Manipur Merger Agreement, 1949
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Manipur Merger Agreement, 1949
Revisiting the Merger of Manipur
Revisiting the Merger of Manipur- (Peaceful transformation of the armed conflict in Manipur should involve recognition of the numerous lapses inherent in the Merger Agreement)
By Sanatomba Kangujam
Posing the Problem
Revisiting the Manipur Merger Agreement, 1949 and the circumstances surrounding the signing of the same between the Maharaja of Manipur and the Indian authorities at Shillong on September 21, 1949 is highly called for mainly in view of the search for a peaceful political solution to the seemingly intractable armed conflict in Manipur. A fresh debate on the “merger of Manipur” is also needed in the light of new findings in order to discern the finer nuances of the conflict and the basic incompatibility underlying it.
In fact, the Manipur Merger Agreement, 1949 (or MMA-1949) has become one of the most contested historical documents in contemporary Manipur. For the Government of India, the merger issue is a closed chapter. Likewise, many scholars have also taken the merger issue for granted without subjecting it to any critical study. There are also certain quarters who feel uncomfortable or rather embarrassed to talk about the Merger Agreement. They complained about repeated reference to the Merger Agreement as too stereotype a debate besides questioning the rationale of reviving the past again and again.
As for the insurgent groups of Manipur, the Agreement has become central to their political mobilization against what they call occupation of Manipur by the Indian State. Citing the Merger Agreement as the root cause of the prevailing conflict in Manipur, the major insurgent groups and responsible non-state actors like the Revolutionary People’s Front (RPF) and the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) consider the Merger Agreement as illegal and unconstitutional. Many scholars have also questioned the validity of the said document on various grounds. Therefore, it is highly crucial to re-examine the legality and validity of the Agreement in the light of the Manipur State Constitution Act, 1947, the International Laws, other relevant procedural norms duly recognized by civilized Nations across the world and also in the light of new research findings.
The MMA-1949 under Vienna Convention 1969 :
The first important point of contestation often raised by informed quarters on the Merger Agreement is that the Maharaja was made to sign the Agreement under ‘duress’ and ‘coercion’. This alone constitutes a serious allegation on account of the fact that any agreement or treaty whose conclusion was secured through application of force or threat is rendered invalid as per relevant provision of International Law. For example, Article 52 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, 1969 provides:
“A treaty is void if its conclusion has been procured by the threat or use of force in violation of the principles of international law embodied in the charter of the United Nations.”
Various claims point to the fact that the Maharaja was virtually kept under house arrest thereby subjecting him to tremendous psychological pressure. Ultimately, the Maharaja succumbed to the psychological torture, emotional blackmailing, prolonged detention and military threat. It has been revealed that the Government of Assam dispatched a section of the Jat Regiment (regular army) to the Redland bungalow where the Maharaja and his team were holding up. Two tents were pitched inside the Rajpari area within which the bungalow was located.
The Maharaja refused to sign the Merger Agreement without consulting his Council of Ministers and conveyed his desire to return to Manipur to obtain the approval of the people. Rejecting such a reasonable proposal, Nari Rustomji, Advisor to the Governor of Assam suggested that the Maharaja might as well, finalize the merger issue during that current visit only, and further reminded that the Maharaja might not leave Shillong before signing the Agreement.
Then the Governor wrote to the Maharaja that he had received instructions from the Ministry of States that the merger issue must be decided by September 20, 1949 at the latest. To this, the Maharaja replied that eliciting the opinion of the people in whom the sovereignty had been vested, was necessary to render constitutional validity to the proposed line of action. Realising the futility of his attempt, the Governor sent a telegram to Sardar Patel seeking permission to detain the Maharaja by force at Shillong when the necessity arose. Thereafter, surveillances over the Maharaja got intensified with the CID men swarming the Rajpari area and the strength of the Jat Regiment being increased from one section to two sections. Besides, with all the communication lines remained cut off, the Maharaja was ipso facto under house arrest (Source: The Merger of Manipur by Haobam Bhubon Singh 1988, 109).
