Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

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Theory and practice are inseparable partners and one cannot exclude the other

Lok Sabha Election in Manipur and the False Flag of Clash Between Theory and Practice

The runup to the 18th Parliamentary election in Manipur is proving to be very different from past trends. It is understandable that in small states like Manipur, the passions normally associated with elections have always been reserved for Assembly elections, which are fought on local issues. Parliamentary elections are relatively distant in the people’s psychology. First, these elections for Manipur are limited to just two seats – Outer Manipur and Inner Manipur, and everybody knows two can make little or no impact in democracy’s number game in the Lok Sabha of 543 seats.

Second, in recent decades, normally it is one national party or the other, or else parties partnering with a national party, which have been winning these seats. This being so, those winning the two seats would understandably not be able to speak outside of their party’s whip, declared or undeclared, for doing so can attract their party’s disciplinary action. Quite understandably again, as national parties, they would in cases of conflicting interests within any state, be constrained to reain on the middle path. If for instance, in the hypothetical situation of a bitter boundary dispute breaking out between Manipur and Assam, even MPs from either state would be constrained from speaking on behalf of their own states alone because their parties would have their interests and support bases on either sides. As to how those contesting on tickets of national parties now will be able to overcome these structural constraints will remain to be seen.

The Parliamentary elections this time is also engaging for some more compelling reasons, the foremost being the current ethnic mayhem which have been allowed to continue unchecked for 11 months now with no signs of a conclusion, although there are intermittent lulls in violence. There is no doubt wide disenchantment in the state with the ruling party, but nobody can say for sure if this would be reflected in the election results. Not just in Manipur, but everywhere in India, this is a grey area proven on so many occasions. Hence, the demonetisation distress and the COVID lockdown fiasco have had no adverse effect on the fortune of the ruling BJP in two successive elections. On the eve of the next election, there is now unfolding the electoral bond scandal which some say beats even the Bofors scandal of the late 1980s. But indications from opinion polls so far indicates even this is unlikely to have any substantial effect of the electoral fortune of ruling BJP.

The campaign has also thrown up many strands of debates on social media forums, newspapers as well as TV discussions. One interesting strand is that of established politicians cutting across party lines trying to protect their common turf of politics and make it their exclusive, thereby attempting to prohibit others from entering it. I was myself part of one such debate, and when I floated the idea of a need for our MPs to lobby outside the well of the Lok Sabha to build solidarities with more MPs from other states to push common issues together and have them reflected in government policies, quite surprisingly a politician on the panel responded that his practical knowledge of how politics work cannot be understood by others offering theoretical postulates. Probably the politician has not read books like “The Street-fighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties” by Tariq Ali, portraying the tough political campaign he himself, alongside people like Regis Debray and Bertrand Russel, took part to have big powers agree to a containment of the dangerous nuclear arms race of their time.

I joined this debate to other forums as well, for this duality of “ground reality” and “abstract intellectual reality” is truly engaging. No doubt about it that “ground reality” of experience and “abstract reality” of theories cannot be divested from each other. So many scholars have been saying this all the while in their different fields since the 20th Century when disillusionment with the European Enlightenment as the solution to mankind’s problem set in to pave the intellectual ground for postmodernism.

In my opinion few have encapsulated this postmodernist anxiety more profoundly than Frantz Kafka in his “The Castle”. In this grotesque novel, a land purveyor arrives outside the Castle (a parody of modern bureaucracy) in response to an advertisement for land survey. In the castle, the work order is misplaced and a search begins. Related departments are alerted to look for the lost file, a lower-level staff is appointed to coordinate, disputes between departments soon begin, to settle the disputes an inquiry is ordered etc, etc. till the matter of the lost file itself becomes the centre of a whole gamut of official activities. Some of the issues thrown up within the Castle triggered by the file search become very urgent and threatening. A whole new abstract reality comes alive and in it the purveyor waiting outside becomes irrelevant.

