magine a land where there is no law. If that is possible, you are either in the amazing dream world of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Or else you are in the other wonderland called Manipur. It is quite a parallel. In Carroll’s wonderland, the characters make law as and when their whims demand it – so too in Manipur.
There is supposed to be something as an established constitutional law in force, but this law today has receded into the background, thanks to its keepers who have either lost interest in it or else have become a law unto themselves. Instead, what are actually and most tangibly at work are on the spot laws, made by any and everybody, as and when they please.
Leave aside the underground organisations which claim to be challengers of the established law but, the law and its enforcement have by and large become a free for all agenda. Things thereby continue as they always were, spiraling deeper and deeper into the abyss.
The State continues to witness violent rule from the street in which school buildings are razed, libraries are destroyed, illegal “taxes” levied, shops forced shut and the list of woes can carry on endlessly.
The trouble is, politics is not about governance anymore. This is reflected amply even in chief minister Okram Ibobi’s strange decision to keep all major portfolios of the state government to himself, including finance, home, department of personnel, urban development, besides a host of other “lucrative” departments.
The result is also there for all to see – lawlessness and financial mess. Hence, Manipur today is second only to Assam in so far as the number of insurgency related violence is concerned. During 2007, the State saw 442 insurgency related fatalities. Another 1451 insurgency related cases of violence were also registered with the police in the first 11 months of the year.
Every financial year end, government departments are also pathetically left unable to bring up a balance sheet of their expenditure accounts. In a bizarre situation, the state government has even had to issue threats this year, as in every year, to non-spending departments.
From the 2007-2008 plan outlay for instance, all the government departments put together have been able to show an expenditure of only 9.30 per cent by the end of October. As the financial year draws to a close, this desperation would climb and there would be frantic claims of spending. But in the case of many departments where the accounts statements have become irredeemable, the unspent amount would be treated as having lapsed into the next year, depleting the next year’s funds from the start, in the process hindering development works.
The reason, although unspecified, is known to everybody – extortion by militants. But the reasonable suspicion is that the extortion excuse, despite its credibility, is also, to some extent, a good smokescreen to cover up embezzlements.
The Manipur government is also known for something unpalatable. It makes laws and then make light of them. Often it is a case of making tough law to give itself the appearance of a tough government. Soon, however, it stands exposed as a government that is neither strong nor has the will to respect the same laws that it has enacted.
When an individual politician makes false promises or for that matter earns a reputation of being incompetent and corrupt, the loss in public esteem is somewhat restricted to the individual in question.
However, when frivolity in law making becomes a norm of a government system, or corruption begins to be seen not just as an attribute of individual politicians but of the state institution as such, the dangers involved should be obvious to everybody.
So many times have the government declared that employees who abstain from attending office during strikes called by unlawful organisations would be penalised severely. Till date, no action worth the name has been taken against employees who flout these norms.
The State Government has also on several occasions threatened to implement the principle of no-work-no-pay on employees who go on extended no-work strikes. That threat has had no impact and employees still defiantly go ahead with strikes, paralysing work.
Consider this case: on 18 August 2007, the State government issued a notification, prompted by a Supreme Court ruling, that it too would make individuals and groups calling general strike and blockade liable to be punished under the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act, 1984 and the National Highway Act 1957.
Quite embarrassingly, when the Justice Thomas Committee called for Manipur’s report on the matter, it came to light that 217 cases of damages to public property were registered with the police during the year, but not a single offender was penalised.
The natural conditioned response of the public has been to begin believing there is nothing very much to be taken seriously about the law and there is nothing very much to fear about breaching it.
Adding to this legitimacy crisis is the issue of institutionalized official corruption. The system’s keepers have with remarkable lack of scruples reduced the entire governance mechanism to a conglomerate of private fiefs they are given the privilege to plunder.
Exigencies of electoral politics have also made politicians do Faustian deals with unlawful organisations. In all 14 militants were caught in two separate raids in August and September 2007 from official residences of MLAs, many of them from the ruling Congress, from the high security ministerial enclave of Babupara, where the chief minister’s bungalow and the police headquarters are also located.
Nature abhors vacuums. If the legitimate guardians of the law and its enforcing agencies think they can do with a legal or moral vacuum here and there, let them be under no illusion. The vacuum or the absence of law enforcement itself, in a mutant way, would become a law.
This “absence” can become the tool of authoritarian rule in the hands of either the guardians of the law themselves or else its challengers. Conflict-torn Manipur is today living in the worst case of such a scenario. In this “absence” of the law, both the guardians of the law and their challengers are running riot, the first set manipulating the system for personal aggrandizement, and the second to establish their authoritarian sway over the minds of the people.