In September 1949, over two years after India got Independence, the fate of Manipur — unlike the other princely states of the Indian subcontinent which had decided which new country they wanted to join — was still unclear. Assam Governor Sri Prakasa and his advisor for tribal affairs, Nari Rustomji, made an urgent trip to Bombay to meet the ailing Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, head of the States Department, on the advice of V P Menon who worked closely with Patel on the integration of the princely states to India after Independence.
Both Patel and Menon spent a great deal of time and thought on the impact that decisions of the larger princely states such as Hyderabad and Kashmir could have upon the postcolonial political situation in India. But Manipur was ‘a small fry’ for the men behind the integration of India. However, when Sri Prakasa and Rustomji explained to Menon the implications of trouble in the border state, where the tribal population was already growing restless, he agreed they must immediately meet Patel and seek his counsel.
In Bombay, Sri Prakasa and Rustomji met Patel in his bedroom. Sitting on the edge of the bed next to the one on which Patel lay, they spoke nervously about the disturbed affairs in the northeastern state. Patel, on the other hand, sat relaxed and quiet, listening and watching the two. Finally, he responded, “Do we not have a brigadier in Shillong?” He said little else after that, but as Rustomji noted in his memoir, “it was clear from the tone of his voice what he meant.” Soon after, they were signaled out of the room by Patel’s daughter Maniben and the conversation was over.
What followed has often been described as unfair coercion to merge the state with India. “All Manipuri narratives of modern history begin with this episode, describing how they were cheated. Most of the policymakers are not even aware of it,” explains Sanjib Baruah, professor of Political Science at Bard College, New York. He explains this history has been the cause of insurgency movements and a lot of popular grievances in the state for almost the entire period of the existence of postcolonial India.
From a princely state to an autonomous constitutional democracy
It is often forgotten that Manipuri ‘nationalist’ consciousness predates the time when it merged with India. For when British paramountcy ended in 1947, the Manipur State Constitution Act was enacted, giving the state its constitution and a representative government. There was also a deeply entrenched nationalist desire to restore the past glory of the Meitei kingdom as it existed before 1891 when it became a princely state, governed only symbolically by the crown whereas the administrative power was vested in the hands of the British resident.
Sociologist A Bimal Akoijam in an article written for the Economic and Political Weekly in 2001 notes that “the identity of the Manipuris as a ‘nation’ evolved against the backdrop of the Meiteis and its kingdom since the first century of the Christian era.” The Cheitharol Kumbaba, which are the royal chronicles of Manipur, trace the origins of the Meitei kingdom of Kangleipak to 33 CE.
The Meiteis divide themselves into seven clans — Mangang, Luwang, Khuman, Angom, Moirang Kha, Ngangba, and Sarang Leishangthem. The Meitei kingdom was ruled by an unbroken line of kings of the Ningthouja dynasty from the Mangang clan till 1955. The dynasty traced its descent to Pakhama, the serpent king, who continues to be revered as the presiding deity of Manipur. The symbol of Pakhamba, a snake with its tail in the mouth can be seen in homes, streets and temples all across Imphal.
From what was, in essence, a small principality consisting of present-day Imphal, the empire expanded over a vast area incorporating other principalities and people across the length and breadth of the valley and the hills that came under the region. By the 15th century, the kingdom had spread out into regions far beyond what is present-day Manipur. “As the kingdom grew, it also acquired the consciousness of being a ‘people’,” writes Akoijam. “Their ‘peopleness’ was shaped not only by the fact that they were under the rule or suzerainty of the same ruler but also by other historical forces like the confrontations with the Burmese in the earlier times and later with the British with whom they had entered into a formal relation in the 18th century,” he adds. The Manipuri identity developed against this historical context.
Akoijam explains that their identity was further consolidated in the early decades of the 20th century through the struggle with the British and the autocratic rule of the Maharaja, which manifested itself in the struggle for a representative government and statehood. Hijam Irabot, a Communist Party leader and a socialist revolutionary emerged during this period as one of the forerunners for the mobilisation of people. In 1946, he along with Longjam Bimol formed the Praja Sangh political party, to demand an independent Manipur with its parliament, constitution, and cabinet. “Instead of the monarchical system, he wanted the representatives of the people to administer the state on socialistic principles,” writes Professor Thongkholal Haokip in his article Political Integration of Northeast India: A Historical Analysis.
Consequently, the Manipur State Constitution Act was enacted on June 27, 1947. It came into effect soon after British paramountcy ended. Under the provisions of the act, assembly elections were held in 1948. “This was the first-ever election held in India based on adult franchise,” notes Haokip, adding that a coalition government was formed with parties other than the Congress. The Maharaja was made the constitutional head of the state. A State Council of Ministers consisting of six members was elected by the State Assembly and a chief minister was appointed in consultation with the Maharaja. Further, the State Assembly was to be elected based on adult franchise and based on a joint electorate. The assembly was to have a three-year term and the constitution provided for a 36 per cent reservation to the hill tribes in the assembly.
Political Scientist S K Banerjee, in an article written in 1958, notes that the provisions of the Manipur constitution made “the people’s representatives the real rulers, while the interests of the minorities were also safeguarded.” “The magnitude and the importance of these provisions become clear when it is seen that what had taken ages in England had been achieved in Manipur at a stroke,” he adds.
Haokip in his article notes that the Manipur Congress which was the opposition party was firmly against the constitution and launched a movement for the merger of Manipur with India. Irabot and the Maharaja of Manipur, Bodhachandra, were firmly opposed to the merger. They also opposed Patel’s plan of creating a new state called ‘Purbanchal’, consisting of Manipur, Cachar, Lushai Pahar, and Tripura.
Merger with India
The tussle over the question of the merger came to a head on March 23, 1949, when the Praja Santi Party, on behalf of the people of Manipur, dispatched a memorandum to the governor of Assam, with copies to the prime minister of India. It noted their dissent against the proposed merger with India and asked for the continuation of amicable relations between India and Manipur, which they believed would serve the interests and security of both the entities.
The party also acknowledged Manipur’s developmental lag in various aspects and argued that they would be unable to keep up with other regions of India. “While they acknowledged that the Indian government’s intentions were not driven by exploitation, they cautioned that prevailing circumstances could inadvertently lead to such a situation,” says Imphal-based writer Wangam Somorjit.
Somorjit explains that just days later, on March 29, 1949, Sri Prakasa sent out a letter to Patel stating that, “in Manipur, the general sentiment appears to be against the merger. The only proponents of the merger were the State Congress, which is predominantly composed of individuals of Bengali origin, representing the views of only about 8% of the state’s population.”
When the matter was taken to Patel personally by Sri Prakasa and Rustomji, he said little more than just enquiring if there was a brigadier in Shillong. “The subtext was very clear. He meant to say that the matter is hardly a big deal. We just had to get the Indian Army involved,” explains Baruah.
In his memoir, Rustomji writes that soon after their return to Shillong after the brief conversation with Patel, it fell upon him to proceed to Imphal and convey to the Maharaja the bitter tidings. “There are few tasks I have found more disdainful to perform,” he writes. “The Manipuris are a sensitive and excitable people and rumours were already afloat of the state of things to be.”
Rustomji goes on to describe that “the Maharaja was beside himself with emotion, now bursting into tears, now wrapped in sullen melancholy.”
Eventually, it was decided that the Maharaja would proceed to Shillong to meet with the Governor there. He had a house in Shillong which he preferred to put up during this time of crisis.
On the first day of the meeting itself, the Maharaja was presented with an already prepared ‘merger agreement’. While the Maharaja stood firm in his refusal to sign the agreement without consultation with his council of ministers, he was put under immediate house arrest and barred from any communication with the outside world. “Simultaneously in Imphal Indian forces encircled the palace, seized control of telephone and telegraph lines, and effectively isolated the Maharaja from his people,” says Somorjit.
The Maharaja signed the merger agreement on September 21, 1949, and ceded to the dominion government of India full and executive authority over the jurisdiction and administration of the state. Somorjit explains that the first action undertaken by the Indian government was to reclassify Manipur as a Part C state and bring it under the chief commissioner’s rule. This, he says, was a “designation signifying the lowest attainable political status within the Indian context”.
“It was a huge insult to the Manipuris. Not only was it given Part C status, but also it was one of the last northeastern regions to get statehood,” says Baruah. “These are all accumulated grievances, particularly given the fact that they have always been conscious of their history of a large empire,” he adds.
In his book, In the Name of the Nation: India and its Northeast, Baruah writes that nearly every Manipuri account of the state’s modern history begins with the episode of how Manipur lost its independent status and was merged with India. “The thrust of all these accounts is that the merger of Manipur was accomplished with a combination of cajolement, promises that were not kept, and plain trickery,” he adds. The episode has been a central part of the narratives of most armed insurgency groups in the region.
Haokip says that Meitei groups have for long demanded to go back to a pre-merger agreement status, especially whenever they feel any kind of discontent with the government. “In the present situation though, both the Meiteis and the Kukis are trying to project themselves as Indian as possible,” he notes. “This is mainly to win the favour or sympathy of the central government.”