On September 19, 1949, the Maharaja wrote to the Governor that he would return home immediately. Replying to this letter, the Governor informed the Maharaja that very strict instructions were received from the Government of India that the negotiation must be completed before the Maharaja would leave Shillong. On September 20, 1949 a meeting to finalise the Merger Agreement was held at the Government House, Shillong. In what can be described as sheer display of military strength to intimidate the Maharaja, the entire battalion of the Jat Regiment was paraded within the Government House compound. A number of policemen were also scattered all around the area. In order to render maximum psychological impact on the Maharaja, the presence of the Inspector General of Police, Assam in full uniform was ensured.
It can be concluded that the whole events and circumstances leading to signing of the Agreement exhibited the treachery of the worst type. As the Maharaja vacillated, the case was referred to the States Ministry and the matter was placed before Sardar Patel. When the Governor of Assam expressed his apprehension regarding the Maharaja’s reluctance to sign the Agreement, Sardar Patel said something like, “Isn’t there a Brigadier at Shillong?” Such a casual statement indicates the militaristic approach of the Government of India in tackling any issues relating to Manipur.
The MMA-1949 and the Manipur State Constitution Act, 1947 : Another important point of contestation is that the conclusion of the Merger Agreement violated the Manipur State Constitution Act, 1947. Before the signing of the Merger Agreement, Manipur had already adopted a written constitution of its own and a partially democratic government was already functioning. Under the new constitution and the new government, the Maharaja was a mere constitutional head with the real sovereign authority vested in the popular ministry. It is, therefore, significant to examine the power and status of the Maharaja under the Manipur Constitution Act, 1947.
By Sanatomba Kangujam
Under Section 3 of the Manipur State Constitution Act, 1947, all rights, authority and jurisdiction which appertained or were incidental to the government of such territories were exercisable by the Maharaja subject to the provision of this Act. Section 8 of the said Act provided the Maharaja’s prerogatives, which could not and should not extend to the legitimate interest of the state administration or a civil right sustainable in a court of law was involved. The executive authority of the state had been delegated to and vested in the Council of Ministers as per Section 10 of the said Act. Similarly, according to Section 26, the law making authority in the state was vested in the Maharaja in Council in collaboration with the State Assembly. A minute perusal of the above stated provisions would indicate beyond doubt, that the real power was not vested with the Maharaja.
Over and above, Section 9(b) of the Manipur State Constitution Act, 1947 would certainly dispel any doubt about the titular status of the Maharaja, which was expressedly stated thus: “The Maharaja means His Highness, the Maharaja of Manipur, the constitutional head of the state”.
The Maharaja of Manipur was not authorized by his Council of Ministers to enter into such an agreement. In this context, it is pertinent to point out that the Merger Agreement had assumed the character of an international treaty for the simple fact that Manipur was a sovereign independent state before its integration with India. The Maharaja lacked the capacity to enter into such a transaction and sign the Merger Agreement as he was neither an appointed plenipotentiary nor an authorized delegate of the Manipur Government. The Maharaja, without the concurrence of the State Assembly and without the consent of the Council of Ministers, in which the executive authority of the state was delegated and vested under the Manipur Constitution, did not have the authority to conclude the Merger Agreement.
Another weakness of the Merger Agreement lies in the fact that the king knowingly or unknowingly had signed the agreement on behalf of himself, his heirs and successors only and significantly not on behalf of the people of Manipur or the Popular Ministry. This fact certainly left a room for the people of Manipur to reject or approve of his action, which greatly diminished the binding character of the said Agreement.
The said Agreement was also in the form of a ‘personal contract’ between the Maharaja and the Government of India and therefore the Agreement does not reflect any imprint of a formal agreement concluded between two states. The agreement does not envisage any provision that defines the kind of relation that Manipur should have with India. It does not specify any concrete political and administrative arrangement on the basis of which the merger was effected. On the contrary, the agreement envisages only the privileges and entitlement of the Maharaja. The Maharaja also did not negotiate with the Indian authority on any substantive issue but vigorously pressed for enhancing his annual allowances. The Merger Agreement was not an agreement in the true sense of the term; it was rather the most ignominious sell-out in the contemporary history of Manipur. It was also an act of complete capitulation committed under the most treacherous circumstances.
