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Shooting the Sun: A Study of Death and Protest in Manipur

Contemporary Manipur is often treated by scholars as a war zone and a state under siege. But that situation cannot be understood only by alluding to the militarisation of Manipur or by viewing it as a struggle among ethnic groups over resources. The power to let live and take life defines sovereignty not only for the state but also for insurgent groups aspiring for statehood. An analysis of Manipur's present condition should not deny intelligibility to the social life of the people. It is necessary to understand how people deal with the multiple forms in which death visits them every so often and how they try to exorcise the violence in their midst.


Shooting the Sun: A Study of Death and Protest in Manipur

Jogendro Kshetrimayum

Contemporary Manipur is often treated by scholars as a war zone and a state under siege. But that situation cannot be understood only by alluding to the militarisation of Manipur or by viewing it as a struggle among ethnic groups over resources. The power to let live and take life defines sovereignty not only for the state but also for insurgent groups aspiring for statehood. An analysis of Manipur’s present condition should not deny intelligibility to the social life of the people. It is necessary to understand how people deal with the multiple forms in which death visits them every so often and how they try to exorcise the violence in their midst.

Jogendro Kshetrimayum ( is a research scholar at the University of Texas at Austin, USA.

1 Shooting the Sun

here is an ancient story about a time when there was more than one Sun in the sky. The story has different versions, all trying to resolve into the singularity of the Sun and the ultimate harmony of the world.1 Numit Kappa gives one such version. Considered one of the earliest known literary compositions in Meitei script, it is dated to the first century AD (Ningthoukhongjam 1969: 32). In brief, it is about two Suns; two brothers, who shone the sky one after another. That meant no nights, no sleep. It was particularly hard for one slave who was serving the two masters. He had to work twice as much. And he could not find time to meet his wife and children. So he decided to kill the Suns. He made a huge bow out of bamboo and perfected his skill with constant practice. When the opportune time came, he stole up to the elder Sun and shot it. Seeing which the younger Sun ran away and hid in a cave. With no Sun left in the sky, there was darkness everywhere. No one could go out and work in the fields. Nothing grew except grass and weeds. To save the world from this calamity, the 10 d eities went to the cave to persuade the Sun to come out. Finally, after much consolation and propitiation, the reluctant Sun came out. But it was not as bright and shiny as before. The Sun had become pale out of fear and shame. The deities then performed the ritual of Chupsaba and cleansed the Sun. The Sun gradually began to shine in its former glory, and thus normalcy was restored.

Numit Kappa is still chanted as a hymn by the Maibas, the shamanic figure of Manipur, during Chupsaba, a ritual particularly associated with certain kinds of death within the Meitei cosmo logy. What exactly are those “certain kinds of deaths”? Khelchandra uses the term Mi-si chada-na Si-ba (death/improper/die) to ascribe to those “certain kinds of death”. The term Mi-si chada-na Si-ba is often u nderstood but rarely defined. Khelchandra does not define the term ontologically rather he uses examples to substantiate the notion: U-dagi Ta-duna Si-ba (from tree/by falling/die), Eeshing-da Ta-duna Si-ba (in water/by falling/die), maram chada-na shok-panba (reason/improper/injury), etc. Interestingly, according to Khelchandra, Chupsaba is also performed for Si-baga mana-ba choppanung-ba (like death/equivalent/shamed). Invariably, all the above forms of death are considered undesirable. Chupsaba is performed to propitiate the deities or the supernatural forces, so that they are not repeated within the immediate family or the clan (ibid: 32).

These forms of death are undesirable, as deviants or aberrations from the norm. One could see Chupsaba as a technology to normalise death within the Meitei cosmology. Death is perhaps the most powerful life event. It threatens to destabilise the “normal” ways of life of the family, and the very fabric of a society.

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One of the ways, perhaps, of containing the constant threat of “pure” death on the “normal” ways of life of the people is by “ normalising” “pure death”. Here I use the term “pure death” in the sense of “divine violence” as used by Walter Benjamin,2 in

o rder to designate the biological fact of death. Pure death is the death stripped of any morality, or legality, something outside of culture so to say. Once normalised, however, we can talk about death as normal or abnormal. However, by the very principle of the process, normalisation rests on the distinction between “norm” and “exception”. In other words, the definition of normal would invariably depend on what is considered abnormal and vice versa. And due to this inherent tautology of the process, pure death escapes normalisation in to-to. Thus, there will always be certain aspects of pure death, which the cultural-complex cannot fully comprehend. That which cannot be comprehended is called the aberration or the abnormal; and for what cannot be said, s ociety cannot simply pass in silence. In this light, Chupsaba can be understood as a technology to make sense of the aberrations so that death is normalised.

