Hijam Irabot: Caught between two shadowy webs
By M C Arun
One of the most controversial personalities in the 20th century Manipur is Hijam Irabot. The puzzlement of historians in locating his space in current history of Manipur is very obvious because of constant debates over his political movement. His ideas, actions and political goals are discussed from two angles: first, by locating him and his ideas in larger communist movement in India; second, by locating him in a political movement of Manipur in decolonization period. Still a minor view is there locating him in a movement for an “Independent Manipur in Independent India.” He is assessed by many historians with the counts of pre-WWII activities right from the formation of Nikhil Manipuri Hindu Mahasabha which later changed its name to Nikhil Manipuri Mahasabha down to various reformation movements both of political and socio-cultural nature. His underground life was least discussed or not even well documented. The communist movement of 1948-1950 in Manipur was mainly constructed historically with oral history methods. These oral historical accounts are found contradictory among themselves; this led more confusion over the historical position of this great political leader of first half of the 20th century. The personal accounts of his closest colleagues in the underground movements are scanty in number or are well influenced by personal emotions and sentiments. His ideas in his later periods are not fully studied or documented; the scanty materials are interpreted or re-interpreted by many for certain political gains or interests.
Another way of looking at Hijam Irabot is the dissociation of him from the party under which he led the armed struggle. This way is very common in a set of literature around the later political movement of this great man. The basic issue in such approach to understanding is whether the leader or the party should be given importance in knowing a “people’s movement”. The associated question is over the person or the process of the movement. The tragedy is that, for any question in hand, there is limited information both oral and documentary evidences. In some writings, it seems that a fact is over blown up so that the interpretation may serve an interest set by the interpreter.
For a little mental exercise, we can have a question: Did Hijam Irabot and his party (communist, no doubt) take up arms for a ‘communist Manipur’ or as a part of larger communist movement seen at the fag end of British colonialism in Indian sub-continent. The resolution of Indian communists to take up arms and the preparations for a larger revolutionary movement are often cited as background of armed communist movement in Manipur. The formation of various peasant associations and their political slogans are explained in the line of Indian communist resolution. The role and decision of other communist leaders who are younger than Hijam Irabot in the party formation and its decision for an armed struggle cannot be overlooked while looking for the nature and extent of the struggle in the most critical period of Manipur history.
On the other hand, in the light of self-criticism of Hijam Irabot, a school of thought tries to project this leader as a communist leader of Manipur, independent of Indian communist movement. To this school of thought Marshal Tito’s line or communist with a sense of nationalism is the key concept and tries to locate Irabot’s contribution to the emergence of revolutionary nationalism in post-independence period. Only dark areas in the construction are that what and how things had been organized after the Party went underground in 1948. The oral narratives of his followers (many of them were very young at that time) who were interviewed by interested persons make more and more confusions. As there were contradictory statements among them, the political ideology and its manifestation of the Party cannot be ascertained. The narratives of top rank leaders who went underground with him are not only few in number but also are scrutinized by different persons with their subjective bias. This situation of valuation of a historical personality is a great challenge to history writing.
The often stated statements about Hijam Irabot – Jana Neta or Lamyanba — are (i) he was against the formation of Purbalchal Pradesh, (ii) he was so angry when he heard about the merger of Manipur. Hijam Irabot was anti-Purbalchal Pradesh formation, proposed and demanded by Bengalis in Cachar and Tripura. Again, he was also anti-merger. He did not want Manipur to sign the proposed Merger Agreement in 1949. The signing of the Agreement was done after his Party went underground. From these two statements, it would be wrong to conclude either he was Indian communist or anti-Indian. Nothing can be concluded only on the ground of these two statements. It was not only the communists including Hijam Irabot who rejected the proposal of formation of Purbalchal; it was also opposed by a large section of Manipur Congress, Socialists in Manipur and many others. Likewise, the anti-Merger stand may be on various grounds. The ground of his anti-merger stand might not be that his movement was for an independent Manipur. The transformation of Indian communists’ anti-imperialist movement to peoples’ movement and their ideological stand on the question of Indian Independence may be an alternative answer to his anti-merger attitude. Did he want a communist Manipur in a communist India? Answer may be tricky because objective study on this question demands much more historical information beyond these narratives available so far. These historical facts are interpreted by many in one or other way.
His ideas are tried to be reconstructed through his own poems, essays and other literary pieces, too. The political interpretations of various poems in his Imagi Puja show that he did not altogether stand against the Indian Union (communist or liberal democratic). Such an exercise of reconstructing his ideas does not yield a new picture, beyond any doubt. One thing is certain that he thought against the wind of the colonial rule and the breeze around the transfer of power from British to India. It is not always easy to lead a people who cannot think against the existing social ideology; Hijam Irabot might have faced much trouble and difficulties at that time to convince the people who were socialized with a dictum: Ningthou semba yaoganu.