The history of Plebiscite in India & its baffling problems under international law


By: Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh

Plebiscite is an unholy word for India, the opposite of “Om”. While Maharaja Hari Singh of Kashmir was reluctant to join India or Pakistan, having already signed a Standstill Agreement with Pakistan on August 15 1947, Pakistan sent Pathan tribesmen on October 20 1947. Maharaja Hari Singh Dogra requested India to send troops. India did after he signed the Instrument of Accession to India on October 26 1947.

On October 27 1947 the Indian troops were flown in. The Pathan invasion halted just outside of Srinagar at Bara mullah where these tribesmen were busy ransacking, looting and raping women. It was a lucky break for India. Otherwise Srinagar would have been in Azad Kashmir. Ultimately they were defeated by the Indian Army.

Nehru promised a plebiscite in due course, and persuaded Maharaja Hari to hand over the reigns of government to Sheikh Abdullah, the leader of the National Conference, to appease
the Kashmiri majority Muslim population.

Not knowing which way the plebiscite would go, India has since obstructed all attempts at holding a plebiscite on the ground that much water has run under the bridge.

An open war broke out between Pakistan and India. Nehru sought UN arbitration. On January 1 1949, both India and Pakistan signed the ceasefire pact in Karachi and the Line of Control (LOC) was drawn.

Determined Kashmiri and Pakistani militants have been trying to force India to conduct a plebiscite in Kashmir without success. America refuses to intervene as India claims it is an internal matter.

Within the Charter of the UN, there is an explicit prohibition on the world organization from interfering in the domestic affairs of member states. It is the Charter’s most frequently cited provision, Article 2 (7).

If the Kashmiri separatists’ failure to conduct a plebiscite for self determination, even with the clandestine support by the Armed Forces of Pakistan, is anything to go by, it would be a very daunting proposition for Manipur to ask the Government of India (GOI) for a plebiscite.

We know the history of the annexation of Muslim Junagadh at the south eastern end of Gujarat with a promise of plebiscite in 1947. It never happened.

The U N Security Council passed a number of resolutions on the question of Kashmir’s future recognizing the fact that Kashmir is a disputed territory and that its people of 12 million must decide their destiny by a plebiscite. Now 64 years on, nothing has happened.

Plebiscite means either a direct vote of the qualified voters of a state in regard to some
important public question, or the vote by which the people of a political unit determine autonomy or application with another country.

To show how difficult self-determination is I will quote Scotland. It is already in devolution in the UK since 2007. It has a Parliament, which was elected in Edinburgh, with legislative
and tax-varying powers.

Now the ruling Scottish National Party is pushing to hold a referendum on independence of
Scotland. David Cameron, the Prime Minister of Britain says it is not going to happen.

In the demand for independence under International law three conditions should be addressed: (1) is there a right of self-determination of peoples? (2) if so, who is subject of the right of
self-determination? and (3) does the right of self-determination substantiate the right of secession?

Independence for Scotland would not be dissolution of the UK and creation of two states. Instead Scotland would secede from the UK, just as the Republic of Ireland seceded earlier in the century. This will not affect the UK’s status in international law.

On the other hand, an independent Scotland that would have an anomalous position would have to negotiate its entry to EU and define its relationship with other international organisations such as the UN, IMF and the World Bank. It would take a number of years for an independent Scotland to define relationship, if any, with international organisations.

Asking for a plebiscite in Manipur is not that simple. The work complex means not a simple structure, idea or attitudes publicly accepted but a more difficult structure, idea or attitude with multiple or subtle significance, meaning & understanding.

In theory, an individual at any place at any time may petition the United Nations to
recognise a plebiscite to be conducted in an area defined geographically or politically, provided there is reasonable evidence of a massive support for the change.

If it entails any changes in geographical boundaries it must be by mutual consent of both the government and the governed. This means that the GOI should be more than willing for us to have a plebiscite with a view to Manipur becoming an independent country.

If the GOI agrees to a break up of Indian Territory, a constitutional amendment in the Indian Constitution by a majority of the Union Legislature would be necessary. This is more than unlikely.

In International law, a sovereign independent state must be recognised and protected by the Security Council. The United Nations currently only requires that a sovereign state has an effective and independent government pursuant to a community within a defined territory.

The practical question is where does Manipur fit in the plebiscite jigsaw Puzzle as a sovereign state, de jure and de facto?

Economically Manipur is not East Timor which is often quoted by the Meiteis as an example of a small country, which can stand on its own feet, not realising that it has massive revenues from oil – 3bn US dollars for a population of fewer than one million. Scotland has GDP of £100 billion from its off-shore oils.

It is not that Manipur has no legal rights to self-determination. Manipur has two important legal pillars to support their demand for self-determination: (1) the right to territorial integrity; and (2) the right to self-determination.

The right to territorial integrity: according to international law the right to territorial integrity
is the right of a sovereign nation to retain control over its territory. This is Manipur’s historical right or claim.

As Manipur was a sovereign state before India annexed it by the use of force, she is entitled to continued and future sovereignty. She has the right to decide on her future political, social, cultural and economic status. Manipur was a sovereign nation in her 2,000 year old history until a brief interlude of British rule between 1891 and 1947.

The right to self-determination: the right to self-determination is a cornerstone of the UN Charter 1 Article 1(2). According to this, the Manipuris today have the right to self determination. The Article states: “The purposes of the United Nations are…to develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principles of equal rights and self-determination of peoples…”

The 1970 UN resolution, Declaration on Principles of International Law concerning Friendly Relations and Cupertino among States in Accordance with the Charter of the UN, reads as follows: “…All peoples have the right to freely determine, without external interference, their political status and pursue their economic, social and cultural development, and every
state has the duty to respect this right in accordance with the provisions of the Charter.”

The right of self-determination is the right of peoples and there can be no argument that the Manipuris are people. Under international law ‘people’ is defined as a group of people with a common historical tradition, a racial identity, a shared culture, linguistic unity, religious affinity, a territorial connection and a common economic life.

If Manipur wants to implement its right to self-determination by seeking full independence and India does not want to give up control over its territory (Manipur), claiming the right to territorial integrity there is very little the UN could do.

This is despite the Vienna Declaration of 1993, which states that territorial integrity can be invoked by legitimate governments conducting themselves in compliance with the principles of equal rights and self-determination of peoples. A state’s legitimacy derives from satisfaction of its duties to its citizens.
These duties are:
1. to protect the population.
2 to promote the economic, cultural, social and spiritual welfare of the people it
3 to promote respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and
4 to promote self-determination and equal rights.

When a state does not promote these interests but instead represses the people, destroys their culture and economically exploits them, it loses legitimacy as a government and cannot prevail on its claim of territorial integrity (Eva- Herzer).

For application of self-determination in Manipur we need to prove that India has not satisfied in performing its duties to the Manipuris as its citizens.

Finally, though the collective right of self-determination embraces the fundamental freedom enshrined in the UN Charter; the right of its implementation is vague in international law. Further, plebiscite is now a system of doubtful value in its application in a modern state. Under unfavourable conditions, it may do immense harm.

The writer is based in the UK.
Website: www:


  1. Very good! “In theory, an individual at any place at any time may petition the United Nations to recognise a plebiscite to be conducted in an area defined
    geographically or politically, provided there is reasonable evidence of a
    massive support for the change.”it mean there is way but there is lack of zeal and participation from the part of people.Hence awareness is needed in long term strategy.By no means these should not just a way to achieve our goal.Secret is long long term strategy.We need to fight with “pen” as well as with swords.Only worry is empathy from general people who have lost their roots and identity but hope are there if at least they impart younger generation something that they had not been able to give. 


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here