Sunday, November 13, 2011

High profile visits, elections and blockades

Few days back, at around 8 pm, at different vicinities around various petrol pumps in greater Imphal, heated words were exchanged between those who were in the queues for petrol and state police commandoes. Commandoes attempted to disperse the people in the name of law and order and prohibited the people from spending the night to get their share of petrol: tyres of four wheelers were flattened, two wheelers were squashed and the people threatened. At Singjamei, the people prevailed over the commandoes. But at other places, the commandoes had their ways. The queues were dispersed and people made to run helter-skelter. But it was not for long. People gathered back like floating biomass sticking back together after a ripple subsided.

Let’s recall two visits by dignitaries in the early week of November 2011. Both pertained to electoral campaigns, the first, however, did not outrightly spell out that it has anything to do with the forthcoming Assembly Elections. The former was more on the line of showcasing achievements of the SPF Government in collusion with the UPF Government at the Centre, and thus, talked about achievements in terms of “development”. The irony is that none of the two parties talked about ending the suffering of the people on account of the economic blockades in concrete terms.

In the first instance, after 93 days of economic blockade, the Centre finally found time for Manipur. After the crippling blockade was partially lifted, say in terms of agreement between the SPF Government and the Sadar Hills Demand Committee, Home Minister P Chidambaram landed in the state capital for a series of appearances (sic. inauguration spree) in the state for a 2-day visit. The Chief of Manipur, O Ibobi Singh, accompanied him in all the inaugural functions. Some say that Ibobi’s personal calculation has predicted that if elections are held after 2011, the Chief’s chances of becoming the Chief Minister is dim, and thus, the Chief has personally invited his mentor from Delhi to inaugurate all the ill-built buildings in Manipur. At least, the buildings would have a limestone slab bearing the name of the Chief and protégés as archival sources. Well, in almost every speech of the Union Home Minister, one remark that repeatedly recurred was that “there is no issue that cannot be solved through debates and discussions”. He also asserted that bandh/blockade is not the solution. The Union Home Minister P Chidambaram claimed that there is or will be no paucity of development fund for the State. Finally, he reported that there was peace and order in the Greater Imphal valley as people have not come out in the streets against the economic blockade.

Well said! Yet, let’s remind ourselves of the facts of initiatives taken by the Government in terms of having a negotiation with the most supreme Naga body (sic. After NSCN – IM) i.e. the United Naga Council. Memory fails to recollect any such tangible initiatives. Debates and discussions are something that the Nagas abhor, which is something not found in their cultural traits, although they claim that economic blockade is a democratic device to bring to place the Government and seek justice. Then talk about development efforts in the state. Nothing exists. The second dignitary has rightly pointed out how developmental funds are eaten away by the politicians and bureaucrats (see section below). And about the peaceful state of affairs in the Greater Imphal valley, it has nothing to do with people’s political maturity or the level of tolerance. It has everything to do with the kind of statecraft undertaken by the SPF Government. Indeed, after the July 23rd incident at BT Road, Manipur has not heard much about fake encounters or killing spree by the State forces. However, it does not mean to say that the State forces are sitting idle. At the beginning of this write up, we have shown how rightful demands of the people are silenced through the culture of gun. Even if the State police commandoes are yet to make a mark in the hill districts of Manipur, they are most feared forces in the valley. Moreover, they are supported by the VDFs recently recruited. Thus, Manipur nay the valley area, is at a critical juncture where voices of dissent, disagreement and intolerance (symbols of liberal democracy) are completely silenced. This brings us to the conclusion that the semblance peace or law and order is not a natural one but the forced creation of the SPF Government using military means.

