On October 18, Irom Sharmila Chanu took the plunge into electoral politics. Sharmila, who had leaped into the public eye because of the 16-year fast against the law that protects the security forces from prosecution against human rights violations, announced the formation of the People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance at the Imphal Press Club.
In a political space dominated by the Congress and a rising Bharatiya Janata Party, there exists a space for a Manipur-centric party that puts the state’s interests first and not the diktats of a distant high command. That is the political voice the People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance is aiming to be.
Did Prime Minister Narendra Modi "say Manipur tribals should have the right to manage their own affairs?" asked the party's convener, Erendro Leichombam. “Did Sonia Gandhi say so at any point? Never."
Manipuris, he said, need to resolve their own problems. "We compound the problem when we let outsiders broker our issues," he said. "It’s time the praja [people] of Manipur cut out the middlemen, sit together and figure things out by themselves.”
I flew from Kolkata to Imphal on October 15 to give a lecture at Manipur University. I made my way to the guest house through near-empty Imphal streets. Though it was the middle of the day, most of the shops were closed. On inquiry, I was told it was October 15. “So?” I asked. My informant told me that day was observed as National Black Day. Hence, the shutdown – part protest and part custom.
On October 15, 1949, Manipur was merged into the Indian Union under extremely dubious circumstances. Many in Manipur maintain the merger was illegal. Mainland India does not talk about it because it runs contrary to the accepted belief that the Indian Union is a voluntary one. India was proclaimed a republic in 1950.
Manipur, with a Constitution and a government elected under that Constitution and at that point not a part of India, was annexed by the Union of India, which still did not have a Constitution and was not a republic. The Indian government (with no Manipuri representative) brought democracy to Manipur by putting its unelected king under house arrest while he was in Shillong and making him sign a merger document under coercion. Manipur’s elected representative government vehemently opposed this annexation.
When an elected government exists, sovereignty does not reside in the body of the constitutional monarch but in the elected Assembly. For example, if Queen Elizabeth II were to be kidnapped and forced to sign away the independence of the United Kingdom to Russia, it would not be legal as sovereignty and the right to sign that off reside in the British Parliament.
Remembering the past
That Manipur has maintained its own discourse on these issues was evident in the fact that there were detailed discussions on the annexation at primetime on ISTV, one of Manipur’s main TV channels.
After National Black Day, the Coalition for Indigenous Rights Campaign, a citizens’ organisation, observed October 18 as Manipur National Day, commemorating the first sitting of the democratically elected Assembly on that day in 1948. Surviving family members of the participants of that Assembly were honoured.
It is not accidental that the People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance chose that same date for its press conference in which it officially announced its formation and participation in the Assembly elections next year.
“Exactly 68 years ago today in 1948, democracy was inaugurated in Manipur,” said Leichombam, the party convenor. “Historians consider this the first of its kind, clearly even before India had its own Constitution in 1950. To underscore the spirit of democracy, today, October 18, 2016, we launched our regional party, Peoples Resurgence and Justice Alliance.”
Why Peoples Resurgence? "For a long time, we have been denied the right to understand our own history, denied the privilege to feel proud of our glorious history," he said. "The current crop of sheepish leadership forces us, the people, to forget our past and has created an environment where we must resign ourselves to apathy and frustration. But it is only when we know we are glorious that we can strive for greater glories. We must revive our identity. Without understanding who we are as a people, we would not know where we should be heading. Our identity is our self-confidence. Our identity is our dignity. Our identity is our freedom. Manipur needs to wake up and rediscover that it is a society of honour, integrity, and pride."
In the crowded and cynical electoral political space of Manipur, will the People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance, with Irom Sharmila Chanu as its mascot, make any dent whatsoever? Few expect it to make the kind of spectacular debut the Asom Gana Parishad or the Telugu Desam Party did in their first electoral fights. For one, the People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance is not the culmination of any broad-based political movement that the others were. But the sentiment it wants to ride is palpable in the Imphal valley. It seems that some in Manipur are acutely aware of Milan Kundera’s immortal words: the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.