New mutant versions of militancy and counter militancy strategies have ensured Manipur media is not free


By Pradip Phanjoubam

In many ways, the media in Manipur today is in a pitiable state. On the one hand there it is constantly faced with danger of rubbing the establishment in the wrong way, including forsaking their registration with the Registrar of Newspapers in India, RNI, and with it, accreditation with Central and state government advertisement distributing departments, the Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity, DAVP, in the case of the Union government and the Directorate of Information and Public Relations, DIPR, in the case of the state, for publishing underground propaganda literature without vetting them adequately and in conformity with universally accepted norms that make any particular event or statement newsworthy.

On the other hand, press establishments are routinely under threats of being abruptly closed down, and pressmen of losing life and limbs, from various underground organisations who would have every single statement they make appear prominently in print, or broadcasted. Since life and limbs are dearer to most if not all than jobs or businesses, it is anybody’s guess which side of this unenviable balance the media has been leaning on.

Making matters worse, mutually hostile factions of underground organisations have been banning each other and the literature their rivals churn out from seeing light of day. It is indeed a Hobson’s choice for the Manipur media, and as it stands today, its immediate future is virtually out of its hands, and it has no other choice than to wait and hope for the best – so much for the much vaunted independence of the fourth estate of democracy.

But the issue does not end here. In fact for the media, this is only the beginning of a nightmare. For losing its independence is also about losing its credibility, and this is exactly what has happened to a very great extent already. People have begun taking reportage of conflict from Manipur with a pinch of salt. Some dismiss it altogether. In the same vein, anything extra critical of the establishment that the media writes has also come to be seen as prompted, and not an independent assessment or judgment meriting serious attention.

Many of us in the profession had once argued that although the media is a business, it is a different kind of business. That apart from being a business enterprise, a media organisation also is an independent voice and conscience keeper of the society. Today, the media is by and large no different from any other businesses. Hence only those with an eye to business have remain as keen to carry on but those who were attracted to it by the promise of mission, are deflated spiritually.

Being told what to do or what not to do must come across as humiliating for everybody, but for mediamen for whom this freedom is virtual oxygen, developments in the past few decades have been nothing less than suffocating. They hang on only in the belief that someday things would improve and they would once again be independent chroniclers and assessors of events, and indeed history.

One other thing has had a sad demise. The romance of revolutionary pamphlets has been relegated to a small corner of history. This romance incidentally is associated with practically all great revolutions of the world. The world still remembers Tom Paine for the part his pamphlets played in shaping the American Revolution, and the influence he had on the French Revolution.

Manipur should not find this difficult to understand. In the 1980s, independent pamphlets were the chief public medium of underground communication. People actually rushed out of their homes to collect these as they were being thrown into the streets from speeding vehicles, and then read them, share them and absorbed their contents.

Today these same messages are being forced down people’s gullets by first forcing the media to reproduce them. We wonder how many are actually reading them. A letter to the editor sent in the Imphal Free Press, a few years ago said it all. The writer let the newspaper know he subscribes the newspaper only for its opinion page and skips the front page altogether. None of us in the Imphal Free Press were flattered that our opinion is regarded. Instead we were sad at the implication that newspapers were no longer newspapers in the state.

Reforming Revolution

For the good or the bad, militancy in Manipur is slowly but surely entering a new phase. The most important marker of this transition is the condition that has today thrown up a situation in which a growing section of the population are willing to arm themselves for protection.

The government has all too eagerly decided to cash in on this new public sentiment in its continued counter insurgency campaign. This gamble, as we all know, was flagged off at Heirok where Special Police Officers, a force of civil militia in a different demi-official guise were first raised. Subsequently there were more such units raised, adding yet another dimension to the much talked about militarization of the state.

The government had earlier denied the recruited SPOs would be used in counter insurgency operations and that they would merely be given the responsibility to protect and provide security to their individual villages. But even if this were to be so, imagine a situation in which every village cluster in the state, beginning first with the valley districts and then extending to the hill districts, coming under the protection of these militias. Though happily no serious confrontations have happened so far, thanks to the policy, the dangerous potential would continue to loom over the state.

