India and I
A recollection on nationalism and how we pass off our connection to a nation as mere political inevitability but simultaneously realising it is a part of the whole game that we have been mistaking as a way of life
How much do a mainland Indian — and it certainly means not the military personnel and omniscient social scientists — understands the geopolitical entity known as the Northeast? Here’s a hint: It is inversely proportional to the alienation of the people in the periphery. All along though, many natives have been leaving no stone unturned to be accepted as an equal citizen of the nation. The sense of alienation as well as discrimination is so profound that we have overlooked so many things that we share with the mainland. Apparently, nationalists and patriots have been working as hard as the conformist-natives on acceptance to build a nation and they are succeeding; well, good for them.
Our collective life is comparative to the growth or failure of the Indian nation. We love to compare our reality to that of the nation, despite knowing the sole reward of joining the union has been quite at a price, as evident from the crises of chronic armed movements, political conflicts and agitations of all sorts. An example is clear from how we would refer to the Indian railway system as a marker of development. In its evolution of more than 150 years, the railway is still struggling to make its way into the rough terrains of the Northeast. Still, we like to compare it, or to be precise consider its lacking — that Manipur has no railway system except a rail-head in Jiribam, located at the extreme west of the state — as a sign of our backwardness. In this confusion I might have missed the connection of belonging to a nation which I have been passing it off as mere political inevitability.
Then I saw the links step-wise.
Flight of Fancy
First of all, I’ll admit I’m not surprised owing to my hypocritical living. I have been in New Delhi for the last nine years. Clearly it’s not Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur, though these could have been the places of my fancy. If you take a flight from Kolkata, it takes you hardly four hours to reach Bangkok though the actual duration is an hour and half lesser; and if I fly from Imphal to New Delhi it is a three-and-a-half-hour ride. If we do a simple math, Kolkata is 70 minutes to the west of Imphal on a direct flight, so then it would take less than three hours to reach Bangkok located east from my hometown. Sensor devices for measuring distance in the air may have a different calculation.
After playing host to a few phony flights from Mandalay, the Imphal airport is now international as well. The Golden Triangle appears a thousand kilometres closer suddenly! But at the end of the day, I’m still in New Delhi. That’s quite a lot of India in me.
I have very little respect for conforming natives but it seems I’m no different from them. Yet I believe I will not die if I have no nationality or a rubber stamp on my forehead to show my allegiance as a citizen, who should never miss a chance to curse Pakistan and China. Maybe, that’s the only difference. Frankly, I’d be glad to have as much dissimilarity as possible but the hypocrite in me is counterattacking my own conscience.
My only defence is political idealism — on the right to self-determination and the right to live a life with respect and dignity. There is a third ideal that I have mentioned towards the end of this write-up. This confession might sound like a separatist agenda but it is not. Under international law and as accepted by an intergovernmental organisation such as the United Nations, we have the privilege that, on the basis of ‘the principle of equal rights and fair equality of opportunity, we have the right to freely choose our sovereignty and international political status with no external compulsion or interference’. Everybody knows the merger of Manipur into the union of India was coerced and extralegal. In fact, there is no question of separatism but it is a reasonable call that what was should be what is and what is should be what ought to be.
Serpentine Relation, the Mahabharata and the Himalayas
But then, my links, our connections to India continue unabated. Until a few decades ago in the pre-liberalisation days, the foreigners knew this country for snakes, snake charmers and what not. As a matter of fact, Manipur is also known for its snakes, though it resembles more of a dragon than pungi-loving cobras and vipers.
The first Manipuri king in recorded history is still worshipped as Nongda Lairen Pakhangba (33–154 AD) — the Manipuris worship their ancestors and history is called puwari, which etymologically means the story of grandfathers.
Nongda Lairen Pakhangba’s reference will be clearer if we break down his name into three parts: Nongda is a god-sent; Lairen, a mythical snake; and Pakhangba, one who knows his father. Lairen is a python in modern day and thus the serpentine theory of our relationship. The local deity in my neighbourhood is Khamlangba. He is another complex snake-person and is also considered to be a sylvan god. He is believed to have played polo during the reign of Pakhangba.