The signing of the Merger Agreement also lacked constitutional endorsement. Before October 15, 1949, Manipur was a sovereign country with a written constitution and a partially democratic government. The Manipur State Constitution Act, 1947, which was already in operation at the time of signing of the Merger Agreement, did not envisage anything that enabled or empowered the king or the government to effect accession to another State. In other words, there was no provision in the Constitution of Manipur for entering into a Merger Agreement. Therefore, if such an agreement was to be concluded at all with the Indian Dominion, the Constitution of Manipur required to be amended beforehand. Constitutional amendment was never carried out in the case of Manipur as a consequence of which the signing of the Merger Agreement by the Maharaja had been rendered ultra vires.
No Ratification & No Plebiscite :
There had been numerous procedural lapses, which the Government of India committed in the process of transacting the Merger Agreement in 1949. One such lapse is that the Manipur Merger Agreement, 1949 was never ratified either by the Indian Parliament or by the Manipur State Assembly within an appropriate timeframe. As per relevant provision of International Law, a treaty without ratification has no binding on the high contracting parties. In his International Law: A Treatise (Volume 1), Oppenheim writes,
Ratification is the term for the final confirmation given by the parties to an international treaty concluded by their representatives and is commonly used to include the exchange of documents embodying that confirmation. Although a treaty is concluded as soon as the mutual consent is manifest from acts of the duly authorized representatives, its binding force is, as a rule, suspended until ratification is given. The function of ratification is therefore; to make the treaty binding; if it is refused, the treaty falls to the ground in consequence (Oppenheim 1905, 903).
In the absence of ratification by both the parties, the Merger Agreement lacked the binding character of a treaty. It was also not approved by the Council of Ministers. As such, integration of Manipur with India on the basis of the said Agreement was devoid of any legal sanction. There was no provision in the merger document that it would become operational once entered even without requiring confirmation by ratification. Failure to ratify the Agreement after the conclusion of the same has rendered it operationally invalid.
Another lapse of the Merger Agreement often cited by those who questioned its validity is that the same has never been subject to a plebiscite. It has been a universally accepted democratic norm to ascertain the will and opinion of the people concerned on issues which have far reaching effect on their political future. A plebiscite is normally held to determine the options regarding whether a people residing in a specific territory want to remain independent or join another country. Whenever there has been a controversy regarding the question of accession of one state to another such state, the issue can best be settled through the mechanism of a plebiscite, most probably under the supervision of a neutral third party like the United Nations. Likewise, any agreement involving the question of accession could become legally valid only if it has been finally endorsed by the people through a UN – supervised plebiscite. Inspite of this fact, a plebiscite was never held in the case of Manipur on the issue of its merger with the Dominion of India. This constitutes one of the most serious shortcomings inherent in the process of the merger. It is held in various quarters that the integration of Manipur with India was carried out without free and informed consent and prior consultation of the people of Manipur in whom the sovereignty was vested.
The Indian Independence Act, 1947 and the Merger :
It is also worthwhile to examine the legality of the various orders issued by the Indian Government in the light of the Indian Independence Act, 1947. As a matter of fact, two orders namely the Manipur (Administration) Order 1949 and the State’s Merger (Chief Commisioner’s Provinces) Order, 1950 were issued by M.K. Vellodi, Secretary to the Government of India, Ministry of States and C. Gopalachari, the Governor General of India respectively, to consummate the process of integration.
By Sanatomba Kangujam
Here, the question is whether M.K. Vellodi had the power to make an order for dissolving the democratically elected Manipur State Assembly notwithstanding the signing of the Merger Agreement. Similarly, could the Governor General of India, C. Gopalachari issue the State’s Merger (Chief Commisioner’s Provinces) Order, 1950 on January 22, 1950? The moot question is; was the Governor General endowed with the authority to promulgate such an order on the said date?
