Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

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In Manipur’s Absurd Theatre, Politics is Topsy Turvy, Drugs Abound and Claims of Possession of Landscapes Can Sour Ethnic Relations

Some momentous developments in Manipur in the last fortnight have once again reconfirmed that the state politics still has not grown out of the territory of absurd theatre where all standards of political morality and norms are rendered meaningless. The latest of these is the High Court verdict that a former Congress legislator, Okram Henry, who defected to the BJP therefore had to abdicate his seat in the Assembly, and yet was still made a cabinet minister without being an elected member of the Assembly, did not win at all in the election held more than four years ago in which he was declared winner. His closest rival, Yumkham Erabot, of the BJP therefore has now been declared the actually winner. Of the many questions that all onlookers would be left with is, what took the court so long to pronounce this verdict. Was it such a complex and difficult matter to decide whether the affidavit filed by the controversial politician four years ago was inaccurate and false? This is important in view of the fact that the consequences this delay caused is immense on so many counts. As for instance Okram Henry has participated in many crucial votes that could have changed the fate of the current ministry and the state radically. Again, when the BJP struggled to form the government though not the single largest party, the contest for the leadership chair of the party could have also have rested on Erabot, considering he is the most experienced, and if this was so, for good or bad, the difference in the shape of Manipur politics is imaginable. These are only two of the possibilities that this late verdict altered from their natural courses, and it must be said this is injustice in the true spirit of what has been often termed as “justice delayed is justice denied”. This probably will enter the record book as an unforgivable but avoidable rollercoaster ride to madness which plunged the reputation of Manipur politics several notches down into the abyss in the eye of any observer.

The other development concerns a statement by a ruling party legislator and deputy chairman State Planning Board, Lourembam Rameshwor, that Manipur’s acute and dangerous drugs problem would have been by now been under control had it not been for the patronage of certain ministers, MLAs and police brass. The statement, coming from a top functionary of government is, to say the least, shocking. Had it been a charge made by an Opposition party the matter would not have deserved as much scrutiny for it would have been seen as part of the game of one-upmanship that people have generally come to associate the brand of politics they have become accustomed with in Manipur. Of course, now the Congress is taking the fullest advantage of the revelation, and legitimately too. In fact, even the Manipur State Human Rights Commission, MHRC, has taken cognizance of the matter and announced its decision to initiate a suo moto case on the matter. We hope the government will refrain from going into the defensive denial mode, and instead cooperate in any effort to pin down such a drugs nexus within itself, if it exist, so that the system is cleansed for the sake of welfare of the public and the future of Manipur. Indeed, the issue is larger than just the government, for it involves the future of the entire state. Narcotics drugs have been a bane for the state’s younger generation for far too long, and something must be done to put a stop to it definitively now.

These past few months have also seen flashpoints in matters of ethnic relations, in particular between the hill communities in the foothills and their immediate neighbours in the valley. First of these was on the matter of the land contributed for the construction of the National University of Sports at Haraothel with several villages claiming it was their land, and the tussle over which led to some miscreants burning a religious place dedicated to the Kounu hill ranges which is sacred to the indigenous Meitei religion, threatening communal clashes. Thankfully, the matter was resolved through sane interventions from amongst the different communities. But a similar trouble has again erupted over who owns the parallel hill range, Koubru, which is considered even more sacred than Kounu by the Meiteis, and likewise by other communities as well. The Meiteis do not live there, but they still worship Koubru, believing this is their last station in the hills in their ancient migration from the higher reaches up north, and take out annual pilgrimage to the peak during the spring season. These stories are preserved in ancient several legends and mythical poems. Even those whose teens were in the 1970s and have participated in the Koubru annual pilgrimages, will remember these ranges were thickly forested once but very sparsely populated. Today, while the forest cover is disappearing fast, several more villages have come to be established along these hillsides. Its eastern face at the base of which runs the national highway which connects Imphal and Dimapur, is dominated by Kuki and Nepali settlements, while its western face is less populated and dotted with much older Naga villages.

Must, or can, mountains, rivers and lakes be possessed? In answering this question, the idea of the “Homeland” and the “State” has often been invoked. While “Homelands” can be defined as the precolonial of the relationship between land and people, therefore very indigenous in nature, “States” are their replacements in the postcolonial era. “Homelands” generally have very amorphous boundaries and their relationship with the people associate with them is one of belonging and attachment, therefore love. It is no wonder that landscapes in this relationship are spiritual entities, worshipped and revered. “States” on the other hand are objectified versions of “Homelands”, and the relationship between land and people in this are marked by possession, and ownership of resources. Because this is so, disputes are more likely to arise, settlement to which are often by deadly conflicts. In the transition of this land-people relationship from a past era of “Homeland” to the modern one of “State”, a transformation of the mindset of the people also invariably happens. The profile of conflicts we are now becoming familiar with today has also a lot to do with this. I have written about this before, as for instance in the Economic and Political Weekly (June 26, 2010 issue), under the title “The Homeland and The State” in reference to the relationship between the Meiteis and the Nagas.

I bring up this issue again, because in revisiting the differences that mark the land-people relationship in the “Homeland” and the “State”, is probably the answer to the resolution to many of these frictions. In a crux, in the notional understanding of “Homeland”, it is a sense of belonging to the sacred and spiritual domain of nature that mark people’s attitude to land. “Homelands” can overlap and be shared without any contradiction. Koubru for instance can be worship as deity by several faiths without detriment to anybody. Nature cannot deplete in any way, in proportion to the number of people who revere and love it. Things however would change drastically when this sense of belonging and reverence is allowed to be objectified and brought into the domain of possession and ownership, as in the changed paradigm of the State. Conflicts generated by material interests and bitter contests for possession of resources can also be predicted, but this hardly is the case with the Koubru entangle. All of us in this beleaguered land must give ourselves time to reflect on these thoughts. If the question is not about mining or extraction of resources, but only about loving and revering a place, there ought not to be any problem which is beyond amicable and brotherly, or sisterly, resolution.

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