[In Manipur, Past and Present: The Heritage and Ordeals of a Civilization, Volume 4, Prof Naorem Sanajaoba wrote that Khamlangba — whose lifespan matched with the coronation of the first Pong (present-day Laos) king around 80AD — had travelled to Takhel (Tripura), brought many immigrants and finally settled somewhere in the Uripok area in Imphal West.]
The relationship of snakes might be superficial but I cannot help see the proximity to the Indian union. In any case, it is not about Sanskritisation of every aspect of our sociocultural lives, from festivals to the name of the families and hills. Hinduism had uprooted the indigenous lives three hundred years ago, but not before proselytising the Tibeto-Burman speaking and animistic, ancestor-worshiping Meiteis to the pure vegetarian, alien faith of the Hindus. We are still facing the brunt of identity crisis, social unrest and division among the ethnic groups. But again we are connected with the tales of snakes!
Till today, some people also believe that we have our origin from the Mahabharata. This is ridiculous on many levels but is becoming personal. One of the most interesting television shows in our childhood days was Mahabharata. The razzmatazz fights of arrows and bows were the greatest attraction. Who was that old man lying on a kind of bedding made up of only arrows? Seemingly the process of Indianisation had begun in the 18th century with the arrival of Hinduism and all of these issues such as the Merger Agreement in 1949, television shows and militarisation are just the parts of a big picture.
This does not mean the process is completed; even the British took 400 years to build the incomplete India, which celebrated its 69th birth anniversary only in August 2015. Simultaneously, many people from the trouble-torn regions are up in arms against New Delhi for political rights. But I’m convinced nationalists would be grinning to know the relationship between mainland India and the peripheries are growing despite the disloyalty of the latter.
Another similarity would be the Himalayan range that extends across the northern and eastern of the country. Official figures show that the Indian Himalayan Region comprises Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and West Bengal. The officials would not even care to name all the states but Manipur also lies in the eastern wing of the Himalaya. For that matter, the Chin Hills, a range of mountains and a part of the Arakan Mountain Range, stretches northward from Manipur to the Burmese Chin state too.
Geopolitical significance, strategic locations, schematic zones and pivot areas are some of the fancy expressions that the military agencies of the Indian government employ quite often but as always, it never rings a bell in the popular imagination. Anyway, we are still with India!
The Himalayas also stand as a living proof that, if not for anything else, a nation is made up of components that share a common boundary. We can see later how the idea of a united India is built upon the myth of a common past and a destiny.
Meanwhile, I guess I can go to Tamenglong and keeping left, I can reach Ladakh without a map. The stapled Chinese visa issued in Arunachal would not be a problem. I presume so. In primary school we had already made the connection between the Himalaya and Hindustan by making an acronym out of the latter: Himaloi Ingle Naare Daktar Udre Sire Taare Akhoi Nungaitre (loosely, it is cold in the Himalayas and there is no doctor; there has been death and it makes us sad!) It was inspired by a notebook named Hindustan.
The Hindu Honour
Well, the list is going the extra mile, evidently showing how attractive India is to everybody. Even an atheist like me would like to claim about belonging to a Hindu family and having a name of that faith — and there is also an incumbent government at the centre whose party ideology is guided by Hindu thoughts.
Here’s a caveat. In the most unlikely situations when he should be articulating on the issues such as blatant racism, our sole Member of Parliament would begin his lamentation on a television show by crying that we are a Hindu. (Please refer to the sound bite by Thokchom Meinya in the wake of the Nido Taniam case in 2014. He is also the same guy who made news last year after growing older by 11 years in five years.) And another caveat: even the Bamons — read the Sanskrit-text-in-Burmese-accent-chanting Brahmins — eat beef and pork in Manipur.
Amidst this racket, it is worth mentioning that Indian nationalists harp on popular faiths such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism citing these religions bind the Indian subcontinent. Or in their dominant Hinduspeak, it is the supreme Akhand Bharat that comprises Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka (sometimes Afghanistan is included too).
