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Corrosive narcissism must not be allowed to destroy Manipur

By Pradip Phanjoubam

Manipur remains deeply riven along ethnic lines. Not only do different communities not see eye to eye, but they continue to see and draw mutually contradictory conclusions from the same events, and memories. Nobody is willing to budge an inch from their original hostile stances, yet in the same breath continue to talk as if they were messengers of peace with no other interest than resolving the conflict situations destabilising the state. The picture of intellectual ennui is oppressive, and as in Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”, everybody at the drop of the hat with enthusiasm say “Let’s go” but none ever moves.

Elsewhere the organized looting of the state coffers by the officialdom continues, as if this was a natural service perk. On one side, from lowly government clerks to the top functionaries of the government, all have become part of an elaborate bribe extraction network, and the loot is shared across the hierarchy of the officialdom as if by long established consensual formulas. On the other side, from petty contractors to desperately insecure job seekers, too are part of this system corroding game. Everybody naturally also cover each other’s back to ensure this circle of corruption and its unholy dividends remain unbroken.

This absurd theatre would have evoked universal laughter had it not been so tragic. Indeed, whenever one spies a LandRover or Pajero SUV on the land’s potholed roads, the gut reaction is not of awe at the owners’ achievements. In this land so bereft of captains of industries (you can still actually count people who have made it big by talent and enterprise on the fingers), the only ones so obviously, openly and shamelessly opulent are those in the government contract cartels and government officials who moderate the allocation of these contract works.

Wealth here therefore is not a sign of economic growth. It also does not contribute to the state’s residue of economic dynamism. It would not be a factor in the multiplication of employment or build the regenerative capacity of the economy or add to the fund of life skills and competitive entrepreneurship of the place. It can only be spent to satiate avaricious consumerist passions, therefore the increasing surreal sightings of super expensive cars and marble palaces amidst the expanding slums and decaying infrastructures of Imphal and other townships in the state.

This is tragic because as many anthropologists and archaeologists studying the disappearances of civilizations have noted and warned, one of the biggest factors behind certain societies becoming unable to stand the incessant winds of changes of time are those which have been extremely inward looking and narcissistic, where the individuals have become unable to see beyond their selves and narrow self interests.

Consider these five factors identified as common to all peoples and societies which have failed to survive the onslaught of time. Anthropologist and author Jared Diamond lists these in “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fall or Survive”. One is climate change. This can be either external, such as the cycle of Ice Age of the cosmic storms on the sun’s surface which can radically alter earth’s climate. It can also be, and often is, brought by the people on themselves through irresponsible and short-sighted damages they cause to their own living environments.

Another factor is hostile neighbours. These scientists also note that often the society which fell to hostile neighbours did so because they had been weakened by other factors, among these is the economy becoming inadequate to support and sustain their population, therefore resulting in internal political and civic strifes.

The falls have also often been a cascading effect, in which the fall of one society leads to the fall of other interrelated societies. This is not difficult to imagine. Even the most rudimentary societies learn to exist in a symbiotic relationships, and therefore the prosperity of one, unacknowledged or acknowledged, is vitally dependent on the prosperity of the other neighbours. In Manipur’s case for instance, it should not be difficult to imagine how if the hills become unliveable because of environmental degradation the valley will not have it easy, and vice versa. The mantra is, only mutual prosperity can ensure continued prosperity of all. When the tide rises, all boats rise.

The last of the factors is, self absorbed, insensitive, narcissistic elite. Be it the fall of the Greeks, the Roman Empire, Mughals, Mayas, Incas, Khmers this factor has been common to all. The saying “Nero fiddled while Rome burned” encapsulates this scenario succinctly. Like Nero, the Maya priest kings were also busy throwing ever more grand feasts and accumulating wealth, while the Mayan society sank progressively into chaos and disorder, foreordaining the ultimate demise of all.

It is scary to think all these factors seem familiar to the Manipur scenario today. This generation may survive the damages, but what about the next? And this question is not just for the children of parents who have not made grade this generation, but even for those at the top rung? What would even the best skilled and educated amongst the next generation be left to do other than migrate to other parts of the country and world, or else join the bribe scramble in the state to garner the increasingly limited government jobs? Even if the coming generation manages somehow through inheritances form their “resourceful” parents, what about the generation after them? A society which wishes to, and has the resilience to, survive must be able to look at least that far, and much beyond too. Does Manipur look like it has this quality, is an honest introspection all need to do honestly before it becomes too late. At this moment, its elite seem unconcerned, and this thought is disturbing.

On June 18, in Imphal and other valley townships, the death of 18 on this day in 2001 was commemorated. The 18 died tragically in outraged rallies and riots at what had seem was a move to disintegrate the territorial integrity of Manipur by the then NDA government at the Centre led by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, when it declared the formal extension of the ceasefire with the NSCN(IM) “without territorial limits”. The heavy price they paid with their deaths, won the day for Manipur, and the clause “without territorial limit” was removed from the ceasefire declaration to maintain status quo ante.

While their martyrdom cannot be forgotten, and the losses that their loved ones suffered must be shared by all with gratitude, it must not be forgotten that this alone is unlikely to heal the wounds of division in the state. It is not a coincidence that while preparations were being made for this solemn observation, the UNC called a bandh in the Naga areas. Obviously there are others who see the stakes differently, and no matter how painful, this must be acknowledged by all interested in the return of peace in this beleaguered land.

The truth is, Manipur continues to live in the past. This is true equally of those who believe Manipur has always had a united existence as “state bearing” peoples from “time immemorial”, as much as it is true of those who contend the hill-valley relationship has always been and still is marked by the valley exploiting the hills. Beyond all the power of emotive rhetoric, it is difficult to be convinced how Manipur is emotionally integrated at this moment. Beyond similarly emotionally charged rhetoric, it is equally difficult to imagine, or figure out, how the valley continues to exploit the hills. There are differences, but are these the result of anybody’s intent? Or is it impersonal forces such as those of geography? Even if these beliefs and grudges are found to have a basis, it is the challenge before all to work out amicable a solution which does not leave anybody with a sense of injustice.

The people of the state, those who believe in preserving the integrity of Manipur as well as those who think this is preposterous, must sit down and put this question not to any others but themselves. The honesty with which these questions are answered, will be the beginning of a more permanent resolution to the conflict of interests which so frustratingly have stymieing this shared homeland of ours. This would be in the enlightened self interest of all.

I take the example of this particular friction, for it is currently blazing. But what is said of this scenario would be true of the other internal ethnic frictions as well. The Sadar Hills question for instance. Or the delimitation of new constituencies, to think of another case.

Take the latter case. Delimitation would not have been difficult technically and legally, had the hills and valley belonged to the same revenue system. For instance, there would be very little issue if Imphal West or Thoubal were to be divided into five districts each. Likewise, it would not be difficult to divide Ukhrul or Tamenglong into five districts each. But when the delimited territories overlap reserved and non-reserved districts, the trouble would begin, for if non-tribal populations get incorporated into reserved districts, intractable legal questions of citizenship rights would arise. But provided the parties are ready to sit down and thrash things out, place reasons above emotions, and above all, are willing to accommodate in the democratic spirit of give and take, there should not be any problem which cannot be resolved.

It is time for Manipur to exorcise itself of the ghosts from the past. Before it is too late, its people must begin looking for ways to shape a future of equitable justice for all. This vision of justice must however not be confined to just the immediate political economy, but encompass the larger living environment that takes into consideration issues of ecological conservation and relationship with all neighbouring communities and indeed the rest of the world




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