Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

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Public Morality and Death of Politics – Part 3

Death of politics is a global spectre. Some thinkers have traced the beginning of that process with the advent of western modernity itself. According to this viewpoint, with that epochal moment, the state began to look like a “household” which was committed primarily to managing our organic life itself. It was a shift away from the old Aristotelian world wherein polis (city-state) was distinctively different from the oikos (family-household). With that transformation, individuals have also been gradually reduced to being organisms who are predominantly driven by narrowed economic interests. Accordingly, their activities also began to predominantly centre on sustaining life itself. Correspondingly, there has also been a basic loss of freedom. And just as “instrumental rationality” comes to dominate the way people think and act, politics has also been largely reduced to law. These trajectories have marked the gradual demise of politics as a Janus faced reality.

Incidentally, at the beginning of the present century, this process of the death of politics seems to have taken a new turn. This new development exposes the limits of the idea and practice of politics, particularly the ones informed by liberalism and its cherished idea of the “rule of law”. In fact, some have looked at “9/11” incident in the US (and its aftermath) as one such instance that marks this turn. It presents a spectre wherein “exceptions” or “exceptional measures” have increasingly become “the norms”. This change, some suggest, could very well be a civilizational shift in human history. On the other hand, neo-liberal political economy seems to have more or less successfully reduced citizens to being consumers, the subjects whose well-being are to be chiefly defined in terms of consumption. This new political economy justifies itself by camouflaging its ideological character through a triumphant pronouncement of the demise of ideology as well. This surreptitious verdict on ideology compliments the death of politics.

These developments, although a global churning, has its specific local histories and manifestations. In other words, its manifestation differ from one case to another, particularly in terms of its historical condition and/or typology and degree. Thus, even as the same process also gets implicated in Manipur, the state has its own peculiarities, including the degrees of its decadence.

Take the case of the latest trust vote in Manipur Legislative Assembly. Some might have taken this incident as just another ordinary event that happens in the state, and accordingly normalized it as some kind of, as they say in Hindi, “hota hain, chalta hain” phenomenon. But make no mistake on this: this latest development is a blatant disregard for the established rules and conventions of parliamentary democracy. And in committing this act, the state has set some sort of a record. A columnist from outside the state writing in a news portal (where else it could be?) rightly notes that the manner in which the confidence vote had been carried out could be “the first” of its kind “in Indian history”! This is another notorious feather which has been added to the cap of Sanaleipak, an addition to its dysfunctional institutions, abuse of public offices and law, the pursuit of private interests, the use of unbridled violence, the intimidation and calumny, the assaults on personal freedom and dignity etc (see, Part 2). These are the markers of the local specifics of the death of politics.

Society: Unsettling Effects of Social Change

Different social and cultural forces are implicated in the ways state gets evolved in different parts of the world. Consequently, different kinds of state and variegated relationship between state and society have evolved in different parts of the world. In this sense, the nature of political culture in Manipur has something to do with the nature of our society and its relationship with the state. It is within this matrix, we can look at four broad issues that have led to the erosion of normative life in the state.

First, one crucial aspect that has marked the erosion of normative life has to do with some basic shifts in society itself. Our society in general has been in a state of a perceptible flux. Old ethos, norms and institutions are loosening their grips over the members of the society. And yet, new ethos have not established their preeminence in thought and conduct amongst the people.

Traditionally, normative life in our society flows from a framework which is rooted in personal and kinship ties or its extensions. Many leikais (or localities) carry family surnames (such as Hodam Leirak, Elangam Leikai, Sapam Leirak, Chingakham Leikai etc). This speaks of those familial and personal ties behind our social organizations. And traditional codes of conduct are also driven by status and traditional (religious-cultural) beliefs. In other words, ours is a society which is akin to what German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies described as gemeinschaft (a community in which social relations are shaped by familial and personal ties) with elements of social solidarity characterized by what Emile Durkheim calls “mechanical solidarity” (that is, wherein societal relationship is sustained by common values and beliefs arising out of similar activities that people do). This traditional forms of social life are quite different from those that are marked by impersonal ties — norms and obligations that are rooted in those ties — and codes of conduct that flow from reasons and rights. In sociological sense, it is different from those associated with gesellschaft (that is, a community in which relationship are rooted in norms and obligations of associational life characterized by impersonal ties) and “organic solidarity” (that is, societal cohesion rooted in interdependence that arises between people from division of labour or specialization of work).

