The Politics of Culture

Culture as a political instrument in the context of my native place

Written by an atheist who believes Ras Lila shows just the height of debauchery, which in real life only represents the sleazeball masters of past royal lives and the shameless government and authority’s orgy in present-day Manipur

At home when we are seeing off guests, it is imperative for us to accompany them till the gate. Here in a place, two and a half thousand kilometres away from home, where the settings and sensibilities are different in a thousand of ways, I do not go out beyond my door.

This whole issue might be mundane in our diurnal existence that are filled with the rush to getting things done, finishing higher studies, looking for jobs, working for a livelihood, maintaining a family and so on. However, the equation changes when we consider that culture determines the success and failure of a society. Development experts, particularly the Western theorists, assert that culture is also a reason behind the progressive or backward nature of a society.

It would not be a surprise if these expert views raise a few eyebrows regardless of the truth in their statements. In India, there’s a colonial concept of White man’s burden, a phrase used to justify European imperialism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It implies ‘the supposed or presumed responsibility of white people to govern and impart their culture to non-White people’.

For the record, the concept is quite similar to New Delhi’s contemporary brown babu’s burden that emphasizes the rituals of sending billions of gunmen and doling out funds and grants to the impoverished region of the so-called Northeast India. A distinct example is seen from how the military conducts civil action programmes during lean seasons when they are not spreading terror with fully adorned legitimacy. That’s just a slice of the culture of the world’s biggest democracy!

Coming back to the Western theorists, their contention is that political change is extremely complicated an issue. It is more convoluted than charging a country of possessing weapon of mass destruction to loot its resources. Still, culture plays a crucial role as a tool for progress. In a typical style, for instance, the United States knows democracy works only in certain societies even if they keep on tearing down other sovereign countries while its oil companies and contractual private firms build newer concepts of culture.

Some cultures are more open to accept the grand democratic ideals for their political well-being while others are simply too obstinate and thus the differences in the existing conditions of a society. The experts do reveal that the sluggish progression, if at all, is not responsible for suppressive and authoritarian societies. Democracy is just an example. Their contention is that neither a military occupation nor a war on terror is going to change a society. Both the question and the answer is culture. It can make or break a society.

Culture /ˈkʌltʃər/

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, culture ‘is a key resource to address both the economic and social dimensions of poverty and to provide innovative and cross-cutting solutions to complex issues. ...It is a source of wealth in ways that do not have price tags. Culture can help promote social cohesion and youth engagement, and it is a wellspring for social resilience. It is a source of identity and cohesion for societies at a time of bewildering change. No development can be sustainable without it.’

If we dig further, the transition of a cave-dwelling half-monkey, half-human to a scientific-minded, aesthetically conscious animal—and all the processes that have been facilitating this alteration—constitute the foundation of human culture as a whole. In the context of duration, Thalon and Khangkhui Mangsor caves in the districts of Tamenglong and Ukhrul respectively, plus the discovery of fossils in the Koubru Mountain in Manipur have revealed the prehistoricity of the place. Unfortunately, time has never been on our side in terms of making social progress. Not even the fact that we have a 2,000-year-old civilisation is making any sense.

In my native language, culture is referred to as ‘chatnarol’, or loosely, the norms and mores.

Generally, culture is unique in terms of human possession and quite a protracted process on account of its evolutionary development. It is also creative and imaginative from how it is perceived by and large. This is also more apparent in its treatment as we used it to denote elements encompassing both artistic creation and science and technology as stuffs of ‘culture’.

For sociologists John Gerber and Linda Macionis, the following eight items constitute the elements of culture: (1) Symbols (2) Language (3) Values (4) Beliefs (5) Norms (6) Behavioural patterns (7) Social institutions and (8) Artefacts.

According to the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, ‘in cultural transmission, an acquired trait possessed by one member of a social group ends up in another member of that group. In order for this to occur, there must be some learning mechanism that eventuates in doing what another individual does. ...In a word, cultural transmission seems to depend on copying.’

Culture is a set of symbols that we have collected in groups. If I have to talk about my culture, I’ll bring up—from broad and assorted issues on the Ava wars, the literal singnaba (resistance) of Thangjam Ibopishak and his cohorts, Lai Haraoba, contemporary politics, our forms of political participation and Sanamahi—to mundane matters such as how we call the Chinese as ‘Khagi’, the pathetic living experience in the Indian subcontinent, the beef and pork delicacies, our ways of communication, our ‘appeal of tradition’ in music and all sorts of multidimensional topics.

