Photo: PTI
Photo: PTI

Opinion | Manipur can’t emulate the Gujarat model

Manipur CM N. Biren Singh strives to follow PM Modi's public relations outreach

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives in Imphal on 4 January, he will be feted by a person who strives to follow his public relations outreach and, weather permitting, the ‘Nehru’ jacket now eponymously relabelled by Modi’s fans. Manipur’s chief minister, Nongthombam Biren Singh also announced publicly on 24 December that he would not tolerate the “humiliation of his leaders" and “national heroes like Rani of Jhansi and Prime Minister Modi".

You know it’s true. First, the state arrested in November and then backed a National Investigation Agency order for imprisoning for a year, without trial, journalist Kishorchandra Wangkhem for doing precisely that. More on such “threats" to national security shortly.

Biren became chief minister in March 2017, ending the three-term run of Okram Ibobi Singh of the Congress. A protégé of Ibobi’s, Biren switched sides in late 2016, when the campaign for assembly elections was in full flow. He quickly went from being Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson to BJP’s chief ministerial choice.

For some analysts, he became the state’s white knight: Relatively young at 56, not bogged down by the past administration’s corruption and abysmal infrastructure. Untainted by fractured relations among the state’s majority Meitei, Naga, Kuki, and Zomi people, among others. Not driven by majoritarianism.

Though it escaped such analysts that Biren was an integral part of the previous administration, he went about his early days as a Modi might. He travelled to Ukhrul as a peace overture to Nagas. He travelled to Churachandpur to reach the Kuki and Zomi, and to wash away bad blood from police firing in 2015 that killed several protesters. Today, Biren, a former journalist, is unquestionably the photo-op prince of North-East India, inaugurating yet another project, advising officials at yet another site.

The journalist, Kishorchandra, aired a video blasting the official celebration of the Rani’s birth anniversary on 19 November as going against Manipur’s history of resistance, insulting its icons, and pandering to the Hindu right’s nationalistic project. “Your knowledge is null and ****ed up," Kishorchandra suggested in apparent reference to Biren and, as reported by the media, called him a puppet of Modi, “a chaiwala with no knowledge of history".

Biren went ballistic. Kishorchandra was fired from his television job with a local channel, ISTV. He is now in jail. A senior human rights practitioner told me he had a word with Biren to request Kishorchandra’s release. How can I? was the relayed response; he used the “F word".

It’s literally the silly season. The imputation of government officials and government agencies that the abusive—and somewhat inebriated—journalist encouraged rebels with this outburst, is humbug.

It can be argued that the inference wasn’t about half a dozen rebel groups, largely of Meitei extraction, which influence Manipur’s life and politics. That Kishorchandra’s outburst was watered by Manipur’s past heroes from the Anglo-Manipuri wars, Bir Tikendrajit, for example. Streets and overpasses are named after them, and their heroics, including the killing of British officials, enshrined at Imphal’s Kangla Fort, the symbol of Meitei-origin traditions.

Biren has a record. In early 2018, he announced at a rally in Gujarat’s Madhavpura village that in the time of Lord Krishna, North-East India was a single entity. That Lord Krishna “made them part of India" by marrying the princess Rukmini, whom he alluded was from Arunachal Pradesh. Many accused him of selling Manipur’s soul. They weren’t jailed.

Biren’s line followed Hindu-right myths rooted in the Mahabharata. These also claim that the Pandava warrior Arjuna had a son, Babruvahana, by marrying the princess Chitrangada from “Manipur". Critics have claimed that the Manipur of Chitrangada was actually Manipura or Manikapatnam in Odisha.

Biren’s hero may want his acolyte to dial down. The birth of Meitei nationalism was predicated on what was—is—perceived as Indian colonialism: That India coerced the independent state of Manipur to join India in 1949 by a treaty of accession. And Hinduism was foisted upon the Meitei by diktat—an uncontested assertion—in the 18th century. Meidingu Pamheiba, the king who did so, and persecuted practitioners of Sanamahi, the traditional religion, is reviled by many Meitei nationalists. It should be evident that Manipur can’t blindly follow the Gujarat model.

This column focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights and runs on Thursdays.