In this paper, I am not concerned with the technicality of Chupsaba as a ritual nor is this a formal (or linguistic) study of Numit Kappa as a myth or a text per se. I am concerned here with the normalisation of death within the cultural complex of contemporary Manipur. Here, I will try to show how pure death resurfaces from the oblivion to break the stillness of the norm. And insofar as the sovereign power is expressed as the right to take life or let live, death remains the limit of sovereignty. In the liberal discourse (of the west) this expression of sovereign power may have been replaced by the right to “make” live and “let” die (Foucault 2003: 239-59). However, not so in contemporary Manipur. Since the 1980s Manipur is practically in a state of siege, somewhat akin to a “state of exception” (Agamben 2005). However, the situation cannot be understood solely on the presence of paralegal acts like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), 1958.

What has created the exceptional situation in Manipur in the last 30 years or so is not just the imposition of draconian acts but also the proliferation of various power centres. These power centres demand and exercise, quite effectively, the sovereign right to take life or let live. And this has created a situation allegorical to the myth of Numit Kappa, only here there are more than two Suns. But unlike the two Suns of Numit Kappa, the sovereign powers are in constant conflict with each other. This incessant struggle of power has created a space where the subject is often stripped of its legality, becoming something akin to bare life. And more often than not, most Manipuris find themselves having to negotiate this space. In other words, although Manipur cannot be equated to the Nazi camps, where the subject is reduced completely to bare life, it is definitely a state of exception because of the impossibility to exercise rights; not so much of suspension of rights but because of the impossibility to enforce rights. This impossibility to enforce right is not just the result of contesting sovereign powers but also because right is still nothing but the will of the sovereign to take life or let live. And, as I said before, insofar as sovereignty is expressed as the right to take life or let live, death remains the limit of the sovereign power. It is in this context that I would like to examine how contemporary Manipur tries to normalise death, taking the case of the Taphou killing.

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2 Pure Death

On 17 February 2009, the villagers of Taphou Kuki village of Senapati district discovered three dead bodies under a bridge. A bloody hoe and a bloody stone were also recovered with the bodies. The faces of all the three victims had been smashed and hacked brutally. A hideous sight indeed! The bodies were later identified as that of Thingnam Kishan, Aribam Rajen and Yumnam Token. Thingnam Kishan was the sub-divisional officer (SDO) of Kasom Khullen sub-division, Ukhrul district, Manipur. All three had reportedly been kidnapped by the proscribed N ational Socialist Council of Nagalim, Isaak-Muivah (NSCN(IM)) cadres on 13 February 2009. Once the unfortunate demise of the three individuals reached the state media, a mass hysteria erupted across the state – angry, shocked. And fear? There is a certain sense of anxiety and fear lurking below the slogans of protest, and demands for justice. This fear (and disbelief?) does not stem so much from the death of the three, rather from the grotesque picture of the three corpses. The contorted, bloody faces conjure up images of someone smashing those faces with the stone, again and again. But, who could have done that? He must be a monster, surely not a h uman. People try to convince themselves, trying to find solace in that self-deception. However, deep down, everyone knows it was a man who did this, a man as ordinary as anyone could be, someone you know perhaps. And, I think, the fear comes from this realisation.

Pure death is grotesque, powerful. It is the instantaneous e xposure of what lies beneath the norm, a sudden and emphatic realisation. It is potent with meanings because it is still raw; without meanings. Before meanings rush in and opinions formed, the immediate effect is that of aversion, an innate tendency to disengage with the visual contact. The Yoga school says, it is due to samskara, an imprint in the mind-stuff (citta) of the experience of death from past lives. Thus the fear of death is universal to all except for those who have managed to erase the samskara through yoga. Modern psychology might have a different take on the subject, nonetheless it may not be too wrong to assume that a process of association with earlier experiences of death immediately ensues once pure death is recognised. This is the initial stage of what I call normalisation of pure death.

3 Normalising Death

The suspended moment of recognition and awe immediately gives way to a dynamism of association and meaning. Kishan and his colleagues did not die a normal death. Because it was not how people normally die, they did not deserve to die, and they did not deserve to die that way. Right after the news reached the media, people in different parts of the state took to the streets to protest the death and demand justice. The joint action committee (JAC) formed in regard of the killing immediately called for a 48-hour general strike throughout the state, to decry the killing.3 What does it mean to denounce a killing? In order to make a killing condemnable, some killings have to be made acceptable or p erhaps praiseworthy. So decrying the killing of Kishan is not necessarily decrying killing itself. In fact, those who have condemned the killing of Kishan might themselves entertain a h eroic thought of killing the murderers. Till the late 19th century, under the penal system of the kingdom of Manipur, murder was always punished with death except in the case of brahmin and women (Brown 1875:92; Nongmaithem 1988).


