This is a compilation of three editorials published by the Imphal Free Press on 16th, 20th and 21st March 2017, for the record of PCRM with an observation that these write-ups have succinctly captured the prevailing mood in Manipur, with the conclusion of the 2017 Assembly Election, which was held earlier this month. These have been slightly formatted and tweaked for better online reading experience.
Abnormal as normal
Manipur’s myriad problems do not certainly present a straightforward visage, layered as they are in a maze of hierarchical quagmire of problematic propositions, and each of the hierarchy again mired in their own strata of endless problems and sub-problems.
A fractured students’ movement with each fragment scrambling to hog limelight; badly splintered militant underground movements with none able ensure a sight of a just peace horizon; an established order that has allowed the vital agenda of governance slip out of its control; government after government bankrupt of ideas and funds beyond easy redemption; and now a contest for the next government between aging old guards and the same aging old guards now in new bottles after defection. Whither Manipur?
It is no consolation that our neighbouring states are faring no better. It is also interesting to note that in the global context, the world is extremely cautious about failed states, as these can become dangerous spawning grounds for mutant thoughts and ideologies. It is in this context that many analysts view the West’s extended honeymoon with Pakistan as a desperate move. It simply cannot afford to let a nuclear armed Pakistan degenerate, for the danger this poses everybody is tremendous. Experience in Afghanistan and the Middle East have taught everybody this lesson.
Those of us in Manipur should not find it difficult to understand this logic. The overall picture of our own problems is awesome and thoughts of a comprehensive solution are extremely prone to despair. The answer is undoubtedly only in a leadership with dogged persistence, creative approaches, and a willingness to last out the severest of political and economic winters. Only such a willingness to withstand the test of fire can hope to deliver.
The story of Poland, and the manner it got over its years of hardship and political tumult as the fall of the Iron Curtain was closing in, is inspiring in this regard. Remember Lech Walesa, the ‘Solidarity Movement’ leader of the country in the 1970s and 80s. The Nobel Prize for Peace that he won in 1983, in retrospect, must have been one of the best deserved in the award’s history. He got Poland out of a mess much worse than what we are in today.
A book about Poland of the 1970s, written during the peak of the ‘Solidarity Movement’ called ‘Passion of Poland’ by a journalist, Lawrence Weschler, a staff writer of the respected American magazine ‘New Yorker’, the magazine on which the now defunct ‘Illustrated Weekly of India’ is supposed to have been modelled, is surprisingly being still reprinted and sold. (Read The Graphics of Solidarity by Lawrence Weschler, The Virginia Quarterly Review)
The graphic picture of Poland of the time, although much worse than what we are in today, is still strongly reminiscent of our own predicament. Incisive jokes heard in the streets of Warsaw during its years of turmoil, reproduced in the book, recreate the subtle nuances of inter community relationships. They also tell of how divisions and frictions between communities are accentuated by scarcity, the lesson being, plenitude can ease a lot of social problems. It was a time the government was totally bankrupt and even essential commodities began disappearing from the shops. Long queues would form outside ration outlets even at the hint of arrival of new stocks.
In one of the jokes in the book, one such queue forms outside a ration centre even before the shop opened. After two hours of the queue, an official emerges and announces: ‘Jews step aside and go home, no bread for you today.’ After another two hours the official reappears: ‘non-Communist go home, no bread for you today.’ After yet another two hours the official emerges to announce: ‘Comrades go home no bread today.’ One angry Communist in the queue remarks to another: ‘Why do Jews always get preferential treatment?’
True enough, scarcity does make us lose perspective of our problems. In another joke in the book, a woman with a shopping bag walks up to a store and asks: ‘Any sausages.’ The prompt answer was, ‘No.’ Butter? No, Soap? No. Bread? No. Disappointed the woman walks away. Two grocers behind the counter look at each other in amazement. One grocer tells the other: ‘Whew, what a memory?’
