A two-article series by Pradip Phanjoubam on the order of the day in Manipur. Imphal Free Press had published Insane Manipur on 16 March 2014 and How societies decay and revolutions are born on 23 March 2014

Insane Manipur

No adjective at this moment can describe the Manipur scenario more accurately than the word “insane”. Violence and bloodshed is becoming not just a norm but reducing to a delirious and mindless mass hysteria. Lost in this maddening orgy of blood and gore are all clear cut demarcation between victim and perpetrator.

A scan of the number of protests on the streets of Imphal on any given day should be revealing for anybody sensitive enough to notice this emerging frightening confusion. If there are a group of people staging a “sit in protest” on the side of an Imphal street against the growing menace of kidnapping government officials for (astronomical) ransoms, in another corner of the city there would another group protesting against an equally frightening and seemingly officially sanctioned campaign of custodial executions under cover of (fake) encounters.

Elsewhere there would be another group calling for the total repeal of the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act, AFSPA, but there would also at the same time be others wanting a highway protection force as the highways are now no longer under the control of the state authorities but in the hands of coercive underground “taxmen” and more often uncommitted fulltime extortionists.

If the underground movement is increasingly taking the visage of a hydra-headed monster, continually fragmenting and each unit becoming a vicious beast, special forces raised by the government specifically for counter insurgency purposes, in particular the police commandos, are also turning into menacing loose cannons, capable of training their guns on anybody.

Take just the incidents that happened in the course of a day and reported on the front pages of local dailies on March 24. There was a sit in protest demanding the release of an engineer kidnapped and held hostage to squeeze a huge ransom out of his department. He has since been freed but another engineer has reportedly been kidnapped for a similar demand.

In the late afternoon, one businessman was shot dead, ostensibly for extortion reasons. In the wake of the murder and not very far from the crime site, police commandos shot dead two men supposedly in an encounter. However, according to eyewitnesses they were brought there and shot.

The day also marked the conclusion of an ineffective general strike called by another one of the many joint action committees, JACs, protesting a case of supposed fake encounter. The justified outrage over the alleged custodial killing and the lack of public response to the general strike over it, again tell the same story. Between supposed victims and the supposed perpetrators, there is little to distinguish anymore. The general public are sickened by both, for indeed in their eyes both are perpetrators.

A vital nerve giving the place its integrity and humanity has snapped. Manipur has lost its orientation altogether. If at this moment somebody were to ask what it is Manipur wants, there probably would be a thousand answers with absolutely no semblance of a commonality of desire or aspiration, and instead pulling the cart in as many directions as there are answers.

Many of these answers would be diametrically opposed to each other too, as indeed the brief sketch of the current Manipur scenario in the preceding paragraphs indicated. And yet, amidst all this, “In the rooms the women come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo” (courtesy T.S. Eliot). In a matching show of unconcern, in the corridors of state power, corruption still remains the name of the game and unaccounted for money, its reward.

The problem is awesome, and the danger is for all of us to be lulled into petrified mediocrity, waiting for the intervention of providence for something to change for the better. Ours is a clarion call then urging the brave and honest remaining on this soil to stand up and resist, morally, spiritually and even physically if need be, to arrest this total and irredeemable spiritual devastation. Remember the rousing, soul stirring lines from the popular Manipuri song: “Ye sons and daughters of this land/ Your Fatherland is on fire/ Come save it from the raging inferno...” These thoughts cannot be more significant than they are at this juncture of Manipur’s troubled times.

Who is Innocent?

It is always very tempting to seek simplistic answers to difficult questions, but the problem is, the answers thus arrived at are most likely to be illusory at best and self-deceptive at worst. The fact is, too many willingly fall into this trap. The lure of the “convenience of prejudices”, a phrase used by many critics of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s controversial “Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust,” seems too irresistible to many in the intelligentsia.

The objection is not so much that the book is badly written or conceived but that the author as a historian allegedly abandons the position as an interpreter of sources and instead resorts to retelling the events in the light of his own imagination. What is essentially the private opinion of the author hence were, according to the criticisms, passed off as conclusions arrived at through the rigours of academic inquiry.

We cannot with justice join the debate on the controversial but famous book, as we have neither read the book nor any of the criticisms in their entirety. We have however read commentaries on the debate by other scholars of international renown, in particular Dominick LaCapra in “Writing History, Writing Trauma” which dedicates a few pages to the issue.

We will hence focus on two ideas, one flagged in “Hitler’s Willing Executioners...” and the other by its critics, both of which we are of the opinion are of great significance to contemporary Manipur. We will also pursue these ideas, not necessarily in line with or to the extent of how they were used in the debate mentioned, but also simply as thought provoking independent ideas.

The base argument of the book, the commentaries on the debate inform us, is about how the ordinary German public is complicit in Hitler’s genocide against the Jews not because they participated in it actively, but because they allowed and indeed nurtured what was supposedly the sole motivation for genocide – “the long-incubating, pervasive, virulent, eliminationist anti-Semitism of German culture...” The idea as we gather is, a society must stand implicated in crimes especially those that involve racism, if the entire population or a great section of it has allowed or nurtured any all-pervasive culture of hatred and xenophobia within the society.

This is to say, if the society has infused racial hatred in the hearts of its children, or if a culture of racial hatred grows in a society and the adult members of the society do nothing about educating their children to put up a resistance against it, as and when race crimes explode, or a Hitler is born to orchestrate pogroms, the society as a whole cannot shirk away from owning responsibility. It will do well for Manipur to re-examine its own myriad communal frictions in the light of this insight. Are we, the adults of this society, enough of a moderating influence on our younger generations?

The other idea of the “convenience of prejudices” in explaining away inconvenient truths is a danger that so many, especially the state intelligentsia, is not all too cautious about. The spirit of rigorous inquiry, physical, intellectual and moral, before making conclusions, has become a rare quality rather than a necessary disciplinary regime, even in academics and indeed journalism.

The vogue of explaining away all the ills of the society, its economic backwardness, the multiple communal frictions within, the plummeting quality of politics, the fall in the standard of education, by shifting and attributing their causes to alien forces and influences, and never believing they are to be found in the place’s own heart is a symptom of this.

A great deal of these prejudices probably have a basis in actual experiences of the dark reality the people of this region have had to go through in the decades that have gone by, but surely these prejudices need to be validated not by more prejudices – a tradition of cross-referencing in lazy academics so well satirised by a line from The Dictionary of Received Ideas quoted by Dominick LaCapra in Writing History, Writing Trauma: “Blondes. Hotter than brunettes. (See brunettes). Brunettes. Hotter than blondes. (See blondes).”

How societies decay and revolutions are born

The following is a slightly modified extract from the concluding chapter of the book the author is currently writing as a fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. The ideas in these lines were developed from what Frantz Fanon wrote in his book “The Wretched of the Earth” on similar matters, however, footnotes have been removed to make it suitable for publication in a newspaper, which is why this paragraph to preface the content in acknowledgment that the thoughts contained are not entirely original.

Unrest among ethnic minorities, tribals and indigenous peoples, is not an isolated occurrence in India alone. It is a problem that has stricken the entire post-colonial world. In their urgency to find and assert their national identities, the former colonies, upon their release from the yoke of colonialism, have not been able to, or bothered to give much attention to the needs and aspirations of smaller nationalities within their own geographical boundaries. Very often again, the unfeeling attitudes of the dominant and overriding nationalisms and the policy programs dictated by them have resulted in the destruction of the world of minority ethnic communities of indigenous peoples as viable groups, a phenomenon that has often been also described as ethnocide.

Two principal beliefs of most recently decolonised nations are responsible for ethnocide within them. One is the zeal to obliterate all pre-modern forms of economic organisations in the name of ushering in a progressive modern economy and the other is the equally fervent belief that all sub-national ethnic units must necessarily surrender themselves totally and merge into the larger Nation State the euphemism for which is ‘joining the mainstream’ of national life. Such policies, as history is witnessing today in many parts of the world, including in India’s Northeast region, have given rise to more problems than they have solved. For expectedly, many of the ethnic groups have risen in violent revolts against the manner these changes of historical circumstances are being imposed on them.

In many ways, the upheavals of the ethnic indigenous communities in the Northeast regions border the tragic. It is the story of different tribal groups and communities, long isolated from the outside world, rudely awakening to a different reality in which they stand the danger of being drowned or at best occupying a subordinate position. Theirs is a struggle to come to terms with this new predicament. The most aggressive of these struggles have chosen to totally reject the destiny they have been thrown into and look for it elsewhere, away from the general trend of the history of the nation they now belong to. A no mean task, which have in the recent times seen these rebellions headed up blind alleys. For the ethnic minorities, it is one of the cruel junctures of history they have found themselves in. The choices before them are either a total surrender to a fate in which their identities as viable groups are endangered or else swim against the intimidating and incessant tides of the historical mainstream.

As Frantz Fanon writes, culturally too, the ethnic communities find themselves gradually marginalised. Constantly and incessantly bombarded with well packaged, often illusory pictures of affluence and wellbeing from the dominant cultures through the much advanced mass media particularly the television, the ethnic communities who were already disoriented in the new world, begin to feel themselves as inferiors. This psychology further worsened their chances of adopting and coming to terms with their changed situation. Because the communication flow is virtually one-way, that is, from the dominant to the weaker cultures, the burden of the adverse fallouts of this cross-cultural communication is felt only by the weaker cultures.

Multiplying this effect is the breakneck pace with which the mass media technology has been advancing in the modern times. Even relatively more advanced societies have been outstripped in this race with technology. Invariably, the ethnic communities too have been overwhelmed. Development therefore has seldom been organic in that it has not grown out of the internal pressures built from the collective needs of the region at any given point in time. Rather than this, development has been delivered in packages as part of the statutory largesse distributed by the Central Government from time to time.

The youth, Fanon notes, particularly the urban and semi-urban, idle, lumpenised category, whose numbers are on a rapid increase, are the worst hit. The images of comfort and other trappings of the modern consumerist cultures, which are basically meant for the consumption of affluent societies, also flood their minds. The result is the creation of illusory and often detrimental ideals in their minds as their objective economic realities are not commensurate with the ideals set for them by these images. Hence, the result is a wide disparity between what is achievable by them and what they had been made to believe is within their reach, between their individual expectations and their society’s capacity to afford these expectations. The resultant sense of being let down often leads them to socially deviant behaviours such as drugs abuse, alcoholism, promiscuity, juvenile delinquency etc. among the youth of the ethnic groups.

For the affluent societies, these images are nothing unnatural to their lifestyles and hence are less likely to create any disproportionate discordance. Moreover, the youth of the affluent societies have adequate protections against the harmful effects of the consumerist ideals as a result of education, high standards of living, and above all a social ethos that is able to put these ideals in the correct perspectives. In this way they are less vulnerable than their ethnic counterparts in the backward regions of the country.

Slowly but surely, the ethnic cultures begin withering away. Because the objective conditions are not ripe, the new values that have come in are not able to fill the vacuum left by the disappearance of the traditional. The end result is the emergence of a rootless, lost generation which end up as bad imitations at best, if not caricatures of the affluent, dominant societies. The aimless drift of a derelict generation often begins here. Rather than inherit the spirit and the vibrancy of the societies they try to emulate, they end up stricken with the worst of their scourges. Acquired Immuno Deficiency Syndrome, HIV-AIDS, is just one of these. It is not a coincidence that some of the Northeast states, like Manipur, rank as some of the most prone areas to drugs and HIV-AIDS in the whole of India.

Total failure of understanding of the moral dilemma of the ethnic communities, rather than dearth of goodwill, has also hastened this decay process. Liberal doses of fund have been poured into these states year after year amidst the social milieu of rot and decay. In the absence of any tangible plan or accountability, the liberal funds prove to be as harmful to the moral health of the ethnic societies as much as medicinal drugs administered in overdoses become poisonous to the patient. Easy money is addictive, just as much as narcotic drugs and it has devastated the work culture of these societies. Here, money is no longer measured in terms of sweat, hence its real worth is no more known. A parasitic economy that is far from self-generating but solely dependent on the charity of the Central Government has today evolved in most of these states.

A coterie also emerges. While the overwhelming masses remain untouched by the liberal benefits of the establishment, this coterie and their children grab the best of them including the funds. Wealth is no more the fruit of labour or enterprise, but becomes the result of organised and protected robbery by this coterie. Consequently, rich people are no longer respectable people. This crop of newly sown middleclass coterie is bereft of the dynamism or the spirit of creativity that the bourgeoisie elsewhere, however self-centred or reactionary, is known for. Greed, avarice and selfishness become their hallmark. They dominate the government, that is, the state politics and bureaucracy, and succeed in reducing it to a big farce. They bring in rampant and shameless corruption in the administration and institutionalise it. Rather than provide the leadership to guide the destinies of their societies at their times of crisis, they further hasten the process of decay by destroying completely the people’s faith in the establishment.

Resistance against this process of decay was expected. When it does arrive, it takes the extreme form. First the revivalist groups who looked for inspiration from the past glories of their societies enter the scene. They are followed by the revisionists who try to redo certain portions of history which are offending to their sensibilities. The reformists were next in line. Then before anybody realised it, the mutant offspring of the much abused societies appear on their social firmament. These epitomes of the blind, directionless fury that had been building up within these societies for years are impatient to listen to the rationalisation of the decay process. They set about blasting away anything they think are the causes of this decay. The days of the militants have arrived.

In the words of Jean Paul Sartre, in his preface to Fanon’s classic “The Wretched of the Earth”, if this fury fails to find an outlet, it turns in a vacuum and devastates the oppressed creatures themselves. In order to free themselves they even massacre each other. The different tribes fight between themselves since they cannot face the real enemy — and you can count on colonial policy to keep up their rivalries; the man who raises a knife against his brother thinks that he has destroyed once and for all the detested image of their common degradation, even though these expiatory victims don’t quench their thirst for blood.

Likewise, factional fights, ethnic war, communal flare-ups have become commonplace in the northeast region. The tension and friction all around is palpable and eerily dangerous. Very soon, this blind rage finds direction. The art of politics is simply transformed into the art of war; the political militant is the rebel: ‘To fight the war and to take part in politics; the two things become one and the same thing.’ A revolution is born. You can almost hear Fanon conclude on this note.

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