We are playing our part well, thanks to Santidas Gosai and his gang of Hindu missionaries. It is important to some people because, one, religion plays an important role in shaping the imagination of Indian nationalism, and two, with a concept like that of ‘Hindutva’ — which lays the foundation of Hindu hegemony — it is a fodder for contemporary realpolitik. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, RSS or the National Volunteer Organisation which was established in 1925, is the ringmaster. The only problem for other people like us is in the lack of our presence in the national consciousness and the desperation of this very religion with its principles infested with an illusion of superiority as evident in its caste system.
Several Indologists have put forward a cogent argument that the caste system is the reason behind the success of Indian democracy. What a real maya!
Interaction for the Nation
As if this progression has been deficient, we have formed a very close relationship with the military institutions. A sense of brotherhood is incomplete without the presence of several thousands of gun-toting militants, nay, the military personnel from various parts of the country. Over the years, it is getting filled while more and more people are singing hymns to India. This might be rude but I cannot help ask it. What better ways are there to unite the people than waging a proxy war against its own people and further organising military–civil action programmes?
The paramilitary forces are praised for these programmes because they are the one who is safeguarding the principles of democracy. It may sound ironical to talk about military and democracy in the same line but our national connection has made it a mere ordinary stuff just like as in killing civilians and staging fake encounters. First, the military establishment is known for its blind loyalty to the nation; second, the army men are arriving in droves; and third, they are doing well as in killing the people, who in their words are misguided youths. So precisely, the connection to India is becoming as strong as the national military might. But what do you get when you juxtapose this condition with the preaching on nonviolence that the nation was supposedly built on?
Anyway, people-to-people interaction is a major part of building a consensus. As noted earlier, where several elements of nation-building are filling up the holes, the kind of interaction between people is intense. Several migrants, especially from North India are residing in my hometown to make up for the room spared by the military personnel vis-à-vis the construction of India. A few of them are occupied in commercial activities in the heart of the town, others in managing government-sponsored mega-projects while the remaining is into manual labour workforce. The depth of relationship is also evident from a recent case in faraway Bihar. Sample this news headline: MP Pappu Yadav halts trains in Bihar to protest violence against Bihari migrants in Manipur. Bihar, Manipur and what else; this is so India. Kudos to the experts on statecraft! (Crime-master Pappu Yadav can be sent away to where he belongs: the jail.)
The Ruler the Dealer
hen we have the mother lode of rules: the Constitution of the country. It binds all of us. Leave alone the men on the street, even armed insurgents who once took up arms have given up their machine guns and joined the mainstream in accordance to the law. Though their strength is minuscule with regards to the number of groups still operating in a region like the Northeast, the rumour is that a peaceful and productive change is possible only from transformation within the system. I doubt it.
Arguments about revolution, change from within or outside the system, the deception of policy-makers and others will never end as long as the last bullet is fired. If we go by the current political uncertainties, the rate of extortion cases and murders, terror unleashed by both state and non-state actors and the unlimited vested interests of the power-players, then it is not going to end soon.
A practical observation shows that if not for the hardcore militants, every man and woman is always recommending to refer problems to the Constitution. Even sympathisers are reluctant about going against it. Basically, regardless of how much you stand for ethnic nationalism, you have to remember that everything is under the Constitution, which is also the longest written constitution of any sovereign country in the world. As of April 2015, the Constitution consists of a preamble, 25 parts containing 448 articles, 12 schedules, five appendices and 99 amendments (Figure source: the Ministry of Law and Justice, Government of India).
Nevertheless, what matters is the common thread that ties us to a nation. It is an entirely another case that the authority can simply ignore the 147-page report of the Justice BP Jeevan Reddy Committee on the urgent need to repeal the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958. It was in June 2005 and now a decade down the line, the draconian law is still in effect and is a great aid in the building of a future superpower. AFSPA is related here because of the issues of constitutional validity. Never say the State has no right to take away the right to life intentionally or violate human rights against what is guaranteed in the Constitution or under an international law.
