Two events largely dominated headlines in Manipur throughout the week. One is an immediate emergency, the other a sustained long term one. The first has to do with the COVID-19 pandemic in the state, and indications that that initial community spread may have begun in certain pockets. The second is the drugs menace the state has been faced with for a long time and still is faced with today, brought back into sharp focus over the arrest of an alleged politician kingpin and subsequent spiralling outrage over the case which has come to even implicate the chief minister of the state, rightly or wrongly, and this was triggered by an unseemly and ugly tussle over the grant of interim bail to the arrested man. As in most issues in Manipur, both cases are replete with their shares of tragedy and comedy, gravity and frivolity. Witnessing these events unfold cannot but evoke once again the idea of “the theatre of the absurd” so often used in the past to describe politics in Manipur. It is interesting that in both cases, the analogy of war has been used, hence just as the often heard battle cry of the Manipur government was “War Against COVID-19”, it has also been in equal earnest trying to conjure up an image of its claimed “War on Drugs”. Indeed, both these issues are wars, and without doubt need to be fought on war footings. This is why the mix of seriousness and farcical in their handling, as all cases of importance in Manipur are generally reduced, spells danger. The tendency has been for the frivolous to overshadow the serious, diverting public attention from the core of these issues to the periphery and tangentially insignificant.
What needs to be taken note of seriously, but often ends up ignored, is that both are pandemics. The problem they pose are therefore not unique to Manipur. There are both disadvantage as well as advantage in this fact. The advantage is the state can learn from the successes and failures of others who have gone through these crises. The disadvantage is Manipur cannot possibly defeat either of these global problems alone. It can strive to keep itself clean, but unless the global environment on these matters improve, local successes cannot ever be watertight or permanent. This being so, a linear vision of either of these two problems would be a fallacy. Both call for multi-pronged battlefronts, and sadly the authorities in Manipur do not seem to see from this vantage, and are rather inclined to treat them as local challenges capable of generating only local heroes and villains. They are very much local problems but not only. For the boundaries that profile these problems are far wider than any localised vision.
Take the case of the tragi-comedy in the more immediate health emergency of COVID-19. It must be said, Manipur reacted to the pandemic outbreak in India earlier than most other states. For instance, the nationwide shutdown, after a one-day Janata Curfew on March 22, began on the midnight of March 24. In Manipur, partly to pre-empt street protests against the news of nomination of the Titular King, Leishemba Sanajaoba as the BJP candidate for the then approaching election to the state’s lone Rajya Sabha seat, the shutdown began at least a week earlier. This it must be said is good, for it indicates a rare level of concern. It also raised awareness of the imminent danger looming over our horizon amongst the larger public. Things however changed for the worse not much later, when Manipur’s first COVID-19 case became known, after a girl who returned from her studies in London returned home on March 21 and then after showing symptoms of the disease, tested positive and was hospitalised on March 24. The state broke into a pandemonium thereafter and all senses of sanity became lost, throwing wild allegations at the unfortunate girl on the internet and on television. A week later, on April 2, another man returning from a religious congregation in Delhi too tested positive making the state descend further into the abyss of madness. Even in war, this is generally the response of losers, and it was disappointing to discover that there is a great section of the population who are given to ostrich like mentality and believe hiding their heads in the sand would save them from any approaching danger. All sense of valour and discipline of war, and received wisdom such as “every single life matters”, were thrown into the winds by this inward looking section whose only concern seem to be to shield themselves alone and not stand together to put up a common front against the common challenge. They even wanted Manipur’s outward job and student migrants of over 50,000, put under extreme hardship because of loss of jobs or else shutting of the hostels they were staying, to not be allowed to return home for fear some of them may return with the virus. With the advantage of hindsight, we do know about 2000 of the 50,000, or about 4 percent, who returned in phases did come back with the virus. But such are the prices all societies must be ready to face and pay in any human crisis. Thankfully, better senses prevailed, and for fear of the 4 percent, we did not allow them and the rest 96 percent to suffer unduly just so as to please the paranoid section of our society. We also now know, things do not have to go out of control so long as close monitoring through comprehensive testing, quarantine and contact tracing of all vulnerable sections are done systematically and with discipline.
If this ignorant and selfish paranoia was an attribute of a section of our society, there was also the tendency towards braggadocio of those in power, whose interest lies more in claiming credit for success than a close assessment of the challenge and its nature so as to fashion the most effective, appropriate and proportionate responses. When the virus began first showing up in the state, as it would have done sometime or the other, towards the end of March, instead of trying to come up with a realistic assessment of the challenge ahead, the government began playing to the gallery. When the first patient was discharged from the JNIMS Hospital, it went ahead to celebrate as if victory had already achieved, rewarding the hospital Rs. 35 lakhs. Now Manipur has seen over 2000 cases, over 650 of whom are still active, exposing how silly the government’s initial response was. Despite so many reminders, the government refused to see that the challenge was closer to a marathon and the need therefore was for not expending too much energy so that the state’s reserve is able to last out the entire race. Notwithstanding this advice, the government did the flamboyant thing of treating the challenge as a high-profile 100 meters dash, imposing lockdown tougher than required among others, exhausting the people more than needed. And now, when it does seem the contagion is not just about to disappear in the near future, fatigue and threats of starvation and complete ruins, are coming in the way of earning complete cooperation from the people.
The other case is that of the war on drugs. As suggested before, the battle plan would have to be multi-pronged. The arrest of an alleged kingpin is indeed very important, for the scourge would have to be fought as a law and order problem as well, though by far not the only strategy. It is also important that justice is delivered and fitting penalties awarded in this case, but this justice would have to be procedural and not just what anybody or any party considers as justice. What the people must pressurise is for this procedure to be completed at the soonest possible, uninfluenced by anything but established rules of law. Unfortunately, too much energy and attention has been allowed to be diverted to peripheral issues, so much so that the original case is somewhat coming to be relegated to a secondary position. For instance, the uproar over the grant of bail to the accused is good to the extent that it has brought the case into sharp public focus, but what is often forgotten is that bail is only a means of facilitating the progress of the case and not the case itself. Hence, granting bail does not amount to exonerating an accused of guilt, just as not granting it does mean pronouncement of guilt on the accused. Let there then be sane moderation so that what we seek is justice. And this justice must not be allowed to acquire the semblance of a bloodlust.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author