In Enrich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front”, a novel set during World War 1, towards the end the protagonist Paul Baumer, a young German soldier, gets killed on Germany’s western front on a militarily uneventful day – no combats, no heavy artillery exchanges, just a soldier falling to a routine exchange of small arms fire. The military dispatch from the western front at the end of the day, which is also the concluding line of the story, simply repeated the routine message: “all quiet on the western front”. The death of one soldier, after the millions of casualties in the course of the war, had ceased to be of any consequence. Remarque, a German veteran of the WW-I, is known for his distaste for war, and minces no word in his opinion that war makes the individual soldier insignificant and at the same time a murderer too. His character Baumer for instance, in a particularly poignant scene, stabs a French soldier to save himself and then tries frantically to save the wounded soldier he thus stabbed.
A decade and half ago, dispatches from a young American captain in Iraq Robert Secher, till a month before he was killed in a fire exchange in the country in October 2006, remarkably echoed the same sentiments. These letters were reproduced with permission in the now wound-up Newsweek in their November 6, 2006 issue. Those of us in Manipur’s conflict theatre should be able to understand this from the heart. Soldiers on either side of the thin red line, the family man who is in the profession for a living, or the perfectly normal, nondescript neighbourhood boy who left home unannounced, drawn by the lure of the revolution, are thrown into a situation where their actions come to be determined by forces outside of themselves and their wills. As one of Captain Secher emails to his father said, “…their lives are ruined, ruined by their actions which are judged by men who have never been in those situations”. In another email, he wrote: “…Bush should be ashamed of himself…”
Manipur is in a similar terrifying mess today. Not just its economic and political predicaments, but also its human landscape is ruined. The war in the land is eating away at its very vitals. Human life has lost its significance. The current deadly friction which was sparked off by an opposition to the Meitei demand to be included in the Scheduled Tribes list, has already resulted in plenty of violence and is still threatening to bring more violence, reflects the same dispassionate desensitization contained in the military dispatch at the end of that uneventful day during WW-I in Remarque classic: “all quiet on the western front”.
This is not a matter of singling out anybody of being insensitive, for it has indeed become a general condition of our society today. We have all become so callous about human life. Those of us in the media cannot plead innocence either. Practically every evening, while crosschecking if any worthwhile news event has been missed out, the same dispassionate message is what is exchanged in every newsroom. Slowly but surely, nothing short of a massacre is coming to be considered important. Somebody shot at or injured, another beaten up, a body found, a woman raped… are today beginning to appear like routine news. If they retained some curiosity for a day, the following day, their newsworthiness would have already completely evaporated and nobody would even think of a follow up story, querying as to what happened thereafter, how the families took the news etc.
Even if some reporters were sensitive enough to do it, his seniors may not think it important anymore, and if even all in the newsrooms agree against their better, consumer-driven news-senses, that it must still deserve print space, in all likelihood the readers the next morning would not agree. More than even the news professional, whose profession it is to always sniff and discover extraordinary strains even in the most ordinary events, news consumers have been desensitized by the ensuing war. The news reporters, the fighters in the war, the moral judges of the war, the intellectuals who rationalise the war and so on, are all in the same boat, and all their souls have died a little in the war. If there have been no major ambushes, no major massacres, no major encounters, no sensational kidnaps, and if there have been only a skirmishes, a shot fired somewhere, a parcel bomb found, somebody intimidated, an extortion demand received, in today’s conflict benumbed society, it would be just another ordinary day – “all quiet on the eastern front too.” When will Manipur ever return to the time when every single life matters?
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author