In this age of democracy, nobody will ever doubt that the pen is mightier than the sword. That this truism has ceased to have any meaning in Manipur today only can mean one thing – the obituary for democracy and democratic values have long been written. What remains is the long terrifying shadow of the gun which has come to freeze everybody and every institution into a silence akin to that of the graveyard. This was somewhat always expected to be the culmination of the way the conflict in the land has been progressing. For slowly but surely, much of what was once considered archetypal sacrosanct spaces of our society were being encroached upon ruthlessly. So here we are today, in which crimes which would have been considered unthinkable and unspeakable under any circumstance even a few decades ago, have ceased to be forbidden. Killing women and children, humiliating or even killing parents in front of children, bomb attacks at hospitals and places of worship – and now, unabashed gagging of the media, depriving it of its freedom to critically examine any development, be it that of the establishment or of its armed opposition. Equally sad is the fact that nobody even has tears left to cry for a lost world that once was dear to everybody. Those who do lament it do not even want to do it publicly, terrified as they are even of their own shadows.
The loss of these unwritten but intuitively understood sacrosanct norms, observed even in war, is especially bitter and ironic in the wake of the current campaign by the International Red Cross Society, IRCS, for standardisation of International Humanitarian Law, IHL. It may be recalled the IHL campaign has reached Manipur and a handbook on humanitarian law has been translated and published in Manipuri. Even before the IRCS came into existence, these sacrosanct norms of humanitarian conduct were what distinguished civilisation from plain savagery. Many of our own folklores and legends tell of these same values or “Chainarol” (unwritten combat laws which demand compliance on the presumption of a common understanding of humanitarian behaviour). Interestingly, some of Ratan Thiyam’s plays, most notably “Blind Age” deals with the subject with artistic poignancy. An episode from the Mahabharata in which Ashwathama, driven by hatred and vengeance murders all offsprings of the victorious Pandavas to ensure their bloodline meets an abrupt end, is given a new artistic rendering, depicting the tearing agony of a man with conscience, repenting his sin of having trespassed such an archetypal sacrosanct space. The inevitable question that follows is, has the prolonged conflict situation in our society which too has erased so much of this same sacrosanct space, relapsing us all back into savagery?
The tragedy is, the liberal society and liberal law seem to have no answer to this overwhelming question. The resort of even supposedly liberal establishments to extraordinary situations hence has often been to illiberal measures. Needless to add, if any establishment has had to resort to illiberal means to get its challengers to submit, various armed oppositions to various establishments too seem to have found out how unavoidable such measures are in certain given situations to ensure compliance. In this sense, in very many ways, the reason behind draconian laws is the bankruptcy of liberal minds to provide liberal answers to extraordinary problems. Had they been successful, the scripts of our present stories probably would have been a lot different. To underscore the point, opposing a draconian strategy on grounds of principle alone is simple. The difficulty is in presenting an alternative, appropriate, liberal strategy, and unless this difficulty is overcome, we for one are not hopeful of any substantive change in this sorry predicament. Although perhaps this editorial is an acknowledgement of an uncomfortable fact on the ground, this is by no means an advocacy for draconian laws to tackle “extraordinary circumstances”. Instead, this is a challenge to liberal thinkers to get into the long overdue act of working out a liberal alternative. The trouble also is, too many of our philosophers are so wont to fashioning the solution first and then look for the problem. Perhaps it would be a worthwhile exercise to reverse this order sometimes.