The Protest of the Oppressed

On a general strike, somewhere in Imphal
Image source: Deepak Oinam / E-pao

When protest and violence become the only solution for people to fight for peace and against injustice, it is a given that there is something very wrong with them

What do you do when you have grievances against the government? Grievance redress mechanism is such an alien term. This is just the beginning. What do you do when you lose a dear family member due to some doctors’ negligence in a hospital? What do you do when you find a dead body in your locality? What do you do when the authority ignores public issues without any shame whatsoever?

For such varied phenomena, it appears there might be as many approaches and perspectives to find agreeable solutions. However, that is not the case in Manipur, no matter it is in the hills or the valley. Nothing strengthens authority, we suddenly heard Leonardo da Vinci saying, so much as silence. The only way is to protest, and on rare occasions, use any means even violence and aggression, though this does not always mean that we achieve the goals. What’s worse, we are ever nose-diving into the abyss of hopelessness.

Out of the many troubles, two major issues are stoking the fire recently. First, the murder of an Autonomous District Council (ADC) member in an ambush, and further the arrest of eight cadres of NSCN (IM) last month were the fire-starter in the hills. In this part of the world, people can block the highways and cut off everything including medical supplies that are usually exempted even in the bloodiest wars. Second, in the valley, people are demonstrating against the government’s indifference and gross incompetency regarding the Inner Line Permit (ILP) system. These are the burning issues presently. Nobody will be surprised if these issues sink miraculously in a day while a few other protest-able matters pop up out of nowhere again. The proverbial short public memory is trifling when we see the motif of protest and violence that runs in our collective narratives.
Keirao Bitra Mayai Leikai
Image source: The Sangai Express / E-pao

Past, present and future tenses

When Mao Tse-tung declared power lies in the barrel of the gun, he might have little ideas, if any, that some unknown people in the far south would take him seriously. In fact, in 1976 when he died of old age, some Manipuri youth had reached Lhasa, got training and labelled themselves as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and shortly, launched an armed movement against the union of India. Fourteen years earlier, the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) had started the war ideologically for secession.

It is ironical to see that we are here for a collective hysteria while the UNLF originated because the leaders saw the people lack another collective element: the political consciousness. But they had overlooked one fact, just like the governments have been brushing aside unabashedly election after election, that we are yet to personalise the modern form of governance. Nation-states are still a new concept in this part of the world.

The Western style of government is another reason why there have been territorial conflicts in this region. Initially, there are marked differences between the concept of land during the monarchical days and those in our contemporary history. We only have a whiff of the ideas of a nation-state. To put it bluntly, we have somersaulted from a traditional society to modern without ‘actual’ transition. We cannot afford as well to ignore New Delhi’s judicious policy formulation regarding frontier states based on security perspectives.

Unsurprisingly, state terrorism has been negating the political and military actions of the dissidents, to the extent of killing anybody on its way. In another words, we have had a long history of conflicts! However, from hearsay, the place was relatively peaceful until a couple of decades back. Back to our present society, there is nothing to write for posterity. Sometimes, we admit that we will be a big blot when future generation tries to recollect their stories.

Think local, act global

In our locality, when a couple was fighting over some petty domestic issues, the localites settled their case. The law court exists as an overly formal institution, though lawyers might disagree with their lies and statistics; besides its influence is almost as good as nothing when compared to how our herd behaviour is. On another occasion, when a woman was accused of black art, the localites excommunicated her family after giving her a ‘befitting’ punishment.

Presumably, insurgency has bogged down our law enforcement agencies and their personnel — and they are unable to do anything but harass and kill their real and imagined enemies, which include the common people as well. A public interest litigation in the Supreme Court mentioned more than 1,500 fake encounter killings have taken place in Manipur from the late 70s to this decade. The Extra-judicial Execution Victim Families’ Association, Manipur (EEVFAM) is more specific: there are reports of 1,528 stage-managed killings involving Manipur police commandos and Assam Rifles personnel during this period.

When we can justify blatant killing and robbery, it seems everything is permissible. Therefore, when someone commits a crime, it has become our natural right to dismantle the criminals’ houses and properties. The government has nothing to gain and it is indifferent to these mundane trivialities.

