“We, the people”, a fashionable phrase found in many constitutions of the world, connote the political embedded in the meaning of the people. The phrase signifies that power is “ultimately” vested in the hands of the people. It also tells that the constitution is made by and for the people of that particular country and not given to them by any outside powers.
Reproduced from the Constitution of United States of America, the phrase can be regarded as a fusion of two popular traditions, both of which drew upon the inherent power that the concept of people wields. Democracy, which was coined from Greek words, dēmos, “people” and kratos, “rule, strength”, is one such tradition. The other is the Republican tradition. In the former sense, any civic government should be elected by the people, work for its common good and welfare and that the people have the right to reject such a government in an established procedure if it is found wanting. Abraham Lincoln refreshed the meaning of democracy in his Gettysburg Address; taken as an opportunity not only to consecrate the grounds of a cemetery, but also to dedicate the living to the struggle to ensure that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”. The Republican tradition emphasizes on the protection of political liberty of the people, understood as non-domination or independence from arbitrary power through institutional designs. In both cases, people identify the entire body of the citizens invested with political power or gathered for political purposes.
Concept of people also forms the central point of inquiry in Marxism, albeit differentiated in terms of class. Understanding of the exploited people is constituted in the proletariat and later on the peasants and chief goal is to emancipate them. And finally, revolution encompasses not only armed struggle but also instilling ideological consciousness among the people. Armed revolution becomes a necessary means only when opposition from reactionary forces becomes challenging. In fact, a “People’s Republic” is typically a Marxist or Socialist One-Party state that claims to govern on behalf of the people.
In the above elaborations, one trait which is common to all is the personhood (person living in a society) associated with the understanding of the people. And most important of all, of a rational agent able to ask themselves questions relating to the purpose of life beyond the base need for survival, or the nature of existence beyond that which is empirically apparent. The pursuit of these demands the need for a political order, which people have the responsibility to build (sic political action).
A phenomenon witnessed in Manipur is the wanton elimination of people and extinguishing their conscience. This has become our existential reality. Such acts question our civilizational moorings. Moreover, the fear of reprisal or being eliminated has forced us to accept them as the given order of things. Thus, we are forced in a cocoon marked by negotiated existence.
Manipur stands divided against itself in several ways. The rich and powerful are divided in their support for the state (sic Indian state). State Assembly is similarly divided concerning its own powers vis-à-vis the Central Government and its military apparatus. Society is divided religiously, economically, ethnically and by region. Inequalities in wealth are huge. Finally, the prevailing low intensity armed conflict means that Manipur has become militarily divided. And as in any form of war, there is no governing law for the low intensity armed conflict, too, wherein life is insecure.
All these divisions cut across one another which ultimately have a tolling effect on ordinary human life and their existence. In the Hobbesian sense, life carries no meaning and is unbelievably short. “Bare life” has becomes a spectacle in Manipur. Recent-most killings highlight this obvious pointer towards the prevailing state of affairs in Manipur, which is nothing short of Hobbes’ conceptualization of a hypothetical state of nature (apolitical and asocial). Therefore, the need is to recover the political to keep peace and order.
In such a hostile scenario, where killing has become an accepted fact, a pertinent question that pricks our conscience is: Who is going to be the watchdog of those in “power” and carry the voice of the people? Related question is: Can we talk about democracy, when the very existence of the political is missing in our society?
By political, here Yenning refers to the social relationships involving authority and set of formal rules governing political behavior and institutions. Or in other words, giving our obedience to an accountable sovereign, a person or group empowered to decide every social and political issue as well as a political rule that would foster civic virtues in a community and ensure an orderly and peaceful existence. Once existence is ensured, we can think about living.
Recovery of the political can prevent the reduction of the people, in the words of Giorgio Agamben, to its biological species – Homo sapiens – devoid of personhood and stripped off being a rational agent. Then, in an environment where an orderly and peaceful co-existence is ensured, we can start engaging with issues beyond the meaning of life and survival or devising a collective survival strategy.
The Immediate Task
Our immediate concern, then, must be the recovery of the political, the sufficient condition in which we can live together in peace and avoid the danger and fear of losing our lives. That demands, we should disengage ourselves from many of the contrivances of state-linked internal colonialism, an encounter which we are experiencing, after British colonialism had lapsed in 1947, in the post-independence phase of India.
Violence used to sustain justificatory ideologies for state domination such as national security, development and so on, need to be questioned. Objectification of the minorities within the state into “others” (the enemies within or the “objective enemies”), in the name of national security (for instance imposition of Armed Forces (Special) Powers Act, 1958) in the post-colonial phase is a re-enactment of a colonial design of domination.
Simultaneously, inquiry should also involve negation of the misnomer, such as democratization, employed at a temporal plane overdriven by political needs, when the body politic of Manipur, a constitutional democratic polity headed by the King was penetrated by the Union of India. Recovery of the political in Manipur should impinge upon acknowledging the fact that Manipur was the last “Kingdom” (one of the most ancient in South Asia) to be conquered by the British Government (after the Anglo Manipur War of 1891) and also the last “Princely State” to be merged/annexed into India (September 21, 1949). Equally important is, acknowledging a “movement” which involved grass root mobilization beginning in the 1930s towards the creation of a civic nationalism, negation of feudal and colonial structures, and finally, vision of an egalitarian society (a continuity we see in various shades in Manipur today).
Finally, one must agree that Manipur’s evolution towards a democratic polity short-lived as it got entangled in the project of India’s nation building. In the process of homogenization and uniformity undertaken in a schematic militarized manner, dictated by India building itself into a nation-state, particular concerns and historical trajectory of Manipur were buried in the ashes of insignificance.
Historical Responsibility: The Agency
But deconstruction (Yenning had emphasized about its significance in earlier publication) of an arranged colonial subjugation, recovery of the political and re-establishing our historical place among the nations of the world also demands responsibility from the agents undertaking the movement for a better future. Most importantly, in harvesting the beliefs of masses of ordinary people in which the fate of nation lays. A movement cannot succeed in the absence of support from the people; more so in a divided and fragmented society like Manipur.
Within this understanding one has to fervently question the purpose and agenda of certain political actions. And why such informed decisions and acts on the part of the non-state actors are opposed by the people. In the case of Manipur, discontent and open expression of grievances often leads to “expiry”. The voice of opposition as well as the medium of expression is either extinguished or erased without analyzing their qualitative contributions. The end result is: further fissures within the society and fragmentation.
Political action involved in a movement should not refuse to be accountable not only to a hypothetical court of history (the future) but also to the present and the past. As an agent or bearer of a better future, the party or individual spearheading the movement, ought to realize and acknowledge that the court of history is, by definition, the very future society that they claim to represent in the present. People would not certainly like a future where future society is only able to bear witness or to judge through this same representative; who becomes not only the sole sovereign judge of his own acts, but the judge of all past, present and future.
Recovery of the political can help us in re-aligning ourselves with our civilizational values, (unhinged in our encounter with colonialism), and re-engage with ethical values and re-imbibe the ideals of humanity. This can also help us in breaking free from the kind of negotiated existence propelling us. Otherwise, we cannot dispense the Hobbesian state of nature that resembles the contemporary Manipur – a situation of universal insecurity, where everyone has the reason to fear violent death and where rewarding human cooperation is all but impossible.
(Posted on Sangai Express, Imphal, Sunday, June 13, 2009)