By Pradip Phanjoubam
The debate over who or what should constitute the rather ethereal notion of “civil society” gets all the more intriguing in a conflict situation, such as in Manipur. The question is, should “civil society” have a technical definition and be treated as constituting of the occupants of a space earmarked between the State and private vested interests, or other power players, such as the militant challengers to the State’s authority and legitimacy?
While this definition of “civil society” is definitely not sufficient, it has been indeed a convenient one. The trouble however is, when there is a technical definition of “civil society”, it invariably turns into a hotly contested space, and in fact often readily transforms into an extension of the conflicts they are supposed to be arbitrating thus becoming in the process a part of the same “war by other means”.
Manipur is familiar with this phenomenon. The “civil society” space has been deeply fissured on sectarian ethnic lines, demonstrations of which are never in short supply. Such wars by other means are fought on practically every issue involving any two or more communities of the state’s multitude of communities. The division is also seen along other broader lines such as between the hill districts and valley districts, between the tribals and non-tribals etc.
It is not uncommon to even hear of self proclaimed human rights organisations, thrown up by mutually antagonistic ethnic communities, speaking two different languages on the same issue. It is as if there is nothing universal about even human rights. How then can the “civil society” be the agent for the much hyped problem solving discourses, is a question much ignored.
The technical ear-marking of a so called “civil society” space leads to another familiar problematic situation. The conflicting parties themselves begin actually to contest for this space by putting up their “civil society” proxies, having realized how powerful these bodies can be in force multiplying their agenda through precisely the “wars by other means”.
The result is a complication of the conflicts themselves. So much has already been written about how even students’ movements have become organs of those behind these conflicts. Some even float their own “civil society” bodies. Must this not be considered a corruption of the popular understanding of “civil society”? A rethink is vital to consider if the definition of civil society must not have some qualitative elements over and above just the quantitative.
A weak State has not helped matter one bit either. Here, legitimate powers that should vest only with it often get wrested away by numerous “civil society” bodies, adding to the general residue of insecurity amongst a larger section of the society. Take the case of Manipur again, where the problem of a weak State is further accentuated currently by the prospect of an approaching election, scheduled sometime early 2007.
For the moment at least, no decision or action, regardless of whether they are good for the state and its people in the long term, if they belong to the category that cannot be easily and immediately translated into electoral gains, can be expected.
Although in a different context, and lacking half the gravity of the powerfully communicated despair in Macbeth’s last word for his queen at the news of her death, in considering Manipur politics, one is reminded of how the great Shakespearean character summarised his wife’s life, “….a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
But beyond the elections, there are many issues of extreme urgency awaiting government attention. Law and order without dispute would rank as number one among all of these. One is not simply referring to the obvious case of insurgency but also to the manner in which a major portion of what should have remained as sole governmental responsibility, as well as the seal of authority that should have been exclusively the government’s, are being allowed to be wrested away systematically by non-governmental players in the state’s sordid power game.
Or are we witnessing a cruel parody of what Karl Marx called the “withering away of the state”, to give way to a “dictatorship of the proletariat”. The presumption seemed to have been, when the masses are the dictators over their own affairs, rooms for injustice and oppression would be automatically eliminated. The lessons of the atrocities of the French Revolution, which too had justice and equality as its slogans, were surprisingly missed, and VI Lenin’s interpretation of Marxism took cognizance of this problematic area when he stressed on the centrality of the Party of elite thinkers and leaders in any Communist revolution.
In a way he anticipated a basic foundation of modern electoral democracy too, for indeed, democracy is also about a people electing its elite leadership to be in charge of their affairs till so long as they enjoy their confidence as expressed in their periodically renewed electoral mandates. In this way the quality of a democracy is also determined by the capability of an electorate to choose the best amongst its elite. You get the elite you deserve.
In Manipur, the state is withering away, not by any grand Marxian design, but precisely for the abject lack of a will or imagination to come up with a design. For our elected elite, the needs for accountability or good governance are secondary to their personal agenda centred around the competition for the spoils and clout of office.
A rule of the masses has thereby been unleashed, leading to a mad contest for the powers of governance amongst various “civil society” organisations. Today many of these mushrooming power centres have naturally filled in where the government is absent and have even assumed the judicial powers of summons, inquisitions and trials, executive powers of levying taxes, excise duties and even to mete out summary punishments.
They legislate too through diktats and decrees. And yet the government continues to pretend there is nothing seriously wrong and that the law and order situation has improved.
State and Identity
The other related issue in demarcating the State and the society is, is the State merely an optimised mechanism for effective administration, or is it essentially linked to the notion of identity of its citizens? In the heydays of Nation States, in the 19th and much of the 20th Century, the two were almost indistinguishable. Nation States were indeed racial entities and nationalism a variant of racial passion. Can the same be said of today’s world?
Recall the face of the French football team in the Fifa World Cup 2006 in Germany or for that matter most other teams of the supposedly White “core” Europe, and anybody would change his notion of the Nation State and nationalism. Is this the emerging world order or mere aberrations in history? Against this backdrop, how is the understanding of democracy to fit in, and more precisely democracy’s emphasis on the role of the “public sphere”, also variously referred to as “civil society”.
When the two Germanys reunited, symbolized eternally by the dramatic and historic fall of the Berlin Wall, there was at least one German thinker who advised caution, and even showed scepticism, so much so that he was criticized for standing in the way of the unification, and by that virtue of being anti-German.
Jurgen Habermas, one of the most renowned culture theorist and political philosopher of the contemporary times however explained his reason. He said he was afraid of a return of German nationalism and identified signs of it in the euphoria over the unification. He wanted nationalistic passion toned down and reshaped into a shared need for ushering in and building a republican tradition. In his own words, the goal of democratic societies is to “erect a democratic dam against the colonizing encroachment of system imperatives on areas of the lifeworld”. The “lifeworld” as he put it is the immediate milieu of the individual social actor, autonomous of the State apparatus. We may again roughly substitute it with the more familiar term “civil society”.
As to how much the understanding of the “civil society” in Manipur and for that matter the entire northeast, conforms with the spirit of Habermas’ “lifeworld” is another issue. For one does get the feeling that the direction the notion “civil society” is evolving in the region is closer to what Habermas called a “refeudalization” of power whereby the illusions of the “public sphere” are maintained only to give sanction to the decisions of leaders.
Without going further into the philosopher’s influential discussions on what is “the public” and what is “public space”, let us return to our original question of whether the modern State should be about identity or of optimising administrative efficiency.
One does feel there is much fresh perspective to be gained by paraphrasing the problem Habermas posed between “nationalism” and “republican tradition” and applying it to the northeast situation.
Amidst the explosion of a thousand mutinies, championed by a thousand freshly born shades of ethnic nationalistic passion, each clawing for its own independent space and territory, serious thoughts on republicanism can come as a soothing balm. In any case, there seems to be no way out of our wars of mutually antagonistic ethnic nationalisms on a common quicksand, with each pulling the other down. If things are allowed to continue the way they have been, in the end, in all likelihood all would drown.
Considering this situation, shouldn’t an effective de-linking of sectarian ethnic passion from politics be essential for the State to become truly secular. Shouldn’t secularism in our case go beyond just the separation of State from religion, but also separation of State from Ethnicity?