Again, the idea seems to sink in my head: no matter what, do refer to the Constitution that is the backbone of a nation. Everyone is equal, at least on paper and how it is shown ostensibly from the various government agencies, and as a corollary, no Manipuri is discriminated more than a Kashmiri.
It is noteworthy that in Asia, Manipur had the first democratic government with its own constitution, and is considered only second to the Philippines. Now India is building, banking on the myth of a functioning democracy, which other postcolonial countries have not been able to. Then, the legislative assembly of Manipur was dissolved and in October 1949, the ancient Asiatic kingdom became a miserable Part-C State or a union territory in the new country. October 15 is remembered as the Black Day and similar to any observation it is a day of general strike, just like it is on the Independence and Republic Days. At the end of the day, I can only say Manipur is still in India. Denial is not going to solve the problem.
Before we go further, let’s check some of the government agencies:
Apparently the government is not that lethargic and sloppy as is commonly assumed by the people. The agencies are into varied fields including economic planning, implementation of accords with militants, resolving border disputes, security requirement and execution of development plans and policies.
Ground realities tell a different tale but the cohesion of the union can be measured quantitatively. This reminds me of the often quoted remark by a former prime minister: for every one rupee sent for a development programme, only 15 paise reaches the genuine beneficiary. In our case, we can say, for every one rupee, 90 paise goes to the personal bank accounts of the threesome group of ministers, contractors and bureaucrats; and another five goes to multiple armed outfits.
This explains well why it usually takes 100 years to build a small flyover. Nonetheless, the tangible markers of government intervention do show firstly, our close connection, and secondly, the bureaucrats and local representatives are not lazy even if they have a vision that does not extend beyond a stack of freebies from New Delhi.
When we become India a few years after the departure of the British, some natives believed it was an unfair deal. Rightly so. We had had our own Constitution, a popular government with elected representatives, plus a civilisational narrative. Briefly we had what it takes to become a modern nation-state. Yet, some of them found how misleading and relative could the concept of Westphalian sovereignty be, as the Indian union dismissed it categorically. In Sovereignty: Organised Hypocrisy, Stephen D Krasner points out clearly that states always interfere in the domestic affairs of other states and that it is more intense when the former has certain power and influence in their stock.
That explains the origin of armed movement against the union. Nobody can deny it no matter how many successive governments at the provincial and union level have been pushing it aside as a problem of law and order and unemployment. Now we even have a parallel government as the non-state actors occupied the vacant space in governance and administration left by the inefficient and corrupt government agencies.
On the other side of the fence, there have been many people who have yielded to the cultural hegemony that the Indian union professed and which it had learnt substantially from its former colonial master. Regardless of this connotation, we have heard from our elders how much they have plunged into the gulf of so-called national projection of a country.
My father used to hum Kishore Kumar’s song and in fact, his generation marked the peak of natives heading to the mainland for higher studies. Allahabad, Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Lucknow, Mumbai, Mysore, New Delhi and Pune were some of the popular destinations. A generation earlier in my grandfather’s days, it used to be Sylhet (presently in Bangladesh) and Guwahati. Concisely, it was not merely a question of higher studies and becoming fans of Zeenat Aman but a developing canvas of belonging to a nation. It is a fact. India has been ‘flowing’ into us with soothing songs and promises of a better future that only a modern state can afford to offer.
In the 21st century, the Westphalian concept, which has been the bedrock for nation-states and sovereignty, is under attack with the advent of transnational corporations, international government organisations, nongovernmental organisations, global advocacy groups and other influential non-state actors. Globalisation, in particular with the economic growth of Third World countries, has played a decisive role in this development. No more do the size of territory and military might show the power of a nation-state but rather its share in the global economy does.
