The following text is the speech delivered by Dr Maya John at a program organized on 30th September 2016 by North East Forum for International Solidarity (NEFIS). The program was organized to commemorate the 120th birth anniversary of the freedom fighter, peasant leader, trade unionist and social activist, Hijam Irabot (1896 – 1951). The meeting was also addressed by the civil rights activist, Irom Sharmila, and the well-known Indian sociologist, Dr Nandini Sundar. This was the first time after calling off her hunger strike that Irom Sharmila addressed a gathering outside Manipur. The concerned program revolved around the aspirations of the people of the North East and strategies required for fulfilling such democratic aspirations.
I thank the organizers for inviting me on this extremely important occasion and I’m grateful for being given the opportunity to share the platform with Irom Sharmila today. As I’ve been requested to speak on the vision and efforts of Hijam Irabot, I shall begin with tracing the trajectory of his political life.
Many of you may know Irabot as a cultural and social activist who was born in Manipur. Irabot was born at Hijam Leikai but was soon sent to live with relatives in Imphal after his father’s demise. With his mother passing away a little later, Irabot was orphaned in his youth. He struggled to complete his education from Imphal and later Dacca. Interestingly, during these years of his youth he showed remarkable political initiative by founding two student bodies, Bal Sangha and Chatra Sanmelan.
Unable to finish his schooling, Irabot returned from Dacca to Manipur and began living with a friend who was employed by the royal court. Recognizing young talent, the king came to employ the services of Irabot. Irabot went on to marry into the royal family of Manipur and was appointed a member of the Sadr Panchayat. However, the young Irabot soon began to distance himself from the king as he increasingly moved towards a secular, democratic and egalitarian approach. For instance, as the Vice President of the organization Nikhil Manipuri Hindu Mahasabha, which was patronized by the Manipuri king, Irabot went on to drop the term ‘Hindu’ from the organization’s name. Irabot organized the first four sessions of this organization, and in the absence of the king from the last session, he seized the opportunity to transform it into a political organization. Given the king’s continuous interference in the functioning of the Mahasabha, which actually clashed with the growing discontent of the Manipuri people against the conjoined forces of British imperialists and ruling elite of the region, Irabot soon resigned from the Sadr Panchayat in protest. He even submitted to the king and Manipur State Durbar a draft outline for the formation of a proper legislature.
Irabot proceeded to break away from the Nikhil Manipur Mahasabha and formed a separate political party, Praja Sanmelani, which actively participated in the militant Second Nupi Lan or women’s war of 1939. He showed immense leadership in this movement and was by now instrumental in raising issues that went beyond concerns of social reform and were closely linked to the people’s aspirations. Friends, the Second Nupi Lan was the struggle of Manipuri women, who had been playing a decisive role in the agrarian economy of the region. Their struggle began as an agitation against the Manipur king and the British Political Agent’s policy of indiscriminate export of rice which had created a famine-like situation in Manipur. By participating in the struggle, Irabot and his supporters helped to further nurture a movement for economic and political reforms that the Second Nupi Lan had triggered.
Coming increasingly into conflict with the Manipur royalty, Irabot was arrested in 1940 and eventually pushed into exile from Manipur. The 1940s were marked by his radicalization and the widening of his ideological horizon. Meeting with several communist leaders in jail, Irabot was soon drawn to the trade union movement of Calcutta and the kisan sabha movement in the Cachar district and Surma valley. In Calcutta he participated in the jute mill workers strikes, while he helped organize Manipuri peasants and non-Manipuri former tea-garden workers in the Cachar.
He increasingly emerged as not just the ‘father of Manipur’ but the brother of all struggling brethren in the region. He became part of the undivided CPI and attended the first Party congress of the CPI in 1943 as a special invitee from Cachar, as well as the All India Kisan Sabha conference in 1944. We must remember that this Communist Party was very different from what exists today. This was a party that believed in the right to self-determination and was committed to an uncompromising struggle for equality and liberty for all. As a communist, he increasingly worked with a sense of international solidarity, which means that Irabot’s endeavors represented the battle against British colonialism, the royalty and all pro-capitalist forces in the Indian subcontinent.
This history and the legacy of Irabot need to be retrieved in our contemporary time; more so given the way in which the Indian state has been plundering the resources of the North East under its ‘Look East’ Policy and due to its efforts to consolidate a position of dominance among ASEAN countries. We must remember that the North East region was a geo-political unit that existed in relative isolation from mainland India with a relatively fluid and shifting frontier till supra-local forces, i.e. the British colonial state and capitalist businesses began making inroads. Traditional communities in this geo-political zone had nurtured intricate inter-community economic interaction and trade patterns, but these were steadily destabilized with the entry of market forces and the integration of the region with the international market.
