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Illiberal democracies are on the rise everywhere, and this is not a good sign

That Democracy Can be Dangerously Divisive in Illiberal Societies is Amply Demonstrated in Manipur Priodically

Thankfully the threats of possible escalation of Manipur depressing hill-valley tension sparked by a protest over the non-tabling of the HAC Amendment Bill 2021 in the recently concluded Budget Session of the Manipur Assembly has been somewhat defused. While I cannot agree at all on the foundation the proposed Bill was built on, I see no reason why it should not have been tabled in the House for a thorough dissection of the presumed parameters of the proposal, so that its contents are laid bare for all to see before a vote is taken on whether the Bill should become an Act. In other words, the objection to the proposed Bill ought not to have been on the emotional ground that its advocates were trying to splinter Manipur, and instead it should have been rejected or accepted based on its merit.

I had already written last week as to why the fundamental presumption the Bill was seemingly motivated by, was gravely flawed. Its charge was that Manipur governments have been systematically investing around 97 percent of its budget in the valley districts leaving only 3 percent or so for the hill districts. I had also written in the same article how this was a deceitful subterfuge for this charge makes no effort to distinguish between Plan and Non-Plan expenditures. READ HERE

The reason I believe the Bill ought not to have been dismissed summarily but discussed and dissected is because of the possibility of misinterpretation of the dismissal by vested interests. Moreover, any conflict situation arising out of any kind of allegations, sound or flimsy, motivated or otherwise, needs to be addressed, discussed rationally and put to rest, or else they can remain as festering sores, to be nurtured back to trouble potential by those who benefit from these troubles.

The caveat however is, as in all illiberal democracies, those pushing such agendas, be it from the hills of valley, think they occupy a sacrosanct space higher than the Assembly to which they themselves as part of the public have given the mandate to lead them. Hence, in this case, even if the Bill had been introduced in the House and the move for its passage was ultimately defeated, the street politicians pushing it would have called it a betrayal. From the point of view of these activists who fancy themselves as leaders of apex bodies, what they think is the truth, is supposedly infallible, because they presume for whatever their justification that they are the ones who represent the true aspirations of the people.

Watching the interplay between Manipur’s formal politics of the electoral kind and those of the street variety, it is difficult not be reminded of the commentary by Indian-American journalist and scholar Fareed Zakaria in his critically acclaimed book, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad. One of the points that Zakaria makes is, democracy necessarily have to be predicated by a culture of liberalism. If this is not the case, democracy can actually be dangerous. Zakaria illustrates this contention by taking two examples – that of the erstwhile Yugoslavia and Hong Kong.

The case of Yugoslavia is dramatic, especially since Zakaria’s book was published in 2003, when the disintegration of this once Communist country between 1991-1992 preceded by ethnic cleansing wars between its many ethnic groups, all of which outraged as well as astounded the world, was fresh in mind. This was also the time the former USSR was heading for its complete disintegration in December 1991. Despite its multi-ethnicity and all the problems accompanying it, Yugoslavia was holding out as a strong and united Communist country under the presidentship of Marshal Josip Broz Tito, till it decided to adopt Democracy after the demise of the USSR.

This, Zakaria notes, is the most spectacular demonstration why democracy can be dangerous in an illiberal social environments. Liberalism in this context is about a belief in individual rights strongly moderated by a liberal humanistic outlook and liberal institutions such as liberal judiciary, liberal education, liberal laws. In particular, the understanding is, individual rights are not to be at the cost of the same rights of another. It is also a culture in which those who lose out in the contest for State power continue to belong to the same team as the winners and also enjoy the same rights.

In the absence of this culture, democracy takes on the visage of a catalyst for division between different interest groups in the contest for State power. This danger is even more acute in a multi-ethnic situations, for sharp ethnic fault-lines are often encouraged, each ultimately becoming incrementally more irreconcilable with the others, even to the extent of causing violent campaign against each other.