Scepticism has been slowly gaining ground in the post-World War II period. The main argument is that the Westphalian era has become ancient history and its doctrine is getting outdated, especially with respect to the concept of sovereignty. The only bottleneck is in our inability to conceptualise politics sans a sovereign state. Howsoever it takes time and the wisdom of change being the only constant thing implies that nation-states are not immortal nor the national boundaries are demarcated for eternity. Great emperors have become dust and powerful kingdoms mere stories. For now we can only say that nation-states have been around for quite some time.
The birth of nationalism is attributed to the decline of church in Europe during the Age of Enlightenment (1620s–1780s) and the Industrial Revolution (1760s–1840s). In this regard, it is relatively a new phenomenon in India. It rose only during the colonial days. So, it is neither a time-tested formula for a permanent political system nor an entity that has been guaranteed to be functional forever. The concept is not even original but a rip-off from western countries where there were entirely different conditions. This artificial thought is also a product of numerous colonial agenda and western education that gave birth to political ideals such as nationality, liberty and self-governance.
A few patriotic Indian writers claim that the economic criticism of the colonial masters paved the way for rise of Indian nationalism. It is valid on account of the huge size of the subcontinent with each region having its own problems and challenges that fashion the thoughts on nationalism.
Again, there is enough literature to show that the idea of India was a European invention, starting right from the name of the country. For the dead nationalists it was just a wish — especially during the liberation struggle against the British in the first half of 20th century — that the subcontinent shares a common past and a destiny.
In Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Benedict Anderson wrote:
A nation is a socially constructed community, imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of that group.
As jokes and anecdotes, we have so many connections with the nation as it is today, but honestly things are different on the ground. Manipur shares its culture, tradition and history more with the Southeast Asian nations than with India. Ernest Renan, the French philosopher, puts it succinctly: ‘Getting its history wrong is part of being a nation.’
Other European writers have articulated that fascism was a means for the right-wing authoritarian government to create a pseudo-community, irrespective of the existing relationship between people. These rudiments ruin all the reasons of a nation that explain of comprising different parts to create a common whole for a considerable period of time.
Restlessly in Diversity
A long time ago, Rabindranath Tagore preached (Nationalism, 1917, Project Gutenberg):
The whole world is becoming one country through scientific facility. And the moment is arriving when you also must find a basis of unity which is not political. If India can offer to the world her solution, it will be a contribution to humanity. There is only one history — the history of man. All national histories are merely chapters in the larger one.
…I will persist in believing that there is such a thing as the harmony of completeness in humanity, where poverty does not take away his riches, where defeat may lead him to victory, death to immortality, and where in the compensation of Eternal Justice those who are the last may yet have their insult transmuted into a golden triumph.
Tagore recognised that India is a melting pot. India is a land of diversity though it is a sheer exaggeration to mix it with unity. Unity in diversity is, at most, just a source of motivation for the heiraang-leiraang sentimentalists. For a huge country it is no wonder to have the heterogeneity. Even a tiny state like Manipur is home to more than thirty different ethnic groups.
Today the issues exist multifariously as well. There will be few takers to talk about a freedom movement because oppression and subjugation, in the words of government officials, are but domestic affairs. For the record, the foundation of India lays in subjugation. History is a witness to how the princely states were merged forcefully with the union, much thanks to Vallabhai Patel. It is a pity that Jawaharlal Nehru has overshadowed his contributions, and this, thanks to the Congress party. We do know how he was arrogantly responsible for the Indo-Manipur Merger Agreement.
Sometimes mainland political observers would assert that the lack of any inclusive plan for growth and development has weakened the substructure that builds India. Isn’t this kind of reasoning too little and too late?
The three regions of Kashmir, the Red Corridor and the Northeast are no wonder a thorn in the pride of Indian nationalists. A basic difference is glaring in political expression: first, the mainland has the space for articulation; second there is no such thing as a room for discourse for these three regions because of historical and geographical reasons, with regards to the construct of nation-state as a primary political identity in the contemporary world. While a nation-building process is futile without a national identity, for instance, the Northeast has become a natural lab for fomenting ethnic nationalism. However, this theme will be unnecessarily elusive if not for an elaboration solely on this topic.
