Us and them

The Imphal Free Press
April 14 2010

A one-day seminar on “Peace Dividends” in Imphal today, organised by the Manipur government was rewarding. Peace is and should be everybody’s vested interest. Although there is no doubt there are powerful interests that make huge profits out of war economy, even these men and women do what they do in the name of Peace. The movie “Blood Diamond” couldn’t have been more eloquent on this. The point is, the search for Peace is important, especially for a violence ravaged state like Manipur, and any discourse on how to achieve it, and what must go into any meaningful search for it, is worth the while. With the advantage of a regular column to write in, we take the privilege to ruminate on some of the interesting points thrown up, ones which were not thrashed out adequately for want of time. One of these was a question raised from the audience pertaining to the seemingly unbridgeable chasm between “us” and “them” or to further simplify it, between “I” and “you”.

This division, let us be frank, is destiny and not anything to do with attitude. In fact in the Hegelian sense, the “I” awareness becomes relevant only as a dialectic of “you”. It is interesting how literature often intuitively comes up with evidences of these theoretical postulates. Hence, the “I” was not so relevant to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe alone in his island, until one day after years of a marooned existence he spied footprints on the beaches. He first tried to see if they were his own footprints, and when it was certain they were not, he becomes apprehensive. Would the newly introduced “you” be friend or foe? Am “I” in danger? What should “I” do now? Etc were the questions that immediately entered his mind. Those of us who have read the novel know the arrival of Man Friday (“you”) transforms not only Robinson Crusoe’s life but also his notion of himself.

But should the “us” and “them” divide also make conflict a human destiny as well? Bitter wars indeed have been fought along this divide, genocides have been committed, untold cruelties inflicted on fellow human beings... but is there no escape? Judith Butler in Precarious Life: Power of Mourning and Violence provides a window to what might be an answer. As an American Jew, Butler would know what it means to inherit the burden of the terrible memory of the Holocaust, one of the worst hate crimes in history resulting out of the “us” and “them” binary. She recommends a shift of paradigm in addressing the issue. Instead of getting lost in the antagonistic opposition between “I” and “you” she says that a rephrase of the Hegelian question to mean “what would “I” be without “you” would alter the hostile equation. From a position of “melancholic” anger, the shift would be to one of a much more redeeming experience of “mourning”. Perhaps the question of conflict resolution in Manipur needs to imbibe this thought much more in depth and seriously.

The other question of interest we would like to delve a little more in detail is one on the source of legitimacy of government. We recall a two part article years ago in The Telegraph, Kolkata, by Pratap Bhanu Mehta on the issue, where he makes a comparison between the sources of legitimacy of a democratic government like India and a non elected authoritarian one like China. In one legitimacy comes from representation, and hence a sense of participation of the citizenry in the governance process, and in the other the only available source of legitimacy is performance. The Chinese administration would be something like a President’s Rule government in our context. Being an unelected government, the only way such a government can hope to be remembered is by establishing visible landmarks of performance. In a system like China, a non performing provincial government would lose legitimacy and can be, and would probably be replaced without much ado. This cannot happen in democratic India. One the other side, in China the individual citizen would be directly pitted against the intimidating State without the moderation of civil society spaces of a democratic polity, and hence be left overwhelmed and powerless to effectively put up dissent when the situation called for it. Obviously both have pros and cons, but if the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and if the pudding were to be eaten now, the answer would in our opinion somewhat favour the “accountability as source of legitimacy” model. But who knows if the pudding were to be eaten a few decades from now, the flavour of the pudding may have changed radically. Perhaps again, it is the best of both that we want.

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