The controversy over the Manipur government’s September 15 diktat to have authors and publishers seek prior approval of a committee the government has set up for any book on Manipur they wish to publish has still not died down. It is also revealing that this was not as much of an outrage in the state as it is continuing to be outside. The local intelligentsia met the move rather tamely, his notwithstanding it did not fail to create strong ripples of shock in the rest of the country. Very rarely does Manipur figure widely in national news, but this time it did. Unfortunately again this time too it was for reasons that the state has nothing to be proud of.
True there were provocation that a majority in Manipur, not just the government felt about claims in a book that seriously undermined Manipur, giving ammunition to its detractors to rally against its interest. But there are more civilised ways of dealing with such situations. The publisher of the book could have been taken to court for defamation and falsifying history, and if the author of the book were still alive, he too could have been taken to legal account and made to bear the responsibility for the patent public falsehood he generated, knowingly or otherwise. Such a move would have spared all the embarrassment the state is facing at this moment, as well as the image of authoritarian bigotry it has earned before the world.
It is not certain if the order in question can stand legal scrutiny. It probably would not, although Article 19 of the constitution which guarantees freedom of thought, belief and expression among others, also has a caveat that reasonable restrictions can be placed on these freedoms if the authorities are of the opinion any of these freedoms has the potential to cause public disorder. Can the government’s move be classified as reasonable restriction? Whatever it is, somebody would first have to challenge the government order in court, and it is doubtful if anybody would want to stick his or her neck out to do so, even from among the section of the academia working on Manipur and for whom writing books on Manipur would understandably be an important career ambition.
This growing tendency to launch attacks on intellectual freedom in Manipur however is not new. It has been in the making for a long time and is indeed something which has made the BJP government in the state distinct from all previous governments. It may be recalled, a BJP government first assumed power in the state in March 2017 and then retained it for another term in March 2022. In its first term itself the government made its intent to silence all critical voices clear.
The cases of social activist Erendro Leichombam and TV anchor Kishorechandra Wangkhem, should suffice to sketch this disturbing picture. They were arrested and imprisoned several times for being critical not so much of the government but of the BJP and its leaders. Initially, some of these arrests invoked sedition charges against the accused, but whenever the courts found no sedition in these cases, they were rearrested under the draconian National Security Act. Such was the extent of benumbing of the intelligentsia to these atrocities aimed at muzzling dissent that even a section of the All Manipur Working Journalists Union, AMWJU, disowned their compatriot Kishorechandra in his time of distress. Others too remained largely silent on the matter, including the academia which was also conspicuous by their silence.
Other than these two high profile cases on which the national media too zoomed in, there were several other cases. Indeed, police visits on individuals for not just articles in newspapers but also for social media posts had become commonplace. These overreactions of the government to an extent were understandable in the BJP’s first term which in its first avatar was as a minority government hanging on a string, on the verge of a collapse even by the slightest tremor caused by disenchanted partners and indeed its own MLAs. It should be recalled here that the BJP came to power in its first term under controversial circumstances, and with liberal help from an openly partisan governor at the time, Najma Heptulla. The second term of course comfortably belongs to the BJP. By this time a greater section of the media and other critical voices in the state had been also been tamed considerably.
But as they say, a leopard cannot and does not shed its spots and hence the present outrageous order on book writing.
However, condemnable as the order may be, it must be said that much of the blame would have to be shared by the Manipur academia for not being able to ensure this intellectual gate keeping role the government has now assumed, remained he academia’s exclusive preserve. It is because they were slack in this responsibility that the government felt justified to intervene. The state intelligentsia must be willing to be self-critical in looking into this too, and not try to sweep this under the carpet because it hurts the community they are part of.
A consideration of the provocation that caused the government to resort to this draconian means should make this clear. The rumbles began when a Ph.D thesis by a late Brigadier who served in Manipur was published as a book: “The Complexity Called Manipur: Roots, Perceptions & Reality” and came on public domain. Whatever else the thesis said of Manipur, it also claims that the territory which the Manipur King Bodhachandra agreed to merge with the Union of India on October 15, 1949 constituted only 700 sq miles of the Imphal valley.
Several scholars now have come out with documentary evidence that the claim is baseless, including in an article published in IRAP https://imphalreviews.in/was-manipur-only-700-square-miles-in-1949/ The question is, how did this false information get past he Ph.D., supervisory gatekeeping. The alibi forwarded is the writer cited the information from another published book. This cited book in turn apparently got its inspiration on the matter from a press statement by an ethnic nationalist group inimical to the idea of Manipur.
This defence however opens up another pandora’s box. It is common knowledge that there are too many books today passing off as academic work from publishers who care little for peer reviews or establishing authenticity of arguments in the works they choose to publish, so long as the authors pay the publishing cost and they get to keep the returns. In the hunt for Academic Performance Indicator, API, points so necessary for career advancement in the academia, a nexus between these publishers and sections of the academia, not just in the Northeast but everywhere in India, is only to be expected. Indeed, this is very much a reality today.
It is also a fact that a spurious argument with no evidentiary support, given a doctoral clearance or published as an academic book acquires another life of its own. They get cited in other careless research works to authenticate other spurious arguments. An incestuous and grotesque ecosystem is the result, where spurious offspring of spurious arguments give life support to each other. The result is, a great deal of the so called academic publications emanating from many universities in India have little worth as academic works.
While I was a fellow of the prestigious think tank, the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla during 2012-2014, this became very clear. The IIAS routinely invites sponsored book fairs at the institute premises, and fellows are expected to recommend books on the subjects of their researches for the institute’s library to buy and keep. In one of them, upon request of a book promoter acquaintance, against my better judgment, I agreed to include a few books on the Northeast published by these obscure publishers, in my recommendation list. The purchase committee however rejected them as they were thought unworthy for the shelves of their prestigious library, making me a little embarrassed and regret my compliance to the request of the acquaintance.
This unholy book publishing nexus in the academia is strongly reminiscent of the world inside Kafka’s “Castle” which keeps everybody within it engaged. However, this life has meaning and relevance only within the castle, and is completely alienated from the reality outside the castle. Often however, the castle has to seek authentication from the real world outside for its own sustenance. It is on these occasion that often things fall apart.
This very briefly, is what the current outrage over the curb on intellectual freedom in Manipur is about. It is a clash between a despotic regime determined to flatten all dissenting voices, grabbing the first opportunity to hit out against a degenerate world inside the self-constructed ivory tower of an academia whose relevance outside of their cloistered community is depleting dangerously.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author