In the second instance, on November 3, 2011, coinciding with the visit of the Home Minister, CPI (M) General Secretary Prakash Karat paid a two-day visit to Manipur. It was an unabashed electoral-campaign visit and had nothing to do with the suffering of the people other than lip service. Speaking at a public meeting held at GM Hall, the Communist (sic. evolutionary) “condemned” the stoic silence of both the Prime Minister and Union Home Minister when people of Manipur suffered as a consequence of blockade and counter-blockade. He noted increase in prices of essential commodities, including petroleum products, triggered by the economic blockade. The Communist leader rued that neither the Central Government stepped in nor did the state authorities demonstrate determination to mitigate suffering of the people. He alleged that contrary to suffering of the common people when prices increase, individuals and political class close to the Government had been reaping the benefits. He also alleged that whatever amount the Central Government might be providing to the State the major share is split between the ruling political party members and high ranking bureaucrats. Prior to winding up the two-day visit Prakash Karat affirmed that CPI (M) will field candidates for the ensuing Manipur Legislative Assembly elections, likely to be conducted early next year.

Well, for one, CPI (M) had long ago given up revolutionary means to bring about human emancipation, and thus, joined electoral politics to bring about change and progress. But what is most disheartening is the timing of the visit of Comrade Karat if one looks at it as an electoral design to imbalance the vote banks of the Congress (I) and allies in the state. Perhaps, comrade Karat should have rescheduled his visit, rather than facing a humiliating response from the electorates. Although, there are strains of truths in his allegations regarding the ruling Government both at the Centre and the State, the Manipuri public is yet to come into grips with the ideals of liberal democracy and for that matter about the meanings of change and progress. This is akin to admitting that both the Government and elites of Manipur were celebrating the visit by the Union Home Minister, and thus, the laments of comrade Karat went into this air, a proof evidenced by the sparse gatherings in his public meetings.

Now, there are rumours that princes, queens, ministers and losers from the Centre would be paying a visit to Manipur. Election time is near; it’s about making false promises and having marriages of the convenience at the cost of the common people. Prince Charming, Rahul Gandhi, has avoided the trip under unavoidable circumstances. BJP Chiefs are targeting the state, well, after selling off boundaries of Manipur to NSCN-IM. The BJP has already brought out a vision paper of the Northeast, in which Imphal would be made into a sports capital of India and under no circumstances compromise the territorial integrity of Manipur. Chidambaram has been talking about the same assurances. The Nationalist Congress Party, Trinamul Congress and others are to follow suit. The tragedy is, none of the parties have brought up the issue of more than 100-days old economic blockade on the floor of the Parliament or pressurized the UPF Government or the State Government to devise ways to end the deadlock.

If these are stories of visits and would-be visits, equally, incomprehensible is the silence of the part of the larger populace. Some say, silence on the part of the valley people is a sign of political maturity. This can never be true.  If true, then why is that beginning from the month of October a coalition of more than 34 organizations, namely Protection and Preservation Committee has started demanding institution of fair price shops, mechanism to end corruption and others in the state. The coalition has been demanding end to the economic blockades through sittings and dharnas. As much as the people of Imphal abhor communal conflicts, they are also totally helpless to tackle the protracted imbroglio fuelled by the vigorous demand for creation of Sadar Hills district.

They have come and gone, but the queues before petrol pumps have not shortened a bit. The Sadar Hills District-hood Demand Committee has lifted its record-breaking highway blockade but nothing has changed on the ground. We are suffering of our own doing and we would continue to languish in such sorry state of affairs for years to come until and unless the indigenous peoples of Manipur come together, talk through and compromise their rigid stands a bit. 

We fear, neither Congress, nor BJP nor CPI (M) have the will and capacity to solve the vexed problems of Manipur. The recent high profile visits are more concerned with the ensuing elections and they have very little to do with the protracted blockades. As per media reports, Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi and her son Prince Charming Rahul Gandhi would be visiting the birth-place of Irom Sharmila. Let’s hope, these respected king-pins of India can bring out a panacea from their magic hats to deliver the people of Manipur (inclusive of blockade sponsors and their supporters) from their unending misery. We also earnestly hope they would not fan accidentally or deliberately the ravaging fire of communal antagonism which has already afflicted major power players of the land. Or would they abandon us altogether ? If only we know which is better.  

This article was published in The Sangai Express on Sunday, November 13, 2011

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