Tryst of covering conflict


By Pradip Phanjoubam

Covering Manipur and indeed so many other North Eastern states in the past one or two decades have virtually come to mean covering insurgency and insurgency related affairs. Every issue in the state has come to be, or has been allowed to be reduced to a derivative of the violent insurrection raging in the state. Development deficits, deteriorating education standard, leakages from government exchequer, corruption and the list can go on. It is as if everything would fall return on the tracks they were supposed to be, once the insurgency question has been resolved.

What is often missed or deliberately ignored through the construction of clever subterfuges by various vested interests is the conundrum of whether it is the chicken or egg which comes first. The truth is, corruption and bad governance are as much a cause of insurgency as much as they are a result of the latter. It is a peculiar situation in which the disease and the symptom have become interchangeable, and both the disease as well as the symptom has become life threatening.

The plea that all will be well once insurgency goes hence is merely an excuse to perpetrate all the official malpractices. There is no other realistic option to resolving the problem than for the two to be tackled simultaneously. But the power of political rhetoric being as it is, many, journalists included, fall into the illusion of blaming one to excuse the other. The challenge is far from easy, but this is a fallacy those of us covering insurgency have to be wary of.

The other danger of covering ethnic conflict is again very pronounced in multi-ethnic environments, where the friction is not just between the State and insurgents, but also between the ethnic communities themselves. While this can be said to be a problem of the North East, Assam and Manipur arguable have seen the worst.

Journalists often end up accused of being favouring one group or the other through selective highlights and silences in covering these issues. There probably have to be some admission of guilt on this count, although these selective visions probably were not with any conscious intent. The truth also is, more often than not this short sightedness is not limited to journalists alone, and those critiquing the journalists are often as guilty.

I am at this point reminded of a painting by M.C. Escher displayed prominently at the entrance of an arts museum dedicated to him at The Hague. The painting depicts two sets of birds in flight: a flock of white birds and another set of black birds flying towards each other from opposite directions. The clever optical illusion created was that when you look for the white birds, the black birds disappear to form the background for the white birds. When the observer suddenly discovers the black birds and concentrate on their flights, the white birds disappear to form the background against which the black birds fly.

The picture is dynamic, and to use a phrase much in vogue these days, interactive, albeit in a subtle psychological way. Both sets of birds exist on the canvas but it is difficult to see both at the same time. I thought the metaphor was perfect to describe the difficulty of covering deadly ethnic conflicts as in Manipur, be it in the much publicised Naga-Meitei, Naga-Kuki, hill-valley frictions. Perhaps this is another demonstration of the limitations of the perception power of the human brain to assess two opposing ideas simultaneously, but it is true that social analysts, not necessarily only journalists, often see one at a time.

This should be a lesson. Even in the face of an overwhelmingly dominant discourse, it calls for humility on the part of any sensitive analyst that there would be other narratives overridden by the dominant one. Only this humility can ensure the hegemony of the dominant idea is broken and a democratic interplay of all ideas and concerns involved in any particular issue is put into play.

Perhaps this is where conflict resolution can begin. In Escher’s painting, the white birds exist because of the contours provided for them by the black birds forming the background and vice versa. If one disappears, the other would too. The Hegelian question and its implied answer are evoked very literally here. The question of who am “I” can only be answered in terms “you”. The “self” makes meaning only because of the existence of “others”. To Robinson Crusoe, this question was not as relevant until he discovered one day the footprints of Man Friday on the sea shores.

In a most interesting suggestion, Judith Butler in “Precarious Life: Power of Mourning and Violence”, calls for a rephrasing of Hegel’s question “Who am I?” as a way of preparing the ground for conflict resolution. There is no way the boundary dividing “I” and “you” can be erased, for one defines the other, but this also means the question could also very well be rephrased as “What would I be without you?” What would the hills be without the valley? What would the valley be without the hills? What would the Nagas be without the Meiteis, Kukis and vice versa etc. The inability to ask these questions is the germination logic of conflicts, often very deadly ones.

