Sunday, February 20, 2011

Disconnection Drive is a Farce

The ongoing disconnection drive has produced three issues that we need to engage with. One is the state offensive in the garb of welfare policy. The other is the preaching of liberal moralists who see the disconnection drive as both pedagogic and disciplining project. The third is the subterranean political moves of the poor, irresponsible and uncivilised lot which they articulate in the non-bourgeois space.

Following a Public Interest Litigation (PIL), Guahati High Court, Imphal Bench, order sought an explanation from the Government on the reasons why it should not produce a white paper on how the whole business of electrification and management of electricity is actually taking place in Manipur. However, instead of following the procedural move as expected, the Government wagered to pick on the much familiar terrain. It started a ruthless disconnection drive in an authoritarian fashion. And things came up in their own course on the sides of both the Government and those who are governed. An army of personnel of the electricity department assisted by the much feared police personnel are on the streets and carrying out what they call “disconnection drive”. The campaign is justified on the ground that it is to control the theft of the scarce electricity as well as recover the “due” bills. In a way, instead of falling in line with the High Court order, the Government has succeeded to force many of the consumers pay the bills on the spot. It has also brought to book many of the illegal consumers and defaulters either by sending them to lock up or disconnecting them from the power lines. But there are places the State will not dare to go, take for instance the hill areas of Manipur.

Although there is a serious lack of organised stir on the issue, one will, however, observe resistance of a genuine kind unfolding in front of us. As a matter of fact, thousand of households are disconnecting themselves from the power line during daylight only to resume connection when the sun sets. Yenning heard from hearsay that the electricity department is now planning to launch the disconnection campaign during night time as the unscrupulous and uncivilised citizens popularly known as “thieves” have developed a nocturnal instinct to connect power line at night.

Well, the initiative of the Government could seem to be a committed measure in order to discipline the irresponsible attitude of the citizenry of this land. But the grisly efforts of the Government have clearly drawn a line between those who can afford and those who cannot afford to use electric energy. Besides the divisive project with which the ongoing disconnection campaign has already driven, this campaign has consequently reconfigured the rich and the poor into a new division between the responsible, ideal and model citizenship on one hand, and the irresponsible, condemnable and uncivilised, on the other. In this new distribution of the norms of model citizenship, it is the poorer section of the society who bears the brunt of the assault and remains “merely” the irresponsible citizen. But now we need to see how being irresponsible is political. Over and above, one also needs to understand how the “irresponsible, condemnable and uncivilised” cannot be made civilised within the regime of thought that the current scheme of improvement carries.
Seen from the moral high ground of the liberal moralists including, for example, the recent editorials of The Sangai Express, there is a serious lack of capacity, albeit, failure on the part of those who do not pick up the electric bills and “illegally” tap electricity in order to become a responsible citizenship. And this is why, as they would grumble, there is a general attitude of apathy. For example, one runs something like, “sarkargee oiradi keisu kaide” (if it is a Government property, it does not matter).

Such an attitude is, as they (sic. liberal moralists) say, a regressive attitude, a sign of immaturity that is born out of a lack of civic values and the sense of civil capability required in order to live in a civilised order. To Yenning, what they fail to fathom, however, is a serious political element that is prominently displayed when illegal consumers just refuse to be legal, and therefore, defy to become responsible citizenship. What they do not understand, still more, is how the poor, illegal and irresponsible citizens resist the diktats of the Government in a different form. What could be, for example, a possible meaning of the statement which is commonly heard every morning in many of the local cha stalls : “kanana ngamge yengnasi” (let’s see who finally wins)?

This attitude is not to be misunderstood as apathy and lack of civic virtue. This is, on the contrary, a serious move of resistance which is widely circulated in the non-bourgeois space where notions of civic and public are constituted in different forms with different articulations. Those who do not and cannot pay the bills and legally connect themselves to the power line would share this line among themselves. This is the language they speak and which the Government would not sit back to understand. In the official vocabulary of the Government, those who do not pay for electricity owned by the Government and its corporate partners are either defaulters or thieves. What the officials of the Government cannot understand is the meaning of the acts of defaulting and thievery in the way the defaulters and thieves alone do.

Extended literatures on South Asian and Southeast Asian politics and peasant societies have extensively documented diverse ways in which a large section of population encounters the state practice beyond the discourse of bourgeois public and civic space. Such literatures inform us that it is not correct to be talking about state-population relationship only within the liberal discourse of right-citizen-democracy. There are other ways of living a political life. And this is seen when a sizable population tell a story of how they encounter the state in their subterranean moments of daily existence with the official discourse of governance and the act of governing. Liberal vocabularies of right-citizen-democracy discourse cannot grasp this subterranean political moment, its site of occurrence and form that has haunted like a spectre. This is even more telling in a society like ours where a deep sense of distrust in the state is ingrained generally among large sections of society. And what seems to be atrocious to the liberal moralists is that the moment of resistance that wakes up late in the night in every thousands of households will not die down in a very long future.
In this regard, there remain a couple of moot questions that we all can think together.

  • Will the poorer people suddenly change their attitude and be ready to comply with the diktats of the electricity department?

  • Will the neighbours tell the officials of the electricity department about the mysterious remains of the piece of cable hanging from the power line?

  • Will they tell the name of the illegal consumer who furtively cut them last night?

Yenning believes that we all know the obvious answers.

Ignorance of this fact of political life in Manipur is also indicative of the theoretical silence that we face today particularly among the academics. Recentmost PIL and other similar PILs in the past on the issue of electricity seemed to have given strength to this theoretical silence. Particularly the most recent PIL have inadvertently ignored this elementary aspect of political life and this is partly responsible for the widespread backlash, discontent and even dissent to the much glamorised PIL. In other words, what have been demonstrated by “the irresponsible, condemnable and uncivilised” is that being political need not always be “public and civic”. Unfortunately, the litigators failed to capture this political aspect and moreover their silence could be a result of ignorance of this political understanding. Perhaps, the litigators could have believed that they were being (and only) political when they initiated the PIL move.

Yenning wants to admit that the irresponsible citizens do not want to know what the Government officials think and do. They do not believe in the heaps of the corrupt files and thousands of digitally infested bytes of records. These are the tools which the Government officials pose to show their accountability which is true considering the state of corruption today in this land. This being the case, then, Yenning suggests the Government to seek to know how the poor, illegal and irresponsible receive the official stories of achievements and their policies of welfare in the non-bourgeois quarters of daily life. Without this effort, there is a wager as a rebuttal to the stand of liberal moralists and the official narratives of the Government that the ongoing disconnection drive has a farcical destiny. Unfortunately, the Government is still insisting on disconnecting “the people from power”. What else is more fitting than what Slavoj Zizek once said, “You are right because you are wrong. You are right in the wrong direction”. Let’s say, it is political, stupid!

(The Sangai Express, Imphal, February 20, 2011)

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