That was justice. This still does not quite answer the question, why the killing of Kishan and his associates is denounced.

What are the reasons for killing Kishan and his associates? This is one of the most fundamental questions nagging the minds of many, as if, there cannot be any death without a reason, without a “rational” explanation. This is the beginning of the normalising process; giving a meaning to death. It begins with a series of association with other “normalised” experiences of death; it was clearly not accidental, nor was it completely without any reason. Kishan’s death is quite there and not quite there within the realm of the term Mi-si chada-na Si-ba or “abnormal death”, as traditionally understood. Kishan’s death might be shocking or undesirable but it is not shameful or sinful. So, his death cannot be atoned with Chupsaba. The situation gets more complicated as the death of Kishan becomes political, in the sense that the meaning of his death gets tied up with the aspirations of the people.4 Once again we find, in the death of Kishan, pure death threatening to escape from the clutches of the traditional normalising technology of Chupsaba. Kishan’s death is not the first time, nor the only moment when death appears as wild and untamed. But what is interesting is that every time pure death threatens to e scape the confines of the norm, a lot of anxiety and fear is created, in a desperate attempt to tame or normalise it. One can well imagine the intensity of anxiety and fear created all over the “ civilised” world, for example, among parents and other establishments in the wake of the high school shooting spree that erupted across the United States. The bewildered parents and the State, all turning their heads towards an equally confounded psychiatry for a reason, a reason the liberal, democratic and modern mind could comprehend.

But there is a reason for killing Kishan. In the statement released by the NSCN(IM), confessing to the killing of the three individuals, three reasons were mentioned – “Dr Kishan deliberately failed to f ulfil his duty from his official post of Kasom Khullen, but ran the administration from his private residence at Imphal” – “(he) manipulated and misappropriated public money allotted for the development schemes of the Kasom subdivision” and “(he was) closely collaborating with the so-called Naga National L iberation Army (NNLA), led by Aleng, and Indian intelligence agencies deliberately to undermine NSCN. These anti-NSCN activities continue despite repeated warnings.”5 It is as if he had b ecome an aberration, a deviant body, which cannot be tamed or “normalised” in the calculation of NSCN(IM). And by taking his life, because his body cannot be tamed, the NSCN(IM) reaffirms that death is the ultimate expression of its sovereignty. It is a matter of necessity. This “reason” is not acceptable to others, for many reasons. For one, the sovereign right of the NSCN(IM) is in a contested space. Second, if death is taken as an extreme form of violence then the whole thing slips “back” to the aporia of natural law versus positive law (Benjamin 1978). Does NSCN(IM) have the “ legitimate” right to exercise the sovereign right to take life or let live? If it does, where is the boundary of its jurisdiction? Is it l egitimate to use violence in its extreme form to uphold interest or sovereign right? Is it necessary to use violence to create or p reserve law?

This dilemma of sovereignty and legality, is not just confined to NSCN(IM) and other power centres operating in Manipur today but extends to the state itself. Similar questions are invoked by the Manorama case.6 But there is a subtle difference; a difference in the articulation, for example, the Manorama case was extrajudicial killing. What about the killing of Kishan? How do we arti culate the death of Kishan, except that it was inhumane, b rutal, barbaric or shocking? Yet it has never been clearer that the motive of the killing goes well b eyond the impulsive act of the killing. Thus, there is a lack of a word that could articulate the overall intention and calculation of the killing of Kishan and his associates. The situation is only too familiar in Manipur. Take the case of the “mass rape” of 21 Hmar women on 16 January 2006,7 or the killing of Rishikanta of the Imphal Free Press.8 There is a need to articulate these deaths beyond the terms of law and

o rder, or criminality, if these deaths are to be “normalised”. And in the absence of such an articulation there is intense anxiety and tension.

This anxiety is often expressed explosively in the form of strike, bandh, sit-ins, etc. And unlike the case of the extrajudicial killings, there is little space for negotiation or politics. They can only be condemned. The only other alternative is to rely on the state apparatus, because with the state it can be articulated in the language of justice, hence a demand for justice. But then why demand something which is already guaranteed by the liberal, democratic state? There is so much of a suspicion that justice will be denied by the state that the demand for justice often takes violent forms. A 48-hour general strike means starving the economy of Manipur for two days, as if the only way to effect justice is by stopping economic exchange. What is this curious connection b etween economic exchange and justice? What is the object of the justice which is demanded. Is it justice for the family, for the act, for the people or for its own sake? I think what is at stake is more than the law. What is at stake is the capacity to normalise those aspects of pure death which threaten to perforate the norm. Justice is just a means to that end.

