The Tragedy of Democracy in Manipur

Democracy can be simplified as a system in which, according to the Principles of Democracy, ‘power and civic responsibility are exercised by all citizens, directly or through their freely elected representatives’.

Democracy 1.0

It’s the participation of the people that make it very attractive, comparatively to other forms of modern political system. 

But in a place like Manipur, the problem starts with the people for reasons that are uniquely Manipuri and we are not unaware about it—we simply feel we are too tiny to negotiate with a large system.

If we refer to facts and figures, how many of us would we go to vote, on March 4 and 5, for a reason like we admire the altruism of a candidate/political party so we should give our vote to him/her or his/her party? Ninety-nine percent I can declare that the answer is none.

We will be choosing the lesser evil on the basis of how much the candidates are related by birth, how much they can offer individual jobs, which ethnicity they belong to, our perception of who will loot the people the least and a host of similar reasons. Free and fair election, a primary characteristic of a democracy is a myth in this part of the world. At other times it is a top-level dilemma: we want to cast our vote for the right candidate but there is none!

As an addendum to that kind of catch-22 situations, the best we can do is to nag the elected representatives and compel them to solve our grievances if and when those arises or are likely to arise. Easier said than but it’s not impossible.

In reality, one vote is going to last for five years but we are too nonchalant to care about public issues. If there is no ‘right’ candidate, therefore, the least we can do again is to make the public issues a priority but that’s never been the case.

To take an example, when the Manipur police gunned down Chungkham Sanjit and Thokchom Rabina, the public issue is state terrorism that needs to be addressed politically as much as legally instead of feeling complacent that we are still alive and that we will take every personal path to hide from the terror that the state is spreading in the name of law and order. Incidentally, if the countless NGOs and civil society organisation can see the farce of political issues—instead of reducing them to those of human rights that’s already a predefined law and order problem—we might be on a better position to sort out the issues.

Democracy 2.0

Another important aspect of democracy is the crucial responsibilities of the people. 

We have seen the example of forced public–private confusion already but life does not end there. If we really care about democracy we have to dig deeper otherwise we might as well just bring allow a dictator to rule over us by any available means regardless of ethics, justice and our collective aspiration.

It is further explained in the Principles of Democracy:

•    Democratic citizens know that they must bear the burden of responsibility for their society if they are to benefit from its protection of their rights.

•    In a democratic system, people unhappy with their leaders are free to organise and peacefully make the case for change—or try to vote those leaders out of office at established times for elections.

•    Democracies need more than an occasional vote from their citizens to remain healthy. They need the steady attention, time, and commitment of large numbers of their citizens who, in turn, look to the government to protect their rights and freedoms.

Bear the burden of responsibility? Organise and make change? Political participation of the public? All of these questions are insulting our exceptional Manipuri intelligence.

On top of this, Manipur is also one of the heavily militarised regions and this is oxymoronic because it is India that has been claiming as the largest democracy in the world. In fact, from day one, of the departure of the British Raj, the erstwhile princely state had started setting up its democratic institutions and other political infrastructure. However these were knocked down with the annexation of Manipur in a not-so-democratic manner, while the state never got a chance to recuperate from such a blow in its infant stage till today.

But it’s not only India that should receive all the brickbats. The local leaders are pretty much hands in gloves with the masters who live in New Delhi. Besides, to complete the picture there are two groups that are leaving no stone unturned to bring out the best in us: one, the government officials and representatives; two, the intelligent and civilised people who take pride en masse in being apolitical and ignorant.

Democracy 3.0

Democracy thrives with the concept of the rule of the law. 

In the most ridiculous way, recently while appearing at the court, a top official of the NSCN IM’s frontal organisation told the press that he didn’t know a blockade is illegal. No sir, it’s not; rather it is just an act of war now and then a gross crime against humanity that no law or legalese can explain it.

Truth be told, law is a device for the protection of the citizens but that’s the last thing we see in a place like Manipur. I dare you challenge it. I can cite the example of one of the VCs of the Manipur University who was shot in the leg as a warning against taking bribes. That’s no law but a manifestation of a sick society where any power-aspirant can take the law into his/her hands—and if that’s inadequate the man with the bullet is standing in the upcoming Assembly election.

The former VC’s partner or a colleague, arrested along with him and similarly shot in the leg, is also standing for the election from a different political party and assembly constituencies. It wouldn’t be surprising if these ‘respected’ gentlemen, like the other politicians will follow the rule of law: as in amassing wealth while they refer to the law as a veil by declaring they would be arrested if they were guilty.

In this context, kangaroo courts and ‘mobocracy’ can also be hardly considered a means of applying a rule of law. This reminds us of the need for dictatorship again. At least we can truly answer what kind of a system we are in, instead of saying we live in the largest democracy when we have been coerced to compromise with the most basic right to life.

As long as we go further, we only continue stripping democracy of multiple layers of essence in Manipur. We have the right to vote but we don’t have the means to follow it up; we have countless human rights organisation but not the values of human rights; we have the freedom of religion yet we will fight on the line of ethnicity; we have a government but for which good governance and accountability are alien terms; and the list continues. 

Democracy beta version

It is rightly said that the people get a government that they deserve. 

However, it is also the group of people who are coming out as political aspirants who have blood all over their hands, starting right from the incumbent leader or the chief minister. For fifteen years, he was busy in everything but issues of public interest and now in the run-up to the forthcoming election he is promising three lakh jobs and free wi-fi. Democracy ought to have a foolproof system, apart from the people’s right to vote, to control the entry of contractors and criminals and them from posing as our representatives. If this is not possible, then we can as well do away with our customised form of democracy.

What we can do in this context is not the issue. If we have to list them it would range from the significance of reinforcement of democratic ideals and principles to becoming politically conscious people but this write-up is not about preaching what we ought or not to do or say. It’s just a reflection on how we take so many things, like democracy and good governance, for granted for reasons we know the best. Contemporary Manipur will go down as a blot in this history, that’s for sure, but it would be sheer cowardice on our part if not some of us can say that we did try our best and that we had not remained deaf and dumb to recurring tragedies and stupidities. 

[Work Cited Above: Principles of Democracy, published by the Bureau of IIP, U.S. Department of State]



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