Since the move obviously has the blessing of the Union Government, resources has not been too much of a problem. The government without doubt would be considering this as the trump to undo militancy in the state once and for all, but it must surely be also aware of the long cherished wisdom that two wrongs cannot cancel each other out, and instead, would add up to a combined residual chaos.

For indeed things can also go terribly wrong especially if it is unable to maintain a degree of discipline amongst these new recruits, and there have been strong indications there were tendencies towards this. It is not uncommon these days to hear of SPOs involving in petty and not so petty street crimes, including mugging. Apart from such prospects of immediate failures, there are also longer term implications of militarising civil society, but these consequences are being dismissed as mere food for idle debates of philosophers and academics, and it has been ages since the government executive ceased to pay heed to philosophers. Such is the executive hubris of modern times.

But this hubris curiously, although not surprisingly, is not restricted to the government executive alone. It is also very much a problem of the underground organisations. For instance, there seems to be a gap between the messages sent out by the top leaderships of many of these organisations and those by their own “executive wings”.

We do remember reading touching, introspective and self critical appeals from the former, calling for self reformation amongst the underground activists, but these seem to have had no effect on the organisations’ executive decision makers. Today, the latter continue in their old ways of intimidations and unbearable demands on the general public that have resulted in an all time high level of alienation of the people.

It is also perhaps this same hubris which prevents the messages in popular jokes such as the one that jests real estate in Heirok is sky rocketing because of a rush by ordinary folks from everywhere to by land the migrate there, from registering. Compounding the matter further is the splinter wars of militants that have even caused the closure of newspapers and cable TV. Yet, there is no indication whatsoever of a change of mind and the easing of the harangue the public are subject to.

Students of literature will need no further convincing that hubris leads to tragedy. In Manipuri there is a nice saying that encapsulates this same thought:”When the bamboo gets too proud that it is the tallest of all, the crows will sit on it and make it bend”. In the present case, since it is a double hubris, it probably is also a double tragedy we are staring at.

The revolution needs to reinvent itself. It ideological blueprint needs redrafting. Its strategies call for urgent and radical overhauling. The debates in our society must have to begin focusing on these matters, and these new debates must be paid heed to, for ultimately they will be the redemption and purge of the hubris of both the government executive as well as those of the underground organisations.

It needs to be noted that gone are the days when insurgency was essentially about a war of a different kind. In those days the news headlines were about fierce encounters between the state forces and insurgent armies.

Today the story is being increasingly told through shutdowns and strikes by hospitals and schools to protest unbearable extortion demands, or else newspapers remaining off the stands unable to withstand contrary pressures from mutually hostile splinters of atrophying insurgent groups. Honestly this is not a war any more, for all the characteristics of war are being swallowed by ever magnifying attributes of terror.

The only reason that prevents many of us from saying with any certainty that this is no longer a war is that this answer too would not be altogether honest, for somewhere, even if feebly, the initial fire that ignited this insurrection is still burning. This fire once addressed the people’s own outrage at the injustice of the establishment and history, and in this sense insurgency was as Frantz Fanon described in Wretched of the Earth, a “mailed fist” of the people – a delivery system of its anger at the chaos, injustice and corruption that the establishment signified to them.

The chaos, injustice and corruption of the establishment are far from gone, but the “mailed fist” is losing its moral strength. There is no doubt the people are disenchanted with the militants at this moment, but this does not mean they have shed their disenchantment with the establishment.

Because the latter is true, even if the present insurrection is quelled, a new one would sprout sometime or the other again. This is why, we still insist on a lasting and honourable resolution to the present turmoil in which nobody is the loser. In this project, the responsibility will have to be shouldered equally by the authorities on either side of the conflict.

Otherwise, the continuing spiral into the abyss will sooner than later reach a critical point, and beyond anybody’s control. That would be apocalyptic for Manipur. Let the revolution, and with it Manipur, turn a new chapter. At the moment, the vision of this new chapter is far from promising, and full of dark portends of bloodshed. It is not too late to rework the colour scheme of this vision. If it is not the colour of the olive branch as yet, at least it does not have to be that of blood, gore and graveyard.


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