4 Beyond Legality
4.1 Move One: A State of Exception

Contemporary Manipur is often treated by scholars as a war zone, a state under siege, and rightly so. However, I believe that the situation cannot be attributed solely to the militarisation of M anipur or the imposition of AFSPA (Akoijam 2001; Chenoy 2005). Nor can it be reduced exclusively to a struggle of resources – land, people, trade, etc, among ethnic groups (Oinam 2003, 2008; Shimray 2001). Because in doing that we are not only foreclosing a critique of violence vis-àvis law but also denying intelligibility to the social life of the people. Here, I am appropriating the analytical distinction made by Walter Benjamin in his “ Critique of Violence”; violence as law-making or law preserving. And what I mean by “the social life of the people” is an attempt to reflect the lived experience of contemporary Manipur; i ncluding aspirations, desires, emotions, anxiety, etc, things which are not necessarily codified in terms of law. In appropriating Benjamin I will be using all types of violence perpetrated by the State apparatus in the name of preserving the integrity of the State or upholding the Constitution of India as “law preserving violence”. On the other hand, violence perpetrated for establishing a new law or replacing a preexisting one will be grouped as “law-making violence”. But violence often escapes this dichotomy, for e xample what Benjamin called d ivine violence. This schematic is, however, very similar to the idea of normalising pure death, as I have discussed earlier. After all, death is

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often an extreme form of violence. Needless to say, the categorisation is purely analytical. Before we begin dissecting the socio-political landscape of Manipur using these tools, let us take a moment or two to examine the wisdom of using these tools.

Why does a critique of violence, death as an extreme form, immediately get tangled up with law and justice? Benjamin provides a brilliant explanation, “For a cause, however effective, becomes violent, in the precise sense of the word, only when it bears on moral issues” (Benjamin 1978). And insofar as morality belongs to the norm, moral issues are often articulated in terms of law and justice. Thus a cause, which bears on the collective (i e, in the sphere of the norm) essentially becomes violent. What about the so-called non-violent protest? I will come back to this towards the end of the paper. For the moment let us focus on the relationship between violence and law. The political situation in Manipur is often articulated in terms of “law and o rder”, Manipuris say there is no “law” in the state. Underlying those expressions and arti culations is the excessive perpetration of violence. “Law” has come to mean more than in its technical sense of jurisprudence. A quick sketch of the major shifts in jurisprudence in Manipur will be helpful here.

Let me start from Loiyamba Shinyen (LS), considered the first written constitution of Manipur (Kabui 1988; Naorem 1988). Dated to 1110 AD, it was written during the reign of Loiyamba or Loiyumba (Ningthoukhongjam 2005). Compared to the Constitution of India, or any other modern constitution, it was more like a royal edict. The decrees proclaimed in LS had the force of law; in the sense that they were enforced by the king. Was the king inside or outside the law’s ambit? The king was liable to be fined by a counsel in case of misconduct towards his queens. In this particular context, LS seems to be upholding the maxim “no one is above the law”, thereby allowing law in force. However, this is the only instance. It is undeniable that the king’s will was still the u ltimate source of “law”. Nonetheless, in LS we can see an early attempt to give force to law. Modified and amended by successive kings, the LS remained the royal guide for governance in Manipur till 1891, when the British took over. This system of governance was already being transformed since 1835 during the period of British political agency (Singh 1991:31-47). What existed before the advent of the British might be placed somewhere between, what Michel Foucault calls, d espotism and police state.

Despotism then refers to any injunction made by the public authorities back to the sovereign’s will and to it alone, or, rather, it makes it originate in this will. The police state, on the other hand, establishes a continuum between every possible form of injunction made by the public authorities, whatever the origin of their coercive character (Foucault 2008: 169)

Under such a system, the sovereign will, which is also the ultimate source of law, is preserved or replaced through violent force. So the ultimate crime is in involving with Ningthou-semba (King/ making). Anyone found involved with Ningthou-semba is instantly liquidated. Death, thus, is the ultimate form of law preserving violence. Yet, this clearly is different from what could be called “Rule of Law”. Again, I resort to Foucault for an analytical definition of the “Rule of Law”, because what was happening in Europe in the 19th century in terms of system of governance or state seems to have had a perverse impact on Manipur through the colonial administrators. Foucault defines the rule of law as a “state in which the

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actions of the public authorities will have no value if they are not framed in laws that limit them in advance. The public authorities act within the framework of the law and can only act within the framework of the law” (ibid). And what is the basis of this “law”, within which framework the mechanisms of the state are to be situated? It was the Enlightenment; it was law rooted in the inalienable right of the citizen. By the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, r aison d’Etat was shifting towards rule of law as opposed to despotism and police state (ibid). The French Revolution (1789-99) signalled this shift in Europe. By the latter half of 18th century, when the British political agency started exerting tremendous influence on the administration of Manipur, the idea of rule of law must have been firmly established with the colonial administrators.

