Dialogue April-June, 2006, Volume 7 No. 4
In Manipur Tail Wags the Dog
Bizarre analogies are extremely tempting in describing the manner in which the Manipur government handles its administration. In particular, the picture is one of the tail wagging the dog. Indeed street agitations, the more violent the more effective, have come to determine the shape of politics in the state.
The predictable stimulus and response game between the agitators and the government has become routine. Agitators would go on a disruptive stir to press their demands to which the government initially would put up a tough front, and then when things go out of control, concede to everything the agitators were demanding. In the case of government employees, the government would end up paying the salaries even for the number of months the employees ceased work.
The government’s colossal failure all along has been in its inability to recognize or assess the reasonableness or the lack of it, of the demands and then chalk out its strategies. It would confront first but refrain from going all the way, and instead giving away everything, including those demands which are blatantly unfair.
It would also end up relegating the most cognizable offences committed against the law during the agitations, to the infamous governmental amnesia. Take the instance of the burning down of a public library with priceless books numbering lakhs during the script agitation. After the government finally backed out in order to escape the heat, it simply forgot about the crime of the burning down of the library.
What a pathetic statement the government ends up making on its own lip services on the need for the respect of the rule of law at the end of any of these agitations? It simply waits and watches as the crisis develop, even after the cats have slipped into the pigeon pen, and happily and triumphantly sign accord with the cats. Sacrificed mercilessly everytime is public morale.
The law is also being made an ass in other ways. It has become routine for the government to book agitators under the National Security Act, NSA, but without much of a ceremony free them as part of the truce bargains. This is okay but the question is, if this is to end thus always, where is the need at all for the government to wait for a violent confrontation before deciding to concede everything?
As it stands today, the authority of the state does not seem to be resting in the hands of the government but is instead up for grabs. When the hands that wield the legitimate power is weak, it is only natural for many independent power centres to develop. In the case of Manipur, these nodes are mushrooming at an uncontrollable rate.
Rather than the cabinet room or the venerated Assembly, the state today is ruled from the streets by hardened street fighters. The contest for power is also no longer sublimated through the democratic electoral process but in the open and raw arenas of the streets. Intimidation and silencing of dissent have become the order of the day.
It is a free for all situation and anybody and everybody can and would hold the entire population to ransom in order to shape every state policy according to their individual whims and interests. The whole notion of a respect for consensus has been obscured beyond recognition and despite this, all of the contenders for power fancy their moves as democratic. The inescapable outcome is anarchy.
Is Manipur governable then? This is one question that has gained relevance today more than at any other time. Probably, Manipur is no game for weak administrations and leaders. And when weak administrations are at the helm, as at the present times, the law and order agenda becomes an open and free for all commodity, whereby the essential qualification to have a stake in it is to possess as much nuisance value as possible.
Take the current strike by government doctors demanding a raise in their non-practising allowange at a par with Central government doctors. For nearly two months now, the state government’s medical services have remained paralysed because of the strike. Even as the government pretends it is not hurt and remains mum perhaps in an effort to wear down the striking doctors, it is the ordinary citizenry who are reeling in agony.
How can the government still do nothing about it? How can it allow its health services to virtually wind up the way it has, whatever be the nature of the issue involved. The government does not simply seem to understand this is an emergency situation. It does not seem to believe that in allowing such an essential service to break down thus, doesn’t the government realize it is depriving the public of a very fundamental right? Ordinary men, women and children are being put through untold hardships, and there has even been a death in the Churachandpur Hospital as a direct consequence of the strike.
Whose Writ Runs
What the Manipur administration needs most at this stage is moral legitimacy to enforce the rule of law, without the need to use force. As of now, there is none of this and this is evident all around. Nobody takes the government seriously and everybody thinks it can be challenged, not so much through the legal channels available, but by taking to the streets.
It is an old story, but one which needs to be retold repeatedly to remind the government that it needs to pull up its socks or else it would end up condemning to the state into an endless limbo. One can only think of two advices at this moment. One of course is for the government to clean up its house so that the public mistrust it has earned over the decades is got rid of, but this will have to remain as a relatively long-term strategy.
The other more urgent plan of action must be, to borrow a wisdom so articulately spelled out by one of history’s greatest men, Abraham Lincoln, in his famous letter to the teacher of his son, beseeching the former to teach his son to be, among others, tough with the tough but soft with the soft.
The Manipur civil society is today no longer a discursive site where ideas are thrashed out and in the process consensual voices given shape and take wings, but one deeply riven by numerous vested interests, each pushing its individual agendas, most of which are very often on collision courses. If the government has lost its credibility because of its lack of commitment and vision, so is civil society eroding away its own hold over legitimacy for the same reasons.
Just as in the established order there is a leadership vacuum, so there is such a vacuum in Manipur civil society of today. The civil society, which was to shoulder the responsibility of being the watchdog of the government, is today itself needing a great deal of disciplining, commitment and vision. What the state is left with is a very peculiar situation in which both the government and the civil society, in their state of degradation, need more than ever to check and balance each other.
There can be no doubt at this juncture that it is the government’s turn to make the move. It must back up its physical authority with moral legitimacy. When it is convinced of the correctness and justness of its policies, the government must learn to put down its feet to any effort to hijack them. It must listen to suggestions and voices of dissent but never leave the driver’s of the state’s governance, as so many times it has in the past.
