The Daily Plebiscite

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Ernest Renan’s provocative metaphor of the nation as a daily plebiscite, in his famous 1887 lecture at Sorbonne deserves to be close to mind in any consideration of the question: what is a nation? For indeed these plebiscites, come up virtually at every turn of events. The ability to read the results of these as evident in the constantly changing writings on the walls of every society, especially those torn by nationalistic conflicts, would be the virtual barometer to gauge how committed to democratic values and norms of problem solving those engaged in the conflict are. Literary traditions of practically all human civilisations have been at pains to point out how ignoring to read these signs can result in tragedies. In fact the very definition of tragedy in literature has always hinged on the idea of “hubris” (or pride) of those in power which prevents them from reading the writings on the wall. The underground United National Liberation Front, UNLF’s recent annual statement indicating it was preparing to go through the painful exercise of self reassessment as well as a consideration of the changed mood of the people they profess to be fighting for is significant from this vantage. Quite evidently, the UNLF’s introspective statement is prompted by the public response to the news of the arrest of the party’s chairman, RK Sana Yaima. For the sake of an honourable settlement to Manipur’s problems, we hope the party, and so indeed all other armed opposition groups to the establishment, are able to pick up the lesson and prepares to reinvent themselves so as to bridge the current gap between what they think the people want and what the people actually want.

The daily plebiscites on what the popular aspirations of the ordinary people of Manipur are have been happening all the while. From the idle talks at the roadside tea stalls, to concerns shared by vegetable vendors at the marketplaces, to more articulate expressions of these same concerns in Shumang Lilas, proscenium theatres and now in the new and increasingly sophisticated medium of Manipuri cinema, the daily buzzes have been unambiguous about what these plebiscites say. In more formal ways, the periodic elections to the state Assembly, flawed and warped by corruption as they are, still contain the same messages. Yet nobody who these messages were meant for cared to read them. Instead, all messages critical to set and crystallised opinions on Renan’s profound question “what is a nation?” are rationalised, intellectualised, and interpreted to mean just the opposite of what the messages actually said. In the worst case scenarios, they are simply dismissed as reactionary statements of petit bourgeois who stood to benefit from the bread crumbs that fell out of the establishment’s table. Messages which were flatteringly complementary, even though they come from known sycophants and fence sitters masquerading as intellectuals or else those gifted with nothing much more than plebeian vision were raised on the pedestals of heroism. No illusions however can last forever. The lesson to be learnt is for all concerned to take Renan’s recommendations seriously and read the results of the daily plebiscites honestly, and then reinvent themselves to keep abreast with current realities and flux of popular aspirations.

Renan’s lecture has other lessons that could benefit peacemakers of all hues, including the established order itself. It says for instance that “where national memories are concerned, griefs are of more value than triumphs, for they impose duties, and require a common effort. A nation is therefore a large-scale solidarity, constituted by the feeling of the sacrifices that one has made in the past and of those that one is prepared to make in the future.” Oppression, suppression, aggression, intimidation, humiliation, etc, rather than mitigate, would only heighten the resolve to put up resistances. The fight back would also only become more committed. It needs to be noted that the perpetrators of this oppression need not be the establishment alone. The average man in Manipur knows very well who they are terrorised most by at this moment. The daily bomb threats and kidnaps of individuals for ransom are only some evidences. If an honourable conflict resolution is everybody’s ultimate goal, let it not be sought through confrontation. Rather than resolve, it can only prolong the agony of deadly, multi-dimensional conflict that has been Manipur’s fate, and that of most of the rest of the Northeast for the last half century.

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