With rapid urbanization and its concomitant new forms of economic life, there has been a palpable erosion of the above old structures or social forms of life. The emotional content, the etiquette and norms that guide social relations and activities which used to be shaped by the old structures have lost their hold over the members of the society. Consequently “houna lonchat” and “thak-si khasi” (broadly speaking those that pertain to protocols and decorum or codes of appropriate conduct) which were deeply rooted in gemeinschaft are under stress. In short, our community life and codes of conducts are increasingly not guided by old ethos of leikai.

Take for instance, the life events such as marriage and death ceremony. These events, crucial aspects of our existence as human beings, used to be predominantly handled collectively by the members of the leikai. Members of the locality used to partake in organizing and managing these events. Take a simple example of organizing a religio-cultural feast associated with death ceremony or marriage amongst the Meities. Girls and womenfolk of the Leikai joining the family in getting the ingredients of the dishes ready for the bamons or those hired cooks to prepare the dishes or the boys and menfolk of the locality setting up marquee for the function used to be the familiar socio-cultural practices. Such activities (re)produce the form of life and corresponding sense of belonging and community. Many of these activities have now been gradually outsourced, and new commercial enterprises have taken over these activities. With these developments, the solidarity of community life of leikais gets weaken, and individuation of family as a unit gets accentuated.

Indeed, rapid urbanization, especially during the last two decades, and new economic forces, have not merely changed the landscape in many areas. These developments have also brought about gradual change in the socio-cultural and psychological make-up of the people. However, the elements of old practices and institutions have not completely disappeared. Some old institutions have survived (e.g., Singlup, albeit increasingly with diminished prominence or significance).  There are new forms of collective life which have also emerged in the form of “Leikai Clubs” (leikai based modern associations). But these clubs have narrower or limited functions in the collective life of the leikai. Nor do the structures of these clubs completely determined by practical demands of modern associations such as those found in metropolitan cities (e.g., Residents Welfare Associations). In other words, the new ethos (of gesellschaft) has not established its strong hold over the people as yet. Thus, it’s a state of affairs which can be aptly described by the Manipuri expression, nga-marak, sha-marak, (literally, “between the aquatic and the terrestrial animals”), a state of being in a state of “neither here nor there”. Quite understandably then, the normative life, including the codes of conduct, of what’s wrong and what’s right, does not rest on a stable frame.

Differential Shifts Amongst Communities

A concomitant aspect of this flux is the loosening of the hold that religion has on the people in general. As sociologists, including one of its founding father Durkheim, suggested, solidarity of social life is critically related to religio-cultural ethos. In this regard, ethos of Vaishnavite tradition and cultural elements of Bengali bhadralok brought about by cultural diffusion used to be critical aspects that shaped the dominant ethos amongst the Meiteis (but by no means confined to it), especially the elites. It is exemplified by the familiar refrain “bevar”, a non-indigenous expression (pertaining to appropriate behavior as in “bevar yaoba or yaodaba”, albeit the word itself means “sans- appropriate conduct”). This expression is used synonymously with indigenous phrases such as “houna lonchat” and “thak-si khasi”. Any perusal of people’s conduct, more perceptibly during 20th century, one would see manifest aspects of those ethos, those norms and values that guide social relations and conduct of individuals.

Incidentally, Vaishnavite hold over the Meiteis have also gone through a change due to the revivalist assertions of old religious and cultural practices. This new assertion does not necessarily mean a resurgence of religious hold over the people. For, “revivalist” movement (e.g., Sanamahism) in the state is more of cultural and political assertions than religion or spiritual reckoning. This is a familiar aspects in many other similar phenomena across the globe.

Incidentally, amongst the Christians — faith of the majority of the scheduled tribe population in the state, religion has been crucial aspect of their collective life. Consequently, it seems that the hold that this religion has over the people and its concomitant institutional practices have enabled much of the “tribal” population to sustain a sense of community and a modicum of normative life at societal and community level. This seems to be more or less true in case of the Pangals as well. Notably, there has been visible assertions of Islamic ethos. These assertions are both political as well as religious in nature. Consequently, unlike the Meiteis, they seem to have more coherent normative life at the societal/community level due to their social and religious conditions. However, both these two significant communities in the state, like the Meiteis, are not immune to the corrupting influence of urbanization and modern political economy. After all they are parts and parcel of the larger society and polity of Manipur.

The above churnings become the social base of the death of politics as a Janus faced animal. But there are specifics subversions at the political sphere which are historical and/or exogenous in origin. These destabilizations have ripple effects on civil society as well. Let us turn to these crucial aspects which are at the heart of the death of politics in the state.

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