Highway Blockade in Manipur

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By: Dr Angomcha Bimol Akoijam

Another episode, another episodic reaction and noises; it is a déjà vu of frustratingly comical experience of a tragic life. Highway blockades for more 50 days again and facts of price rise and simmering communal tension and familiar feudal lords and their subjects crying wolf once again.

Facts Neglected: Noises of Denials

When we think of the ongoing blockade of the highways, we must remember a couple of facts.

First, we must remember that this is not the first time that this has happened; it has happened before in 2005 and 2010 as well.

Second, we must recognize that all these blockades are politically motivated acts pursued by certain groups of people in Manipur.

Third, the said politically motivated acts are not un-related to the exclusivist communal politics that has come to significantly dictate the socio-political dynamics in the state for some time now. By exclusivist communal politics, I mean the politics which, just like the one pursued by Jinnah’s “two-nation theory”, denies any notion of shared spaces or forms of life and insists that people belonging to different religions (Christianity or Hindu or Islam etc), linguistic groups (different speakers of languages/dialects) and habitations (hill or valley) do not and cannot have common socio-economic and political concerns and thereby these communities have different destinies.

Fourth, the temporality — the timing, frequency etc — of this recurrent blockade, as politically motivated acts related to or in the context of the prevailing exclusivist communal politics in the state, is also critically connected with the changing dynamics or nature of armed insurgency of the nationalist or the “ethnic” (for the want of a better expression) kind and the corresponding responses of the Indian State towards the former (such as the Peace talks with some of the significant groups in the Northeast).

The above factors set up the context of what and how of these recurrent blockades.

People of Sadar Hills blocking NH-39 demanding full-fledged Sadar Hills district on Wednesday.
People of Sadar Hills blocking NH-39 demanding full-fledged Sadar Hills district on Wednesday. Courtesy: Imphal Free Press

For instance, the insistence on the territorial demarcation based on exclusivist “tribal” or community lines and the non-acceptance of the idea/policy that people belonging to different communities can live together under the same administrative territorial unit is nothing but a classic case of exclusivist communal politics. Such a politics runs against any notion of a shared socio-economic and political life or possibility of pursuing such a goal under a shared polity. Otherwise, how does one understand the objection to the idea of forming administrative units with mixed population, that is, with people belonging to different communities, who can live under one administrative unit?

Such an exclusivist communal politics not only runs counter to modern political ethos of a life based on “civic/civil rights” but it also produces violence and mistrust amongst different communities. Indeed, just as Jinnah’s “two-nation” theory had given colossal bloodshed at the time of Partition of South Asia in 1947 and left behind a legacy of mistrust amongst the people, the exclusivist communal politics in Manipur had given its shares of bloodshed (e.g., the violent “Kuki-Naga” conflict in 1990s) and mistrust amongst the people in the state.

The ugly head of such an exclusivist communal politics has become more pronounced or pervasive during the last 10-15 years. Incidentally, it is also during the same period that the Government of India has also been able to bring various armed groups in the Northeast to the negotiating table. This co-incidence of the two developments is something that hasn’t missed the attention of many observers.

The above nature of the blockade and its contexts also influence the options which are available to the Government of Manipur to deal with an issue that primarily lies under its jurisdiction. For instance, if the Government of Manipur is to deploy physical force to clear the highways, it will invariably invite communal accusation from the same forces which are indulging in these blockades (by calling such an action of the Govt. of Manipur to clear the blockade as an act of “suppression”, “oppression” and “discrimination” against the tribal!!).

Complicating the matter is the subservient character of the political class of Manipur which is shaped by “patron-client” structure of a political economy and its concomitant ideology that marks the dynamics between New Delhi and Imphal. Over and above this, this political class, who look upon themselves as those who “rule” rather than “govern” the state, also suffers from political, moral and intellectual bankruptcy, something that one can see in their episodic responses to various events and pressing challenges. Incidentally, such an impoverishment can also be seen amongst the middle-class and the general population in the state, who also tend to exhibit similar temperament and episodic responses to each “crisis” (as and when it appears). The consequent moral and political decadence that derive pleasure from the institutionalized corruption and the lack of shame and guilt further jeopardize their moral and political capacity to face the challenges.

