By Pradip Phanjoubam
Quite other than the shock of the recent and continuing spate of mindless bomb blasts in crowded areas in Imphal, it ought not to miss any observer, that there is a tragedy that runs much deeper than apparent in the sorry episode. It tells of a pathetic, intimidated helplessness that has descended on the Manipur public in the decades of insurgency and counter-insurgency they have been witness to. It would not be too far from the truth to say that the obituary is now being written on the fabled inner strength of the society. Amongst the Meiteis, this mythical inner courage, or guts, has a very metaphoric language representation, made colloquial by its overuse in kitschy Shumang Lila and stage shows – the lion within, or the Meitei Nongsha. This lion, unfortunately is apparently on its death throes, and even when affronted in the most violent, debasing and humiliating way, as in the case of these bomb blasts, it has lost its roar and can just about let out a timid mew in the shape of few women from localities near where the murderous bomb outrages have taken place, staging ‘sit in’ protests, with a fruit tray and a few placards in front of them, in token theatrical shows of ceremonial anger.
The elite in the meantime remain closeted in what they consider the safety of their homes and social security guaranteed by their professions (read as government jobs). Many of them, already wallowing in amassed wealth much beyond their known sources of incomes, therefore living in the metaphoric glass houses, would understandably not dare throw a stone, fearing a return stone may shatter and expose their loots. Others are plainly petrified into absolute inaction. This is in a way characteristic of the reactionary middle class mindset, or to use an apt Marxist terminology, the petite bourgeoisie mentality, which dictates them to nudge others to take to the streets and risk retribution, but themselves would continue to opportunistically sit on the fence, preparing to jump to the side of the ones which emerge the winners in the conflict. What an inward looking, selfish and spineless society, this so called rise of the middle class, in Manipur’s case a domination by white collared government servants, have made Manipur into? Even during the tribal and feudal days, the idea of service to community and the state had a very different meaning and sense of bounden duty. In these days of “cosmetic democracy and federalism”, foisted to maintain a “durable disorder”, to borrow a whipping descriptive phrase from academic and author of repute from Assam, Sanjib Barua, while this emerging elite cream have become more conscious of their rights, they have conveniently chosen to discard all unwritten moral obligations of duty that democracy implies and demands of them. Lamentable is the one word commentary that would sum up this situation.
Now then, who benumbed this heart of lion within our society? The safe and favourite answer of the place’s ever multiplying number of high brows has always been, “the ongoing war”. This answer is safe from two vantages. One, on this broad canvas, the truth is indeed contained in some obscure corner, imprecise and ambiguous though it may be. The broad canvas is therefore the convenient alibi the statement is not an outright lie. Two, this answer is guaranteed not to anger anyone for it does not pinpoint or attribute responsibility or accountability to anyone. For any increasingly middle class fence sitting society, not angering anybody critically is important. Most specifically and relevantly, it is important not to anger those who draw power from the barrel of the gun, and therefore can kill, maim and terrorise. Suffices it to say, those who wield the power of the gun are the state and its challengers.
This is not to say there would be no protests. There have been and there will always be, as long as the conflict situation remains in the society. But the history of this protest has established beyond doubt, it would almost always be the state that the protestors target. The state deserves to be. It has been brutal, unfair, arming itself with draconian democratically untenable laws… But the state is only one side of this tedious argument, and this face is often conveniently overlooked. The picture of this protest hence has never been complete. In fact, as is being demonstrated in the current spate of serial bomb blasts in Imphal, the silence, indeed the virtual absence of protest, is deafening. This must be confounding for anybody not familiar with the state’s history of insurgency. In particular, they must be wondering why the vocal section of its elite, so eager in their grandiose crusade for democracy and democratic rights, churning out volumes against the draconian nature of the state in Manipur and the northeast, have become voiceless so suddenly. Does this mean they are condoning violence perpetrated by non state actors? This is unlikely. Their silence is one induced by fear.
This fear is interesting. In a calibrated way, it is inspired by the terror of the state and terror of the challengers to the state. The calibration in either case is however in the reserve direction of each other. In the case of the state’s show of power, the lowest rung of the society are the most terrorised. As empirical evidence, one could consider the more than 2000 officially recorded deaths after arrest (fake encounter deaths) that Manipur has seen since the outbreak of violent insurrection in the state, a list of which has been compiled by Human Rights Alert, HRA. Nearly all of the victims are youth belonging to the lower strata of the society. Almost as a rule, children of the elite class, even those of the most vocal critics of the establishment, are virtually absent from this list. Surely there is an unwritten mutual intuitive acknowledgment that the establishment and its elites are linked by an innate umbilical cord, and neither would do anything to fundamentally hurt the other. The establishment’s understanding then would be that the elite, even those belonging to autonomous institutions not directly under government control, and are known for vocal opposition to the ways of the establishment, can be trusted to be at best reformists who can easily be co-opted into the establishment’s agenda, and seldom social revolutionaries for the establishment to be seriously wary of.
