“Thank you for the tragedy, I need it for my art.” Music lovers of the1980s and 1990s generation will remember the disdain in this statement by Kurt Gobain the lead singer, guitarist and primary song writer of the popular music group Nirvana. The dark sarcasm hurts even now, for it remains a very poignant and yet vicious attack on fence sitters who watch the action from the sidelines, making clever remarks and analysis on how things should have been or should be. For many observers, it is a fashionable pastime, but completely hollow for they have no other interest than to remain as observers. The emptiness of the constant refrain in the socialite party “And in the room the women come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo” in T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrog” can almost be heard echoing in these situations too. There is a clear distinction between “observing” and “witnessing” as scholars of renown such as Saul Friedlander and Dominick La Capra have emphasised. They note how knowing this distinction is a necessary condition for bringing about a final resolution to situations of conflict and trauma. In “witnessing” as distinct from “observing” there is a moral commitment to the events under scrutiny, and conflict and trauma resolution absolutely needs this commitment. The fence sitters are on the other hand only interested in making a name for themselves, or else a living, and sometimes a fortune out of other people’s misery.
The attitude can even get cynical. As for instance, there is so much vested interests embedded in the tragedy of insurgency that even those supposedly fighting it have been known to have ensured the continuance of the tragedy. Politicians, bureaucrats, police, army, conflict NGOs, and even sections of the academia and journalistic fraternity, especially those who parachute into these conflicts zones periodically when crisis flare up to report news stories with scream headlines in print or electronic, each claiming their reportage to be exclusive. Others would return to their safe bases and sermon for weeks with the arrogant presumption they have seen it all. The latter are a pain to watch and tolerate. Often they do much harm by creating false understandings of the situations. For evidence, switch on the national TV channels during any major crisis in the Northeast and watch the talking heads of academics and journalists dissecting the situation from their vantage without the least humility that their understandings are limited by the physical and emotional distance they are from the scenes of action.
The harm this section causes however is nothing compared to those wreaked by unscrupulous agencies making profit out of the bad situation. The controversy of fake encounters that once raged in places like Manipur, in which the police and the Army allegedly routinely gun down people either known to have militant link or else are suspected of it, in staged encounters to win medals and honours for themselves, is just the most horrifying example of these. Journalist and now media scholar and instructor, Kishalaya Bhattarjee, has done a well-received book on this cark chapter of the Northeast. As newspaper readers in the state will be aware, a CBI enquiry into these killings following a petition in the Supreme Court is still awaiting closure. Even if the reality is there are few alive to testify to these inhuman crimes, circumstantial evidences pointing to their existence are overwhelming. The chilling correspondence between gallantry medals received by the police and the military each year, with the rise and fall of charges of fake encounter killings should be enough to convince those looking into this contentious issue that the matter is nothing to be trifled. Recall also the much publicised story of the “Ketchup Colonel” who even went to the extent of making people fake death, poured tomato ketchup on them, took photographs and claimed them to be insurgents killed to show his bosses he has been at his job.
But vested interest in conflict can be more sophisticated and complex. Counterinsurgency has today become a money spinner for authorities of various hues. The Indian State’s understandable need to fight and end all challenges to it has made the purse for counterinsurgency liberal and subject only to very loose controls. The opulent rise in wealth of police officers of practically every rank disproportionate to their known sources of incomes is evidence enough. Then there was the Tehelka Magazine expose a decade ago of how at least 30 percent of the huge funds earmarked each year for military civic actions to be conducted by the Assam Rifles were going into the private pockets of officers during awards of contract jobs. Then there are also dishonest conflict NGOs in the side-lines making a living out of the bad situation, therefore driven by their own vested interests to make the situation not only remains but also appear in ways that enhance the prospects of their ambulances chasing livelihoods. In any attempt to have a fuller grasp of the reasons behind conflicts and insurgencies being so endemic in the region, other than the immediate contingencies of the conflicts themselves, these little visible reasons behind the scene, must also be taken serious note of. This alert is all the more essential now that it is evident that Manipur’s chapter on insurgency is far from over after the November 13 devastating ambush near the international border close to Behiang township.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author