As per Section 9 of the Indian Independence Act, 1947, it remained the sole prerogative of the Governor General to make any order. Therefore, the Manipur (Administration) Order 1949 which was issued in the name of M.K. Vellodi lacked constitutional sanction. Besides, the State’s Merger (Chief Commissioner’s Provinces) Order made by the Governor General on January 22, 1950 was also legally invalid as per Section 9(5) of the Indian Independence Act, 1947, which envisaged that no order shall be made by the Governor General under that section after March 31, 1948. Therefore, the order made by the Governor General of India on January 22, 1950 was well beyond the authority guaranteed to him by the Indian Independence Act, 1947.
Stand taken by MSLA :
Recent findings reveal a very significant event that marked a major opposition to the signing of the Merger Agreement. As per the proceedings of the 4th Sitting of the 3rd Session of the First Manipur State Legislative Assembly (MSLA) held at the Assembly Chamber in the Johnstone High School at 2:30 P.M. on the 28th September 1949, the Assembly had declared in no uncertain terms that Manipur would have no relations with the Indian Government whatsoever while categorically rejecting the Merger Agreement signed by Maharaja Bodh Chandra under immense pressure and duress. The document was signed by P.B. Singh, Chief Minister, T.C. Tiankham, Speaker and I.B. Singh, Minister of Finance and Foreign Affairs. (Reference: The Manipur State Gazette, October 14, 1949 (Part IV): Printed and published by the Supdt. State Press G-100/14-10-49/ MANIPUR STATE ARCHIVE).
This revelation is remarkable as it runs contrary to the general understanding which upholds that the Assembly had not register any form of protest or opposition to the Merger Agreement. Besides, this particular episode assumes more significance because of the fact that the Assembly was the only sovereign authority to say anything on the issue of merger. It may be stated that the Assembly was very much functioning as on 28th September 1949 since it got dissolved, though unconstitutionally, only on 15 October 1949. The historic resolutions adopted by the MSLA had rendered the Merger Agreement null and void right from the inception. Under the Manipur State Constitution Act, 1947, the State Assembly was the only supreme body which alone was capable of taking a decision on the issue of merger.
Concluding Remarks :
From the preceding analysis, it is quite obvious that serious procedural lapses were committed by the Government of India in securing the signing of the Merger Agreement. Had the Government of the Indian Dominion followed certain procedural norms in the process of signing the agreement, the existing controversy centering on the said agreement would never have emerged. The Central Government of the Indian Dominion should have allowed Maharaja Bodhchandra to return to Manipur to consult his Council of Minister and obtain the consent of his people. The Maharaja reminded the Indian authorities several times that he alone could not undertake such a transaction without consulting his government and the people in whom sovereignty resided.
But the Indian Government rejected the Maharaja’s plea and instead literally coerced him into signing of the most controversial Agreement in the history of Manipur thereby setting the stage for one of the most protracted conflicts in the North East. The controversy has become the ground for emergence of conflict between the Indian State and the non-state actors of Manipur. Had the integration of Manipur been carried out in keeping with the relevant democratic norms which are universally recognized by civilized nations, the prevailing conflict could have been averted. Lack of diplomacy and political far-sightedness coupled with scant regard for the principles enshrined in the United Nations’ Charter had rendered the Merger Agreement a highly contested issue.
Another grave political blunder was committed by the GoI even as the Merger Agreement came into force on October 15, 1949. The Constitution of Manipur was scrapped and the democratically elected Manipur State Legislative Assembly was arbitrarily dissolved by passing two orders namely the Manipur (Administration) Order 1949 and the State’s Merger (Chief Commisioner’s Provinces) Order, 1950. Such a line of action pursued by the GoI led to complete usurpation of democratic space in Manipur which in turn created widespread political discontentment among the Manipuri elites. This had prepared the ground for political dissent that finds articulation in the form of insurgency. Here it needs to be emphasized that the politics behind the insurgency movement in Manipur is to recover the democratic space that was usurped in 1949.
Viewing from the hindsight, it would have been politically more prudent if the GoI had allowed Manipur to retain its Constitution and the Assembly as in the case of Jammu and Kashmir while working out the structure of relations between Manipur and India through special constitutional arrangement.