With this political shift in Europe, people once again found themselves staring into the naked face of pure death. Suddenly death appears grotesque and inhumane. Curiously, the “reign of terror” in France was also intimately associated with a concerted effort to “humanise” death. The guillotine as an ideal instrument of justice was perfected during the French Revolution. Guillotine was thought to be more “humane” than any earlier forms of capital punishment. It is swift, painless and humane. Death by torture had to be vanished from public space, because it is all about the rule of law not “revenge”. Likewise, the “enlightened” colonial administrators found the penal system of 19th century M anipur too severe and inhumane. So they intervened and “ humanised” it. James Johnstone was the political agent of M anipur from 1877 to 1886. Of all the reforms that he brought in the administration of Manipur, he was individually responsible for “humanising” capital punishment. According to traditional custom and Loiyamba Shinyen, the punishment for murder was execution in the exact manner in which the victim was killed, except for brahmins and women who were always spared. Johnstone found the method too inhuman in certain cases, so he made the traditional court adopt decapitation as the only acceptable form of capital punishment (Johnstone 1971:169). It may be worth researching to see what this sudden “secularisation” of capital punishment meant to the people, in terms of death as a means to justice. However, for the purpose of this p aper, it is important to note that the colonial experience marks a crucial phase in the h istory of M anipur when the notion of rule of law took shape.

What was initiated with British contact soon developed into a political demand for rule of law, in the wake of the Indian nationalist movement. By 1948, the political situation in Manipur was so volatile that the maharaja had to consent to the demand for a representative government. The first election to the representative government was held on 11 June 1948 (Akoijam 2001). Subsequently, a constitutional monarchy was established. At this m oment, we are presumably entering the phase of rule of law. However, the merger agreement of September 1949, between the governor general of India and the then maharaja of Manipur c reated a situation that continues to haunt the political landscape of Manipur. According to the treaty, the sovereignty of Manipur was completely transferred to India (Naorem 1988). The circumstances under which this merger was signed is still shrouded in mystery. Further, given the presence of a representative government in Manipur at the time, doubts have been raised as to the l egitimacy of this merger.


This ambiguity and mystery became a fertile source for various nationalist and socialist movements in Manipur. Each of these movements claims the sovereignty of Manipur, in the “interest” of the people. And they exercise their sovereign right by issuing various rules and regulations. By suspending the norm, because it is in a state of “undeclared war”, these decrees have force-of-law, “law” with an “X” (Agamben 2005: 32-40).

The nationalist and socialist movements in Manipur became militant in the 1970s and 1980s. The Naga armed movement had already been giving a tough time to the Indian armed forces by the 1950s and 1960s. It was a crucial period for India’s fledgling democracy with communal and regional tensions threatening to tear the country apart. In order to preserve the integrity of the nation, it was deemed absolutely necessary to use a strong hand to deal with any kind of insurgency. To that end numerous laws were passed by Parliament in the 1950s. In order to make the Indian nation possible, and protect the democratic values of the Constitution, it was considered neces sary to suspend those very values in exceptional times and places. Manipur in the 1980s had become such an exceptional space, hence the AFSPA was extended to Manipur.

4.2 Move Two: Land under a Score of Suns

There are two aspects to the unique situation unfolding in M anipur. First, the Indian state, founded on the principles of the rule of law, asserts its sovereign right to declare a “state of exception”9 to this very principle. Second, this sovereign right is being challenged by the militant or underground (UGs in the local parlance) movements in M anipur. So what is being played out is e ssentially nothing but the struggle for power. The state security apparatus is empowered by suspending the norm, while the law itself remains in force. The fact that we are able to talk about Manorama as case of extrajudicial killings points to the fact that law is in force. AFSPA can be reviewed, put u nder scrutiny, r eplaced or removed. It may not be easy but there is at least a p ossibility of a politics. But for the moment, the state asserts its sovereign right by suspending the rule of law.

