Every nation state, whether it formally came into being within living memory or has been a stable polity for centuries, views itself as a unique and inviolable territorial entity.
The nation state and its territory are symbiotically bound together, inseparable and inviolable. The diminishment of one leads inescapably to the diminishment of the other. This, the classic (and idealised) view of what constitutes the nation state, has remained more or less unchanged since the middle of the 17th century, despite the constant internal and external challenges to the supposedly inviolable territoriality of many sovereign nations, the changes that have come about in ‘unalterable borders,' and the emergence of new nation states.
As explained in political science textbooks, the series of treaties known as the Westphalia treaties, which ended the Thirty Years War (1618-48), are the basis of the modern nation states in Europe. This concept has, over the years, acquired universal applicability and is now the foundational basis for modern nation states everywhere, including India. Over and above this is the Indian nationalist view that from times immemorial, India has been a civilisational state, Bharat Mata, mystically transcending the narrow legal definitions of European theorists of what constitutes the modern nation state.
This is not unique to India. Every nation state, whether it formally came into being within living memory or has been a stable polity for centuries, views itself as a unique and inviolable territorial entity. Many also evoke the image of the nation state as the Eternal Mother, especially in periods of national crisis.
Mother Russia remained a living idea even in the Soviet Union and was evoked by Stalin when the country faced great peril from the Nazi invasion. The territory where “not a blade of grass grows,” in Jawaharlal Nehru's words half-a-century ago — or Siachen now — remains an area of contestation because of this inviolability of national territory. Thus the rhetoric of leaders at moments of foreign aggression: “We are not going to retreat from an inch of our territory.”
Interestingly, such passionate commitment to territoriality is not a unique expression of only an established nationhood. People struggling to attain nationhood are as fervid about the territory that is still in the realm of their imagination — imagined as part of their memory and aspirations, and not a reality on the ground that can be fought over — as established nation states.
The struggles for sovereignty going on in Assam and its neighbourhood in northeast India are a case in point. In popular perception, the whole region comprising seven States (with the artificial addition of Sikkim to the Northeastern Council, eight States) is aflame with violent separatist insurgencies. In reality, serious separatist or sovereignty struggles with some political and organisational substance to them, and a cadre trained in the use of arms to take forward such sovereignty aspirations, are a reality in only three States of the region — Assam, Manipur and Nagaland.
While the leaders of the dominant separatist outfits in Assam and Nagaland are engaged in discussions with the Government of India — for over a decade in Nagaland — the situation in Manipur is rather more complicated. The prospect of such outfits in Manipur coming on board and talking to the government is now linked, in the view of the insurgent leaders — not all of whom are clear about their objectives or even their readiness to talk — to the Government of India accepting some preconditions. The most important of these is that the government must agree to hold “a plebiscite under international supervision” to ascertain the will of the people of Manipur on sovereignty and independence.
On the face of it, such a demand is unrealistic. It is also deeply flawed in its apparent perception that the “people of Manipur,” even those who have sovereignty aspirations, have a common perspective on sovereignty and independence. The fact is, the “people of Manipur” comprising three distinct communities do not share a common vision of their past or their future aspirations. The point hardly needs to be laboured.
However, this is not the place to discuss the nuances of sovereignty narratives of the region, every one of whose seven States, while unique, also shares a commonality of history and memories, and a measure of resentment against ‘India.' Rather, in all States, the insurgencies have serious issues with others of their own kind, outfits that too are fighting the Indian state, on what constitutes the existing territory, and the territory of the putative sovereign and independent state that they aim to attain. In other words, while their principal contradiction is with the Indian state, there are serious problems over the territorial imagination of the mutually contending outfits.
The most striking of such contradictions prevails in Nagaland and Manipur. Nagaland is now one of the States of the Indian Union under the Constitution. It has all the formal appurtenances of a constituent State — executive, legislature, and judiciary, with Kohima having a Bench of the Guwahati high Court. However, the territorial imagination of the Nagaland government — its vision of what its territory should be — or of the political parties of Nagaland, including the Congress and the BJP (which had two Ministers in the previous National Democratic Alliance government), is no different from that of the three outfits fighting for or committed to Naga sovereignty. Each one of these claims nearly two-thirds of the territory of Manipur, to whose inviolability the government of Manipur is as fervently committed as the most uncompromising of separatist outfits fighting to secure Manipur's sovereignty and independence.
These contradictions were sharply heightened during the prolonged blockade in April-May last year of NH-39, the principal point of entry into Manipur, by student groups in Nagaland protesting the Manipur government's refusal to allow Thuingaleng Muivah, general secretary of NSCN (IM) to visit his ancestral village in Manipur's Ukhrul district. Indeed, Nagaland has claims on the Changlang and Tirap districts of Arunachal Pradesh, as well as the reserve forests on its border with Assam over which the armed police of the two States have fought pitched battles. It also has claims on Myanmar's territory.
Territory is such an ‘emotive' issue that even outfits with little muscle seeking greater autonomy within Assam, though the rhetoric remains sovereignty and independence, are hobbled by the territorial imperative. The demarcation of the boundaries of the territory of the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous District (BTAD) is still not complete because of claims and counter claims and, more to the point, the reluctance of several villages on the border to be included. Violent separatist ‘roll call' organisations (to borrow the terminology from Karnataka politics to designate groups engaged in extortion) in the two other autonomous districts, Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills, have unresolved territorial issues between themselves.
The Manipur government's decision to upgrade the Phungyr sub-division of Ukhrul district, a key area of the future Nagalim dominated by Tangkhul Nagas, into a full-fledged district is opposed by the NSCN (IM), which runs the parallel government of the Peoples' Republic of Nagaland (GPRN) on the ground that the State government cannot take even routine administrative initiatives in areas claimed by the NSCN (IM) to be part of the putative Nagalim.
In other words, territoriality is as central to established nation states that define themselves in terms of their territory, traced to the history and memories of the people, as to the organised or disorganised groups within the territories of a nation state seeking to challenge the territoriality of the larger structure, and carve out a separate territory for themselves. In turn, those who challenge the territoriality and lay claims on the territory of ‘existing nation states' themselves have serious contradictions with others mounting similar challenges and, when these are weak, press hard on them. This Hobbesian conundrum is perhaps best summed up in these lines from the poem, On Poetry: A Rhapsody, by Jonathan Swift:
Hobbes clearly proves that every creature
Lives in a State of War by Nature.
The Greater for the Smallest watch,
But meddle seldom with their match …
So, Naturalists observe, a Flea
Hath smaller Fleas that on him prey.
And these haves smaller Fleas to bite ‘em,
And so proceed ad infinitum: