RELOOKING CIVIL SOCIETY

By Pradip Phanjoubam, Imphal Free Press, 16 Dec 2014

That the huge expanse of the non state sector generally termed as the civil society is not always civil is axiomatic. In Manipur this ought to be obvious. The blockades, bandhs, strikes and many other disruptive activities, often for very sectarian causes emanate from organizations assuming the mantle of civil society vigilantes. The truth is, it is not just in Manipur, but the civil society in the entire northeast is badly fractured and ethnically riven and may not be quite what the term is generally understood to be. The term civil society itself presupposed certain shared democratic values and qualities regardless of religious and community affiliations and these values are what have been relegated into the background in our context. Hence when we talk of students’ community or youth or women, in more ideal situations, there ought not to be any need for prefixing these understandings with community and religion specific qualifications. This however has been far from the truth in the northeast, and Manipur has been no exception in the regard. There is hence very little prospect to generalize the problems and prospects, and in fact the very status of the various civil society organizations in the northeast.

A few examples will illustrate this point. When we say students or youth or women communities, the nomenclatures themselves ought to have been self explanatory. The reality however is quite different in the Northeast where every ethnic community forms its own students, youth, women… organizations, each with very different and more often than not sectarian agendas to pursue. Often again these pursuits of the different “civil society” work at cross purposes, accentuating, rather than solving problems. In Manipur such clashes of sectarian agendas are all too often. The almost entirely different objectives of organization such as the United Naga Council, the United Committee Manipur, All Manipur United Clubs Organisation, the Kuki Inpi Manipur etc, to name just a few, should suffice to make this point clear. The scenario would virtually be the same if we were to list the various students’ organizations, or women’s organizations in the state. As rule, except for a very few, all civil society bodies here are coloured by ethnic tints. The general understanding of the term becomes split into numerous smaller ethnic specific organizations. Contrast these with organizations on the other extreme of the civil society panorama such as the International Red Cross Society, Reporters Without Frontiers, Amnesty International, Medicine Sans Frontiers, Rainbow Warriors etc, just to have an idea of the direction civil society organizations in our own midst are heading.

There are indeed ethnic specific problems which are best understood by the individual communities, so a degree of community leaning cannot be avoided. But by and large, there must be a general thread that binds all civil society bodies to more broad-based identities. Our youth must be able to identify, empathize and sympathize with the national and international youth movements. Only when this happens can a reverse flow of the same sentiments become possible. The need of the hour then is for an effort to reconstruct our civil society. Let us sit down and analyze where we have gone wrong and then seek to correct our mistakes. We must put our civil society movements on the track that will integrate us to the mainstream of humanity. We must open up the channels to communicate and share with the rest of humanity, and by this very process of sharing, mitigate our own burdens. The ethnic identity upsurge being what it is, we know it is not going to be by any standard easy to go about doing this, but it is one of those very vital and urgent issues at hand we cannot shy away from. It is also the only way we can make our civil society civil in the true sense of the words.

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