Historically, the British colonial state –henceforth, the Indian state – along with capitalist forces working in conjunction with the elites in the North East have transformed the traditional economy and life of a large number of groups. This nexus of forces has created a huge under-development in large parts of the North East. This nexus has also allowed the Indian state to conveniently position itself an ‘adjudicator’ and ‘peace-maker’ in matters of local conflicts by making them impossible to resolve within the local context. Now the transformed communities of the North East are forced to mould their disputes, reactions and claims in terms of an extra-local political and economic focus, i.e. in terms of the emerging global economic scenario and international strategic considerations. In other words, the British, and now, the Indian state’s steady intervention in the region has undermined traditional communal ways of resolving inter and intra-community disputes. This entire process has been used to subjugate and exploit the people of the North East.
Not surprisingly, the growing assertion of the impoverished working masses in the North East has been persistently crushed by this nexus via militarization of the region. However, given the persistent discontent among the people of the region and the long history of insurgent movements, the Indian state has tried to stem the tide by bestowing the small North East electorate a disproportionately higher political representation in the Indian parliament. Friends, it is noteworthy that as of now the people of North East constitute 3.8% of the total electorate of India whereas its representation in the parliament is 4.6% i.e. 25 seats out 543 in the parliament. Nevertheless, this representation has led to little empowerment of the North East population. Instead, the elections have facilitated the co-option of leaders and the pacification of various North East communities.
The under-development of the region and the impoverishment of a large section of its population is evident to all the young people sitting here in the audience – all we have to do is look at the large migration from the North East into mainland India for education and employment. Not only do these youth join the ranks of the ever widening pool of unemployed in this country who are desperately taking up insecure, poorly-paid jobs, but they are also faced with problems of racist attacks. The insecurity of urban life in mainland India have cut short many dreams of North East youth. Here in the very same central university where we are sitting, and where several North East youth have been able to take admission, exclusion persists in the form of imposition of Hindi language at the undergraduate level.
In such a context, retrieving Irabot’s legacy is crucial. The articulate manner in which Irabot expressed the need for equality and the fact that everyone should be secured, as well as his belief that socialism was necessary for the reconstitution of an egalitarian economy and polity is a message we must take back with us today. Irabot revolted against the system – against the nexus of colonialism, the royalty and capitalist forces – and he died fighting. Did he die in vain? How do we situate his legacy and ensure its continuation? These are important questions to ask of ourselves today. To begin to answer these fundamental questions we must closely engage with the later phase of Irabot’s life.
In the later phase of Irabot’s life, both Manipur and India saw a very different kind of trend emerging which did not match the real aspirations of the struggling people – something which Irabot in a very perceptive manner discussed in the context of the first Manipur Assembly. Let us take the example of how the founding document of this country, the Constitution, was formulated. We have only to turn to the indisputable fact that the Constituent Assembly which drafted and deliberated upon the Indian Constitution excluded the voice of most of the people. The said Constituent Assembly was formed as per a 1946 election in British India that was based on property franchise. In this light, the founding document of the country is based on nothing but a historical lie. Given the provision of property franchise, the Constituent Assembly included the representatives of a small segment of enfranchised people of what was until then British India. Indeed, the Preamble of the Constitution which begins with the words “We, the people of India…” should actually read as “We the representatives of less than 10 per cent of the people impose our will on the majority”.
Yes, my dear friends, many parts of the country were not even part of this grand endeavor. These representatives of a fraction of ‘freed’ people used their newfound power not to initiate a dialogue with the people of princely states, but to negotiate with the leaders. In the process, popular leaders were often sidelined. So the heads of the Constituent Assembly negotiated with the kings of the princely states – with the kingdoms and not with the people who were oppressed as subjects of these kingdoms.
Our polity’s evolution was not based on a social contract between the people of India and the people of the princely states. It has henceforth been based on a contract between the Indian state and the ruling elite i.e. the kings of the princely states. No matter how much the state perpetuates a collective amnesia, can we really forget that our country’s founding moment and document has not been an act of people choosing their own destiny?
