Nationhood: A Reflection on Ethnic Hostility in Manipur

Ask any Manipuri, someone who belongs to Manipur regardless of whose nationality s/he wants to be and it will not be a surprise if the answers vary as many as the number of individuals you ask. We are a confused lot and our lives are riddled with contradictions (The Generation of Contradictions). Amongst us the most vocal will be two groups: those who root for India and those for Manipur or Greater Nagaland or Zale’n-gam.

If we look back into our history, Manipur never existed as a nation but rather as a kingdom. So much is at stake here in differentiating between these two concepts. One of the most visible consequences of using these concepts interchangeably is in our inability to understand the rising ethnic hostilities between the valley and the hills. The Meiteis of general category in the valley have a romanticised version of Manipur, an erstwhile kingdom with a civilisation of two thousand years. The Naga and Kuki tribal categories of the hills, however, do not buy this story. For them, the hills have always been a part of Zomia, a region in Southeast Asia which had mastered ‘the art of not being governed’—a few concepts which were popularised by Dutch historian Willem van Schendel not too long ago.

Now, an understanding of the two terms, kingdom and nation, can shed some light on these contestations between the hills and the valley. It will explain as well why we assert that Kabaw Valley belongs to Manipur and that once the territory of the erstwhile kingdom extends from Surma Valley to the Chindwin and from Arunachal to Mizoram.


The concept of a nation is subjective yet three common elements that define a nation are its sovereign power, a clearly defined territory and population. The last two elements make clear why cartography and political geography are essential in assessing a nation. In a nation, the political State or the sovereign government is the supreme. Benedict Anderson succinctly describes a nation as an ‘imagined political community’ with people who would not even know each other.

On the other hand, if we begin with a dictionary definition, a kingdom is ‘a domain in which something is dominant’. Alternatively, the monarch is the sole supreme power. It has no clearly defined territory, for example, if Meidingu Pamheiba aka King Garibniwaz (1709–1754CE) could go as far as the Kaunghmudaw Pagoda in Burma and through a process as simple as marking a symbolic line with his sword, he can claim that his kingdom extended from Kangla to Sagaing and it was completely legitimate.

If democracy and citizenship are the rule in a nation, then monarchy and subjects are the order of a kingdom and here we are referring here to absolute monarchy that is hereditary in nature.

Over the last few decades, with the rise in resistance movements and the politics of identity, a new expression has entered in our vocabulary: that of the Manipur nation, which might be technically correct but the existing conditions present a contrasting idea. As mentioned from certain corners we hear that the hills were never a part of the Manipuri kingdom or to be precise, that the Nagas and Kukis who reside predominantly in the hills were never a subject of Manipur, while there are records of a yearly tax, which they had to pay to the king who mostly resided in the valley; King Pamheiba who grew up in a Naga village; King Taothingmang (264–364CE) of being a Kuki and so on.  

Manipur in 1AD and 600AD

According to 2011 Census records, the present-day Manipur covers a total area of 22,327 sq km, in which 92% of the territory is hills and merely 8% valley but the valley accounts for 90% of the population. It is divided into nine districts, again five in the hills and four in the valley that are further separated into 37 sub-divisions and 38 community tribal development blocks. It had lost its sovereignty when it was merged into the union of India through controversial agreements. So, it is a sort of problematic to study its existence as a nation.

In the modern sense it existed as a nation or a nation-state for hardly two years after the conclusion of the British rule. If we consider global politics, the term itself is so subjective that some scholars opine nation or nation-state is merely a notion than an actuality and several governments, despite their political structures, call themselves as a nation-state for the sake of convenience. The contested nations of the Meiteis or Nagas or Kukis, as such, are no different from those of the Ainus and the Catalonians in Japan and Spain respectively. 

Another consolation is that we can assume the nationhood, a concept independent of contemporary politics and history, because it had always existed as a sovereign till 1891. The same is not true for modern India which was divided into hundreds of kingdoms and princely states, all of which were directly under the British rule for two centuries. In another word, Manipur as a nation is only an assumption but nevertheless a nation if we consider the existing rhetoric and the struggle for the right to self-determination. It becomes sticky just when we say that these are the process of re-claiming nationhood. The first Meitei rebel outfit called itself the United National Liberation Front that was established in 1964.

