Culture and Development: It is much more than dance and drama

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By Amar Yumnam
In the mid-1990s culture arrived in the development discussions in a way pushing the institutional debates broader and further. Culture is now in the core debates of development issues for the last one and half decades in a very salient way independently of the institutional analyses. As Sarah Radcliffe puts it: “Culture has always been in development thinking and practice, but how it is conceptualized and when and where put in to operation reflect complex historical and geographical patterns of institutional, social, and political action….. culture has recently acquired a new visibility and salience in development thinking and practice. Whereas in the past cultural norms and assumptions might have informed powerful development actors in their interaction with beneficiaries, culture is now being discovered.”  Considering the daily events, the long term implications of daily lived experiences in Manipur, the unfolding dynamics of deeper integration with the South East and the East Asian economies, a deeper understanding of the prevailing culture in Manipur and its dynamics has become imperative. The general perception and manifest behaviour of the people seem to imply the dances, drama and lai haraoba as the meaning and content of culture in Manipur. There are elements of violence in every social behaviour in every conceivable social and group interaction that a rethink on the culture as conceived and practised in Manipur has become paramount. The feeling and perception of society seems to be conspicuous in their absence in the daily social presence of individuals. But this is not something that can prepare our land and people for the unfolding global context of living, thriving and competing.

Culture may be perceived as something shared by the society. Starting from the shared ideas – shared by the population – it gets into the shared manifestations of those ideas in the daily social life of the members of the society. Every society would be characterised by a culture of its own or other. While some cultures facilitate the daily functioning of each individual without in any way jeopardising that of any other, some would involve sacrificing or invading into the convenience of somebody else in order to facilitate the functioning of an individual. The first type of development enhances the scope for development and social progression, and the latter works just the opposite.

In this context, we can ponder on our daily lived experiences of social functioning and assess as to which category the culture of Manipur belongs today. Here we can try listing every encounter in our daily life and check the behavioural characteristics inherent in each.

We can start with trying to cross the road as a pedestrian. In Manipur, it is always the case that the vehicles should always have the right of way and should be predominant in every priority. There is a welfare principle involved here. The pedestrian in any way should be the one lower in the social rung while the one driving a car is a person with higher social well-being. This implies that the poor sacrifices for the convenience of the rich. This is a social culture unaccompanied in any civilised society behaviour anywhere in the world.

Now let us look at the behaviour at the ATM booths. None behaves the way respecting the privacy and confidentiality of any individual. We have the modern machine but we have not absorbed the modern social behaviour associated with it.

Let us see how we drive our vehicles in the streets, in the turnings and in crowded places. It is a very common practice in Manipur that each one tries for enhancing personal convenience while causing collective chaos. This again is a culture not attuned for social progression.

Let us now look at the social behaviour of people who should be setting examples for the citizens to emulate. Here the social pain is really serious today. The social manifestation of people with any security cover with expenses covered by public is such that the lesson to be absorbed is absolutely positive. The civilizational and welfare principle is that these individuals are given security cover in order to facilitate their social functions. The image the public are given is that they are allowed to violate any welfare and civilizational principle for they are “valuable” much above the smooth social functioning of societal interactions.

We can as well look into the social manifestations of every individual of some significance of social functioning. But unfortunately in the case of Manipur, the social functioning has evolved to such a direction wherein each individual is supposed to behave only for personal aggrandisement; the social considerations are only for public consumption. In every opportunity, each individual in Manipur compromises the social cause and pushes the personal one.

It is exactly here that we need to apply our mind individually and collectively if these are the conditions which can serve the cause of the society in the evolving integration with more robust societies and economies in South East and East Asia. The little learning and the little global experience tells me that we are following a culture which can enhance our global position. On the other hand, the signs are that our people and our society would be side-lined and marginalised in every conceivable way. The choice is to be exercised now as to which culture we want to adopt and practise in our society. Time is of the essence now.     

(Amar Yumnam is the Director of Center for Manipur Studies and Prof. of Department of Economics, Manipur University)

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