The fact that the right to determine their own destiny eluded many people of this country is well reflected in one of Irabot’s last communication before his death. In a letter circulated in October 1948 to the members of the Manipur Assembly, Irabot highlighted the façade of constitution making by objecting to the fact that apart from the exclusion of elected members from his party (the Manipur Praja Mandal), several communities like the Mhow were not represented in the Assembly. Clearly, his effort was to take everyone along. The question is whether we can do that today? Do our strategies today further the aspirations of the people, of the masses, to choose their destiny?
Are we doing enough to return back to the people the right to choose their own destiny? Should we, ladies and gentleman, be satisfied merely by electing representatives every five years? In the present conjuncture and in the present form of Assembly elections can elected representatives alone be the repository of our efforts to carve out our future? At a time when representatives who are negotiating on behalf of the people have increasingly begun to appear like the state itself, is it in our best interest to throw in our lot with messiah-like leaders?
Friends, I think you know the answer to this. We have to fight our own battles for equality, for a life of dignity and for the right to decide our own destiny rather than clinging on to the façade of democracy. Ours cannot be a struggle merely to build/find leaders who will then ‘lead’ us. Our struggle cannot be simply about the never-ending search for people to represent us or sit on hunger strike for us. We must draw inspiration from legacies like that of Irabot which speak of unity, solidarity and strive to provide real power to all struggling, oppressed people. It is in such united and egalitarian struggles that hope is still lurking.
Let me end with drawing an analogy from a well-known fable – that of the Emperor who wore no clothes. You may know of this story of a haughty Emperor who liked to dress well for every public appearance he made. Once, this Emperor engaged the services of a notorious tailor. The tailor appeared in court on the day of the celebration with not a stitch of cloth. He however proclaimed loudly that those who could see the garment were alone true or legitimate sons. Although the Emperor himself could not see the garment, he pretended to wear it and proceeded outside to greet his subjects. No one spoke a word, fearing that he or she would be derided for not being a true offspring. While praises were being showered from all directions on the Emperor’s so-called grand attire, it was a little boy who nudged his mother and loudly said “but the Emperor is naked”. Friends, we must choose whether we want to be like the little boy who drew on his autonomy from the power to be to speak the truth.
Today our sister, the Iron Lady of Manipur, Irom Sharmila, is speaking to us about hope and what she believes is the way forward. She has been inspiration for the democratic aspirations of Manipuri people ever since she began her epic fast on 2nd November 2000. Her fast began following the massacre of 10 civilians in Malom town by paramilitary forces. She announced that apart from fasting, she wouldn’t comb her hair or look in a mirror until the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) was repealed in Manipur. The personal hardship she undertook as a form of resistance to facilitate discussion and appropriate action for the repeal of the draconian law of AFSPA ignited much hope among the struggling people of Manipur. She became a symbol of hope, a messenger of our voice. The self-punishment she took upon herself became an important vehicle of our resistance and came to represent our moral victory over an apathetic, aggressive state year after year.
But it is difficult to contest the fact that all this while the state has postponed dialogue on AFSPA, and has succeeded to cloister Irom Sharmila’s endeavor. The state’s measures have increasingly isolated her from the people. She has been shuttled between court and hospital in an extremely insensitive, non-humanitarian way; undercutting her moral victory. It is a well-known fact that Irom Sharmila was regularly re-arrested, produced before court and placed in judicial custody.
Friends, today we are at a conjuncture where meaningful dialogue has continuously been circumvented by the Indian state, militarization of the region has persisted, and overall despair has drawn more and more political actors to mainstream electoral politics. At this conjuncture, Manipuri people have steadily gravitated towards electoral politics as a formal solution to their angst. However, despite the periodic results of elections and government formation, disappointment persists within the masses. This in all probability has fueled the hostility within some towards Irom Sharmila’s decision to discontinue her fast and contest elections. But what we must remember is that our strategies have to collectively evolve and we have to look for the silver lining – the hope which alone can drive the movement for carving out our own destiny. It is the hope that things can be different which fuels our mixed response to Irom Sharmila’s recent decision. We must cling to this hope, to the aspirations of the masses, so as to build stronger endeavors to fight our oppression. It is the hope that can help us overcome the dichotomy between leaders and the led, between the people and their representatives. Let us rise together – let Irom, the Iron Lady, become one amongst us. Let us together create an unstoppable tide which successfully drowns prevailing oppression and exploitation.
Friends, with these thoughts and appeal I would like to conclude, and once again thank the organizers for giving me this privileged opportunity to share the dais with Irom Sharmila and Dr Nandini Sundar