Unmindful of history: on Biren Singh and Manipur

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Unmindful of history: on Biren Singh and Manipur
Kham Khan Suan Hausing

kham khan suan.hausing

A proposed memorial to a Meitei king could send the wrong signal in Manipur

The Chief Minister of Manipur, N. Biren Singh (in photograph), dares to do things differently. Unlike his predecessors, he has invested a great deal of time and energy in symbolism and in building a tribal-friendly image since he led the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to capture power in the State.

The tribal issue

Given that the BJP won only 21 seats against the 28 seats won by the Congress in the 60-member Assembly in the 2017 elections, Mr. Singh has to make a special effort to maintain a stable coalition government of 21 BJP, four Nagaland People’s Front, four National People’s Party and one Lok Janshakti Party MLAs. He has to tread cautiously as he inherited a troublesome legacy from his predecessor, Ibobi Singh, whose government passed three controversial bills in August 2015 — the Protection of Manipur People Bill, the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (Seventh Amendment) Bill, and the Manipur Shops and Establishments (Second Amendment) Bill — which upset the tribals and led to violent protests. Against this backdrop, Mr. Singh’s most formidable task was to bridge the hills-valley divide.

However, Mr. Singh has created a political storm of sorts by inaugurating the Zou Gal Memorial Cemetery on December 19 at Behiang, an important trading outpost on the India-Myanmar border, and also laying the foundation stone for the Maharaja Chandrakirti Memorial Park at Chibu (locally known as Chivu) around 2 km away from Behiang.

Intended to commemorate the valour of 94-odd Zou martyrs who sacrificed their lives fighting against the British attempt to forcibly deploy them as labour corps during World War I, the memorial was intended to symbolise the independence and lordship of the Zo people over their land. On the other hand, Chivu and the name of Maharaja Chandrakirti Singh evoked a sense of betrayal of trust among the local people. This is because one of their powerful chiefs, Go Khaw Thang, died in 1872 in jail after he was ‘treacherously seized’ — to borrow words from Brigadier General Bourchier, commander of the Cachar Column of the Lushai Expedition (1871-1872) — on March 7, 1872 at Chivu camp by Chandrakirti’s soldiers led by Majors Thangal and K. Balaram Singh. The 2000 Meitei soldiers were enlisted by Major General Nuthall, the then officiating Political Agent of Manipur, as a part of the Cachar column.

In a distortion of historical facts, the Chibu Stone Inscription, subsequently commissioned by Chandrakirti, commemorates the successful completion of the British expedition as if it was a victory of the Maharaja over the tribals. Interestingly, the three stone slabs (each edifying the Maharaja, Nuthall and the two Meitei majors) are being used as a marker of the Maharaja’s, and by extension, Manipur’s border. This amounts to over-stretching the imagination as no Meitei king ever succeeded in extending their border and control over the ‘ferocious’ and ‘independent’ tribes beyond Moirang town, a fact supported by all colonial and local oral historical accounts. The state has given protection to the site in Chivu where the inscription was placed by passing an order in 1990 and included the inscriptions among the 49 monuments protected under the Manipur Ancient and Historical Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1976. The Archaeological Survey of India seemed to be oblivious to these spurious facts when it accepted this problematic version in one of its publications titled Indian Archaeology 1987-88: A Review edited by its then director M.C. Joshi in 1993 (p.120).

Murmurs of protest

Possibly mindful of the past which continues to inform hills-valley relations in Manipur, neither the State nor the ASI has ever attempted to invoke the name of Maharaja Chandrakirti. In his attempt to develop the site into a tourism park as part of the larger exercise to develop Behiang and Chivu as the “second gateway to Southeast Asia” under India’s Look East Policy, Mr. Singh not only ignores this historical fact but also panders to majoritarian nationalism. In the process he opens up an old wound and hurts the sentiments of the Zo people.

Given that Chandrakirti was not particularly known for his successful military exploits, but for his cowardice and treachery in dealing with the Zo people along the India-Myanmar border, invoking his name would not be particularly useful for Mr. Singh in winning the hearts of the tribal people. His Facebook post about the laying of the foundation stone of Chandrakirti Park elicited mixed responses. While some applauded Mr. Singh for this bold gesture and already proclaimed him as a Meitei ‘nationalist’, ‘patriot’ and ‘hero’, tribals castigated him for his ‘insensitivity’ and asked him to ‘apologise’ to the hill people.

Rumblings in the various local social media indicate that the issue will not disappear any time soon. If Mr. Singh genuinely believes in Ching-tam Amani (hill-valley are one), he will need to respect and honour the Zo people in particular and the hill tribal people in general both in words and deed. The big question is whether Mr. Singh can navigate his politics in ways which would be capacious enough to transcend mere symbolism and genuinely accommodate tribal icons, sensitivity and autonomy aspirations or whether he will be increasingly integrative/assimilationist by embarking upon a majoritarian path. Time will tell.

Kham Khan Suan Hausing is professor, department of political science, University of Hyderabad