Somehow, all of these can be attributed to the factor of ‘time-hopping’. For example, during the World War II, we had scarcely seen a car when those monstrous flying metals hovered over our skies and created mayhem. Also, from a tedious traditional economy we were plunged into the cut-throat world of globalisation during the British rule sans any transition phase. The same happened with our limited ideas of nations and kingdoms when we became a pathetic Part-C state in a union. The condition has hardly changed today:

One of Manipur’s most problematic issues awaiting a resolution is a general mindset entrapped in the pre-modern time frame, when the rest of the world has moved into the postmodern era. ... while many societies are already in advanced and sophisticated economies, political systems, art, literature and aesthetics etc. many others who come under the broad category of the Fourth World, are still on the edge of the Pleistocene epoch, with even settled agriculture still an alien occupation, subsisting on primitive economies constituting of hunting and gathering food. The paradox is, these communities live in two different time frames. In evolutionary time they are midway between the Ice Age and modern civilisation, but in chronological time, they live side by side with postmodern societies. – Futility of Past as Model for Future; The Imphal Free Press, Editorial, 9 Feb 2016

This will be too hard to digest especially for Meitei nationalists but it is a fact that we can understand from time-hopping. We claim about belonging to a 2,000-year old civilisation but the realities are too harsh, thanks to our ‘progress’ over two millennia and also to the expansionist plans of outsiders, read as Britain and India. Albeit, whatever we were, we are confident of what we will be. In this circumstance, the gun is too inept to articulate the ideas.


During one such time-hopping, we have skipped a lesson on kingdom and nation. This is also why democracy is seemingly too inappropriate for us at times. Perhaps, what is actually missing is an elaboration on ethnic nationalism that has never been done before. The Nagas have been narrating their unique history while crossing the lines of sheer absurdity. The joke goes that you are unique just like anybody else while people are telling us that we have been ‘peoples’ without history. The Meiteis are at the receiving end on transgressing into the tribal territories and the list of farces goes on.

Recent politics in general or the clandestine Framework Agreement in particular between the NSCN IM and the Government of India have also given fresh hope to the Kukis. This does not imply giving in to the so-called dominant Meitei narrative but rather it is a reflection on contemporary political development. Naga writers like Kaka D Iralu says that ‘Nagaland is not in India, but India is presently in Nagaland by invasion and subjugation’ and it is not a secret that the feeling is widespread in the region.
We belong to the same race but we are of diverse ethnicities and this difference is the trouble number one. Stoking the embers of Freudian collective narcissism, we are deeply ethnocentric to see beyond our narrow parochial interests at the cost of reason or deliberation. This reminds us of the Korean idea of ‘Sojunghwa’, which literally means ‘Little China’. Long ago, China used to believe that it was the centre of the universe. In those days, Korea was a tributary state (a kind of pre-modern state under a dominant state) to China—and when the Qing Dynasty defeated the Ming Dynasty in the 17th century, Korea considered that it had become the Sojunghwa and the new centre of the universe. 

(Incidentally, Manipur/Kangleipak had existed as a tributary state to the Ava twice in history: the last during the reign of Konbaung Dynasty around 1750s and during the Toungoo Dynasty around 1560s; and in the first instance it culminated with the historic Seven Years’ Devastation, or locally known as the Chahi Taret Khuntaakpa, between 1819–1826.)

All the developments point to a statement made by the UNESCO nearly four decades ago. In the UNESCO Declaration on Race and Racial Prejudice, it was mentioned:

All peoples of the world possess equal faculties for attaining the highest level in intellectual, technical, social, economic, cultural and political development…The differences between the achievements of the different peoples are entirely attributable to geographical, historical, political, economic, social and cultural factors.

However, the problem is our steadfast clinging to the new waves of ethno-nationalism. Instead of talking it out, we are more concerned about how the mainland views us or in most cases, feeling alienated while the elected representatives are robbing us in broad daylight. These ideas might help little in subduing the increasing ethnic hostilities but we can surely know we are not depending on others, like we always do, to solve our problems.


Over the years we have been stuck in the idea of unique homelands that ironically overlap each other. In this context it will be worthwhile to remember what Rudolf Rocker wrote in Nationalism and Culture:

The so-called ‘national consciousness’ is nothing but a belief propagated by considerations of political power which have replaced the religious fanaticism of past centuries and have today come to be the greatest obstacle to cultural development. The love of home has nothing in common with the veneration of an abstract patriotic concept. Love of home knows no ‘will to power’; it is free from that hollow and dangerous attitude of superiority to the neighbour, which is one of the strongest characteristics of every kind of nationalism. Love of home does not engage in practical politics nor does it seek in any way to support the state. It is purely an inner feeling as freely manifested as man's enjoyment of nature, of which home is a part.  – Chapter XIII, Nationalism and Culture (1937)

Elsewhere, people found state and nation out of a necessity. To cite an example, the scientific advancement that coupled with socio-political and economical developments gave rise to concepts and ideologies that would help them fight against the divine rights of the kings. It is entirely a different story for us. But we should not go further into it.

If we talk from a historical perspective, there are certain definitions for the kingdom of Manipur, though this is more of an assertion than an act of confrontation. The idea of this province is now as fragmented as the number of armed organisations in struggle for the right to self-determination. The lack of a collective vision is disgraceful but we should at least see what was in the past and is in the present rather than be too preoccupied with ‘imagined communities’ to see the future. Nationhood is just a bluff. Just consider India (Nationalism: Destruction of a Nation).

Before conclusion, I’d add that if you’d care to ask, all these political charades must stop; the sooner the better. Neither have we wanted a nation of people nor a kingdom of gods but a society where justice and peace prevail rather than existing as mere aspirations.



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