The point is, the two can become disconnected, and this is what has given the term “Kafkaesque”, a condition when these two indeed become too far separated as in the story of The Castle. The truth is, the two have to be closely related, each needing to constantly and periodically check on each other to validate their own thoughts and actions.

If Kafka has portrayed the absurdity of excessive abstraction, there are also those who go too far in citing “ground reality” as an excuse for failure, or else to claim certain knowledge as their exclusive domain and beyond the reach of others, as in the TV debate I was part of that I cited above. Sometime this “ground reality” is expressed in more sophisticated terms such as “lived experience”, implying the real knowledge of a given event can only be with those who have actually experienced that event.

This of course has been most powerfully and beautifully challenged by American scholar Jeremy Rifkin in his book “The Empathic Civilization”. He says humans are soft-wired for empathy, and this is not just an abstract idea but a neurological reality. This was accidentally discovered in an Italian laboratory in an experiment involving macaque monkeys. Humans most of all, but other sentient beings in varying extents, can actually experience the experiences of others, hence they can be sad when others are sad, happy when others are happy etc., although technically speaking they are not neurologically connected. Rifkin says this is because of what are known as “mirror neurons” that all of us have. Some have it more, others less, and in rare cases, it is missing in very few. Those in the last category are prone to become pathological sadists. “Mirror neuron” he says is one of the latest fields of intense study in medical science in recent times.

This being so, somebody does not have to be a beggar on the street to know what suffering beggars suffer, and can suggest means and policies to elevate their sufferings. Similarly, somebody does not have to first become a prostitute to understand what misery the latter go through and what are the likely circumstance that led them to the profession. This is also why I have in the past argued that males can be a feminist just as females can be hardened defenders of the oppressive patriarchal order. Citing “ground reality” hence can often become a means to exclude and cancel out other viewpoints, can be a bogey or a sign of intellectual sterility. The opposite is equally true, and no theory can stand if it is not validated by actual ground reality.

The dialectics is what is important. Neither the claim to actual experience nor the claim to theoretical knowledge can be autonomous of each other. Theories will have to be validated by what happens on the ground and what happens on the ground will have to be informed and be ready to conform to proven theories so that actions do not stagnate and ultimately become redundant. I am taking this idea from physicist turned philosopher Karl Popper’s book “All Life is Problem Solving”.

What Carl Popper says of this problem is especially interesting. In the animal world, especially lower down the evolutionary ladder, it would be only practical experiences (or ground reality) which determine their actions. In a jovial note Popper compares the problem-solving strategies of an amoeba and Albert Einstein. The amoeba will find a way to a problem, and all will keep following this path. If an obstacle comes up on the way (for instance insecticide), they will keep running into it and perish. However, if one of them discovers an alternate path, rest of the amoebas they all again keep following till path the next obstacle appears. Humans (Einstein) are different. They find a path to overcome a problem and they will keep questioning even that solution – whether there are other paths to the same problem, whether the path can be improved etc. Theory making never stops and unlike the amoeba, they do not have to make themselves part of an experiment (ground reality) to discover and prove the alternates, so that even if one experiment fails, they do not perish with it. Theory making ability is what has set humans aside from the rest of the animal world. This ability developed about 60,000 to 70,000 years ago according to scientists, when the Cognitive Revolution happened because of a mutation which rewired our neurons at a time when humans reduced to just about 100 reproduction capable couples and very near extinction because in the midst of the last Ice Age and the great extinction of life forms it caused. Yuval Noah Harari has an account of this in his multi million copies selling “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”.

Also demonstrating this interrelatedness between theory and practice, it will be recalled Einstein mathematically deduced the Special Theory of Relativity in 1905 but was proven by other experimenters practically only in 1919 during a total solar eclipse when light rays from stars beyond the sun coming close to the sun were seen bending because of the sun’s gravity. For this theory which radically altered the Newtonian understanding of gravity, Einstein received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921. In other words, humans are capable of abstract thinking and can make theories not immediately connected to ground reality, but ultimately these theories will have to be confirmed by practical reality.

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