploitation, pointing to the fact the region supplies the bulk of India's tea, oil, hydroelectric power and uranium. These are developed as Federal property not the State's.

On the other hand, when the Chinese invaded the northeast in 1962 India deemed the region nonessential to the country and withdrew its forces from the Uplands of the Northeast.


HOW IS THE REGION SEEN AS NON-ESSENTIAL?

What India has failed to do in the 50-plus years of independence is develop a sense of national identity that includes or supplants traditional ethnic identities. The modern construct of Indian nationhood does not include the Uplands people, their stories, their aspirations, and their way of looking at things.

Translated into practical terms, the situation is analogous to Palestinian villages that are absent in Israeli maps. As a case in point, during the 1962 Sino-Indian War, it was proposed that Punjabis from India northwest populate the region. And a few years back, Indian journalists were flown into Manipur to cover the Indian foreign minister's inauguration of a highway to Burma via Manipur. No local journalists were invited.

With the rise of China, a resurgent India increasingly sees the northeastern region as a corridor to its interests in Southeast Asia.


ISN'T MANIPUR HINDU, WITH A CULTURAL AFFINITY TO INDIA?

Yes, like Bali, Manipur is an outpost of Hinduism - Tripura and Assam are some others in the Northeast - and shares a great affinity with Indian culture. But unlike Bali, Manipur's Hinduism is only about 300 years old and coexist with the animistic, ancestor-worshipping, shaman-led Sanamahi tradition Tribal roots still run deep. As the state is closer to traditional India, it also feels its identity more threatened by India. Manipuris love things Indian but they do not feel comfortable being governed by India or feel particularly Indian.

WHY DON'T MANIPURIS FEEL INDIAN?

Manipuris have an innate sense of being an independent political entity for perhaps the last 2000 years. To India, Manipur is a border state. Manipur, on the other hand, has historically seen itself as its own center, with its own worldview: In Manipur, India is called Pangaan, China is called Khaagi, Burma is Awa, and the Shan Kingdoms near the Golden Triangle are called Pong and so on. Independent Manipur is still within living memory.

Historically, Manipur is both self-referential and self-contained. Its high culture and art forms are judged by its own cultural elites and have no reference to Indian cultural authority. It produces its own junk and pop culture. In that sense, as national microcosmic culture unto itself, Manipur is about Manipur.


HOW DOES THE ARMS APPROACH TAKE SHAPE?

The Governor of Manipur, a civilian appointed by New Delhi, is usually an Army or military intelligence officer. The ratio of military and paramilitary personnel to civilians is 1:32 (as compared to 1:100 in Burma). Under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958, promulgated for Manipur and subsequently extended to Kashmir, Indian Army personnel, soldiers or officers, can shoot to kill civilians upon suspicion. Under the National Security Act, civilians may be detained without trial for up to one year.


IS THE SHOOTING OF CIVILIANS LEGAL?

India's Supreme Court, in the interest of national security, upheld the Special Powers Act in 1997.


HOW DOES THE ARMY AFFECT EVERYDAY LIFE?

Armored vehicles patrol the state, checkpoints are set up, and civilians are subject to check and combing operations of neighborhoods and homes are common. Armed encounters take place between the Indian armed forces and rebels with regularity in the hills. Official figures record hundreds of insurgency-related deaths every year. There are cases of abductions, disappearances, torture and rape. In some instances, the military had had to make reparations to individuals.

There are also powerful symbolic and daily reminders of the rule by the Indian Army such as its occupation of Kangla Palace, in much the same way the British occupied Delhi's Red Fort.


WHERE DO THE SEPARATISTS FIT IN?

Quite beyond regular skirmishes with the Indian Army, Manipur effectively has, after the Center's appointed government and the State's elected one, a third parallel government run by various rebel groups. They exercise say in everything from domestic disputes to government policy. There is widespread extortion of businessmen and all salaried people have a percentage of their income docked by the rebels. They also undertake government construction and supplies contracts under assumed identities.


DO THE PEOPLE SUPPORT THE SEPARATISTS?

The armed secessionist groups thrive on a general resentment among the population against Indian governance. But their actions are also widely resented in turn. There are also various people taking advantage of the situation and who operate as mere extortionists. Much of the population is often caught between the armed foes on either side of the conflict. This quandary is a traumatic one in the absence of a cogent and well-articulated social aspiration and a common destiny held in the national mind.


DO CHINA AND PAKISTAN PLAY A HAND?

Less so lately than when Mao Zedong was backing the export of revolution and Bangladesh was still East Pakistan. Burma and India cooperate as they share insurgent headaches. One of the main rebel groups in Manipur is called the People's Liberation Army but it is not common knowledge among Manipuris that this is the name of China's standing army.


WHY DON'T WE HEAR MORE ABOUT THIS?

For almost 50 years, the situation in Manipur has been just short of a full-blown war but there just aren't enough body bags coming out of the region to make international headlines.

Also the issues of the conflict are not well articulated but perhaps more importantly because the region is closed off by New Delhi. Indian visas are not valid for most of the Northeast, including Manipur.

The only foreign nationals who visit are Christian missionaries from the American Baptist Church. There are some NGO representatives that visit as well. Journalists are not allowed.


ARE FOREIGN VISITORS IN DANGER?

One can't be too careful in a border conflict area with no tourist industry. There was one instance of a German NGO official being held for ransom after he had gone off into the hills. Permission to travel is given only in groups for the Greater Imphal area in the central valley.

From the locals' perspective, foreign knowledge of and participation in Manipuri life is so far absent and is therefore highly desired.

September 2004



What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?
Because the barbarians are coming today.
Because night has fallen
and the barbarians have not come.
And some who have just returned
from the border say
There are no barbarians any longer.
And now, what's going to happen to us
without barbarians?
They were, those people,
a kind of solution.

From "Waiting for the Barbarians", C.P. Cavafy

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