The Koubru tussle is unfortunate, but this was in a way, as the cliché puts it, a perfect storm which has been building up to explode sometime or the other. In a way, it is good that the mounting steam within is discovering a safety valve and we do hope the tension subsides soon and a new equilibrium found so that normal life can return. As in any lasting resolution to any problem, it must however not be forgotten that the search must not be for a zero-sum answer where there are winners, and as a consequence, losers as well. What must be striven for instead should be for a situation in which there are no losers, and therefore winners only, even if this means readjustment of the old order in the spirit of what is now famously known in mathematics as the Game Theory, with very wide applications in practically all fields of life and academics. Mathematician John Nash, whose biopic “A Beautiful Mind” was an Oscar winning Hollywood hit, received a Novel Prize for his contribution to this theory and for providing profound insights into its applications in everyday life. Let those who are too hung up with divisive narrow identity politics realise that all of us in this land may not exactly be in the same boat, but we definitely are destined to be exposed to whatever storms that passes over our common homeland. All of us therefore have to stand together to be able to weather them all now or in the future. In this, if there are past differences, now is the right time for an inclusive reconciliation. Manipur must belong to all who calls it home from the heart, and is willing to promote and defend the common welfare of all. Like it or not, we have no choice but to live together, and the best way of doing this is to do it with love and understanding.
Two analogies, one hypothetical and the other taken from our living reality will illustrate how this theory can help us comprehend any given situation of conflict. Imagine a situation in which there are three people rounded up by the police for a suspected but unproven felony of two people, possibly two among them, of being members of a banned organisation. All three plead innocence but the police give them one condition. The first person to confess will be set free and remaining two will have to serve life prison term. However, if none of them confesses, all three will have to be in custody for three months and then set free. The best case scenario in such a situation is for each of the three to trust each other that none will betray the other two and hence all would remain silent for the three months in custody so all three can earn freedom together. The mutual suspicion of possible betrayal, and the temptation each of them speak up and be the one to be free immediately at the cost of condemning the two others, would have to be the foremost challenge in this situation.
The other analogy is a real-life situation faced by all of us on a daily basis and worsening by the day – the traffic chaos. In this scenario, the Game Theory can be seen as a demonstration of why freedom cannot be by any means described as a free-for-all, for the latter is what anarchy is about. In a traffic, nobody can expect to have the freedom to drive as they please, stopping, overtaking and turning wherever and whenever they want. Each has to sacrifice a bit of each’s freedom, and the space provided by the aggregate of these sacrifices is what makes it possible for the entire traffic to move smoothly. But this expected civility and generosity on the part of every individual driver is routinely overturned by people who like to break the queue or jump traffic light to overtake and get the unfair benefit, inducing more to also follow suit in the belief that if they don’t others would and get ahead of them. The results are the daily traffic jams we get to experience, robbing several hours of quality time directly and indirectly from each of us. In any organised community living, from the primitive to the modern State, freedom must have to be what consensually developed law and norms say is freedom. In the Hollywood classic from the 1970s The Ten Commandments this is said beautifully. After Moses (Charlton Heston) returns with the Ten Commandments cast in stone tablets after encountering God in the shape of the burning bush on Mt Sanai, he confronts his people at the foot of the mountain binging and revelling. He tells them of what God’s commandments forbidding them doing what they were doing. One among the crowd shouts back in anger: “We want freedom”. Moses shouts back firmly: “There is no freedom without the law.” Indeed, freedom is the most misused and misunderstood word. Few ever realise the notion can acquire a credible meaning only when set against a legal system, national or international.
What then would be the best case scenario in the Koubru case. First, this will entail acknowledging the fact that the world has changed and that we cannot always hang on to old redundant paradigms, many of which came out of the administrative architecture as well as policy exigencies of the British who introduced modern land revenue administration as they conceived was best suited to their larger designs. All hence have to be ready for administrative reformations, not necessarily just the incorporation of existing systems, but designed to fit into the demands of the modern era but also after ensuring the peculiarities of the place are not compromised unnecessarily. Of these many peculiarities is the outlook to land and nature of the indigenous world. In the immediate context of Koubru, a small beginning would be to leave the mountain alone to remain what it always has been for aeons until the advent of the modern materialistic contest for land ownership. The indigenous outlook to nature has always been radically different from this new approach world over. The relationship has always been marked by a sense of belonging to the land and not possessing it as the modern State has inclined everybody to think now. The friction between these two worldviews as we have witnessed is one of the starkest in the case of Native Americans even as the powerful American State continually pushes for transformation of their sacred mountains and vales into mundane temporal spaces for laying oil pipelines and for prospecting minerals.
The indigenous peoples across the world treat themselves as part of the natural world and not as aliens seeking to exploit its resources. They live in it and off it, but never think of exploiting it. Even this terminology is indicative of the modern State’s approach and intent, as economist E.F. Schumacher in his classic from the 1970s “Small is Beautiful” underscores. How can love and exploitation ever be part of the same system. The minute we think of exploitation and extraction of material benefits from nature, we also end up quantifying and limiting its value on material terms, unlike when we only think of being a part of it or revering it. A few communities considering a lake or mountain sacred or thousands of communities holding the same view cannot cause harm to these places or change their statuses for the worse in any way. Instead, it would only bind more people together and heighten the stature of these sacred sites. So let everybody love and revere Koubru, or nature as such, freely and not let anybody see it in terms of physical possession. Schumacher though does not associate this approach to the indigenous world, and instead calls it the Buddhist economy, where too the premium is on belonging not possession. The difference, as I have also written at several places, including one in the prestigious Economic and Political Weekly, can also be summarised as the difference between the notion of “The Homeland and the State”. For the indigenous world, “Homeland” is the approach to land and nature, and the premium is on belonging and transcendental relationship, and the “State”, relatively new to most of the indigenous world, has its premium on temporal exactness of possession status. The tension between the two is what the indigenous world is left to negotiate as they enter the new world order.
