At its crux, there are only two known ways of resolving a conflict of interests. One is to crush the weaker of the two with brute force and the other to reach a democratic consensus. The civilized norm of the modern world being the latter option, the need is to explore its possibilities wherever conflict has come to stay, at least until a more perfected mechanism is evolved. For the moment, we can only foresee all putative future conflict resolution mechanisms as derivatives of the democratic system, the latter being known for its resilience and almost infinite accommodative capacity. But it must be acknowledged that often the most vocal advocates of democracy have regressed into the logic of an atavistic past where only force mattered. The objectionable interventions in the Middle East and West Asia have said this eloquently. It is a matter of pessimism that war still seems unavoidable even in the days of democracy. A qualification needs however to be added here. In the UNDP Human Development Report, HDR, 2002 with the theme “deepening democracy in a fragmented world”, one of the many interesting patterns of national behaviours that evolved from empirical data on wars in the second half of the 20th Century is, no two democracies have ever gone to war with each other. Quite obviously, these nations have discovered an alternative ground on which to thrash out vexed issues. The indication is also, democracy is a versatile medium for this meeting of minds and resolution of conflicts.
Even in our situation, there have been very strong tendencies on very many occasions to return to the former method of conflict resolution, which basically has a one-line philosophy made famous by Joseph Conrad’s fictional character, Kurtz in Heart of Darkness – “exterminate the brute”. But, as in this story, the scale to decide which is the “civilized” and which the “brute” between the exterminator and exterminated, becomes extremely blurred. But the values of democracy, with its insistence on giving each and every one a say, regardless of numerical or physical strength, have generally managed to keep this tendency in check. There have been occasions when this inner moderation snapped, as in the case of the Naga-Kuki feud, Meitei-Meitei Pangal mayhem, and Kuki-Paite fratricide, but it would be reasonable to presume that many more would have been prevented by this inner cord. For indeed although our society seemed at certain junctures to have reached points of explosive ethnic violence, nothing so catastrophic have happened so far. This however does not mean the dark forces of violence have been successfully subdued for all times. We still continue to sit on a dormant volcano which can with provocation come alive again. And provocations there have been and there will be by those who either do not understand or believe in the healing power of accommodation and mutual respect that democracy recommends.
There have also been plenty of talks of a dialogue between the civil societies of the different communities that are at loggerheads. This is welcome, but a dialogue devoid of a willingness to accommodate can possibly lead nowhere. A dialogue or a discourse is not simply about convincing the opposing party to surrender to the will of the other party, but of discovering, or rediscovering as the case may be, of common grounds on which to build the foundation for the future together. This spirit has never been conspicuous in all the vociferous claims and advocacy for understanding and good neighbourliness. By democracy we do not necessarily mean only the political system with a mechanism for determining public policies by sheer contests for majority opinion. This is a necessary ingredient, but it is far from being a sufficient condition. Equally important, it has also to be about justice, and in evolving this understanding of justice, the premium must be on reason and creative insights into what is common good. Here the concept of freedom is also important. Without individual freedom, the aggregate of which is what constitutes freedom of larger social grouping, including the nation, there can be no democracy. But again, as philosopher Isaiah Berlin said, freedom cannot be without any conditions. Absolute freedom for the wolves translates into death for the lambs. Freedom then can make meaning only if it is moderated by reason and a commonly legislated rational law.