The political journey of Rishang Keishing from a strong Naga integrationist to a strong Indian nationalist who represented a united Manipur carries lessons for the current day politicians.
Politics in the North East is undergoing a tectonic shift. There are three dimensions of this shift: first is the omni-directional rise of the BJP and the primacy of development- oriented politics, and second is an eagerness in the society to resolve the long standing issues of the insurgents. At times of such churning, society looks for a moral guiding force and an experienced hand to hold them together, a veteran who can rise above the petty politics and offer a healing touch.
This week, Manipur lost one such leader. Not just Manipur or the North East, but the entire nation lost a valuable son of the soil at a crucial time when an important Naga agreement is being worked out, high-level talks are underway with the Kuki insurgents and strong signals are being sent out to Meitei insurgents.
About a hundred kilometres and a three-hour drive from Imphal, lies the serene and beautiful hill town of Ukhrul. The tribal district of Ukhrul is mostly inhabited by the Tangkhul Naga tribe. This enigmatic town has given Manipur its two Chief Ministers – Yangmasho Shaiza and Rishang Keishing, the most prominent Naga nationalist, Th Muivah, who is the General Secretary of NSCN (IM) and several top government bureaucrats. Ukhrul, therefore, is a key hub of political beginnings in the politics of the North East.
One of the most prominent sons of Ukhrul, the grand old man of Manipur politics and the longest serving parliamentarian in the world, Rishang Keishing, breathed his last this week. ‘Uncle’ Rishang, as people of Manipur lovingly remember him, had an extraordinarily long political career spanning seven decades where he served four times as the CM of Manipur, four times as a parliamentarian and seven times as a state legislator. Studying his life necessitates studying the journey of three generations of politics in the state.
Rishang, a school headmaster, entered politics in 1952 when he was elected to the first Lok Sabha as a member of the Socialist Party. In 1964, he joined the Congress party at the invitation of Nehru. Rishang stayed with the Congress for the rest part of his political career.
However, the Congress was just a default political vessel available in Manipur for a tribal leader like Rishang to propagate his politics and reach Manipur’s seat of power. The only other tribal Chief Minister was Y Shaiza, who switched between different political setups – Manipur Hills Union and the Janata Party – but could not deliver a stable government.
In the early phase of his political career, Rishang was a strong proponent of the Naga integrationist movement, which aimed to carve out all Naga-inhabited regions from Manipur and the erstwhile Assam (that included present day Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland). Nehru initially thought Rishang was an agent of Naga separatist leader Phizo, who wanted to push the agenda of separate Nagaland from within the precincts of the House.
A good part of Rishang’s political career was then spent in justifying that he truly was an Indian nationalist and someone who strongly stood for a united Manipur. First, Nehru doubted his loyalty towards India. Later, Rajiv Gandhi, unceremoniously sacked Rishang from the post of Chief Minister after he had served eight years. It is believed that even Rajiv doubted that Rishang was aiding and abetting NSCN (IM) in its insurgent activities.
Rajiv Gandhi sent his Home Minister, Buta Singh, to replace Rishang with Gandhi’s childhood friend, Doon classmate, and the serving Union Petrochemical minister RK Jaichandra Singh. In a late night coup, Rishang was literally thrown out of the his bungalow by Buta Singh. Rajiv Gandhi bullied his way through and para-dropped a new CM who could not last for more than two years. Even in 1994, when Keishing came back as the CM for the fourth time, the Governor at that time, Gen V.K. Nayar, accused him of extending clandestine support to the NSCN(IM).
While Delhi saw Rishang as having a soft corner for NSCN(IM), in Manipur he was seen as the architect of the village voluntary force where common villagers were armed to contain insurgency in the state. These village forces were especially successful in controlling the influence of NSCN(IM) in northern Manipur.
The political journey of Rishang from a strong Naga integrationist to a strong Indian nationalist who stood for a united Manipur is an interesting evolution and carries lessons for current day politicians.
When Rishang started his political tours in Nagaland to propagate the idea of Greater Nagalim, he realised that as a Tangkhul Naga he was not treated equally with the other Naga tribes of Nagaland. As is a fact, Manipuri Nagas are considered Kachcha Nagas or half-Nagas, socially not at par with other Naga tribes dwelling in Nagaland.
Over the course of time, he realised that project of Greater Nagaland was impractical. Treading cautiously to avoid a flare-up and his own political depletion, Rishang decided to rise above the communal fault lines of Manipur and focused his attention on secular issues. This allowed him to serve at the helm for the longest period in spite of being from a minority tribal community.
The world view of Manipuris from the days of Rishang’s politics to now has changed. It is difficult to say if Manipur will ever see a Naga Chief Minister again.
After Rishang’s fourth term, one of the Meitei insurgent groups resolved that they would not allow a non-Meitei to occupy the top office of the state. While politics constantly throws up surprises, a tribal chief minister now seems a distant possibility. Over the years, and especially during the regime of the outgoing Chief Minister Ibobi Singh, the delicate social fabric of the state appeared torn because of narrow political goals. Deep fault lines were created between communities to reap quick political dividends. Manipur society needs a lot of healing to be able to build mutual trust between communities.
Rajat Sethi is a political advisor to the Manipur chief minister.