The year was 1952. A young Manipuri man was cycling on the outer circle of Delhi’s Connaught Place against oncoming traffic, unaware of the one-way rule. A dutiful cop summoned him for this obvious violation. The man didn’t protest, though he could have. For the violator was none other than Rishang Keishing, a member of independent India’s first Lok Sabha. But that was a different era compared to that of today’s privilege-seeking legislators. The MP was asked to accompany the cop to the Parliament Street police station. It was there that the policeman asked him what he was up to and who he was.
As he revealed his identity and apologised for his ignorance, the cop didn’t acquiesce. “He let me off, but not without a warning,” recollects Keishing, who was 33 back then. “I was very happy with the way they treated me. Neither was I beaten nor intimidated. They treated me with respect and that is the kind of treatment I want for everyone from the Northeast. We must realise that many of these students come from strategic areas and what we do against them harms India’s position on the frontiers.” At a time the media is filled with news about Northeasterners facing racism on the mainland, the nonagenarian brings to life a very different Delhi and a Parliament filled with grace. “Today we don’t have regard for others and do not listen to each other. Also, we must free ourselves of corruption and the corrupt. Otherwise, we cannot be good parliamentarians and serve people.”
Keishing remembers Indira’s Manipur visit: she returned tea thrice as the bearer’s fingers touched the cup’s rim each time.
Member of the first and third Lok Sabha in 1952 and 1962 respectively, Keishing returned to Parliament in 2002 as a Rajya Sabha member and has been there since. In the years between, he spent much of his time in state politics and handled four terms as the chief minister of Manipur. Pradip Phanjoubam, the group editor of Imphal Free Press, says that though Keishing began his career as someone who exploited the divide between the people of the hills and the valley in Manipur, his most important contribution has been one of bringing the state’s people together. “He matured and became reconciled to the fact that the divide must go and spoke up openly for it,” says Phanjoubam. It’s a theme that comes up repeatedly during the interview. “Manipur has so many tribes, Hindus, Meiteis and Muslims. We must see to it that we all live together in peace and as a frontier state maintain the integrity of the country,” says Keishing.
Originally with the Indian Socialist Party, Keishing, who also worked as a teacher, shifted to the Congress in 1964, two years after the Chinese invasion of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. Allying with a party at the Centre, he thought, would bring greater security to the region. Ever since, he has remained steadfastly with the Congress. In fact, he was the only Congress MLA in the Manipur assembly in 2001 when 13 of the 14 party MLAs defected to the ruling party. As someone who has worked with four generations of Congress leaders, beginning with Rahul Gandhi’s great grandfather, Keishing has had a privileged insider’s view to the leaders’ many quirks. One such incident was with Indira. While on a visit to Manipur, she was offered tea, but the person serving it touched the rim of the cup with his fingers. Indira, fastidious as she was, asked him to come back with another cup. The man came back three times but made the same transgression. Indira finally decided not to have tea. “She was not angry, but told him that his fingers should not touch the place on the cup where her lips would,” says Keishing.
Keishing is expected to be replaced by Abdul Salam, the first Muslim to represent Manipur in the Rajya Sabha. Any advice from the veteran? “I feel he will discharge his responsibility impartially,” says Keishing. “Whatever little funds he gets, he should use it in the best possible way and carry along people, both Hindus and Muslims, and those from the hills and the valley, together.” Though soon to retire from active politics, Keishing is not giving up on public service yet. He says he will take up the cause of promoting horticulture across the state.
For someone with such a long track record, is there some goal that remains unfulfilled? He would have liked to see much better communication facilities and development in the Northeast. “There is the problem of insurgency but much of it has been our creation,” he says. “No point blaming the Centre. Had we taken a different approach, things would have much better.”