How societies decay and revolutions are born

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By Pradip Phanjoubam

The following is a slightly modified extract from the concluding chapter of the book the author is currently writing as a fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. The ideas in these lines were developed from what Frantz Fanon wrote in his book “The Wretched of the Earth” on similar matters, however, footnotes have been removed to make it suitable for publication in a newspaper, which is why this paragraph to preface the content in acknowledgment that the thoughts contained are not entirely original.

Unrest among ethnic minorities, tribals and indigenous peoples, is not an isolated occurrence in India alone. It is a problem that has stricken the entire post-colonial world. In their urgency to find and assert their national identities, the former colonies, upon their release from the yoke of colonialism, have not been able to, or bothered to give much attention to the needs and aspirations of smaller nationalities within their own geographical boundaries. Very often again, the unfeeling attitudes of the dominant and overriding nationalisms and the policy programs dictated by them have resulted in the destruction of the world of minority ethnic communities of indigenous peoples as viable groups, a phenomenon that has often been also described as ethnocide.

Two principal beliefs of most recently decolonised nations are responsible for ethnocide within them. One is the zeal to obliterate all pre-modern forms of economic organisations in the name of ushering in a progressive modern economy and the other is the equally fervent belief that all sub-national ethnic units must necessarily surrender themselves totally and merge into the larger Nation State the euphemism for which is ‘joining the mainstream’ of national life. Such policies, as history is witnessing today in many parts of the world, including in India’s Northeast region, have given rise to more problems than they have solved. For expectedly, many of the ethnic groups have risen in violent revolts against the manner these changes of historical circumstances are being imposed on them.

In many ways, the upheavals of the ethnic indigenous communities in the Northeast regions border the tragic. It is the story of different tribal groups and communities, long isolated from the outside world, rudely awakening to a different reality in which they stand the danger of being drowned or at best occupying a subordinate position. Theirs is a struggle to come to terms with this new predicament. The most aggressive of these struggles have chosen to totally reject the destiny they have been thrown into and look for it elsewhere, away from the general trend of the history of the nation they now belong to. A no mean task, which have in the recent times seen these rebellions headed up blind alleys. For the ethnic minorities, it is one of the cruel junctures of history they have found themselves in. The choices before them are either a total surrender to a fate in which their identities as viable groups are endangered or else swim against the intimidating and incessant tides of the historical mainstream.

As Frantz Fanon writes, culturally too, the ethnic communities find themselves gradually marginalised. Constantly and incessantly bombarded with well packaged, often illusory pictures of affluence and wellbeing from the dominant cultures through the much advanced mass media particularly the television, the ethnic communities who were already disoriented in the new world, begin to feel themselves as inferiors. This psychology further worsened their chances of adopting and coming to terms with their changed situation. Because the communication flow is virtually one-way, that is, from the dominant to the weaker cultures, the burden of the adverse fallouts of this cross-cultural communication is felt only by the weaker cultures.

Multiplying this effect is the breakneck pace with which the mass media technology has been advancing in the modern times. Even relatively more advanced societies have been outstripped in this race with technology. Invariably, the ethnic communities too have been overwhelmed. Development therefore has seldom been organic in that it has not grown out of the internal pressures built from the collective needs of the region at any given point in time. Rather than this, development has been delivered in packages as part of the statutory largesse distributed by the Central Government from time to time.

The youth, Fanon notes, particularly the urban and semi-urban, idle, lumpenised category, whose numbers are on a rapid increase, are the worst hit. The images of comfort and other trappings of the modern consumerist cultures, which are basically meant for the consumption of affluent societies, also flood their minds. The result is the creation of illusory and often detrimental ideals in their minds as their objective economic realities are not commensurate with the ideals set for them by these images. Hence, the result is a wide disparity between what is achievable by them and what they had been made to believe is within their reach, between their individual expectations and their society’s capacity to afford these expectations. The resultant sense of being let down often leads them to socially deviant behaviours such as drugs abuse, alcoholism, promiscuity, juvenile delinquency etc. among the youth of the ethnic groups.