The terror of the non-state actors is more indiscriminate, but clearly has a negative bias towards the elite. Although the majority of the people dead at their hands would also be from the lower social strata, in a phenomenon Fanon describe as the oppressed man’s desire to destroy the despised self image in others in his own degrading predicament, the terror they inspire would however be felt most by the privileged sections of the establishment. No wonder then few amongst them have been forthright in condemning, much less protesting these ongoing serial carnages of the outrageous IED bomb blasts in Imphal. The elite are resourceful and will have a way to get around these uneasy intellectual and moral responsibilities on their shoulders, and ultimately abdicate them as if it was the only right thing to do. One of the strategies has been, and still is, to route their assessments of the situation through the draconian state again. Ironically a draconian state which they know for sure would not hit back at them. The tendency has been, even the most atrocious street violence perpetrated by unknown gunmen have been blamed as a by-product of the climate of violence the draconian state and its draconian laws have introduced. The Freudian ego defence mechanisms of intellectualisation and rationalisation would come into effective play to camouflage all shortfalls of commitment and courage, and to protect self interests and self esteem.
A democracy is also often described as a system of governance in which a society elects from amongst its elites, leaders to be in charge of its public affairs for a fixed term at a time. For this understanding of democracy to be meaningful, the elite of the society, not just those elected to the institutions of democratic rule, have to be willing to bear the responsibilities expected of them by their society, other than rest content in the security ensured by their professions and positions in life. Their refusal to raise the decibels of protest in the current carnage in Imphal is therefore nothing short of shameful.
To return to the original question then, who benumbed the inner courage within our society? The answer must have to be the armed insurgents. Even those who still fight with a tangible ideology with commitment must acknowledge this. The extreme intolerance of dissenting voices, the number of summary executions resulting even out of their faction fights, the humiliating treatments meted out to even senior citizens, the number of times media houses have had to suspend work, sometimes for weeks because of intolerable demands from different underground factions, grenades thrown at people’s houses for whatever the unexplained reasons are… all have resulted in the freezing of the inner strength and resistance that our society once prided itself for. Once upon a time, there were only a few underground organisations, all of them with professedly the same goal, therefore no cause for infighting or contrary demands on society. Today, we all know how many of the organisations have splintered into numerous factions, so much so that it is no longer possible to keep count. Many of these splinters can best be described as loose cannons with no patience for sensible dialogue on any matter. They also have no scruples about indulging in acts that only terrorists can perpetrate as apparently they have no reputation to save. The Imphal serial blasts are just the latest testimony of this total descent into madness. In this chaos, anything can happen and the most outlandish charges cannot also be dismissed off hand. This would include the charge by a major underground organisation that the Imphal blasts are perpetrated by proxies of counter insurgency masterminds. When the moral fabric of a society has been so ruthless severed by protracted violence and intimidations, nothing is beyond the imaginable anymore.
But let it be kept in mind. Protest against atrocities may not come forth immediately, but it does not mean the provocations for a protest have been erased altogether. When the guns have been silenced, or discipline and harnessed, these voices will surface again. Sometimes they can come in violent explosions, as has become the trend in Manipur. Remember the protest over the Manorama’s killing or of Sanjit’s daylight murder. There is nothing which forbids such explosions will not be directed against the non-state players too someday. Signs of it are already becoming apparent in the increasing frequency of news of mob violence directed against various recruiting agents of underground organisations. In neighbouring Nagaland, where the guns have been disciplined, even if only in a conditional way because of a prolonged ceasefire, public voices against the non-state actors are increasingly audible. The open campaign against excessive underground taxation by Dimapur residents is the most immediate example. In another neighbouring state, Mizoram, the oncd powerful rebel group Mizo National Front, MNF, supremo, Laldenga became chief minister upon reaching a peace agreement with the Government of India, but after his guns have been silenced and disciplined by the due process of law, in the very next election, the Mizo people voted him and his party out of power. Let everybody realise, the power that flows out of the barrel of the gun, if it is not accompanied by a moral legitimacy, cannot ever be durable. The writings on the walls are, this moral legitimacy is waning fast.