How is this claim of the state being challenged by the UGs of M anipur? This is where things get very complicated. First, how was the killing of Kishan articulated? He was killed because he did not heed the warnings, in other words he would not be tamed or corrected. One of the proscribed outfits of Manipur, while condemning the brutal killing of these three men, in a statement i ssued in a local newspaper, adds, “Even if the murder was related to NREGS work, only the SDO should have been targeted. There is no reason to butcher the driver and the mondal too”.10 As if this was a matter of efficacy or efficiency. Clearly, Kishan’s death was not articulated in terms of extra-judicial killings. What was it then? There is a sense of helplessness and frustration in trying to articulate such deaths. It was clearly not a freak accident, nor an act of revenge, nor extrajudicial killing. There are numerous examples of such deaths in Manipur today. Unlike the state, the only way for the UGs to claim their sovereign right is by showing the capacity to take life and let live; and there are more than a dozen such groups presently operating in Manipur (Oinam 2008). The attitude of the state in dealing with these insurgent groups seems to encourage this. For example, the Indian state sat down to talk to the NSCN(IM) only after it has shown an incredible power to

52 strike (Akoijam 2001). This reminds me of the old saying, “Kill one you are a murderer, but kill thousands, you are a conqueror”. Power, in a sense violence, is at the core of any sovereignty; be it expressed as the right to declare a “state of exception” or as a right to take life. In contemporary Manipur, the conflict between lawpreserving violence and law-making v iolence is being played out.

The law-making violence often comes in the form of rules and regu lations, which have the force of law. The ban on India’s n ational a nthem since the 1990s, the ban on Hindi songs and films since 2000, the ban on malpractices in examination, dress codes for girls, etc, are some of the decrees proclaimed by one militant group or the other. People have paid with their life and injury for not following them. Another area of intervention is the economy. A certain “percentage” of the public fund or private i ncome is earmarked for “contribution” towards the “cause”, often collected as “taxes”. It is also an open secret that the UGs are also involved with pubilc distribution system contracts. Because of this very nature of involvement with the market and the eco nomy, it is not very clear what kind of laws they are attempting to establish or replace. Therefore, the law-making violence is intelligible only in the context of the immediate decree and not b eyond that. This is clearly not the suspension of rule of law, and it is also difficult to see it as an attempt to establish a rule of law. In recent times, some of the larger UG organisations like the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) have come forth with a clear agenda of establishing a rule of law,11 but most others are s ilent. Even in the case of UNLF or the NSCN(IM), Manipur is seen as a space where the rule of law is not yet established. Hence it can only be a space of necessity and not law. In other words, they will do what is necessary to establish a rule of law. In the same way the Indian state is doing what is necessary to preserve rule of law.

Contemporary Manipur is yet to come up with a term which could articulate death, like of Kishan, which cannot be articulated in terms of rule of law. In the absence of such a term, the only other alternative seems to be in the language of universal human rights. By articulating death in terms of human rights violation, Manipur has found a way to criticise both forms of violence, or v iolence in general. The efficacy of this politics of human rights and violence depends, however, on a network of international and national organisations, particularly the UN and western governments, so that the politics of death and violence essentially becomes a politics of recognition and representation. At a time when India is trying hard to project itself as a progressive and democratic state, it cannot afford to have a human right crisis spiralling out of hand within its territory. So the Indian state has been trying to portray the situation in Manipur as a “law and order” problem; a problem of administration as opposed to a political problem. On the other hand, it is supplying arms to the military junta in Burma, which helps India by flushing out militant camps across the border. This is another irony of the modern liberal state; in order to preserve the rule of law within one territory it ends up suppressing rule of law in another.

On the other hand, the insurgent groups or the UGs cannot a fford to be seen as the perpetrators of human right violations, or be labelled “terrorist” in a post-9/11 world. In order to legitimise their cause, they need recognition at the international arena.12 Therefore, they stress on the extra-judicial killings and the AFSPA

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to put the blame on the state. But they remain silent if their actions become the cause of death or injury, except, perhaps, in cases where the action could be “justified” in terms of cultural value. However, the conflict in Manipur is not as much about the legitimacy of the rule of law than it is a conflict on sovereignty. Who should have the sovereign right to declare the “state of exception”? Both sides agree it is the people of Manipur. The government of India claims the people had transferred the sovereign will to the Indian Union, in 1949. And the fact that electoral politics is hugely successful only proves that the will of the people is with the state. The insurgent groups say the transfer was illegitimate and demand a plebiscite to decide whether the will of the people is still with the Indian state or not. Till then, they claim that they represent the will of the Manipuri people. And they will do whatever necessary to remain so.

