The November 13 ambush near Behiang on the India-Myanmar border and the casualties caused was tragic but beyond the shock and outrage, what needs to be also considered is the wider and more weighty question of why peace remains so fragile in the state and indeed the entire Northeast region. For quite some time now, a semblance of calm had returned to the state, with a majority of insurgent organisations in the hills having entered into either peace talks or suspension of operations, SoO, with the government, and those who have not, mainly from the valley, also seemingly cooling their heels in their hideouts. Except for those in the establishment refusing to sense the obvious undercurrents of an unresolved problem, and were too eager to jump the gun and claim credit for bringing back peace, serious and honest observers were never in any doubt that peace was still not won conclusively. This is because the issues that sparked and fuelled these conflicts for decades now, are yet to be put to rest, and therefore their belief was it would just need a security lapse for violence to explode anytime. This is precisely what happened on November 13, and at a least likely place too.
Leave aside also the simplistic, instrumental explanation attributing the recent ambush as part of a booster of violent activities encouraged by a new unholy alliance between some valley based insurgent groups and the Myanmar army, Tatmadaw, forwarded by several journalist experts in Delhi and elsewhere taking long shots from where they sit. There has also never been any shortage of conspiracy theory addicts anywhere conjuring up scenarios, using unnamed “intelligence sources” as covers for their stories, but seldom ever providing hard evidence. While these theories of the Tatmadaw having a hand in the activities of these insurgents are a possibility, such an alliance is nonetheless unlikely, especially in the case of the recent ambush.
Those who have been to these porous, loosely as well as leniently guarded borders, and crossed over to the other side for fun and adventure will know that the ambush area is adjacent to one of the remotest corners of the Myanmar’s Chin state where the Tatmadaw is virtually absent. The region is also devoid of any major township for miles. If the ambush had happened in the vicinity of say Moreh, then there could have been more credibility for such theories.
So if these unsubstantiated conspiracy theories are to be kept aside, what then exactly is it that is continuing to go wrong? Especially in the wake of World War-I competing a century and World War-II approaching the same landmark, there have been much discussion on why conflicts continue to be part of human destiny. Some of these have interesting insights for the kind of conflict we are witnessing here in our own little theatres.
The fact is, insurgencies cannot sustain on their own. They are, as Franz Fanon said in The Wretched of the Earth, the “mailed fists” of larger grievances against the wrongs of the establishment the people amongst whom these insurgencies spawn, belong. The implication is, neutralising the immediate threats posed by these fists is not the final solution to any insurgency. The public mindset that gave moral legitimacy to their position as the fists articulating this mindset is the more important issue to address and settle. This is a sword which cuts both ways as well. If those brought to life as a mutant method for addressing these public anxieties and frustrations do not take note of the creative compromises the public may have accepted to put to rest the tensions in their lives, the insurrection wars may have already lost the source of their moral and intellectual oxygen.
The German writer Thomas Mann put this beautifully in another way. If periods of peace come to be equated with “civil corruption,” war could come to be seen as “a purification, a liberation, an enormous hope….” The fact also is, interludes of peace in Manipur, or call it absence of violence as it were, have always been marked by this “civil corruption”, making people by and large lose faith in the capacity of the established order to deliver justice, therefore keeping alive the idea of a revolution as a means to set things right again. This character of Manipur’s peace interlude has been most blatantly obvious in the last few years. Other than the notoriously normalised official corruption which stretches from the lowest rung of the officialdom’s clerical staffs to its top executives, the state has also been made witness to the atrocious phenomenon of custodians of the law breaking the law at whim and with impunity. No evidence can be louder than the manner in which gross acts of betrayal in the Manipur Assembly by its elected members have been made banal and quotidian, endorsed even by the Constitutional head of state, therefore projected as not worth serious scrutiny by the public or the law as practiced. The air of suspicion and discomfort expressed by a palace guard in Shakespeare’s Hamlet that “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” remains to this day very much the air in Manipur too.
