New secularism needed

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To say Manipur`™s problems are intractable would be an understatement. There are too many of them, a great many of which work at cross purposes, pulling the cart in different directions, ensuring in the end nothing moves. The demand for the introduction of the Inner Line Permit System and now the opposition to its introduction, are just the latest example of this lack of any common will amongst its people. Perhaps the divide is inevitable, considering the ethnic diversity, but more importantly, the different political economy each was in before the advent of the modern. The settled agriculturists, the shift cultivators, the hunter gatherers, the nomadic foragers and communities amongst whom the economy and professions have begun to diversify and take roots in the secondary sector, beyond the traditional and primary, are hardly likely to have the same outlook to land and governance. Before the advent of the modern, Manipur was all of these wrapped into one, and indeed would have counted as a typical Zomian landscape that James Scott sketched in his important but controversial, `Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchic History of Upland South East Asia`. Scott predicts the days of Zomia is definitely numbered, implying the ultimate and inevitable replacement of this quaint and anachronistic human-scape with that the modern. If this foreboding is accurate, perhaps the turmoil places like Manipur are going through is the inevitable trauma of such a transition.

For the moment, any form of a civic identity of its citizenry seems destined to remain elusive in Manipur. Everybody, on the other hand is too stuck up with their perceived ethnic identities defined presumably and exclusive by ethnic traditions alone. Each therefore continues to choose to remain in the respective seclusion of their individual boxes, rendering any larger civic agenda redundant. By its very definition, the civic identity would have to be secular. In the context of places like Manipur, we are of the opinion that secularism should be less about separating religion from politics, but more about separating ethnicity from politics. In other words, to paraphrase and adopt respected historian Romila Thapar`™s definition of secularism, in our context it should be about giving our civic citizenship primacy over our ethnic identities in matters of routine administrative outlooks, or `governmentality` to borrow the notion made famous by Foucault. Just as religion is expected to remain in private spheres of individual citizens in a secular democratic polity, ethnicity too must. The civic and public agenda of governance must rest on issues like administrative convenience and optimisation of resource utilisation etc. After witnessing all that has been happening in Manipur in the past few months, we are inclined to believe maybe this degree of uniformity through a constitutional definition of citizenship and rights, is vital for any project to construct a secular polity to succeed.

The trouble in Manipur today is, especially in the wake of the controversy over the ILPS demand and subsequently objections to it, too may are fixated on reading too much between the lines that they have become extremely prone to miss out what are actually in print. In a secular democracy, laws are made by a set of people but these law makers do not get to interpret the law they make when it comes to their application, unlike say in a feudatory or dictatorship. The interpretation is done by another set of people in an independent institution called the judiciary, whose mandate is to weigh any piece of legislation against the fundamental tenets of the constitution and best practices in international law, if challenged. If the application of any law is found by the judiciary to contravene any of the fundamental principles of the constitution, such an application or interpretation of the law will be deemed to be ultra vires and disallowed. We also know that the appellate structure of the Indian judiciary extends right up to the Supreme Court and therefore even an individual citizen can challenge the false application or interpretation of any law via even the country`™s highest court. What we learned by rote in school that democracy is safer than any other known polity because of this separation of legislature, judiciary and executive, is reality. To doubt this would be to ask for anarchy. Again, as Friedrich Angels wrote, the State is a mechanism for surplus management. State formation therefore happens where a surplus economy emerges. In other words, states run on taxes they can collect and use, and if there are no taxes to be collected, there will be no state. But in the case of Indian provinces that we also refer to as states, this logic has been overridden especially in the case of the Northeast. The proliferation of the demand for separate states and administrations therefore has nothing to do with alternate models for tax management, but of the desire for separate begging bowls. Isn`t it time yet for issues such as these to become the focus of our intellectual deliberations?

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