It is because of the over-all moral, intellectual and political decadence that those who occupy seats of power in political and administrative structure of the state can go on attending their offices and public meetings amidst dirt and decadence that one can see all around even without blinking their eyes. It is also the same reason why the people in the state can live with dismal electricity supply for a decade without making any tangible voice against the same. And as it has been the case, most of the denizens, politicians and general population, will “react” (not “respond”) to the immediacy of the present by de-linking the recurrent character and its underlying issues. Consequently, and by now a familiar character as amply shown in their responses to many other pressing issues of their collective life, they will be back to the same normalized abnormality that afflicts their life till another episode of blockade hits them!!!!

And most likely, one must add at the risk of inviting a familiar criticism, such a reminder that seeks to put things in perspective of pressing issues so as to evolve tangible interventions will also be termed by many as “theory” in the light of their “practical actions” informed by their knowledge of the “ground reality” that have invariably accompanied all along and contributed handsomely to the perpetuation of the recurrent blockades and other issues of their pathological collective life!!!!

Yong-na tan Yenba: Beyond the Monkeyed Attitude

While accepting that it is the primary duty of the state government to take responsibility of the issue in question, New Delhi cannot wash off its hand on the matter for two specific reasons.

First, given the factors that mark the blockade as noted earlier in this write-up, the Government of India is implicated in the dynamics that has produced the politics which informs and commits the blockade (particularly, the third and fourth aspects that are linked to the blockade that I have mentioned above). Second, it has also the responsibility of ensuring that sectarian ideologies are not encouraged and that things work as expected of a constitutional order.

Indeed, for a nation which had suffered the birth-trauma due to a virulent communal politics and continue to suffer a violent legacy of the same in the form of ominous communal violence till date, nurturing, leave alone denouncing, an exclusivist communal politics in the Northeast, particularly in Manipur, would be ethically and politically not only wrong but will also have serious undesirable implications (beyond the trust deficit that it generates amongst the people in the region vis-à-vis Indian State).

Over and above this, the Government of Indian cannot wash off its responsibility to ensure that the “national highways” are not subjected to such blockades. Despite its stake in the issue, the Government of India must also remember that remaining silent or thrusting the entire responsibility to the State Government are both signs of shirking off its own responsibility and its typical differential responses towards the Northeast vis-à-vis the rest of the country.

Even while granting the fact that there are some in the region, particularly in Manipur, who know their situation as their immediate knowledge of their “ground reality” as a centipede knows how it walks with its myriads of legs, it doesn’t mean that there not many people in the Northeast who are aware of the fact that the then Union Home Minister had rushed to Kashmir following the death of 13 people including six Amarnath pilgrims in bomb attacks there while he chose not to visit Manipur, a constituent state of the Indian Union which was burning during the same period in 2001 with 18 people died in police firing and thousands injured, Legislative Assembly was burnt down injuring the Speaker of the House and Manipur went through a civil war like situation for months, or for that matter the hype of the 24X7 “national ” media ceaselessly played out the drama of Karunanidhi being arrested as something that “shocked” the “nation” during the same time!!!! Or for that matter, the swiftness with which the Government of India and the “national” media had responded to (by terming it as “alleged” , amongst others) the blockade of the highways in Jammu and Kashmir in August, 2008!!!!

[box color=”green” type=”quote”]In short, facing the challenges of blockade must not be episodic (guided solely by the price rise etc of a specific moment of blockade, which has unfortunately been the case so far) but a holistic one in which the Government of India and State Government in Manipur must work together to resolve the issue by immediately bringing an end to such an inhumane and sinister politics of highway blockades.[/box]

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