Producing distress— Democracy in Manipur

Aheli Moitra

While formulating the practice of democracy in India, the state building machine short wired on the complexity of communities it claimed to be in its circuit. Manipur is a case in point, wherein the electoral process is a sham; not just an abysmal waste of money and resources but of efforts that could, otherwise, have been directed towards political construction of another kind. With sediments of conflict forming fertile ground for more, does playing democracy add another undesired deposit? Let’s look at the layers.

Ethnic groupies and the “underground”
Consider the complexity—Manipur state has nearly 40 ethnic groups squeezed into a space of 22,347sq.kms. The Imphal valley houses a majority Hindu Meitei population, sprinkled with Pangal (Muslim Meitei),and small percentage of a rising population from the hills and Indian migrants. The hills consist of 40% of Manipur’s population, ethnicities ranging from Hmar, Paite, Zoumi, Nepali, Kuki to Naga living in Churachandpur, Chandel, Tamenglong, Senapati and Ukhrul. More or less all ethnic collectives find representation in armed movements (popularly, and ridiculously, called the “underground”, not drawing distinction between mafia and movement) barring, perhaps, the Nepali and Indian migrants who are pushed around by un/armed components of bigger ethnic groups. 

Caught in an impasse, the Naga want to unite under an integrated unit (including Naga lands from Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and, ideally speaking, Myanmar) while the Meitei want to maintain the integrity of territory they see themselves to own, i.e., all of Manipur. Neither Naga nor Meitei see themselves, culturally or politically, as Indian. Both want to maintain their cultural and political position as independents, and movements from both sides focus on loosening the Indian state’s noose. So they spend most of their time hating each other, and India. India, itself colonised and wounded repeatedly, does not like this attitude and has spent all its divorcee life wounding, perhaps irreparably, the region through militarisation with spurts of political settlement like situations thrown in. This has angered the Naga and Meitei even more, and their leaders have spent a lifetime defending themselves with more arms, creating a cold war situation in the region with low intensity conflict a permanent backdrop.

Amidst all this, the Kuki population has risen, migrating in from Myanmar. Impossible to be nomadic in the new world, they have settled down fast in the hills and lay claim to a ‘Kuki Homeland’ on land the Nagas claim to be their first of all. The Kukis have their own armed groups operating in the region to secure the threatened position of their people. Ethnic clashes have broken out between the Naga and Kuki, continually giving rise to demographic shifts. 

Everyone would like to win over the smaller tribes spread around Churachandpur and Chandel. In Churachandpur, the Hmar, Paite or Zoumi are more Mizo than Meitei but more Meitei than Naga or Kuki, culturally speaking. The Anal, Maring, Kom etc. in Chandel are, in some aspects of culture, more Kuki than Naga but had rather be under the Naga banner than Kuki.
Barring some alliances, everyone fights everyone else—these days in the form of electoral politics, a mere extension of armed rebellion, now from within (the legislature) than without.

The society is civil
Then there is the civil society—supposed to be a non political body of each tribe or apex body of several put together—whose role should be to maintain the fine line between violent nationalism and democratic politics. Yet be able to empower their societies by encouraging inter and intra level dialogue. Faced with crises of identity, they play neither role, instead towing the harsh lines that armed movements set; leaving the society with no alternative framework of thought or conduct, leaving politics always vulnerable, despair always hushed. 

This vulnerability is visible throughout the electoral process. In effect, the polity never gains a deeper understanding of how to use democratic politics in their own way, to protect their land and culture, without being bought, sold or threatened. Self determination entails, it would seem, some amount of reflection and understanding of rights outside the box of armed revolution too as an on going process. Surely, it’s not one achievable candy without internal evolution; surely, it is more than press statements. It is one thing to expect the resolution of the national issue to take care of all outstanding matters, but hollow without the call for justice on rights abuse whilst taking part in the abuser’s democratic processes. How does the society maintain good governance while addressing its political rights? Ask your local civil society leaders.

Gender- political marginalisation by the marginalised
Those crying hoarse about the “Naga cause” in Manipur fielded no women candidates from the last election to this. After more than six decades of violent conflict and active participation of women in peace making (yes, even on a political scale), men here say women will not be able to articulate on or congregate support for big issues. This election is important, they say. It will change everything, they say. But there is inability to bring societal changes to put women in a position to head that change. Among “liberal” views, women are expected to come up on their own, some magical simulation expected of them while the push-down factor remains constant. They can articulate better than many men in the political scenario. They can be effective. They can be powerful. But change is desired without the will to internally evolve.

Political and civil branches of the society mouth the same men-centric thoughts that have, clearly, been unable to produce any desired effect apart from some basic defence of the land. What then is the basis for unnecessarily being part of a democratic game that ensures equality, if no equity principle is acceptable?