In the decades of turmoil, hardship and uncertainty Manipur has been through, as in the picture portrayed of Poland of the 70s, few actually remembers what normality once was like. Manipur’s current abnormalities and scarcities, its queues outside cooking gas distribution agencies every time an arrival of new stock is announced; even longer queues outside petrol pumps even at the slightest hints of bandhs and blockades; its daily doses of bloodletting, are today its new normal.
Mercy in absurd theatre
There would not be many who did not heaved a sigh of relief at the development today in which the newly sworn in BJP led government in Manipur negotiated a truce with the United Naga Council to have its nearly five months old blockade of the state lifted. What exactly was it that brought about the change of mind so suddenly?
Was it just the change of government, or were there new concessions made to have the UNC agree to the truce? Without speculating any further let the developments be, and the negotiations given the latitude and time to come to a logical end for a more lasting and stable settlement. The only remark impossible not to make here however is, the situation could not have been more absurd than the monster Cyclops’ offer to the valiant and wandering Greek hero, Ulysses.
Put another way, it is somewhat like solving a self-imposed problem and being happy about it. Or, it is also like the old Manipuri saying thou leitana thou thiba—a popular strategy it seems of kings of yore in Manipur, who on boring days of no activities, poured sacks of sesame seeds (thoiding) on the floor and had his court to pick up and put back every seed into the sacks to keep everybody engaged. At the end of the day, everybody is happy with a profound sense of achievement. Absurd theatre indeed!
In Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ the great seafaring Greek warrior and king of Ithaca, Ulysses, who along with his men, were lost in the sea for 10 years while returning after the war in Troy over the ‘abduction’, or ‘elopement’ of the famed Hellen from Sparta, once docked at a very interesting island where lived Cyclops and his tribe of one-eyed, man-eating giants. Ulysses and his men become captives of Cyclops and the giant begins feeding on them one by one at every meal. Ulysses hatches a plot and offers the giant wine from his ship, and pleased at this gesture, Cyclops awards him a great favour and promises to eat him last of all his men.
This is a theme that has occurred in many fables from all over the world in all cultures: A giant arrives at a village and demands to be fed with a villager a day. In the village every family is made to supply the giant’s human fodder in turn, and this goes on until the village is either wiped off, or in the case of a very lucky few, a giant-killer in shining armour arrives and offers himself to be the giant’s food for the day, meets the giant and then kills him. Everybody lives happily ever after. In real life however, everything is not so simple.
But Cyclops’ promise to Ulysses is interesting. It is such a peculiarly tragic irony to be promised life and death at the same time. It is a promise of life because Ulysses would not be killed immediately, but it is also a promise of death because he would be ultimately killed in a very finite period of time.
One can almost sense the claustrophobia of a closed space and time that define a terrible certainty – the certainty of death. The helplessness in avoiding the fate is simply nightmarish. But nimble Ulysses overcomes Cyclops’ terrible sentence, and it is his iron will and quicksilver wit which get him out of situations such as this that have endeared this literary figure to humanity through the ages, ever since Homer created him. He is even more endearing because the challenges before him were the challenges everybody in this world faces in his or her own way in every age. It is another story that not everybody is able to live up to the challenge.
Not just in the present situation but in many other similar ones, Manipur’s predicament provokes thoughts of Ulysses and the Cyclops’ promise. Our fates seem sealed and there seem to be no easy way out. Moreover everybody has either lost the courage to speak his or her mind, or have convinced themselves that there is nothing as independent thinking, all out of a state of petrification resulting directly out of the establishment’s abject inability to guarantee a sense of security to them.
Everybody’s immediate concern today is to literally buy themselves their private peace even though each one understands it fully well that it is just a matter of pleading to be eaten last. It is not a question of tolerance either, which in reality is a facade we hide our impotence behind, for only a fool will not know that the present lawlessness that has enveloped the entire state will ultimately consume us all.
