Missing views from the fringes
By Angomcha Bimol Akoijam
The opening decade of the 21st century had given the people of Manipur two crucial opportunities to confront and shape their destiny in the form of ‘crises’: the protest against the extension of ceasefire between NSCN (I-M) and the Government of India to Manipur in 2001 and Manorama’s custodial killing in 2004 that implicates the notorious Armed Forces Special Powers’ Act. Both these incidences were, if one may put it so, the last and glaring symptoms of the precarious existence of, if not the pathology that marks, Manipur as a geo-political existence. These were symptoms that had almost threatened to unmask the garb that hitherto camouflaged the reality of Manipur. Unfortunately, a decade or so after those events, given the responses and the familiar terms of references of the same, it seems, the significance of these two inter-related ‘crises’ have not been understood.
Threat is not to the Territory but Polity
The first crisis unmistakably points to the polity of the state as a ‘myth’. A unified polity of ‘we, the people’ was shown to be deeply contested and fractured on the one hand, and on the other, Manipur’s very existence is not contingent on itself but on the Constitution of India and decision of the Parliament. In a sense, the crisis seeks to unpack the processes which have reduced Manipur into a fictitious existence behind the cartographical representation as a ‘State of Manipur’. But as it stands, it seems, this is something that has not been consciously felt and addressed.
One classic example is the fact that the threat to Manipur has primarily been seen in terms of a threat to the ‘territory’ of the state per se. Hence, arguments have been ‘our boundaries have been larger’ or this and that has been a part of ‘Manipur’ during so and so kings. Incidentally, such arguments have re-enforced those who have called those voices which seek the defence of the ‘territorial integrity’ of Manipur as those who want to perpetuate some kind of an ‘imperial’ project of the ‘dominant Meitei’ community over the ‘tribals’.
Indeed, over the last decade or so, there has been hardly any voice that recognizes that the threat to the ‘territorial integrity’ of Manipur is fundamentally a result of a threat to the integrity and unity of the polity of the state as a geo-political entity. And that threat to the polity is the ideology that preaches that communities with different languages, religion, race, etc, cannot have a common polity or a shared destiny, especially amongst those communities which have an embedded existence within territorial, political, socio-economic and cultural spaces. That kind of ideology is called ‘communalism’ (best exemplified by Jinnah’s ‘Two-Nation Theory’) in South Asia and ‘right wing’ ideology (best exemplified by Nazism) in Europe.
The lacunae of that dominant perspective are likely to come out in the open as some people get ready to respond to the issue of ‘alternative arrangement’. Indeed, the tone and tenor of the Union Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde who reportedly asked the Chief Minister, ‘What’s harm in giving the alternative arrangement to the Nagas’ is a sharp pointer to that territorial concern. After all, the ‘arrangement’ reportedly does not implicate any plan of slicing off the territory of Manipur. And thus, ‘why object to the arrangement if your concern on the ‘territory’ has been taken care of’, the argument seems to go.
It must go without saying that one must realize the issue as a threat to the polity of the state, which includes the issue as to how come Manipur’s existence and its capacity to defend itself as a geo-political entity has been reduced to a fictitious status under a Constitutional provision of the postcolonial polity. Only then, one can think of the ideological rationale and political manifestations, and respond accordingly.
AFSPA: Prospect of De-linking Politics
Incidentally, the issue of Armed Forces Special Powers Act has also suffered from a similar myopia. While the Act has rendered those areas wherein it has been enforced as a hybrid of ‘cantonment’ and ‘war zone’ areas, those who have fought against the Act seem to have converted the same space into a ‘court room’. In short, the terms of reference of the voices against the Act have been deeply driven by the juridical parameters and legal arguments.
Ironically, after the challenge to the Act has gone through the Legislative as well as Judiciary, in 1958 and 1997 respectively, 2004 had come as a moment that had sought to push the issue right into the domain of politics and as a matter of polity once again. Not only the issue had spilled over to the consciousness of the public (in the media etc), the Parliamentarians had debated the issue following the Manorama incident, and the executive (in the form of the PMO) had also intervened by announcing the constitution of Reddy Committee. And yet, the issue as it stands today has once again come to be domesticated within a legal domain. That AFSPA is about a polity, how the state of Manipur has come to be governed under the postcolonial polity and how issues of the state, particularly the ‘armed insurgency’ (what, how and wherefores of it, and means and norms to address the same), are sought to be addressed have never got the centre stage in the responses to the issue of AFSPA.
The issue has been primarily articulated in terms of ameliorating the grievances and justice delivery mechanisms of human rights violations. In short, such a response pattern, while it has its own utility, has failed to head on confront the issue as a matter of polity, if not politics, the very premise of this legal fiction. Incidentally, a noted human rights activist, a lawyer herself, rues the fact that there has been NGOization of the ‘movement’ against AFSPA.
Indeed, given this reality, just as Union Home Minster had asked the Chief Minister on ‘alternative arrangement’, the Government of India can take some steps without essentially changing its policy and yet silence the voices of protest against AFSPA and its politics.
For instance, it can easily repeal AFSPA and introduce a more ‘humane’ one by taking into account some of the criticisms such as the power to shoot has been given to the Non-Commission Officers (NCOs). Well, don’t give the power to shoot to NCOs, but give it to Commission Officers, if not JCOs! And as for the ‘Right to Life’, repeat the same argument given by the Supreme Court and introduce some safeguards along with Dos and Don’ts of the Supreme Court Judgment of 1997. And also, provide a rationale for the new act, beyond the ‘bare act’ of the new ‘humane’ legislation; Govt. of India can say, unlike what it did while introducing the AFSPA in 1958, that we have ‘terrorists’ who indulge in ‘extortion’ and ‘intimidate’ and ‘kill’ innocent people in Manipur!
And before the GOI repeals AFSPA and introduces a new one as an alternative, however, it must make it sure that the Central leaders call the people, some of the major players, in the state selectively (invitation from the central leaders can instill quite a lot of ‘self-worth’ to people who have been complaining of being ‘neglected’) and Prime Minster pays a visit to Sharmila in hospital-cum-jail and give a press conference and announce that Govt. of India has taken time to take the decision (emphasizing that one cannot take a hasty decision, and that one cannot afford to follow ‘hou hou laobi’ culture or episodic response but requires a ‘holistic’ response etc.) as the AFSPA involves ‘political’ issues, amongst other, issues of ‘national security and integrity’. And such an admission is to be followed by a statement (preferably in soft and emotionally laden tone) that ‘insurgents’ are ‘our brothers and sisters’ followed by an empathic remark starting with a BUT (make it sure that this word is stressed) that
Govt. of India cannot remain as a mere spectator to the suffering of the people in Manipur and allow the ‘terrorists’ who ‘extort’ and delay ‘development’ to go on with their activities against ‘the people’ of Manipur! Lastly but not the least, such an announcement must be ended with wholesome praise for the Manipuris’ contributions to the world of sports, culture (theatre, dance, cinema etc) and announce some financial/development package, including plans to open KFCs and shopping Malls!
If the Government of India is to take such steps, the AFSPA will be a dead meat but the distortions of the polity in Manipur shall not. For, the polity shall not change and the political premise remains the same. Even if such an analysis is not likely to be a part of the dominant voices, there is some sense in taking note of the views from the fringes as well. For, after all, the ethos of the dominant voices has lots to do with the state of affairs in the state as it exist today.