For the affluent societies, these images are nothing unnatural to their lifestyles and hence are less likely to create any disproportionate discordance. Moreover, the youth of the affluent societies have adequate protections against the harmful effects of the consumerist ideals as a result of education, high standards of living, and above all a social ethos that is able to put these ideals in the correct perspectives. In this way they are less vulnerable than their ethnic counterparts in the backward regions of the country.

Slowly but surely, the ethnic cultures begin withering away. Because the objective conditions are not ripe, the new values that have come in are not able to fill the vacuum left by the disappearance of the traditional. The end result is the emergence of a rootless, lost generation which end up as bad imitations at best, if not caricatures of the affluent, dominant societies. The aimless drift of a derelict generation often begins here. Rather than inherit the spirit and the vibrancy of the societies they try to emulate, they end up stricken with the worst of their scourges. Acquired Immuno Deficiency Syndrome, HIV-AIDS, is just one of these. It is not a coincidence that some of the Northeast states, like Manipur, rank as some of the most prone areas to drugs and HIV-AIDS in the whole of India.

Total failure of understanding of the moral dilemma of the ethnic communities, rather than dearth of goodwill, has also hastened this decay process. Liberal doses of fund have been poured into these states year after year amidst the social milieu of rot and decay. In the absence of any tangible plan or accountability, the liberal funds prove to be as harmful to the moral health of the ethnic societies as much as medicinal drugs administered in overdoses become poisonous to the patient. Easy money is addictive, just as much as narcotic drugs and it has devastated the work culture of these societies. Here, money is no longer measured in terms of sweat, hence its real worth is no more known. A parasitic economy that is far from self-generating but solely dependent on the charity of the Central Government has today evolved in most of these states.

A coterie also emerges. While the overwhelming masses remain untouched by the liberal benefits of the establishment, this coterie and their children grab the best of them including the funds. Wealth is no more the fruit of labour or enterprise, but becomes the result of organised and protected robbery by this coterie. Consequently, rich people are no longer respectable people. This crop of newly sown middleclass coterie is bereft of the dynamism or the spirit of creativity that the bourgeoisie elsewhere, however self-centred or reactionary, is known for. Greed, avarice and selfishness become their hallmark. They dominate the government, that is, the state politics and bureaucracy, and succeed in reducing it to a big farce. They bring in rampant and shameless corruption in the administration and institutionalise it. Rather than provide the leadership to guide the destinies of their societies at their times of crisis, they further hasten the process of decay by destroying completely the people’s faith in the establishment.

Resistance against this process of decay was expected. When it does arrive, it takes the extreme form. First the revivalist groups who looked for inspiration from the past glories of their societies enter the scene. They are followed by the revisionists who try to redo certain portions of history which are offending to their sensibilities. The reformists were next in line. Then before anybody realised it, the mutant offspring of the much abused societies appear on their social firmament. These epitomes of the blind, directionless fury that had been building up within these societies for years are impatient to listen to the rationalisation of the decay process. They set about blasting away anything they think are the causes of this decay. The days of the militants have arrived.

In the words of Jean Paul Sartre, in his preface to Fanon’s classic “The Wretched of the Earth”, if this fury fails to find an outlet, it turns in a vacuum and devastates the oppressed creatures themselves. In order to free themselves they even massacre each other. The different tribes fight between themselves since they cannot face the real enemy — and you can count on colonial policy to keep up their rivalries; the man who raises a knife against his brother thinks that he has destroyed once and for all the detested image of their common degradation, even though these expiatory victims don’t quench their thirst for blood.

Likewise, factional fights, ethnic war, communal flare-ups have become commonplace in the northeast region. The tension and friction all around is palpable and eerily dangerous. Very soon, this blind rage finds direction. The art of politics is simply transformed into the art of war; the political militant is the rebel: ‘To fight the war and to take part in politics; the two things become one and the same thing.’ A revolution is born. You can almost hear Fanon conclude on this note.

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