The “State” did begin to evolve and consolidate in pockets of the indigenous world as well. But the “State” must be seen just as a mechanism to manage an economy which was beginning to produce a surplus and consequently becoming more sophisticated. In it, a citizenry supports the emergence of a centralised bureaucracy to look after their needs away from their immediate occupations, through taxes they pay. This process generally begins with the domestication of crops, consequently food surplus and security. But as Yuva Noah Harari puts it in “Sapien” this can also be seen as the domestication of man by crops, for farmers thereafter had to spend almost the entire year, weeding, tilling, planting, watering, harvesting etc., unendingly year after year. The farmer, and in time others in other evolving specialised professions, therefore have to have their other needs looked after by yet some others, and in the process the emergence of the need for a centralised bureaucracy to manage and run such an economic network, paid for by their taxes in cash, kind or services. This was the rudimentary State, and without looking at it as a privilege status, it should be seen as born out of the necessity of such economies. Communities which did not have any sort of surplus economy, did not also have a need for such a bureaucracy. James Scott’s Zomian theatre (a term coined by Willem Schendel, a Dutch scholar who incidentally has visited the state and has given a lecture at the Manipur University), is a sketch of such a scenario.
A genome study would be interesting in Manipur. It would probably confirm the belief that the Imphal valley has always been a melting pot of identities. Meiteis today probably will have genetic footprints of all or most hill communities in varying degrees. Meitei surnames as well as family histories point to this too. The extrapolative speculation is, once upon a time the valley was waterlogged at most places but as the water receded, people began descending into it from the surrounding hills. This drying process is still on. Half a century ago Lamphelpat, Porompat, Sangaipat etc., were actual swamp areas. Today they have all been partially or fully reclaimed as either arable lands or real estates. Environmentalists are now even worried of all water bodies in the valley, including Loktak, may disappear. Numerous folklores also corroborate this. These early settlements were not united and in fact formed different communities forming little “Paddy States”, and the stories of their ultimate unification under different rulers and to come under a single identity banner is well known, and the seven clans (salai) of the Meiteis is also a likely indication of this genetic journey. The mountain peaks closest to the valley including Koubru, which are now considered sacred by the Meiteis, probably were the last stations of the proto-Meitei communities before they descended into the valley. Probably this ancient migration was heavier from the north (north of the valley is at a higher altitude therefore would have been earlier in drying), for in the Meitei tradition, after death, during the last rites, the body is placed with head towards the north so that the person may return to his or her original roots. The stories preserved in folk poetry such as that of Kadamba and Meilei Leishna Nongjumpal, serve as markers of many of these nostalgic archetypal memories. In other words, it may not be just platitude or homily that the hill and valley people are siblings, for this belief may actually have a genetic basis.
A widening gap in economic structures would have begun distancing the emerging “Paddy State” in the valley and the non-State communities living on subsistent economies in the hills from early times. The advent of the modern British colonial administration would have accentuated this. Not necessarily out of any ill will or intent, but out of necessity or the lack of a better model, wherever they went, the British administration always ended up dealing with the centralised bureaucracy of the “Paddy States” and usually left the non-State hills tribes alone, unless they had specific uses for them or their land. The story of the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation of 1873, which brought to life the Inner Line, and thereafter designating the territory beyond the Inner Line as unadministered “Backward Tracts”, “Excluded Areas”, “Partially Excluded Areas” etc., confirms this. There probably was no other way. Imagine having to deal with 200 different small villages, each village independent and sometimes hostile to the others. It would have been seen as better to partner with an existing State which already exercised control or can control these small villages. At about the same time, Christian missionaries found this out their own way too. It was also obviously not possible for them to preach or translate the gospel in 200 different languages, so they also ended up uniting these tribes into larger identities, promoting a single lingua franca for them. It cannot be a mere coincidence that the penetration of Christian missionaries into these non-State spaces and the expansion of British colonial administration always was a parallel process. The stories of Miles Bronson in Assam or William Pettigrew in Manipur are evidences of this, and this is repeated across the Zomian landscape spanning Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and beyond. In Manipur, after the British took over in 1891, this pattern of administration of demarcating between revenue and non-revenue land, coinciding with valley and hill, was introduced, therefore the clear-cut administrative hill-valley division which the state has inherited. The foothills, then designated Sadar Hills, was not clearly in either category. We can see the legacy of this outlook even in the fact that Kangpokpi is not a reserved constituency even today.
To stress the point, the Koubru flashpoint is unfortunate. However, it should be treated not as the initiating point for ethnic enmity but as a reminder to all that the idea of Manipur and the several paradigms that come along with it, including ethnic relations and land tenureship need a radical reinvention. This should be predicated first and foremost by the need to cater optimally to present and future harmony amongst its many communities, old and new, with the past just as an anchor to provide insights into possible ways forward. Let all come to terms with the reality that there is no option for them but to coexist, and this being so, the best way forward is to look to coexist peacefully as one, though different.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author