But where does the will of the people actually belong? Or does it even matter where it actually belongs? It is not possible to a ttempt an answer to these questions here, given the limited scope of this paper. Suffice to say that there is a lot of confusion and ambiguity here. As was mentioned in the beginning of the paper, this ambiguity has given rise to the proliferation of power centres, b ecause each of these power centres has been founded on the supposed “interest” of the people. But the “interest” of the people is as ambiguous as the nature of the “people” itself. There can be people of a tribe, people of a religion, people of a region, people of a nation, etc. And each of them exercises the sovereign right to take life or let live, in the interest of the “people” thus defined. Thus, all the decrees issued by these power centres, in the supposed interest of the “people”, have the force of law, while the law itself is not in force. In a statement made available to the media NSCN(IM) says,

Taking serious note of the killing of Kasom Khullen SDO, Dr. Th Kishan and his two staff, and confessed by ‘Lt Col’ H. Ningshen of Naga Army as his handiwork, the NSCN authorities were awakened to the reality to allow the law of the GPRN (NSCN-IM) to take its own course, in order to award appropriate punishment to the culprits.13

The law of Government of People’s Republic of Nagaland (NSCN-IM) mentioned here would be more like rule and regulations or directives of the executive body, it is clearly not the rule of law as defined in this paper. At best, most of the “laws” governing the other power centres are of similar kinds. But what is stopping the rule of law, i e, the state, from arresting the culprit? B ecause that would be interfering in the internal matters of the NSCN(IM) under the terms of the ceasefire agreement between the government of India and the insurgent group. Breaking the ceasefire would lead to more death and perhaps, a bloodbath, and the government of India might be accused of human rights violations. Whatever the reasons might be, it is very obvious that the NSCN(IM) has command over the life of many and the government has to reckon with it. It has more guns and more money than any other insurgent organisation in Manipur. The point b eing argued here, however, is not aimed to deny political aspirations to the Naga people. My point here is that the power centres, more often than not, express their sovereignty in terms of their rights to take life or let live. Imagine a score of such power centres operating within a small territory like Manipur. Manipur is like a land under a score of suns!

Economic & Political Weekly

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The Great Sun, the ultimate source of life, the one that gives without receiving, even Him, can become overbearing. In the presence of two suns, as in Numit Kappa , the slave revolted. Death, the excessive spending of energy according to Bataille, b ecame the only form of life possible, the energy from the two suns were too intense and tremendous. There is no time for a ccumulation, hence no growth, nor reproduction, only spending

– excessive spending. Unlike the mythological sun, the current power centres in Manipur are more like a negative sun; they take away without giving. They demand sacrifice of dignity, free speech, and even life. But, as I said, as long as sovereignty is e xpressed as the right to take life and let live, death becomes the limit of this sovereignty.

4.3 Move Three: The Revolt

In Numit Kappa when the two suns became too overbearing for the slave, he revolted by shooting one. It was perhaps the only option for him to release himself from his slavery. In contemporary Manipur one can see different forms of revolt against all the sovereign powers, including the state; from self-immolation to mass protest. In the wake of the extrajudicial killing of Manorama, 12 elderly women disrobed themselves in front of the A ssam Rifles’ garrison camp to “shame” the Indian army, one man protested the AFSPA by burning himself. Irom Sharmila has been on a permanent hunger strike as a protest against AFSPA since 2000. On the other hand, we saw a 48-hour general strike to condemn the death of Kishan. In the case of the death caused by law preserving violence, the revolt can take the form of violent or non-violent p rotest, or a demand for justice and reform. However, in the case of death which could be attributed to law-making violence, the r evolt often takes the form of violent condemnation.

The death of Kishan was not the only time that the people of Manipur – across ethnic lines, tribes, communities and religious groups – had revolted against the UGs. There have been numerous cases when the members of the UGs became victims of angry mob. A special case can be made of the developments in Heirok. Three persons including a girl were shot dead by the UGs during a Thabal Chongba (traditional dance festival). This immediately sparked a public outcry, and the people of Heirok demanded arms from the state authorities to protect themselves from the UGs. The Union Government eventually agreed to it by instituting 500 posts of special police officers (SPOs) out of which 300 would be recruited from Heirok. This will be on a trial basis for one year.14 Almost all the militant movements denounced this move. In fact the Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL, or organisation to save the revolutionary movement in Manipur) and UNLF, two of the major militant outfits declared Heirok a “restricted zone”, which meant that movement in and out of Heirok was strictly restricted until and unless the people of Heirok decided to stop the setting up of SPOs. Nevertheless, the plan went ahead and the SPOs are presently employed as a part of the district police force. The demand for SPOs has also been conceded to the people of Lilong Chajing.