And so we end up with our lives dictated at every turn – by the students who have no interest in studying, by the civic organizations which have no civic senses, by law-keepers who break the law, by lawbreakers who claim to be the law, by street-fighters with self-assumed peacekeeping missions, by leaders who would rather follow…
Most atrociously, all these roles are self-proclaimed loudly to be executed on behalf of the people. As to how they managed to receive this mandate of the people is a mystery nobody will bother or dare to probe either. Nobody wants to confront the situation although it is everybody’s knowledge that taking the bull by the horns is our only way to salvation in the current circumstance. Nobody wants to confront it because in his silent panic, he has convinced himself that it is a great favour to be eaten last.
Begin on a clean slate
The matter as to who should rule Manipur for the next five years is settled conclusively. The BJP-led coalition headed by Chief Minister Nongthombam Biren today proved the majority it enjoys on the floor of the Assembly. Let everybody respect this mandate and allow the new government get along with the serious business of governance without further ado.
Let the Congress party too swallow its pride and concede to those who have challenged its might and defeated it, whatever route it took. If it is unhappy about not being given a chance to form a coalition and prove its strength despite being the single largest party with 28 seats of its own, let it also know there is nobody else to blame but themselves. In the immediate wake of the results declaration on March 11, this party which has ruled for the last 15 years continuously and many more years before that, seemed rather weighed down by overconfidence, and did not immediately go about rounding up MLAs from the smaller parties and ensuring that they did not stray away from their grip.
The party probably was sure the NPP’s four would come with them without even trying too hard. It had a letter, purportedly signed by the NPP state unit’s president and general secretary, that the party would support the Congress, and probably it thought this was enough. Much water has flowed down the Imphal River in the few days that followed, and there can be no turning back the clock, and the reality now is, the state will be led by a BJP government supported by several other smaller parties.
Whatever happened thus far are all part of democracy’s number game, so nothing very much to complain about, except perhaps what had seemed a way too overt enthusiasm of the governor Najma Heptulla to come to the conclusion – according to constitutional experts out of the book too – to not give the single largest party the first opportunity to prove its majority.
Even if the question of who should be given the first chance to form a government is a matter of legal opinion, there was one scene, which was absolutely beyond public pardon. A newly elected Congress legislator was not just allowed, but actually encouraged to ditch his original party. We are confounded how the BJP which has always pledged to bring in a corruption free government can decide to begin its onerous new innings in the state by being lenient on this vilest and most treacherous act of corruption. S
witching party loyalty before the election is bad enough but this is a matter of a bad taste in the mouth only, however doing so after fighting and winning and election on the ticket of a party and without even the excuse of differences with party leaders, simply betraying the party for lust for power should not have been encouraged at any cost. It will not only destroy whatever is remaining of the moral fabric of politics in the state, but tarnish the image of the entire people of the state as gullible and non-vigilant, if not partners in such unscrupulous acts of political back stabbing.
In this light, it is also unfortunate that the Assembly did not conduct the vote of confidence by ballot so as to ascertain which side of the party whip the MLA in question voted, thereby facilitate disqualification proceedings under the 10th Schedule of the Constitution if he officially decides to cross floor. Since this was not so, the MLA must still be treated as Congress and therefore it must also be said that the BJP coalition government on paper includes the Congress.
We suppose the Assembly in its wisdom will in the course of the current session settle this question beyond any ambiguity. Since the Congress claims it is not part of the BJP coalition, it too must insist on the status of the MLA, not so much for its own sake, but to ensure quality, rule of law, politics to the people of Manipur.
We hope the new government stabilises legitimately on what is has. We hope in the days ahead there are no longer any despicable and shameful shows of floor crossing from either side of the divide in the House. At the moment, given the fragility of the number balance, it can still happen from either side. It is quite disillusioning that many in the enlightened section of the public seem to have no qualms about such politics and willingly encourage defection in favour of the parties they support.
We also hope sense and sensibility return to this beleaguered land and the larger public become entitled to the dignity overdue to them for long. In the meantime, we in the media must live by the pledge of our profession to always be the adversaries of power, not because we despise power, but because it is our duty to check power remains strictly under democratic norms.
More than at other times, what India-born British writer, George Orwell once said needs to remain the state media’s credo: ‘Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.’