Butler also suggests that conflict resolution effort should be about discovering the “We” of humanism and universalism in the in Hegel’s basic assertion of the identity in the struggle of “I” for pre-eminence over “You”. This would bring the reconciliation process closer to “mourning” rather than be caught in perpetual “melancholia”.

Journalists as first draft writers of history:

I am interested in this description of journalism as journalists as first draft writers of history for the fact, among others, that this is an indication that journalism indeed faces many of the challenges of history writing. The most notable among these is the prospect of distinguishing between what are facts and historical facts, between past and history etc. Especially because in covering ethnic nationalistic unrest, which is exactly the challenge before any journalist in the Northeast, the allegations of partisanship in favour of the State or else some groups or the other by the employment of alleged selective silences in addressing concerns not in the journalist’s own nationalistic interests becomes common. In answering some of these problems, I must say journalists are fortunate, because many of them have already been answered by historians.

EH Carr has given us one of the most lucid picture of how this is so. In the chapter “Historian and his facts” in his celebrated book “What is History?”, he points out Caesar crossing the insignifi­cant stream Rubicon is a historical fact and not the everyday fact of millions of others who in the course of their lives would have crossed the same stream. The bias history has for State bearing people over Non-State people should be explained by this. But today with the onset of Supra-State institutions evolving, in particular the global market which is increasingly encroaching upon territories which were once exclusively within State boundaries, even the logic of history writing is beginning to be redefined. Consider this. September 27 is the birthday of Google. It is also the birthday of well known and respected Indian freedom fighter Bhagat Singh. But on September 27 last year, while all major Indian news channels and newspapers enthusiastically celebrated Google, Bhagat Singh was virtually forgotten. Obviously the paradigms of history writing is yet getting set for another revolution.

I quote from an article I had written for the Economic and Political Weekly, in the midst of the confrontation at Mao Gate in Manipur, between the Manipur government and Naga demonstrators in the wake of the former deciding to block NSCN(IM) leader Th. Muivah from entering Manipur, in which I had discussed some of these issues. This standoff led to the unfortunate death of two young men on May 6, 2010, in firing by Manipur police.

But before going into the frictions that exists between Nagas and Meiteis, there is a wider fault line to which the Naga-Meitei divide would also fall into. This is the hill-valley divide. Understanding the dynamic of the latter, should provide valuable insight into the former, and indeed many other frictions between different ethnic groups in the state.

The hill-valley divide in Manipur is a classic example of what James Scott calls in his book “The Art of Being Ungoverned: An Anarchist History of South East Asia” the essential friction between the State and Non-State people. Between dwellers of fertile valleys who take to sedentary agriculture and thereby create for themselves the wealth surplus and thereby conditions for state formation, and hill dwellers who shy away from settled agriculture and are as Scott says State-evaders. Scott’s canvas is the rice belt of South East Asia, which he calls Zomia, and the pattern of relationship between the numerous Paddy States and the valley and the state evading hill population that he sketches, could be extended to Manipur.

Some qualification needs to be made though for Scott does get to be too paternalistic in presuming that the relationship between the Paddy States and the State evading hill populations are essentially instinctual in nature so that the behaviour of the Zomians are predetermined to fall into a predator-prey matrix. When a Zomian meets another Zomian, one is either a predator or a prey, an enslaver or a potential slave, so he either runs or he chases. The Zomians are not given the moral agency or even thought to be capable of making ethical decision or aspirations that go beyond what their animal instincts dictates. But even if the dynamics of relationship between the Zomians were to be objected to, the pattern of State bearing populations and Non-State people becoming segregated by the line that divides historical and non-historical people is compelling, and indeed quite distinctly visible in many of the hill-valley divides in the Northeast.

The other point to be noted is, history is essentially a story of the State. “Non State” people can obviously claim to be Nations as Benedict Anderson sees it. But the “State” and “Nation” are two different things. The “Nation” is an imagined community and for the “Imagined Community” to have a tangible architecture, it must also evolve a State as its backbone. In the Northeast, this is again visible in many of the cases of conflict. Again, just as there can be “Nations” and “States” separately, National imaginings and “States” can fail independent of each other. This again is evident in many of the Northeast situations. This implies that it is when the “Nation” and the “State” become congruent that a “Nation-State” can result.


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