The case of Hong Kong is a contrast. Till as late as 1997, this erstwhile city state was a colony of Britain, therefore did not have a leadership that had the mandate of the people. Yet, even as a colony, what it inculcated in plenty was a culture of liberalism — liberal courts, liberal education and overall belief in the greater common good achieved by strict adherence to and respect of rule of law. When Britain decided to leave Hong Kong and Hong Kong decided to turn to democracy, the transition was smooth and devoid of any trauma.

The Manipur case is inclined more towards what the former Yugoslavia faced. Manifestation of illiberalism is everywhere, and is not particularly restricted to any region or ethnic group, but since the discussion here is of the amendment of the HAC specified in Article 371-C of the Constitution of India and with it the Autonomous District Council, ADC, which was brought into being in 1971 by the Manipur (Hill Areas) District Council Act, 1971, let me focus on these latter issues. What needs to be noted is also the fact that both these institutions were set up while Manipur was still a Union Territory, therefore the Manipur Assembly had little to do with them, and that they came into being by Parliamentary edicts.

Of the Article 371 series, specifying autonomy models for different peripheral regions in India, most specifically the Northeast, Article 371-C which applies to Manipur probably is most dilute and vague. It is just a two paragraph insertion in the Constitution, the first para saying “the President may (emphasis on “may” is mine), by order made with respect to the State of Manipur, provide for the constitution and functions of a committee of the Legislative Assembly of the State consisting of members of that Assembly elected from the Hill Areas of that State, for the modifications to be made in the rules of business of the Government and in the rules of procedure of the Legislative Assembly of the State and for any special responsibility of the Governor in order to secure the proper functioning of such committee.”

The second and last para says: “The Governor shall annually, or whenever so required by the President, make a report to the President regarding the administration of the Hill Areas in the State of Manipur and the executive power of the Union shall extend to the giving of directions to the State as to the administration of the said areas. Explanation.—In this article, the expression “Hill Areas” means such areas as the President “may”, by order, declare to be Hill Areas.” In summary this para merely states the Governor is to periodically give advice on the administration of the Hill Areas, and that even the idea of Hill Areas is nothing, given, inherent or permanent, but depends on what the President “may” by order declare as Hill Areas.

If modifications have been made, formally or informally by convention, to the idea or functioning of the HAC, it would be by the State Assembly within its own jurisdiction, but without crossing the boundaries set by the Constitution. Whatever the state had chosen to modify, the state can again modify further or abrogate altogether, but without infringing on what is edified in the Constitution. So there was nothing wrong in introducing the HAC Amendment Act 2021, to see if the Assembly agrees to the modifications sought. But by the same argument, there is nothing wrong in the State Assembly deciding not to pass it to become an Act. It is also perfectly legitimate for interested parties to advocate and campaign without resorting to disruptive means for the modification they desire, but they also have to realise the ultimate decision, in agreement or against their own campaign, rests with the elected Assembly.

This will now take us to the Autonomous District Council, ADC, and the perennial problem the institution has been plagued by from the time of its inception in 1971. Obviously, after Manipur became a State in 1972, the ADCs came to be under the jurisdiction of the Manipur government. But trouble soon arose on the charge that the six ADCs in the hill districts had been reduced to lame ducks because of government apathy. Leaders in the hills, most of them either elected members of the Legislature or with ambition to be one, took a resolution in 1990 that no further election of the ADCs would be allowed and demanded instead the replacement of Manipur’s ADCs with the 6th Schedule ADCs, first introduced in undivided Assam. Naga Hills of course refused it from very start on the plea that they would have nothing less than sovereignty. Those old enough to have lived in those heady days will remember the opposition to ADC election in Manipur was on the slogan, “No 6th Schedule, no Election”.

