Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

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Reporting entrenched conflict and trauma related to it has never been easy

Representing Trauma of Prolonged Conflict is Sometimes Next to Impossible

The unprecedented bloody feud in Manipur between Kuki-Zo group of tribes and Meiteis crossed the four months mark on September 3, yet there is no sign of this tragedy concluding. Every now and then there are still reports of gun battles breaking out in the foothills shattering hopes for normalcy return.

The situation is compounded by a lack of will and competence of the State as well as the Central governments to exercise its legitimate might. At this moment, the combined strength of Manipur Police and Central forces would be close to a lakh pair of boots on the ground, yet things are still allowed to slip deeper into the abyss. It is true, this is not an easy task for the security establishment. They are not free (or inclined) to resort to “kinetic operations” as they are dealing with citizens not enemies, though a great number of them are now armed, as an officer of the Indian Army clarified.

As for the state government, from May 3 to now, the story has been about blunders. If it were not for its inability to take a full grip of the problem, in all likelihood, today’s crisis would have been stemmed on the day it broke out. Or, a better anticipation of potential trouble could have even prevented its outbreak altogether. The blunders continue, with grave and ugly consequences.

In June, chief minister N. Biren Singh, after a meeting with Union home minister Amit Shah in New Delhi, came back and informed the press that Shah assured him if the state police were to take care of the valley, he will have the Central paramilitary forces to ensure the hills are brought under control. A buffer zone was thereby created at the foothills to separate the two warring communities.

This has slowly but surely added another hue to the conflict. Soon enough, the Assam Rifles came to be seen by Meiteis as helping Kukis in the fight, just as Kukis came to see the Manipur Police as siding with Meiteis. In the ethnically polarised atmosphere, there would probably be some truth in such partialities of the forces as alleged, but what is atrocious is that this to a larger extent is a consequence of the official mandate given to each of these two forces. Worse still, even the two forces themselves have come to see each other as rivals. On certain occasions, they even came dangerously close gunfights with each other.

The Manipur crisis has also revealed another truth which has been a subject of much scholarship – the difficulty of representing trauma in a conflict situation.

Conflict reporting hence has never been easy for both those who are subjects of the conflict and trying to interpret it as they see it – or “subject analysts” as conflict scholars Dominick La Capra in his book Writing History, Writing Trauma calls them, as well as for those observing these same events from an objective and detached vantage. The ideal position is somewhere midway. The “subject analyst” who can rise above his/her subjectivity but without losing the intimate engagement with the crisis he/she is privileged or cursed with, or the “objective analyst” who possesses the capacity to see also from the vantage of those pulled into the conflict, are best suited to reach this position.

While the “subject analysts” must overcome what LaCapra has referred to as “fidelity to trauma” which blinds them to larger canvases within which their worlds are enclosed, the “objective analysts” must also be able to overcome the compulsions of what Tony Harcup has called “objectivity rituals” in his book Journalism: Principles and Practice, so that they will be able to see through the surface and feel the different pulses within the crisis. From the vantage of the “Objective” observer, things can reduce to the likeness of an event in a stadium or theatre, with the subjective forces driving the conflict completely obscured from their sight. They are also prone to conflating “objectivism” and “objectivity” in LaCapra’s words. Objectivism forecloses empathy, which is problematic, for traumas are not always objectively identifiable.

However, while the need for empathy is vital, the understanding of it should also not be confused as unchecked identification with those the observer identifies as victims, for this can also lead to what Capra again calls “surrogate victimage”, distorting vision.

In popular parlance these are often the “parachute journalists” though not as a rule. They fly in for a few days to the conflict arena, and under pressure to keep the terms of their assignments and to justify their presence, they resort to their known templates of conflict generalised from other conflict scenarios they are familiar with, and then begin seeing and interpreting what they see in the new situation using these templates as models.

After the outbreak of communal violence on May 3 at Churachandpur, media on both sides of the conflict would have been understandably taken by surprise. Violence of this scale was something none ever expected. In the initial days, they were reporting the developments as any routine, though difficult reporting assignment. However, it was when the conflict got extended and entrenched, and pictures of extensive sufferings became commonplace, that the problem of representation began to gradually seep in. This is also when predictions of scholars like LaCapra began manifesting, and reportage by local and “parachute” journalists began taking divergent paths. Neither in general is capable of “working through” the complex psychological maze of this conflict, in the words of Sual Friedlander in his engaging essay: Trauma, Transference and “Working Through” in Writing the History of the Shoah.

Quite ironically, a three strong fact-finding team of the Editors Guild of India, EGI, is now embroiled in the Manipur maze. The team flew in on August 7 afternoon and left on August 10 afternoon, and during their short stay were able to confidently declare who the victims and perpetrators were and chastised the local media for not seeing as they saw almost instantly. Their report is now being challenged by the local media under the All Manipur Working Journalists Union, AMWJU, and the Editors Guild of Manipur, EGM, as largely based on hearsay and not verified records. A damage suit is in the pipeline, and would be settled in court if no agreement is reached in the meantime.

This article was first published in The New Indian Express. The original can be read HERE.

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