Unshackling Civil Space


It happens in every conflict situation. The shape and size of the civil space keep fluctuating, sometimes shrinking and sometimes expanding. When it expands there is room for ordinary people to look around and not only judge and assess the situation, including the core of the reasons for conflict, but also to comment and critique them. The harsher the conflict gets, the universal tendency has been for this space to shrink. Literally this space exists as a buffer between the conflicting sides, and as and when this space begins to shrink, its inhabitants begin to be seen as falling within the territories of either side of the conflict, making them vulnerable to attacks by the opposing side. Critics begin to be eyed with suspicion and even as advocates for the cause of the adversaries. The media and the intelligentsia, who by the very demands of their professions have to remain within this space, quite necessarily as critiques of the conflict too, are especially made vulnerable. Assassinations, harassments, imprisonment, etc by the conflicting parties, targeted at the denizens of this space often is the result in the worst case scenarios. Sometimes it is also a case of this space disappearing altogether.

It is a tragedy when individual who occupy this space fall casualty. But what is an even more profound tragedy is the dwindling and even the death of this civil space altogether. We have seen this happening in so many places, even in neighbouring Myanmar. Critics of the Military Junta there have either been silenced or else are holding forth from foreign shores. But why even go so far, it is happening in Manipur itself. Few or nobody dares to be honest and forthright critics of the conflict which has engulfed the land. Those who do in guarded ways dare to do so are quite inevitably cast in tainted light, attributing motives of betrayal or befriending opponents in the conflict. If people in other professions or occupations have had to suffer the conflict in terms of extortion and kidnapping for ransom etc, the media has suffered because it tries to stand on this supposedly neutral civil space. For as we have said, this civil space has become too small for anybody to stand on without being accused of taking sides. The number of times the media in the state have had to shut down, a resort unthinkable in the media fraternity anywhere in the world is proof enough. Yet nothing has changed. If the media in Manipur is still surviving this conflict situation, it is because it has reluctantly had to allow itself to go through the humiliation of agreeing to do what it is told or “expected” to do and not what it thinks in its best judgement is the right thing to publicise or advocate.

In many ways suspension or cessation of hostility between conflicting parties, temporarily or otherwise, as a respite or even as a strategy of the conflict itself, has plenty of merit. In such a circumstance, if not anything else the civil space is given the opportunity to grow. This is not a trivial thing for it is only through the earnest discourses that happen within this space that true, lasting and just peace strategies can evolve. Eliminating this space can only perpetuate the soul sapping multi-dimensional conflicts afflicting us all. Not many people, even those who steadfastly believe the conflict is not without cause, will have any doubt today that this conflict is close-ended and can only go on and on endlessly. Neither side (or all the sides as the case probably is in our case), can win the war in the conventional sense. However on the contrary, all sides can and are losing in many ways. Manipur cannot allow its tremendous energy and inner resources to continue to drain forever. It is not a question of suddenly deciding to give and hang up the gloves. It is just a question of giving peace another chance. It is also not even a question of predicating peace with this act of hanging up the gloves. Maybe the gloves can remain on while these other possibilities are explored. As to what the entire roadmap to peace nobody can predict. The uncertainty the Naga peace talks is in at this juncture is the illustration of this. But the launching platform of this exploration should be obvious to anybody. At least we are convinced it will have to begin by a process of unshackling and then allowing a healthy growth of the discursive civil space where the most vexed issues of the society can be thrashed out openly and unreservedly to be finally shaped into problem solving models of peace and reconciliation.


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