We can also mention the breakdown of social institutions, rudderless governance and futile administration as a part of our culture. As in any other troubled region in the world, we have been going through all things bad: militarisation, unemployment, drug menace, endemic corruption and all. Others might as well add the criminalisation of the liberation movement, our intolerance, the inclination to drag down someone climbing the ladder of success and so on, as a part of our culture.

I’d include the chicken-centre syndrome too. If Ningombam opens a public call office or a PCO, all the Naorem, Huirem and Elangbam will follow suit; and if Thingbaijam opens a chicken centre (the roadside meat stall), then for certain, all the Chanambam, Maibam and Wahengbam will tag along.

All of these make us ‘us’ and unique in our own ways. These are our culture, our shared values that accentuate our forces and flaws exponentially.

As far as this kind of culture is concerned, would the average mainland people in India ever question the concept of India? Most unlikely, but for us it is totally a different ball game. From the day we are born, we have been bombarded with issues that push us to question it. Besides, it is a given that an individual belonging to a violent culture tends to be more aggressive while responding to a situation.

Of sophistication and instruments

One of the defining elements of culture is sophistication. It is the style and substance defined in different ways.

I dislike dining in lavish restaurants; they kill me with those etiquettes, highly fake table manners and extra brilliant cutlery and glassware. That might make me a lesser cultured individual. Perhaps it really does and this kind of deceptive yet admired style has been the ultimate marker of culture. From anthropological perspective, though, it is impossible to assess and grade different cultures. Subconsciously I feel I belong to the working class and have this penchant to show my distaste for high culture.

All the societies have certain food habits, dressing style, ways of living, rites and rituals and the like. It is quite mysterious how we share the same notions yet the realities are so diverse that we understand so little about others’ culture. It is like languages: all of us communicate by an act of speaking or making gestures, yet by estimate there are around 6,500 spoken languages on this planet.

Well, that’s a part of evolutionary science but we can add that these matters have their origin in the material circumstance of our lives. These are further influenced by social development, conflicts, mass media and any kind of change in and between different societies. These have as well given rise to the concept of stimulus diffusion, which according to a dictionary definition refers to a type of dissemination in which a group of people receives an element of culture from another but gives it a new and unique form. For instance, we have the inimitable dance form of Pung Cholom, which blends seamlessly the steps of thang-ta, the Manipuri indigenous martial arts and other folk elements with the drum-qortal inspired music and dance imported from some corners of eastern India. It was developed during the days of a bhakti movement (15th–17th century) when Hindu zealots were going crazy in the wake of spreading Muslim rule.

It was during the same period when the Meiteis were proselytised to become a Hindu through coercive measures taken by a Meitei king and influenced by a group of Hindu missionaries. History is too funny. Listen to the popular narratives of the Indian dominant group, which have a hard-on for Christian missionaries nowadays.  

As much as religion is merged with politics, faith and belief systems are indivisible from cultural aspects. This is quite too much for an atheist, who believes not in wooden and plastic gods but in the fact that culture has some solutions in store for us.   

The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.
American politician and sociologist

Critical theorists suggest that culture is a political instrument. Precisely, a ruling elite checks and controls the mass but only after creating a false reality. How true! We have a culture of politics that reeks of puppetry of the worst quality and plain sycophancy. In today’s world, it can be the illusion of being a part of citizenry who can pressure the government. Nothing illustrates better this condition than our lives in Manipur. New Delhi is simply contented to maintain a puppet, read the disgusting ruling class, in the province while safeguarding the national boundary in an idiot-proof manner. Democracy can be such a party pooper.

Gloom, doom and bloom

Culture familiarises us. Our sense of right and wrong, appropriate or not stems from it. It is too broad and classifying it, particularly of a society, will reduce our views to mere generalisations. However, it is essential to pick out some of the constituents to examine our life. It tells us how we exist as individuals and groups.

Amidst the gloom and doom we have the concept of cultural change. Briefly, culture is a dynamic process and in its variation we can change it to suit our requirements. If we go by the existing trends in Manipur, the less said the better. In our present living condition, everything is possible and paradoxically nothing is also possible.

The trouble with Manipur is, nothing sounds the alarm bell loud enough for it to remain awake long enough. Nothing, not even the worst crisis, it seems can shake it out of its complacency. And crisis is one thing the state has never ever had a shortfall of. ...Crises explode like several kilotons of dynamite periodically, and during these crises semblance of masterstrokes of collective resolves emerge. However, once the dusts from these crises settle, the downward pulls of mediocrity once again neutralise and level out everything to square one.
From an editorial, Moral War Missing

We need a culture of progress, not only in terms of economical growth but also in our everyday lives. The culture of peace, growth and prosperity must replace the culture of violence and protest for good. Transformation will not come without consequences, for instance, we might have to do away with our past. The friction between the baggage from history and ideals of future will be felt the deepest in the domain of culture but there ought to be ways for negotiation though traditionalists would see red in it.

