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Democracy not underlined by a culture of liberalism can easily descend into "mobocracy"

Manipur Assembly Session Brevity May Have Been Driven by Some Legitimate Concerns of Negotiating Mobocracy

After four months of uncontrolled mayhem, Manipur’s communal conflict between Kuki-Zo tribes and Meiteis is acquiring the face of a full-blown civil war. Nothing can be more tragic but it has to be admitted that this conflict was in the making for a long time although it physically manifested explosively only on May 3 and thereafter. The insensitive manner in which the government was handling some very sensitive issues such as migration, drugs and forest affairs, must count as some of these. It also now seems it will no longer be easy to end this violent faceoff anytime soon and hostilities can be predicted to drag on for months, or even years.

It is surprising that the State or the Central government have not made any serious move to clamp down with the might of the state’s own security organs to end the violence, considering there probably would be a combine strength of police and central forces of at least a lakh personnel. If they had been willing, the violence outbreak could have ended on May 3 itself, the first day of the of the ongoing the mayhem at Torbung in Churachandpur district. As a matter of fact, if the government’s intelligence wing had been more alert and sharper, the May 3 violence itself could have been prevented. But no point crying over spilt milk now. What is important is to search for a way forward. And as in any conflict resolution project, there will have to be gives and takes from all sides.

Unfortunately, four months after, rather than improve, things are only getting worse. Pitched gunbattles on a daily basis are being reported at the foothills adjoining Bishnupur and Churachandpur districts at the Naranseina and Phubala areas since August 29, the day the state Assembly was held briefly, claiming at least five lives so far. Despite this, there are no moves still by either the State or Central government to clamp down. It needs no great foresight to come to the conclusion that for peace and normalcy to return, the ongoing violent hostility must first end. This can come about if government forces stepped in to disarm both sides, or else civil society organisations on both sides begin taking peace building seriously and facilitate the start of a reconciliation process through dialogues.

Quite to the contrary, it is increasingly becoming evident that the government is not contemplating any such intervention, and civil society bodies are also too much caught up with immediate challenges and compulsions to see anything beyond. Not to talk about intervention, we have seen how the Central government had to be literally forced into convening a Parliament session through the unusual strategy of the Opposition of moving a “No Confidence Motion”. Even there, the focus of the debates in the House was more about charges and counter charges between the Ruling and Opposition benches with an eye to the 2024 Parliamentary election, and less about evolving a strategy to contain the violence in Manipur.

In similar manner, the state government too resisted calls for convening an emergency Assembly session to discuss the crisis in the state, and ultimately conceded, not so much in any eagerness to discuss and thrash out a solution to Manipur’s burning issue but to avoid a possible Constitutional crisis for failing to hold a session within the stipulated six months between two consecutive sessions. It may be recalled the budget session of the state Assembly concluded on March 3 so that on September 3, the mandated six months interval would have lapsed.

When the Assembly was finally summoned, it was scheduled only for a day. Even this was resented by the Opposition who wanted it to be at least a week long. However, on the day of the session itself, there was more drama designed to shorten the session to just a little over 11 minutes before being adjourned sine die, much to the outrage of the Congress and other onlookers.

At least in the case of the Assembly, to be fair, we have to keep in mind certain legitimate and not so legitimate inhibitions the state government would have suffered from. The first and the most obvious of these is, under the BJP’s power structure, the state government is no longer autonomous of its Central high command whims. As in any patron-client relationship, everything and anything it does have has to first get a nod from their Central leaders. So if the Centre has not spoken out on the Manipur issue, the State would not speak either.

Indeed, the Union home minister, Amit Shah, put it succinctly in an answer to a query by the media whether there would be any changes in the Manipur government leadership or if Presidents Rule was being contemplated considering the State government’s colossal failure in containing the violence in the state. His response was a definitive “no” to the suggestions and his reason was that the state government was “cooperating” well with the Centre. This is a pity, but there is nothing much that can be done about it immediately, for as the Americans say, this is the way the ball bounces at this moment. A more fitting answer should come in the next election, but given the nature and temperament of the Manipur’s electorate, this also is doubtful.

The second of these inhibitions may deserve a more considerate assessment. The Assembly session was concluded swiftly without an substantive discussion on the current crisis. From the Ruling benches, this was on account of the protest by the Opposition. This is lame, for as of now, of the 60 MLAs, only five belonging the Congress sit on the Opposition benches. The rest have all either merged with the ruling BJP or else have pledged support to it. Nothing to be surprised by this migratory instinct of elected legislators either, for again, this is the way the ball of politics bounces in Manipur.

But the reason for the brevity of the Assembly session, and the avoidance of any discussions or resolutions on the Manipur crisis may have been because of legitimate worries and reasons, unlike what commentators of many different social standings, and the larger public as such presumed. For most, this was an abject and outrageous disregard of public concerns and indeed the future of the state.

Two possible scenarios should illustrate why the presumptions of these commentators and public may not have been on the mark. One, in deference to street protestors in the valley who were fervently demanding it, imagine a resolution had been moved on that day on the territorial integrity of Manipur. Leave aside the ten Kuki MLAs were absent citing security reason and whose demand for a separate administration had indeed made such a resolution seem urgent, there were also ten Naga MLAs, who were present in the Assembly on the day but may also have abstained, not because of any disagreement on the need for Manipur’s territorial integrity but because of their own compulsions to remain quiet on the issue on account of the ongoing peace talks to settle the Naga issue with the Government of India.

Amidst the charged atmosphere of Manipur today, such an eventuality would have added a dangerous dimension to Manipur already hostile ethnic relations. In fact, it is not inconceivable that there had been a prior tacit agreement in the ruling coalition with the Naga MLAs to quickly conclude the session just to make it just a formality to avoid a lapse of the prescribed six months between Assembly sessions and thereby avoid discussions on any of these sensitive issues.

In another scenario, consider the Naga MLAs, even as a formality were to initiate a debate on the rollback of the creation of seven new district in 2016, with a view to bring back Kangpokpi to Senapati from which it was bifurcated, and likewise Tengnoupal to Chandel of which it was originally a part, in a symbolic reclaiming of territories which they feel originally belonged to Nagas but now have been made Kuki dominated districts. This too would have added another level of possibly violent churning to the current crisis.

What is also noteworthy is also the temperament of the people of Manipur by and large. They vote leaders to lead them, but have not enough faith in the leaders they select. Hence, even the Legislative Assembly where the elected leaders are meant to debate and formulate laws to govern the state is not given any measure of independent thinking and debating room. All they want is for the Assembly to endorse their wishes by giving them the legislative stamp of authority. Should the MLAs deviate from this wish, they can face the violent ire of their people, be it Kuki, Naga or Meitei.

In his critique of democracy, this is what German philosopher Carl Popper called “Mobocracy”. This is what democracy ends up looking like in the hands of people still not ready for the liberalism democracy demands. In Manipur, leaders are seldom trusted by the very people who elect them, yet at elections, these same leaders always succeed in buying votes of these same electorates. This is indeed a chicken and egg story, where it is virtually impossible to decide where this grave ill originates. In all likelihood, both the chicken and the egg are equally to blame for this vicious cycle of flawed democracy. This is also undoubtedly one of the most serious and endemic tragedy of the state.

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