It is surprising that not many have pondered on this revealing thought. Isaiah Berlin, points out in his essay “In Search of an Ideal” in the volume “Crooked Timber of Humanity” that not a single one amongst the perceptive social thinkers of the 19th Century, undoubtedly one of the most creative periods of human history, ever predicted the ethnic identity predicament of the 20th Century. None of them foresaw the politics of religious fundamentalism or any preoccupation with the issue of terrorism either. Marx, Hegel, Luxembourg et al… who predicted, and quite accurately too, devastating wars and bloody revolutions, for some mysterious reason, seemed never to have had a hint of these. Confining ourselves to the ethnic identity upheavals, how did this distinctive characteristics of the late 20th Century that has spilled over into the 21st Century, so well screened out from the vision of social scientists of the preceding era? The indication says the late Berlin, a great scholar of the contemporary time, is that many events in history are not exactly a continuity. Many of them simply pop out up within a specific historical time frame so that they would be virtually invisible from outside this time frame. The ethnic question certainly seems to be just one of these. The optimistic inference that follows is, just as these problems popped up into existence suddenly, in all likelihood, at the other edge of the time frame that circumscribe them, they may age out and fade away. Much like we suppose, the comet hit that threw the earth into a cataclysmic period 60 million years ago, resulting in the ultimate extinction of many species, including the dinosaurs after their nearly 4 million years of dominating, indeed domineering, over all other life forms on earth.
To a great extent, this vision would support the debunking theory of history as a matter of “one damned thing after another”. That the popular method of historiography of logically sequencing major events and epochs in chronological time into a single coherent narrative may not always be justified and hence fall short of explaining every historical experience satisfactorily, much less predict the future. Isaiah Berlin seems to take the middle path, so that while most events in history are seen as dovetailing each other, others follow unpredictable trajectories, independent of any such tangible historical streams or patterns. If at all these explosive events are predictable, it would only be within the time frame of their existence. Take the case of the ethnic strife in Manipur. Who would have predicted things would come to such a pass as it is today, even as late at the earlier half of the 20th Century? Communities that have been together for aeons have suddenly begun to see themselves as irreconcilably different, having always lived in “unique”, non-overlapping histories. Is it our share of a disease of the 20th Century? This question is interesting for it cannot be by coincidence that the explosion of ethnic identity strife here seems to be following the law of physics that predicts “sympathetic oscillation of pendulums in close proximity”. Visit the “Manipur Science Park” at Takyelpat (with your children) for captivating demonstrations of this law. The ethnic problem in Manipur is not in any way an isolated phenomenon, for almost simultaneously, similar problems exploded with equal, if not greater ferocity in so many different parts of the world. In Sub-Saharan Africa, Eastern Europe, or Sri Lanka, they were so viciously xenophobic and many of the conflicts turned genocidal. Very much the same thing can be said of “terrorism” and religious fundamentalism. So what, one may ask. What great difference does it make if our present misery is part of an inherited sin or is a singular cataclysmic historical turbulence? For one thing, if our actions are not merely reactions but are driven by independent urges and aspirations, the different communities can stop shifting blame on each other and instead live up to the challenge of the time and evolve a consensual solution. The second implication is, as in the case of “sympathetic oscillation” when the oscillation of one halts, the others oscillating bodies may die their own natural deaths. At the turn of another epoch then, ethnic problems, including our own, may have seen its obituary. We will be amongst the first to wish it an eternal “Rest in Peace”, RIP.