By Sanatomba Kangujam
It needs to be sated that conflict between the Dominion of India and the independent Manipur had started much before the signing of the Merger Agreement. The stationing of an extra-constitutional body known as the Dewan in Manipur in April 1949 had created much confusion and discord in the bilateral relations between the Dominion of India and Manipur. It was primarily with a view to resolve the simmering tension generated due to excessive power exercised by the Dewan that the king of Manipur was invited to Shillong. The chain of events that unfolded at Shillong has now become history which everyone is aware of.
The attempt to interfere into the internal affairs of Manipur was made by India even before the formal declaration of independence in 1947. In fact, the signing of the Instrument of Accession and the Standstill Agreement on August 11, 1947 marked the beginning of the conflict between Manipur and India. By signing these two agreements, Manipur had virtually surrendered its external sovereignty to India. Besides, the internal autonomy of Manipur was eroded to a large extent under the Instrument of Accession and the Standstill Agreement. The legality or illegality of the two agreements is quite another issue. But the signing of these two agreements did not directly led to complete usurpation of democratic space in Manipur. Notwithstanding the signing of the Instrument of Accession and the Standstill Agreement, Manipur was allowed to adopt its own constitution and install a partially democratic government elected on the basis of Universal Adult Franchise.This is primarily the reason for not citing the Instrument of Accession and the Standstill Agreement as the major causes of the prevailing conflict.
However, the signing of the Merger Agreement subsequently resulted in complete usurpation of democratic space. This is the basic reason why the Merger Agreement remains central to the understanding of the conflict and insurgency in Manipur. In this regard, it is worthwhile to argue that the dissolution of the Manipur State Legislative Assembly can be considered more significant than the signing of the Merger Agreement. Because it is the dissolution of the MSLA and not the signing of the Merger Agreement per se that instantaneously usurped the democratic space in Manipur. Still then, the dissolution of the MSLA itself can also be construed as a direct consequence of the Merger Agreement. The signing of the Merger Agreement and the dissolution of the Manipur State Assembly has to be viewed as a single chain of events and not as separate occurrences. Here lies the centrality of the Merger Agreement in the study of conflict and insurgency in Manipur. As such, resolution of the current conflict should involve recognition of the lapses that were committed in the process of securing the Merger Agreement as well as the shortcoming inherent in dissolving the Manipur State Assembly. Restoration of democratic space that had existed in pre-1949 period will remain a key factor in ushering peace and normalcy in Manipur.
Postscript: Politics of the Royal Palace :
The latest move of the state government to take over the Royal Palace on the pretext of renovating it can be seen as a logical corollary of the Merger Agreement. The move can be interpreted as a policy to complete the unfinished agenda of the merger. The take-over plan aims at completely usurping what has been left with Manipur i.e. the titular kingship which remains as a cultural symbol that represents the sovereign past of Manipur. When the king is separated from the palace, the existence of kingship is devoid of any meaning. The palace take-over, therefore, implies the end of the titular kingship. In other words, the government apparently does not want to retain the kingship even in the present titular form on account of its intrinsic political implications. So the latest move is to finish the process that had been started since 1949 at Shillong.
Given this understanding, there is a need to critically observe the resistance to the palace take-over plan. Resisting the palace take-over plan from the historical and cultural point of view is fully justified. But if expediency assumes primacy over consistency in the act of resistance, then the danger lies there. It is pertinent to point out that invoking the provisions of the Merger Agreement for ensuring the protection of the Royal Palace is tantamount to endorsing the said Agreement. Because when the demand for implementation of certain provisions of the Merger Agreement is made, it implies recognition of the validity of that Agreement. Therefore, the line of politics that seeks to protect the Royal Palace by invoking the Merger Agreement only stands to endorse the same. Although, the state government has already withdrawn the plan to take-over the Royal Palace, ultimately it is the government which has won the battle. The politics of resisting the palace take-over plan remains entrapped in its own strategy. Political correctness and consistency is something which is lacking in any kind of movement being witnessed in Manipur. (Concluded)
The views expressed here are solely that of the writer
The writer is Post Doctoral Fellow, Department of Political Science, Manipur University. He is currently working on “Peace Initiatives and Conflict Transformation in Manipur”. He can be reached at <firstname.lastname@example.org