When the rule of law has become a showpiece in the cupboard of democracy, both the government and the governed are losers. The only winner seems to be the individuals in the higher echelons of society — most belonging to the political class and high officials in government departments — who have been stuffing their strongboxes, with the wealth they have been looting in the name of governance and administration.

Sagolband Meino Leirak Meisnam Nongthombam Leikai
Image source: The Sangai Express / E-pao

Sense and insensibilities

Our moral sensibility only show violence is not the solution. Otherwise, it is all fine. We can see clearly from some of our (re)actions. A little more than a decade ago, when the union government announced for a peace agreement without any consideration of the main stakeholders, we had no choice but took to the street. There was a compromise, implying the government settled the problem by declaring that it had omitted the controversial phrase ‘without territorial limit’; but it is an open secret the NSCN-IM has stronghold areas in places like Ukhrul. In another case, when the army men raped and murdered Thangjam Manorama, we did not see any hope from the government for justice. All we can do was to indulge in violent protests on the streets and the best the authority did well was to buy time.

On the other hand, when the extremists hurl grenades against the civilians for defiance against their extortion, the most prominent consequence is the sit-in protest in which we wear mourning dresses. This is remarkably peaceful! It is not because we like it but we know it well. It is advisable because the non-state actor can play any role that we can sense or they can. This is, some people believe, a part of selective amnesia — while we are in a denial mode that we do have a fellow feeling for local militants and not for those who have arrived ‘legally’ in droves in the name of national security from mainland India and elsewhere.

We have forgotten we can talk and negotiate. We have forgotten we are living in 21st century. We have forgotten we have rational faculties that differentiate us from the beasts. All of us are suffering from blackout. It is hard to say that we have nothing but a flickering hope of a better future. Yet, it is doubtful our emotions and sentiments could solve the problem. Rather our inability to control them is the cause of many conflicts in the first place.

Ochlocracy, or mobocracy, is as old as human civilisation. It’s a simple human nature. The existing milieu has prompted us to see beyond our familiar spaces, with regard to our pessimism towards law-enforcement agencies and inclination to deliver justice on our own.

Between Hundung Junction and Tangkhul Long Ground, Ukhrul
Image source: Hueiyen News Service / E-pao

For a long time in human history, violence has always been unavoidable, so it seems. It was Mao who professed violence helps us in accomplishing any leap in social development. In the US, the world celebrated the election of Barack Obama as the first Black president but nearly five decades of Black resistance had preceded such a phenomenon. Violence does play an important role in politics; and not to the extent of glorification, we cannot deny it is a part of the human psyche. We can see more of violence when we are on ground zero.

Since time immemorial, we have been hoping that the end of an existing system will usher in an ideal state. As always, the optimists prefer Utopia to status quo and the pessimists have a fixed idea of dystopia. But unlike history, we follow a zigzag existence, and idealism is just a footnote to the history of any society or state. This only makes the situation more complex.

Reason, spirit and appetite

We can refer to one of Plato’s postulations. He professed the necessity of maintaining balance between the men of reason, the men of spirit and the men of appetite. When there is no balance, the state/society offers a fertile ground for dissension. This imbalance occurs, according to the philosopher, because the rulers fail to unite the right men with the right women, resulting in the birth of wrong babies! This should be a relief to the Manipuri puritans, because they have always claimed that our mixed blood is the root cause of all the social ills. Precisely, Hinduism has uprooted our indigenous belief and value system, not to mention the resulting identity crisis that has plagued all of us till today. It is obvious the Hindus have polluted the natives.

To aggravate, we had also went through Burmese onslaught on and off across the middle and late medieval period. Historians believe the valley — the most populated area in the region presently with more than a million heads — had a population of merely ten thousand during the infamous Seven Years’ Devastation. Putting this and Plato’s idea together, we get the sum of the existing state of affairs. Atrocious or pitiable, that will vary depending on which side of the fence one is standing on.    

In this context, violence is rational. Frantz Fanon declared it is through violence, the leaders show social truth to the people. Jean-Paul Sartre and Che Guevara demonstrated it is a means to an end. The latter was more pragmatic when he gave up his chosen station of life and became a guerilla hero.