Twenty years later, in 2010, Manipur ADCs were revived but again amidst controversies. But before that there were some interesting inside stories, which I as a veteran journalist am privy to. In the decades I have been reporting politics in Manipur, I became very close friends with some of the Governors. Among them are the late Lt. Gen. V.K. Nayar, who took me along on several of his field tours. Padma Shri O.N. Srivastava, with whom I shared many interests including nature photography, and was a patron of the Imphal Amateur Photo Club, of which I am still a member. But most interestingly in regard to the ADC controversy, the late Ved Maruah, who very often invited me over for dinner either for a tete-a-tete or else for friendly discussion of developments in the states. He was also the man who made me a member of the Manipur University Syndicate, the highest decision making body of the university, as the Chancelor’s nominee for two terms before MU became a Central University. The first time an attempt was made to revive the long-suspended ADCs was during a short spell of “suspended animation” of Manipur’s ever turbulent Assembly in the face of perpetually defecting legislators. The state administration during that period was run by a Governor-in-Council with Maruah as head. During the preparation for the ADC revival, Maruah during one of our informal meetings confided to me that he has been having a beeline of leaders asking for deferment of the AC election decision, and to his surprise all of them were MLAs or ex-MLAs from the hill districts.

It was a surprise for me too, but one that got me thinking and helped connect dots I have been intrigued by for a long time. The opposition to local self-governance, not just in the hills but also in the valley, has always been quietly spearheaded by local MLAs. In the Panchayat system in the valley area, the problem has been quite similar, and no Pradhan of any Gram Panchayat has been allowed to have a free run, with fund flow bottlenecks always developing because of non-cooperation by local MLAs. The truth is no local MLA in the hill or valley want to see parallel power centres with handles on developmental funds in his constituency. When a Pradhan or an ADC chairman becomes too popular, he can become a challenge to the MLAs position should the former decide to graduate to Assembly level electoral politics. This is understandable too, for in small constituencies as in Manipur, where voter numbers average 30,000 to 40,000 and victory margins can be just a few thousands, the rise in popularity of a local self-government leader can indeed be reasonably seen a future challenge to any local MLA.

A point to be noted here is, even the 6th Schedule ADCs in other Northeast states, are faced with similar fates. For instance, why are the three 6th Schedule ADCs in Mizoram always in a political quagmire. Chairman of one of the ADCs in this state was even arrested on corruption charge recently. The 6th Schedule ADCs in Tripura and Karbi Anglong are also not much more than damp squibs. It is also interesting to note that politicians who once championed setting up these 6th Schedule ADCs generally end up becoming MLAs or else MPs. The story is not too dissimilar when it comes to Nagaland’s Village Development Boards, VDBs, either.

Among other things, liberal democracy is also about not needing the creation of mythical enemies to take advantage in electoral politics. Illiberal democracy works just the opposite way. In them, those promoting their own careers, also have a way to divert their failures to others. Hence, the blame for the failure of the ADCs as well as the HAC’s toothlessness is generally attributed, directly or by insinuation, to the valley, as witnessed in the deceitful subterfuge in the allegation that the valley has been getting 97 percent of developmental funds leaving only 3 percent for the hills. If the HAC or the ADCs needed to be upgraded, this ought to have been sought with arguments which have merits and strengths of their own, and not built on negative energies of blame games.

Come to think of it, not many in the valley would even know, or be bothered to know what and how the ADCs work. If tomorrow the ADCs become bustling centres of civic interaction and its buildings were monumental showpieces, probably they would become tourist attraction for those in the valley looking for a break from their dreary routines of urban life. The only time they would show signs of protest or resistance would be if they come to believe, or if they have been brainwashed into believing any particular development is inimical to the integrity of Manipur – a result of a historical baggage they carry and often burdensome for them without realising it. I have been also advocating for the shedding of this baggage to the extent they are a hindrance to the valley Meiteis in adjusting comfortably and profitably to the new realities the State is faced with.

My appeal remains the same. All parties in Manipur must take courage to moderate all the attributes of illiberalism which is making democracy’s contest for power dangerous for themselves and others. The culture of creating imaginary enemies as excuses for sabre rattling antics to consolidate vote banks must be dismantled, and in its place, a more responsible politics of making judgment only on rational assessment, buttressed by a courage to take blame for one’s own failures instead of scapegoating others must be made to become the norm. Only then would all these noise and clamour created by shallow and mischievous cabals will come to be put in their rightful places.

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