Agency- inter and intra level complications
As well known, people here vote for an individual rather than a party. Agency (of the individual) takes precedence over structural ideology. 
Suppose, in Naga constituency A,
X = Naga People’s Front (NPF) candidate
Y = Congress candidate
Z = Independent candidate

There are two types of problems that arise:
1.    In the lack of governance, the population of A is dependent on individuals from the community for a whole lot of “favours” that should, originally, have been taken care of by the government. In the lack thereof, the agency becomes more important than the structure, i.e., the party (and eventual government) matters less than the individual in line for an assembly position. To some of the electorate, Z might have worked ardently to provide proper medicine or cleared a landslide in an area to ensure children go to school and farmers to the field. So even if the electorate believes in the NPF’s manifesto, it owes allegiance to Z over X. Since no one person can handle all governance, the work, and therefore the votes, are scattered leaving the community stuck in a cycle of democratic hell. 

In one case, Y’s father, an important Manipur politico, had feasted in a voter’s house once upon a time. Since then, his family, and perhaps the clan, has always voted for Congress, whether or not NPF made sense. Obviously there are many others similarly faithful to the Congress owing to its long presence in Manipur’s politics. Other families, especially poor ones, will go for the money on offer from the Congress (anywhere from Rs.500 to Rs.2500 per household in some villages to Rs.5000 in poll queue in some booths) because legislators have never lived up to any word post elections anyway. This kind of structural corruption of the democratic process is never highlighted by the media or the State, letting attention be completely consumed by violence. Hushing this up leads to those left with no financial means to counter money with, many atimes, violence, a highly noticeable form of opposition the world has been able to put up to the buck. It inflates the value of a vote without empowering the voter on accountability, eating away at her/his morality. It strains family ties when one member finds more value in economics than politics. Worse, it allows only those people to be candidates who can “afford it” rather than those fit to be leaders. 

    In another village of A, commitment of votes, decided by the village as a whole under the village authority, might have been given to Z before X was given a candidate ticket. Such commitments cannot always be shaken and NPF, even if sincere, was too late. In some other villages, the emotional attachment to X was none compared to, say, Y. So till Y got a ticket, votes were half heartedly promised to X. The only thing that remained constant throughout was the universal support to NPF’s ideology which might not translate into votes. It is why a “referendum” (however “emotional”) is beyond the diameter of State assembly elections and a different language (application of article 3-4, for instance) could have been deployed to slight the effect of post election ridicule the Nagas, unanimously, might face.

2.    But if we are to assume that power of the ballot works, then there’s a separate kind of complication—candidate selection. Neiphiu Rio, in his speech to Ukhrul, asked Southern Nagas to “give up individualism, tribalism and villagism to take up Nagaism” instead. What is “Nagaism” if not the polity of the village and cultural context of the tribe? He was talking about not letting those lines divide the political whole. Is it possible, though, through these kinds of elections and party politics, as coalition democracy postulates? Is the independent and meaningful selection of X possible in this jumble? Take, for instance, the Thangkul. They see themselves segregated into four geographic zones—North, South, East and West—based on historics. As follows the discourse between Kohima and Mon, the Western Thangkul perceive themselves to be more advanced than the rest (modern education and religion having come to them quicker). Repeated selection of leaders from the West (State and non State), according to people in the region, has created a power imbalance which could have been corrected, through the use of the ballot, if selection had been otherwise. NPF, then, could have been the choice. Faulty, or intended, candidate selection might put NPF at the receiving end of post election banter if results don’t show. Irrespective of NPF, the story was repeated in another constituency with some non Naga tribes attempting to modulate power imbalances using the ballot, trying to genuinely break out of the rut. Such an analogy can also be made on an inter tribe level, with the Poumai, Mao and Maram (or others) using the ballot to balance the quotient with the Thangkul. It doesn’t really work though because this is not math; perfect equations are not a social or political reality as the collaborated effect of some of the above mentioned variables produce too many unforeseen results.

If we look at these intricacies (only few of all) from the top, it seems like the Naga call for self determination (and integration) is increasingly relevant from one election to the next. There is an urgent need to form a polity (and blueprint for its practice) that can tackle the above, bring about internal evolution, start to break out of violence and make the damaged society here confident for the world. The blanket practice of Indian democracy makes a tall claim of untangling the complex knot without reaching half the height. It further complicates, takes away time that could be spent designing a new political system, splits families, dilutes the root cause from one generation to the next, from one tribe to the other, corrodes the community’s morale, weakens leadership and polity in the absence of political continuity. 

If contemporary education and religion have brought about hierarchies, fear of change and deadlock in the Naga society, will a foreign political practice bring in more? Possibly so.