Beating bandh culture

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Everybody believed today, September 21, was a bandh. Few or nobody knew who or why the bandh was called, or when it was announced if at all, for the news did not appear in any of the newspapers or cable TV channels in the last few days. Yet many chose to remain indoors and many shop downed shutters, some for fear of the bandh and others to enjoy and partake in the unscheduled holiday. Bandh, it must be said, has come to define an important character of modern Manipur. It has become a lively discussion topic on any forum, and depending on the class constitution of the forum, the intellectual contents of these discussions also easily adapt to suit the situation. Hence, there are school children and government servants who are happy at the prospect of an extra holiday; there are idle hangers on, whose numbers are ever on the increase in the state, for whom a bandh is another excuse for a binge; there are those whose family functions fall on such days and curse their luck and the bandh; and of course those who bitterly and sincerely hate bandhs are those engaged in earning their living and reputation by the worth of their sweat. For them, every day wasted by bandhs is another hurdle before their businesses or livelihood means. If their voices mattered, Manipur would today see few or no bandhs or blockades. Unfortunately, this is still not a reality.

Today’s bandh, it must be said, was a tribute to what Freud called the unconscious mind. Nobody knew for sure, but September 21 seemed an ominous day and it made them uneasy. It seemed so much like a repressed anxiety struggling to surface, in the process inhibiting everybody from going about their normal routines. Perhaps we can help. On September 21, 1949, Maharaja Bodhchandra, the last of the Manipur monarchs, signed the Merger Agreement under duress in Shillong, thereby giving the nod for Manipur to become part of the Indian Union. This treaty was not announced immediately and came into force only three weeks later on October 15. Let there be no doubt about this at least – October 15, will be another general strike, as bandhs are also known as. It does not matter if nobody declares it openly, but unlike September 21, October 15 will be a bandh nobody will ignore. It is too immediate a reminder of an unsettled and momentous issue.

There are a few recurring bandhs of gravity which merit serious reflection, for they point to ghosts of past traumas desperately needing to be exorcised. They need the attention of all interested in a permanent conflict resolution in this beleaguered land. But on an incremental basis, there are also bandhs on extremely localised and trivial issues. Bandhs called against promotions and transfers in government services; bandhs called for road accidents; bandhs called for unresolved inter-village disputes; and the list can go on. How have things come to this? This is a question which should be asked not so much in exasperation, but as a call for introspection.  Come to think of it, bandhs are als, desperate articulations of grievances by those who do not have voices audible enough to be heard in the corridors of power. Our hint is, if the government were to devise means of engaging these voices before they resort to desperate means, there would be fewer needs for bandhs. These trivial bandhs also are indictments, most prominently of two hidden flaws in the governance process.  One is the virtual silencing of autonomous democratic bodies meant to check the established corridors of democratic power. These would include the Human Rights Commission, Women’s Commission, Child Rights Committee etc. Some of these have been virtually abolished and others have been reduced to extensions of the same power structure they are meant to check, run as they are by government appointed plaint retired government officers. If they were allowed to function as they were meant to, they could have been the buffer between the aggrieved sections of civil society who call bandhs and other disruptive protests, and the government. The other flaw is in city planning. Well planned cities, like those in Europe, without fail have many public spaces. The town squares and mall roads, are not there for show, but have real and important functions. These are public spaces where everybody could and do come out and see and meet each other freely; where ideas are exchanged and communicated; where the talented organise street corner music demonstrations; and the aggrieved can also stage their protests in non-violent democratic ways and be seen and heard by all. Apart from everything else, these spaces function very much like safety valves to defuse dangerous tensions within the souls of societies. Imphal once had these spaces – BT Park and the Pologround, to name just two. These served very much the function of the mall roads of European cities. Likewise, once upon a time, on the pavements around the Johnstone School, protest squats with prominent banners declaring their issues were a regular sight. People by and large, and the government too, could thus sense the mood of different sections of the disenchanted public without physical confrontations. Even if indirectly, an important communication channel thus remained always open. These spaces have now all atrophied in the face of mindless city reconstructions. It would not be a surprise at all if the rise in disruptive protests in Manipur has a direct correlation with the vanishing public spaces.

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