Former People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak Politburo member Ibotombi Khuman tells Avalok Langer that protracted ethnic infighting has undermined the cause of the Manipur movement
There is something wrong with Manipur. Scarcity, rampant corruption and unemployment have led to the haemorrhaging of the mafia-like underground groups. With insurgency becoming a big source of income, the ‘cause’ for Manipur’s 30-plus underground groups seems to have taken a backseat.
According to local history, after centuries of independence, self-reliance, and sovereignty, the Maharaja of the Hindu Meitei Kingdom of Manipur, kept under house arrest in Shillong, was forced to sign the merger agreement at gunpoint in 1949.
In 1953, under the umbrella of the Manipur National Union (MNU), a movement began to try and regain lost glory. With the MNU finding little success through the democratic process, the Meitei State Committee took up arms in 1963. Trained by the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, it entered into direct combat with the army, pushing the movement into its military phase. In 1964, the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) was created.
UNLF split and gave rise to the Consolidation Committee of Manipur (CONSCOM), which in turn created the Revolutionary Government of Manipur (RGM) in 1968. Mass arrests called for a rethink in strategy. In 1977-78, the RGM split into the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK) and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Excerpts from a chat with former PREPAK Politburo member H Ibotombi Khuman:
Why did you join the movement?
We loved our people and nation, but we didn’t know what to do. All we knew was that we had to restore our sovereignty. The ‘merger’ with India was not a valid one, it was an annexation. Our king was locked up in a house in Shillong, all communication was cut off and he was forced to sign a ‘merger agreement’ at gunpoint. We had to do something, so we went to our leaders for advice.
Did you feel cheated by the Indian government?
Yes, we felt cheated. We had been cheated of our sovereignty, our nation and we knew something had to be done. So in 1968, at the age of 17, I joined the RGM as part of a mass recruitment. Hundreds of us signed up and crossed the border into East Pakistan to be trained in warfare.
In the 1970s, the Manipur underground movement had three groups, today there are over 30. The understanding I have is that except for a few groups, the underground has become a sort of mafia where the cause is secondary and money comes first. Do you feel the movement you joined in 1968 has gone off track?
When we joined in 1968, there was an overwhelming commitment and dedication to the cause. We lived under strict military rules and discipline. This mentality is still reflected in the RGM generation of leaders today. Though we are all part of different groups today, we think along the same lines, we follow the same principles. We are still on good terms and regularly talk to each other.
That 1960s generation has a common goal, a common vision. Sovereignty is still the only cause. At that time we had huge public support, we never had to worry about food or shelter, our people looked after us. But today, it has changed. These groups have started losing the support of the people. The faith and trust that we had earned is slowly fading away.
In Manipur, we have 39 recognised ethnic groups and each community has its own underground group because of the communal approach adopted to deal with issues. Ethnicity has become central to political demands and this has led to the fragmentation of the movement. If a certain group is fighting only for their community, it is only natural that the remaining communities also look inward. Now you have Naga groups fighting for Naga issues, Kukis fighting for the rights of Kukis, Muslim groups for Muslims, and Meitei fighting for our community. In each community, you have differences of opinion leading to factionalism, so there is a further multiplication.
In a revolutionary movement, nothing is in black and white, it’s all shades of grey. Manipur is going through a murky transitional phase. A dilution of the movement is taking place. For the new generation, the underground has become an industry, a way to make money. But it is part of the process and we have to see it through. I truly believe with time, all these groups will realise that the national cause is important and we will come together.
In Manipur, there is unemployment, corruption, overnight queues for petrol, five-hour queues to use an ATM, no private sector, and a flourishing black market. You joined the movement because you loved your people, but today your people are suffering. How do you feel? Who is to be blamed?
It is difficult to pinpoint where the blame lies. If you stir a pond, some fish will die and some fish will survive, it is part of the process. As I said before, this revolutionary process is going through a murky phase where nothing is clear. But when independence comes, the picture will become clear again.
Say you achieve your goal and Manipur gets sovereignty, given the present infrastructural situation of the state where there is no real industry, no source of employment, poor electricity generation, poor quality of roads, do you worry about the future? How is an independent Manipur going to survive economically?
From the time of the Meetei kings, Manipur remainhas never had a problem sustaining itself. We have vast stretches of unexplored virgin forests that are rich in minerals and medicinal plants. When it comes to food, we have been blessed with plenty. We export paddy to Nagaland and Mizoram, so we can feed our people. Today, the scarcity has been created by the 80,000 Indian armed forces present here; they are consuming large amounts of food. When they leave, the scarcity will be over.
‘The food scarcity has been created by the 80,000 armed forces, who consume a lot. Once they leave, the scarcity will be over’
For the development of your economy, you need industry and industry needs petroleum and electricity, both of which are hard to come by in Manipur. Do you have a plan to tackle the issue?
I know development is dependent on electricity, but we have more than enough. Today, 88 percent of the power generated by the Loktak Hydro Electric Project is exported with only 12 percent going into the Manipur grid. The Northeast Power Corporation controls Loktak. If it came under Manipuri control, we would have more than enough power.
Manipur is sandwiched between Myanmar and Assam, both of them produce surplus petrol. Our rockbed is sedimentary and it is possible that in the large stretches of unexplored jungles and caves we might find petrol. If we don’t, then we can always trade with Myanmar. We have the potential to set up a thriving bamboo industry that will generate cash power to buy other resources from our neighbours.
If the government wakes up and brings development, creates employment and taps into the immense potential of Manipur, will the demand for sovereignty disappear?
Nagalim may settle for autonomy, but our revolution groups do not want autonomy. We want to restore our previous status as an independent nation. Indian Home Minister P Chidambaram regrettably describes us as misguided youth, but we are just performing our duty to our people.
What is the way forward for Manipur?
A plebiscite should be held with the knowledge of the United Nations. The people should be given a choice: India or independence. Their verdict should be final. The underground cannot decide for Manipur, the people will have to decide.
Khuman’s designation was incorrectly printed as PREPAK Politburo member in the magazine. The error is regretted