However, this is an entirely different story when we talk about mob violence. Deprived of rationality, it only shows the pathetic condition of a society. Social revolution is a blend of dreams and nightmares, while the condition shows us ironically that we live in such a primitive society. 

People will always have a reason, though it might not be logical. This paucity is evident from the logic (perhaps the better word is illogicality) that we give when we burn down houses as if it is the most appropriate plan of action. Here it might not be wrong to say that punishment for a crime is to deter the wrongdoer but there is no such scope in our collective psyche. Either you live or you perish, there is no middle way.

When it is hard to justify our action rationally, we can only tell ourselves to take a step back and get out from the herd mentality. It is easier said than done but then we are left with no option. Either you join the crowd and demolish another person’s property or you stand out from them. Again, people can reduce this kind of liberal idea as an excuse for our inaction. Discretion, at the cost of ignoring the cliché, is the better part of valour.

A typical human nature to conform is another reason why we believe in mob activities. Our imagined fears and concern for rejection from a group further push us to the limit. Experts suggest that politicians know this trait very well. No wonder, from Westphalia to India, the rulers have been manipulating the ruled so well. This is even more profound in a society likes ours, where the nuances of traditions and collective living bind us as a very closely-knit group.

Image source: Imphal Free Press

No one is an exception. Very sensible citizens would say that the protest by the school kids results from the behest of the authoritative groups, which also include the students’ organisations. However, why would there be an instance when such an issue can become the order of the day? It is a mess, for the lack of a proper word. It is a dilemma: on one hand, it is an eyesore to see we are always ready to take to the street on the slightest pretext. We do not care about any logic. While, on the other, the police is hell bent on using brute force to control the mob. Recently these thugs beat up school- and college-going kids, who cannot even spell out the acronym of ILP. It is an open secret: the gun-wielding stooges are a perfect cover for all the misdeeds and inaction of the government.

The finishing point

When we have grievances against the government, we have to protest because it has replaced the head with its own derrière. We can take any deceased person to an attending doctor’s residence because the expert has become a medical professional after cheating in exams — mass copying in school examination is a kind of culture in Manipur. If that is not enough, we can declare a highway blockade and no one bats an eyelid. When the authority turns a blind eye to public issues, we can just stay silent; and if not, we can declare another general strike no matter what. But it is easy to admit we are far from getting the solutions even after going all these ordeals and we are always back to square one.

Kakching Turel Wangma Ningthou Pareng Leikai
Image source: Hueiyen News Service / E-pao

From the killing of a youngster — again, regardless of any reasons — to the oppression of the state and non-state actors, which exists in both legal and illegal form, we have nothing to expect from ourselves, neither from the authorities, but to carry on with our demonstrations and rallies. Where on earth is protest an order of the day? On relatively peaceful days, it is the rechristened ‘wakat meepham’, or the sit-in protest; and we have rallies and demonstrations on other days.

The ever rising numbers of joint action committees does not entail an organised society, but rather makes it conspicuous how sick we have become, together as a people.We have to do a lot of homeworks when we go back home from the protest sites. When living has become a sort of resistance, the writing on the wall is self-explanatory. Yet it is still inexplicable how a crowd can deliver justice. From such mores, we can only see the level of our civilisation we have built over the millennia.

The complex social realities ascertain that there are reasons, howsoever illogical those are, behind why people are indulging in violence on the flimsiest demands. Even understanding is not enough to shed light on it but to survive on our notions of violence as a means to an end, though not without taking some firm decisions. Lesser the violence the better it for us.

“To paraphrase several sages: Nobody can think and hit someone at the same time.”
Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others 

Reading list

Instincts of the herd in peace and war By Wilfred Trotter
https://archive.org/details/instinctsofherdi00trot

Do political protests matter? By Andreas Madestam, Daniel Shoag, Stan Veuger & David Yanagizawa-Drott
http://www.hks.harvard.edu/fs/dyanagi/Research/TeaParty_Protests.pdf

Protest politics and the ethical imagination By Henrietta L. Moore
https://www.opendemocracy.net/transformation/henrietta-l-moore/protest-politics-and-ethical-imagination

Reflections on violence By Hannah Arendt
http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1969/feb/27/a-special-supplement-reflections-on-violence/




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