Rishang Keishing, the last surviving member of the first Lok Sabha who passed away at the age of 97 last week, was one of the earliest leaders to support the merger of the princely state of Manipur with the Indian Union. He was also the first leader from the Northeast to raise the issue of the Naga separatist movement in Parliament. He was criticised for taking the lead in signing a memorandum seeking “integration” of Manipur’s Naga-inhabited areas with Nagaland in order to “strengthen” the peace process between the Centre and the NSCN (IM) in 2005, an effort that enraged the Meitei community.
And yet, Rishang Keishing was a father figure to both Nagas and Meiteis. On his passing, Tangkhuls — the most important Naga community of Manipur — remembered him as “ava”, and the Meiteis as “pabung”, both words that mean ‘father’ in their respective languages.
Poverty forced Keishing, one of his blacksmith-carpenter father Mungshing Keishing’s eight children, to take up a primary schoolteacher’s job even while he was himself a high school student. He worked for the allied army in the Second World War II as an interpreter for Rs 70 a month. He saw the final phase of the freedom movement as a college student in Kolkata where, influenced by his Assamese batchmate Birendra Kumar Bhattacharyya, he embraced socialist beliefs. In 1952, Keishing was among a dozen Socialist Party members elected to the first Lok Sabha, where he rubbed shoulders with giants including Jawaharlal Nehru and Maulana Azad.
During his second term in the House, Keishing saw in Nehru, Azad and other senior leaders of the Congress “a keen desire from the core of their hearts to sacrifice for the country” — he was to recall later that those leaders never thought about themselves, and never entertained thoughts of corruption. Keishing told Nehru he wanted to join the Congress, and thereafter remained a staunch Congressman for over a half century, never once switching even as the party itself split into factions.
“Politics is a game of sacrifice. It is service to the whole people. There should not be any narrow outlook when you are in politics. Politics becomes dangerous when you think of your own family, your own clan, your own community,” Keishing once said in an interview to an Imphal newspaper.
Among Keishing’s “pro-Naga” acts that earned him the wrath of Meiteis was forming the United Naga Integration Council and submitting a memorandum to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1970 demanding integration of all Naga areas. He was also allegedly responsible for the inclusion of a clause saying the Congress was not opposed to Naga integration, and did not consider it “anti-party, anti-national, anti-state and unconstitutional”.
But then, it was Keishing who, as Chief Minister, played the most crucial role in bringing peace after Meiteis and Pangals (domiciled Muslims) clashed in 1980, Kukis and Nagas in 1992-93 and Kukis and Paites in 1997-98. It is also a fact that Keishing never tried to groom any Naga leader as his successor. Instead, he always promoted Meiteis like Radhabinod Koijam, R K Jaichandra Singh, R K Dorendra Singh, W Nipamacha Singh and Okram Ibobi Singh as the next generation of Congress leaders in the state. Current Chief Minister N Biren Singh says Keishing blessed him “like a son”.
Keishing, who spent two terms each in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha with some of the greatest names in Indian politics, had a simple formula for handling rivals. “I have many adversaries. If anybody comes face to face to confront me, then I try to convince him. But if I know that somebody is trying to harm me, then I pray to God to take care of me,” he said in an interview a couple of years ago.
Many in Manipur feel that with Keishing’s passing, the politics of conviction, already in extremely short supply in the state, might die out altogether. “He never swayed from what he believed in, and stood like a rock, as steady amidst the most furious tempests as he was during the spells of calm. In retrospect, it must be said few in power have been as judicious and strong as he was. If he stood tall and firm while in power, he was also gracious in defeat. This is probably because for a fighter like him, defeat is never final, and indeed such was his resilience that there was never a time he did not come back from the brink to lead from the front again,” wrote the Imphal Free Press.