Now, concepts like independence, democracy, equality and rule of law are a form of delusion in these regions. Then across the nation, there are the interrelated social issues of subalterns, those ranging from the scheduled tribes and Dalits to the religious minorities. There are also apolitical issues bogging India down such as demographic crises, poverty and environmental issues. All of these have a direct impact on the grand nation-building project.
In this context, how do you imagine the proud declaration that the nation is getting ready to be a superpower although not before China does? Especially the middle-class Indians have been advocating on this economical rise on one hand. It is another story that this class constitutes a mere 5% of the total population of 1,276,267,000, according to a 2015 estimate by the International Monetary Fund. On the other hand, only time can tell the outcomes of the national branding operation through initiatives like Make In India, Incredible India and the like.
I believe in anarchism — the third defence of my political idealism after the right to self-determination and the right to live a life with respect and dignity. It is an antithesis to nationalism which is anti-individualism. However, it is becoming a form of resistance, alternatively, a theoretical foundation to rebuke the prevailing political system. I consider this approach as pragmatic and convenient. In an anarchist society, an individual is critical but in a society like the Manipuris’, community living is the norm. There is no point in justification. The inclination to wipe out the gods and masters is as fresh as ever.
Politics has played a cruel game with us in Manipur. In the name of a nation, many of us are suffering and dying and more worryingly, we do not see an end in the near future. The only probable solution seems to be how we understand the social, political and economical dynamics rather than to feign allegiance to a nation that looks at you as mere objects of a frontier that only needs to be treated militarily. Understanding a problem is essential to solve it. Though in most cases, the settings and our lived experience have been blending to form breeding grounds for solid resistance and hostility. Criminalisation of politics and the prevailing gun culture have further shrunk the space for rationality.
We are trapped in a quandary making us parochial and too weak to see the contemporary global dynamics. Policy makers have a fancy term for this phenomenon in the Indian polity. Regionalism — but it is a lie to cover up the ineffective modes of administration and governance. (Here’s a related write-up on this blog: Minority Report: Regionalism Is a Lie.) In some cases it is relegated with the label of sub-nationalism.
The idea of India from my standpoint is as fragmented as that of my home-state Manipur. Its concept of nationalism is no different from others — that we cannot live together but have to set certain national boundaries and develop an idea like free trade and sign agreements with other equally recognised nations.
We also saw a case first in high school. It was the perfect example on how the idea of a nation is potholed with ignorance and prejudices. In geography class, we had to draw the ‘full’ map of India and locate certain states and districts. Everybody knew the head of the map had been already chopped off to give room for Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir, which was established on 24 October 1947. Under any circumstance, nobody would expect a high school student to be politically incorrect. No kidding. Back then, most of us knew how to draw the map with the ‘head’ and pinpoint any place in India. I’m not proud of it but it was so much easier than painful trigonometry.
When we grew up, it became an issue again, because a majority of the mainlanders — rich, poor, educated, illiterate, city people, villagers, slickers, loafers, deaf, dumb, blind, lame asses, smartasses — are always confused with the Northeast to the likes of China, Korea and Nepal amongst other; while they are clueless about where places like Aizawl, Imphal and Kohima are located. Benedict Anderson’s thought on imagined communities looks great only as a research problem or a reference to have an insight into the everyday problems. Once I told a priest in a well-known temple in East Delhi, when asked, that I’m from Malaysia. I cannot help it but India shares an illicit relationship with me.
POSTSCRIPT: ‘I’ is a powerful word in Hinduism. If I know myself I will know the universe, say the sages. It was I who created the universe, say the scriptures. Never in any religion is it mentioned with such arrogance but a creator who made it with the chief dealers, or popularly gods, playing the role of messengers. Darwin would be weeping in his grave like a baby gorilla. Personally, I’m a believer — I believe in the nonexistence of god. Finally, history is our link to the past and it is an open secret how it is altered to suit the taste of the ruling regime in India. But nobody can hide the truth.