According to Auguste Comte, there is the Law of Three Stages in social change: (i) we start from the theological stage, when myth, natural phenomena and supernatural beings coexist; (ii) we develop into a metaphysical stage in which we seek explanation for natural phenomena; and (iii) we grow in the positive stage when we get rid of ignorance and emphasise on the development of our mind, reason and logic to understand the world.

And us, we are stuck between (i) and (ii)!

Comte’s laws indicate that economic development is not the single solution, although in India, many people have been led away by the gross domestic products and gross national products. Regarding economics, there is a vast literature on the Industrial Revolution in Britain that show how things were already in place for that country to commence the period of great transition. In those days, Britain had stable institutions, conventional land values, reliable markets and other circumstances that made the revolution possible.

However, these conditions were present elsewhere too, though others achieved no tangible progress like the country did. What others did not possess but Britain did was a certain set of factors: a strong work culture and a stronger sense of competition and significantly, these had been established long before the Industrial Revolution. In another case, it started building railways in India in 1850s but we can see that the introduction of technology produced entirely different results in the two countries.

It was not the machine but the people who change the fate of a land. For that matter, in The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some are So Rich and Some So Poor (1998), David Landes mentioned that the developed economies of Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan have been made successful by factors such as the high status of women, how they live in these countries and their involvement in economic matters.

In other parts of the world, indigenous societies face the threat mostly from an incompatible economic system like capitalism but in our case it is highly political. Armed movements for the right to self-determination, street protests for the most fundamental rights, indigenous resistance and criticism against the government of the day are some of the concrete issues.

The main motive for introducing culture is the twin aim to study social development and apply it. It costs nothing to believe in meliorism, the simple idea that we can progress and make progress if we slog on progress. To misquote Louis Althusser, the ultimate condition of a progressive society is the reproduction of the conditions of a progressive society.

Eventually it is not about how far we go to see off friends but how far we can go to occupy a space of importance in human society. We live in one of the bleakest parts on the globe, a periphery to a nation and a no man’s land sandwiched between two contending future superpowers. Regardless of the space or location, it will be a good start to assert that not all is lost. Our ultimate goal is to experience a better life, which is as unambiguous as we picture Pung Cholom when we mention the term ‘culture’. Easier said than done, but now the ball is in the court of media, artists, professionals, laypeople and the civil society.

End of the line

On the basis of these understandings mentioned in the piece, we can conclude with the following observations:
•    Culture, which is socially transmitted from one generation to another, can make or mar a society
•    Culture is a set of symbols; it is our shared values and influence us positively and negatively in equal measures 
•    Every society has its intrinsic values that build its culture in unique ways
•    Culture is a lot more than mere ‘arts and culture’, it is a way of life, a means of a society to its evolutionary and socio-politico-economical ends; it is also dynamic
•    Every culture has its share of negativity but in our case it is the primary constituent
•    There is no question of high and low culture when we are in a failed state, but the need for articulating a culture of progress
•    Honesty (sincerity and frankness), prudence (carefulness and good sense), firmness (determination and grit), diligence (hard working and attentive) and broad-mindedness (acceptance and tolerance) are the cultural factors that propel the development of a society
•    It is possible to tweak our culture for political change
•    The development of culture is directly proportional to the rise of a society
•    Finally, can we end the debate on the peace-or-development precedence, for good, by giving the benefit of doubt to ‘peace’?


Breaking news:
Anti-Merger Agreement campaign covers 215 locations so far
Source: Hueiyen Lanpao, 16 Oct 2015

Imphal, October 15 2015 : The Coalition for Indegenes’ Rights Campaign (CIRCA) said that the campaign against the Manipur Merger Agreement and Pre-Merger Political Status had been carried out in 215 locations as of Thursday (October 15).

The month-long anti-Merger Agreement campaign was kicked-off by CIRCA at the Royal Palace on September 21. Titular king Leishemba Sanajaoba flagged off the campaign by pulling down the Pakhangba flag or national flag of Manipur half way.

It said further campaign will be continued by hoisting the national flag of Manipur on October 18 in every localities and villages to commemorate the day when the State Flag of Manipur was unfurled after holding the first session of Manipur Assembly which was set up after the first democratic election ever held in Southeast Asia region.
(PS: Records show the Philippines was the first.)



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