Freud and Pinker
In writing of the turmoil in the Northeast, not the least Manipur, much has been said of how peace must predicate development and prosperity. In the same breath equally much has been said of war: How it has been a bane of civilisation throughout history; how inhuman it is; how in the end there are no real victors in any war; how many wars are won without winning peace; how each of the two World Wars the world has seen were thought to be the wars to end all wars at the times of their conclusions, but each time this belief has proven to be prophesies in vain. Some have tried to give wars a socio-economic explanation, while others even have tried to give them a Freudian ring, calling them an offshoot of the instinctual need of aggression of the human species, therefore implying wars, far from being a consequence of flawed human judgment, are written indelibly in human destiny. If this is true, dark though the thought may be, wars are unlikely ever to become redundant.
There are also others who see the better angels of humankind coming to the fore in the modern times, exorcising in the process the demons of the ancient epoch of savagery and barbarism, where the average human was much more likely to die at the hands of other humans. Steven Pinker, the man who popularised this view, thinks “we” are a lot better humans than “our” ancestors, for “we” are much less violent than “them”. In some ways maybe this is true. “We” are no longer closed societies, loyal only to individual clans, and instinctively hostile to all outside one’s clan, seeing everybody else as potential enemy marauders, therefore best killed before they kill.
However, violence is still deeply engrained in the modern society and there are enough evidence for this. Indeed, some, unlike Pinker, even consider the past 100 years has been the most violent in the entire human history. This period saw two devastating world wars which claimed an approximate 90 million lives, two atom bombs dropped on human habitations, numerous genocides, ethnic cleansing etc. The total casualty caused by conflicts in this epoch is estimated to be in the excess of a 100 million lives. Our human ancestors did not have the technology to be capable of such magnitude of violence and destruction. Their violence was determined by a survival instinct of protecting the grounds that gave them sustenance, and these were unlikely to be mindless bloodlusts that many modern pogroms have been driven by.
Discussions on WW-I eve in Europe
Quite understandably, of all the discussions on war and peace, the most engaging, perhaps because it intimately brings in our own context, is one that relates these extreme manifestations of violence to democracy. As the outbreak of World War-I crossed a century and World War-II approaches the same mark, there have been numerous retrospective articles on the situation in Europe and the world in the decades that preceded these cataclysms. What many writers, including Ward Wilson, a senior fellow at the American think tank, Rethinking Nuclear Weapons, have noted in this regard is uncanny, for their recounting of the atmosphere then seems almost a déjà vu from the current standpoint. Wilson wrote in a Foreign Policy magazine that one of the most pronounced public sentiment ahead of World War-I in Europe is a widespread disenchantment with democracy, which in Europe then was treated almost as a synonym of Capitalism. This despair was chiefly because of the inequalities this brand of democracy created in the name of individual freedom. While a few got inordinately rich, the larger masses were getting increasingly steeped in abject poverty.
The latter half of the 19th Century for Europe was undoubtedly an extremely creative and inventive age. The Industrial Age was peaking, colonisation and plunder of the rest of the world was nearing completion, generating immense wealth for Europe but also cut throat competition amongst European countries, leading to dangerous skirmishes. But this wealth was not meant for everybody. Indeed Europe’s Industrial Age also disposed and dehumanised many others. It was an age, which Charles Dickens had the poetic insight to describe as the best of times, but also the worst of times. This inequality is now seen by analysts as one of the chief reasons behind the explosive energy that led to the World War-I.
“Something burning in the air”
There was something else. Almost as an axiom, times of peace in dysfunctional democracies often come to be associated with corruption and ennui. When this becomes the overriding sentiment, war, any war, also comes to be seen as a purification exercise. While the elite coterie, taking the best advantage of the corrupt system would tend to see such times as reflective of a golden era, amongst the larger section of the population generally is a dark sense of foreboding akin to the uneasy smell of “something burning in the air”.
