Of moral legitimacy, moral police and enlightened civil society

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Bird’s Eye View
By Pradip Phanjoubam
It is a truism today that reading the daily newspapers from Manipur, especially from afar on the internet, can be a depressing routine. For most of us from Manipur stationed outside the state, this is a compulsive exercise every morning, though thankfully and understandably, I would imagine, a little less disconcerting than these news would appear to somebody who does not belong to the state following news from the state. A certain amount of psychological conditioning, or desensitisation if you like, to blood and gore, is the blessing or curse Manipur domicile have generally come to be fortified with, having literally grown up and forced to cope with unmitigated violence and lawlessness for decades without end.

Manipur without doubt would qualify as yet another case of unacknowledged tragedy, where the abnormal has been allowed to become the norm. As for instance, nobody today would exclaim with bewilderment when lights suddenly go off unannounced plunging homes and offices into darkness for hours or even a whole day, but most would be left mystified if on any given day there were to be no blackout. It is quite unlikely anybody, disapproving he or she may be at events that unfold before him, would anymore gasp in disbelief and horror if a bomb were to be found planted in a hospital or primary school, for these atrocious offences against civilised norms of human society, have also become the order of the day. In a similar vein, it tells of the pathetic condition as well as the heroism of the common man that at the announcement of a blockade of the state’s lifeline by sundry other organisations, rather than evoke a sense of outrage, they would instead queue up with an air of resignation to fate, outside the petrol stations, sometimes for whole nights, to buy reserves in anticipation of stocks running out.

More loudly than anything else, the virtual absence of the government, or rather its marginalisation in the everyday affairs of the public, largely determined by a dangerous depletion of its moral legitimacy, is conspicuous. In moral space of governance vacated by the government, the horror of a rule by “civil society”, which often can degenerate into a mob, has come about.  This brand of civil society thrown up by default of an absence of legitimate governance authority, often are self professedly sectarian, myopic and violent. People taking to the streets for any sense of perceived wrong, rather than trust the government and its various apparatuses to set things right once brought to its notice, is the dominant atmosphere, and this is the recipe for the chaos in the land so visible to everybody. The periodical violent feuds between neighbouring villages, the latest of which was witnessed when Saijang villager took the law into its own hand in a land dispute and attacked Silent Khul, are testimony to this degeneration. The decay of the moral legitimacy of the central authority of the government is also responsible for the birth of the phenomenon of moral policing by various civil society organisations, beginning from students’ bodies to women’s vigilantes. There can be no doubt it is good to have a conscious and vibrant civil society, but what is also vital is for this civil society to be an enlightened one as well. More often this is hardly the case.

The civil society can also be extremely out of sync with the changing reality of the globalised world. The unseemly fuss recently by some organisations over a recent fashion show by some foreign models in Imphal, coming up with the obscure claim that the show portrayed traditional ethnic wears of Manipur in the wrong light to the rest of the world, to say the least, demonstrates a mindset totally ignorant of the world outside the prison of a narrow perspective, like those of the proverbial “frog in the well”. The frog in the well image is well matched by the Meitei analogy for such closeted minds, depicted as the insects inside the fig fruit (heibong manungda yaoba tumit) thinking their dark and cloistered world is the entire universe.

It was also disheartening that a great section of the state intelligentsia silently approved of such unfair and unwarranted disdain of the event. I am not such a fan of fashion shows and beauty contests, but given the isolation Manipur has been subject to for all these decades, and the resultant skewed visions of the outside world its people have come to be condemned with, I would quite to the contrary of many who sported sneers of disapproval of the event, think it was a welcome change to all the negative depressing news and images which have become the place’s staple. It was a small event no doubt, therefore it probably did not deserve much hype or fanfare, but all the same it was a good initiative of opening up a window and bringing in some fresh air to the suffocating, overhanging, rancidity Manipur’s social atmosphere has come to be characterised by.

In matters of the fashion as depicted on the ramp, one thing needs to be understood since there were allegations that traditional dresses were not worn the way they should be, and that some of them were actually provocative. It is a general unwritten norm that what designers bring up on the ramp are not usually what everyday fashion-wears look like. Except perhaps in the most eccentric and exclusive cocktail parties nobody would dare, or want to wear all the bizarre notions of attires flaunted on the catwalks. On the ramp, fashion possibilities are pushed to the extremes, and though these are seldom replicated in everyday fashion wear designs, it is imaginable how much the former profoundly influences how the latter ultimately evolves. It is not a wonder then that though ramp fashion does not immediately translate into marketable street fashion, it continues to be patronised by the fashion world so earnestly and steadfastly.

It would be something like the world of motor cars. In this analogy, Formula One car races would be something like ramp fashion shows. Nobody would buy a Formula One car for everyday use, therefore the market as well as the life of the Formula One cars are restricted within the arenas of the Formula One race tracks amongst its highly specialised and rarefied fan clubs. Yet it remains such an influential sport, and Formula One drivers are some of the best paid sportsmen in the entire sporting world, supported and funded by all the major commercial car makers around the world. Why would this be so? The answer should be anybody’s guess. Like ramp fashion which pushes fashion possibilities to the extreme limits from which commercial fashion world will have plenty to pick up from, Formula One car races, though they seem such an eccentric sport for the pleasure of only a small band of madly rich, are a rich fountain for cues and inspirations for innovation possibilities for commercial car makers. Have no doubt how much the advances of modern commercial cars owe it to the extreme frontiers Formula One races continually explore, be it in the area of motorcar (and motorcycle) braking systems, aerodynamics of car bodies, car suspension technologies, tyre grip, accident safety measures etc…

Manipur needs to open up its mind and be prepared to face the brave new world outside. For this, its civil society first and foremost needs to be on the path of enlightenment through exposure to enlightened coercion free debates, free interactions with the outside world, a culture of reading, a discerning eye to filter on a screen of inherited and acquired wisdom, knowledge of the realities of the changing times. It cannot afford to continue to have as its beacon, obscure thoughts and slogans from a bygone era and hopelessly uninformed by the changes in the larger world, and hope to see an enlightened, prosperous future for its people. It cannot continue to have quacks as doctors to bring it back to social and economic health and vibrancy. Refer back to another local proverb “angang-na maiba saraga mung thalli” (the graveyards will be over crowded if kids act as doctors). In this overhaul of our civil society, and the building of new institutions and pools of enlightened thoughts through enlightened debates and discourses, the leadership role must lay squarely on the shoulders of the sections of its society, fortunate to have had exposures to the best of the world or thoughts, ideas and knowledge. Unfortunately, this section is so prone to social myopia, fence sitting and selfish pursuits limited to career advancements or amassing individual wealth with no thought ever of giving back to society what they owe it. True everybody must have self interest, but what cannot afford to be forgotten is there is a distinction between “selfish” self-interest and enlightened “self interest”. When an individual is capable of sacrificing some personal interest for the betterment of the society, it ultimately is an enlightened “self interest” for the betterment of the society is ultimately for his own good too. The opposite is equally true. When everybody is obsessed with looking after his own backyard only, even at the detriment of the overall society, the backlash in the shape of social ills, such as the  general lawlessness Manipur is so familiar with today, will be their curse too. Corruption and the way it poisons the social fabric, for instance, is a good example of this.

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