Far too often has the government conceded to threats of disruptive activities by organizations of all hues, and either altered or even dropped policy plans. This has lead to a Pavlovian conditioning of sorts in the general outlook whereby everybody has come to believe that at the end of bandhs and blockades, and other forms of coercive breaches of the law, there are rewards awaiting. This conditioning needs now to be de-conditioned. As for the maturing of the state’s civil society, the responsibility must rest, to a great extent, on the generally silent intelligentsia and intellectuals.
Burden of Lawlessness
Intended or no, the burden of lawlessness always falls squarely on the shoulders of the common man. While the direct threats to the welfare of the public by the conflicts and tensions at various levels of our society is pretty straightforward, it is the indirect burdens which may actually be having a greater impact on the lives of the man on the street.
As for instance prices of even essential commodities, including seemingly insignificant vegetables as onions, were considerably higher in Imphal than in neighbouring Dimapur. The price increments in the passage of goods from Dimapur to Imphal on the National Highway 39, are not just a matter of a few rupees but often as high as double and triple folds. The familiar explanation is that there are too many unauthorized “taxes” levied on goods movements along the route.
The explanation is legitimate, for it is corroborated by facts on the ground, although no one can be certain if the increments in prices of commodities cover just the burden of these “taxes” or whether the bad situation is not also used as an opportunity for earning extra premium on the tradable goods transported.
Whatever the case is, the point is, the burden of the lawlessness in the region is ultimately born by the ordinary consumers. It is true no business can run on a loss perennially and our problems without argument are perennial. Hence, whatever taxes a businessman is burdened with legitimately or illegitimately, he will have to shift it, at least a good part of it, to the consumers. In lawless regions, the case often is not just the burden of the illegal “taxes” but also unscrupulous profits under the cover provided by these “taxes”.
The impact of the lawlessness is hence at least duplex in nature. At the one level, the government fails to bring the illegal taxmen under its writ. At the other level, the government is unable to make a realistic assessment of what the additional “unseen” burdens businesses in the state have to bear, and make even a semblance of an effort to protect consumer interests.
There are also other indirect ways the burden of lawlessness falls on the common man. As for instance, it is a known fact that the state government engineering departments do not get to use all of the infrastructural development funds they get on account of pressures from non-state players in the power game in the state to siphon huge percentage of these to their kitties. While this is a real problem, as in the case of the commodities market, it is quite likely this bad situation in many cases became covers for vested interests.
The burden of this multi-layered lawlessness also ultimately lands on the common man’s shoulders. For proofs, look at the conditions of the state’s roads, even of those which had been newly laid, and that too right in the heart of Imphal. In every bump and pothole, the story is not just of the predicament of a cash-starved, impoverished state, but also of the almost absolute lawlessness prevailing all around.
For reasons best known to himself, the chief minister, Okram Ibobi, has been choosing to ignore our suggestion to come up with an administrative “White Paper” to establish how communal the Manipur government has been in all these years. Many felt this was essential for one of the chief allegations by communities from the hill districts against the government dominated by the valley dwelling, non-tribal, Meities, it that it is communal. Notably, in recent times, it is the Manipur Outer Parliamentary Constituency PM, Mani Cheranamei, who has made this charge.
Were he to have heeded the advice, the world would have known, if it is not Mani Charanemei who is the communal politician rather than the people he accused to be thus inclined. Maybe he was only running an errand or repaying an obligation to those who catapulted him into political limelight from being just an anonymous government servant. It is not too late though.
The suggestion is to put in black and white as to the community wise percentage of employees in all hierarchies of government jobs, from the very top to the very bottom. Let it be also officially established as to the number of ministers from different communities who have held key portfolios such as Health, Works, Finance, Education etc, that the state has seen since it attained statehood. Let it also be official whether there has been anybody other than a tribal leader who has held the portfolio of Tribal Welfare, so crucial to development works in the hills. This exercise will have two purposes.
First, it would establish whether the Manipur administration is truly communal, and if it is, the necessary corrective measures can be thought of. If not, it would still serve the purpose of armouring the image of the government against below the belt assaults that some politicians, and would be politicians, specialize in. It is okay for one to campaign for whatever one wants in a democracy, but outright lying to discredit those who do not share ones views, is treachery. It would be good to see communalism exposed in all its colours.
One other thing is certain. It must be admitted that the Manipur society is badly fractured. Okram Ibobi by allowing himself to be dragged around by those who would sabotage public property and public interest, audaciously in the name of the public has only accentuated the problem. He has even made the cliché that the law is an ass into an everyday reality under him, booking law offenders under the NSA and then releasing them without even a reprimand or explanation.
Perhaps he has forgotten that the law is above everybody and not for him to manipulate or bend. By such acts, the law has lost the awe it is meant to command over the people. What Manipur needs today is a leadership that would not allow itself to be held by the short hairs by any street fighter, however seasoned he may be in the game. A leadership which is understanding and open to public opinion, but firm when it come to dealing with any breach of the rule of law. Manipur’s tragedy is, nobody, not the least Ibobi, has lived up to this expectation.
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