In the wake of the recent short-lived blockade on the highways by the Naga Students Federation, the question as to how civil is our civil society has become important once again. Manipur is used to bandhs and blockades but this one left an extremely bad taste in mouth for it was not a protest against the Manipur Police or the Manipur Government. The target was against only a specific community, as if the Manipur Police constitutes only one particular community. The blockade, it may be recalled, was a protest against alleged harassments meted out by a Manipur Police party to three NSF members travelling in a vehicle to Ukhrul to attend the recently concluded Lui-Ngai-Ni festival there. In retrospect, what does now increasingly appear to be the case is, the Naga problem as of today is actually becoming a Manipur problem for on many related issues, Nagaland has remained cool while Manipur burned. In the case of this blockade too, it would have been noticed by all, that there were little or no trouble in the Nagaland sector of the Imphal-Dimapur highway, and all passion of the blockade was confined to the Manipur sector. Again, if the police report on the case has any truth in it, of the three NSF members who were stopped and searched by the police party, two cooperated, one did not. The two who did were from Nagaland. Travellers from Manipur who have been on this highway, which would include practically every one of us, will vouch on how many times their vehicles too had been stopped and searched not just at Manipur Police posts, but also by the Nagaland Armed Police posts, especially the one at Chumukedima, and some would fret they too had been harangued, but nobody has ever blamed Nagaland or Nagas for these, and instead always took these as unwanted but necessary evil of the police establishment anywhere.
Quite obviously, it is axiomatic that in Manipur and indeed the rest of the Northeast, the huge expanse of non-state sector generally termed as the civil society is not always civil. The blockades, bandhs, strikes and many other disruptive activities, often for very sectarian causes, emanate from organizations assuming the mantle of civil society vigilantes. It is also axiomatic that this sector is badly fractured and ethnically riven. The term civil society itself presupposed certain shared democratic values and qualities regardless of religious or community affiliations and these values are what have been relegated into the background in our context. Hence when we talk of students’ community or youth or women, in more ideal situations, there ought not to be any need for prefixing these understandings with community and religion specific qualifications. This however has been far from the truth in the Northeast, and Manipur has been no exception. There is hence very little prospect for generalizing problems and prospects faced by the Northeast.
When we say students or youth or women communities, the nomenclatures themselves ought to have been self explanatory. The reality however is quite different in the Northeast where every ethnic community forms its own students, youth, women… organizations, each with very different and more often than not sectarian agendas to pursue. Often again these pursuits of the different “civil society” work at cross purposes, accentuating, rather than solving problems. In Manipur such clashes of sectarian agendas are all too often. As a rule, except for a very few, all civil society bodies here are coloured by ethnic tints. The general understanding of the term becomes split into numerous smaller ethnic specific organizations. Contrast these with organizations on the other extreme of the civil society panorama such as the International Red Cross Society, Reporters Sans Frontiers, Amnesty International, Medicine Sans Frontiers, Greenpeace etc, just to have an idea of the direction civil society organizations in our own midst are heading.
There are indeed ethnic specific problems which are best understood by the individual communities, so a degree of community leaning cannot be avoided. But by and large, there must be a general thread that binds all civil society bodies to more broad-based identities. Our youth must be able to identify, empathize and sympathize with the national and international youth movements. Only when this happens can a reverse flow of the same sentiments become possible. The need of the hour then is for an effort to reconstruct our civil society. We must put our civil society movements on a track that will integrate us to the mainstream of humanity. The ethnic identity upsurge being what it is, we know it is not going to be by any standard easy to go about doing this, but it is one of those very vital and urgent issues at hand we cannot shy away from. It is also the only way we can make our civil society civil in the true sense of the words.