Wilson describes the decades before the outbreak of World War-I in the following words: “While the upper classes felt ennui during “the beautiful age,” others felt a dangerous sense of desperation. War – any war – would be better, they said, than the stifling peace that hung over Europe. We often forget that large numbers of people were relieved at war’s outbreak in 1914. Huge crowds cheered in England and the bells of the churches rang all night and all day following the announcement of war.
I am sure, these words would sound not so much a reflection of the past, but as dark foreboding for the future to readers in Manipur, or for that matter much of the Northeast. Here too, amidst all the paeans sung to peace and its dividends, there is still very much an undercurrent of claustrophobic frustration and discontent at the picture of “peace” shaping up. A future where the corrupt, not just those individually given to corrupt practices but also an elite coterie who pretend innocence though passively acquiescing to corrupt institutions and traditions to reap the benefits they accord, continue to have a strangleholds on the levers of the powers of the State, all at the cost of the underprivileged masses. So despite this so called march towards “peace”, there still remains a deep desire for change – a kind of change which not many can be convinced would be brought without radical and even violent overturning of the existing system.
This undercurrent of disenchantment with the current practice of democracy in this land, let us stop to ponder seriously, would have to be basis behind the Northeast becoming a fertile germinating ground for insurgencies. This is also why resolving the insurgency question has been elusive, and quite predictably would remain so for a long time. That is, unless something is done to bring credibility and moral legitimacy back to the so called democratic establishment. The elite should not simply pass the buck to insurgency and the bad law and order situation these violent campaigns bring leading to the the lack of development and prosperity in the state. The first initiative will have to be taken by the elite, not just the overtly corrupt amongst them, but also every other who have silently benefitted from institutionalised corruption, blame themselves for the chaos and lawlessness in the state they too have to live in ultimately.
This, I would contend is where things have been going wrong all the while. In diagnosing the phenomenon of insurgency in the Northeast, there has been an overriding tendency to confuse between the disease and symptom. At the end of it, the men behind the system, either deliberately as part of a self serving design or out of conditioned knee jerk responses, have always inclined towards tackling the symptom rather than the disease. No mistake about it, I imply here that insurgency in many ways is only the symptom of a much deeper malaise, just as the Wilson, (or for that matter much before him, Charles Dickens), implies that World War I was the symptom of a much more corrosive disease infecting Europe of the time.
The logical derivative from this argument is, because the disease was allowed to remain even after the symptom had been suppressed, it was only time before the symptom resurfaced, and such wars have been following a cyclic trajectory. This is also why, no amount of tough measures to end insurgency conclusively, including draconian Acts like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, AFSPA, have been in vain. Counterinsurgency measures of the kind have been, to recall a popular adage, “barking up the wrong tree”. The strategy to tackle the real disease is to make the brand of democracy followed, fit to purpose. The familiar appeal of “join the mainstream of life” must not amount to saying “join and perpetuate the ennui of a corrupt system”. Democracy must not be made into a system in which the corrupt is given the power and privilege to protect the corrupt. Of course it would have to be admitted that in grave illnesses, the symptoms as much as the disease can become life threatening, and must both be tackled. But tackling one and leaving out the other, as has been the case, is either the height of deception or else stupidity.
End corruption, promote fair play
Promoting equality is therefore the mantra to end the chaos in the land. Lest I am misinterpreted, let me throw in a caveat in advance. When I say equality, I do not mean equal distribution of wealth as if by entitlement. This would promote idleness as much as kill innovation, thereby give rise to another kind of corruption. I mean instead opening up opportunities equally to all. In this sense, maybe equitable is a better word here than equality. At this moment, the best are reserved for the rich, be it jobs or education, and the poor are left with the dregs the rich discard. This is a recipe for future disaster. To ensure this is not the case, the system must ensure everybody is given the same opportunity to develop and actualise their talents, and then have the best go to the most deserving. Only such an all round sense of fair play and justice can bring real, lasting peace, and not a peace defined only by an absence of overt violence. Let us not forget, as is often said of Sri Lanka, a war can be won without winning the peace. Unfortunately, such a scenario seems to be what the quest for peace has been about in the Northeast.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author