However, in most cases, the revolt is in the form of condemnation accompanied with a strike or bandh. I think this serves two purposes. First, by bringing the entire economy and social life to a standstill, the sovereignty of the people is reasserted,


neither the state nor the other power centres can do much against it. Second, through this ritual of protest, the wisdom of the lawmaking violence is criticised and death is normalised. Kishan’s life became the symbol of hope that was nipped in the bud. Now, justice will no longer be done even if the murderers are hacked to death in the manner of the old days. Justice will take the form of life he has come to represent; an honest and brave effort to “ develop” Manipur.

I have not discussed the non-violent protest in detail here, given the limited scope of the paper. However, it would be worth examining how, why and when a revolt against the sovereign power takes the form of non-violent protest. Will it make sense if the cause of Irom Sharmila is directed not to law-preserving v iolence like AFSPA but towards the law-making violence like the death of Kishan? I mean, when the sovereign right to take life or let live, cannot be challenged by starving oneself to death, the only other alternative for the people seems to be a violent revolt. That is, to shoot the sun!

5 Conclusions

The anxiety and frustration involved with the inability to articulate certain deaths like that of Kishan in contemporary Manipur, exposes a perverse relation between violence and law. Benjamin had already examined this relationship in terms of law-preserving violence and law-making violence. However, the violent protest in the wake of Kishan’s death cannot be easily classified as law-making or law-preserving. It was not pure death either. Thus, it needs to be articulated somewhere in terms of law and justice, yet it cannot. But the entire Manipur took to the streets with


1 In the Chinese epic of Hou Yi, Yi shoots down nine out of 10 suns. See Masako (1995).

2 Walter Benjamin in “Critique of Violence” (1921) defines divine violence as “which is the sign and seal but never the means of sacred execution, may be called sovereign violence”.

3 The Sangai Express, 17 February 2009. 4 Kishan left his lectureship at the University of

Delhi to join the state service. He had been making lots of progress in his subdivision, which is in one of the remotest parts of Manipur. Given the

pathetic situation of the state administration and corrupt civil servants endemic in the state, Kishan came to be viewed as the ideal “son of the soil”.

5 20090223/1183676.html (viewed 04/02/2009)

6 Thangjam Manorama Devi, aged 32, was “arrested” from her house in the midnight of 10 July 2004, by personnel of the paramilitary force of the 17th Assam Rifles. A few hours later, around

5:30 am, of July 11, the bullet-ridden body of Manorama was discovered by the villagers of Ngariyan Maring, about four kilometers away from her residence.

7 file=article&sid=1704 (viewed on 04/02/2009). 8 Hueiyen News Service, Imphal, 18 November 2008. 9 Emergency provisions under the Constitution of India, like Article 352. 10 The Sangai Express, 21 February 2009.

11 Sometime in 2006, in an exclusive interview with CNN-IBN, Sanayaima, the chairman of UNLF called for a plebiscite under the aegis of the United Nations to decide the sovereignty of the people.

v iolent protest and condemnation, as if society cannot simply pass over in silence what it cannot comprehend. And also, given the ambiguous and contesting nature of sovereign right in M anipur, which is often expressed in terms of the right to declare “state of exception” or, the right to take life or let live, death is often found dancing in the primordial forms.

Manipuri society is in a desperate attempt to “normalise” these deaths through revolts against the sovereign centres of power. It either takes more violent forms like mob killing, self-immolation and demand for SPOs or non-violent (less violent?) forms like starving the body or the economy. Both types of revolt seem to challenge the presumed rights of the sovereign powers. This i nterplay of sovereign rights and protests has created a “state of exception” which cannot be completely appreciated simply as a suspension of the rule of law. Nor can we simply reduce it to ethnic conflict or tribal rivalry because, people across tribes, communities, ethnic and religious groups come out on the street to protest the death of Kishan. Similar forms of condemnations are almost always seen when non-Manipuris or mayangs are killed by the UGs. Unfortunately, such protests are never reported in the national media, while the killings of Biharis or non-Manipuris are always highlighted. I think this bias is coming from a perception of Manipur as a state of exception, a state of ethnic crisis, etc. The academia as well as the national media seem to have been stuck in the trap of late modernity, where the state is expected to respond to the “interests” of a “population” articulated in terms of tribe, ethnicity, insurgency, etc, while denying access to the ethos, and day to day lived experience of the

Manipuris as a people.

12 NSCN became a member of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation (UNPO), this was considered a crucial achievement by the Naga leaders. See The Naga Chronicle, pp 449-63.

13 Hueiyen News Service, 3 March 2009.

14 The Sangai Express, 3 May 2008.


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