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Manipur: ad hoc Governance

Posted on April 28, 2008

Pradip Phanjoubam


The ambiguity of the Manipur government’s policies, both long-term as well as immediate, cannot be any more pronounced than in the night curfew the districts in the Imphal valley are supposed to be under currently. This ongoing night curfew was declared in the wake of the brutal murder of 15 non-local migrant workers between March 17 and 19, 2008 by gunmen. Night curfew from 5pm to 5am was declared on March 18, and three days later, relaxed by four hours so as to have it enforced between 9pm and 5am. After that, the government simply chose to forget about it, putting ordinary people into tremendous uncertainty.

Professionals, including journalists, who by the call of duty have to be out late, know it all too well that the curfew is supposed to be still on, but is no longer enforced. For others with no nocturnal duties or habits, there is still a large question mark on the matter. Every now and then, people who for various emergencies have to be out late, call up journalists to enquire in understandable urgency and concerns, if the curfew was still on. Since nobody except the government has the answer, the reply has also been vague: “Well officially it is still not revoked, but from experience we know it is no longer enforced.”

What exactly is the government up to? Is the curfew still on? If it is, why is it not enforced? If there is no need for enforcing it anymore, why allow this extreme measure of controlling public movements to carry on, even if only on paper? Is the government keeping to facilitate an escape route for security forces should they happen to gun down somebody at night as pass it off as an incident involving violation of the curfew? That will indeed be the height of cynicism, but in this land of black laws, no amount of cynicism, official or otherwise, is too much. Or is it a question of the government being too casual about its job? It promulgates in panic a harsh public order so as to control a crisis and then when the situation has calmed down, forgets to take back the order, leaving it to be a lose cannon, regardless of the restless uncertainty it is causing the larger public.

The current curfew is just one indicator of the adhocism which has become the standard of governance in Manipur. The government seems to take the people so much for granted that it thinks it does not even have to justify its actions even if they have a direct and profound bearing on the public. It also seems content to interpret governance as a crisis management exercise only in which it does everything to prevent a situation getting out of hand and when this is done, gives little to address the larger question of resolving the issues behind the crisis.

Take this example: immediately after the March 17, 2008 massacre of migrant workers, State authorities hastily declared the crime was the handiwork of the banned KYKL (Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup), and then, after the initial salvo, chose not to say or do anymore. Was it barking up the wrong tree all the while with the primary objective of getting the heat off its back, or is there more than meets the eye? The pattern is repeated in so many other cases—the sensational Lungnila Elizabeth murder case, the ISKCON bomb blast, and now the murder of two women from Chandel. Are all these acts of deliberate governmental omission or commission?

The situation is Kafkaesque to say the least. The government and its bureaucracy have come to exist as a separate and fortified reality of its own, quite distinct from the reality outside. In Frantz Kafka’s The Castle, a purveyor after receiving a work order from the “Castle” arrives to do the job he was assigned, only to discover that the “Castle” had forgotten about the order. Upon the purveyor’s arrival, however, a whole gamut of activities develop within the “Castle” to trace the order. New files are created, new responsibilities assigned to runners and other lower staffs to get the matter moving, new approvals sought from various heads, and the cycle kept enlarging unendingly.

After some time, the activities begin to acquire a bureaucratic logic and self-contained reality of its own, only abstractly connected to the land purveyor waiting outside to begin the work he was originally assigned. But unfortunately for the latter, the alienation had already become total by then, for the activities that his arrival had provoked within the “Castle” has developed into a self-fulfilling preoccupation, not even needing his presence anymore to justify its continuance. The story will sound very familiar to those in Manipur.

Of all the northeastern states, Manipur must rank as the most problematic. This story is not just about insurgency and the complex maze of conflicting interests it has created, but it is also very much about a singular lack of leadership commitment to steer the State out of the troubled waters it is trapped so miserably in, although it is common knowledge that if allowed to remain in this condition for long, the entire ship may sink. There are those who believe in their false sense of complacency that this ship is unsinkable.

One is not interested in making any self-fulfilling prophecy of doom, but one is definitely interested in urging one and all to be wary that a catastrophe is not an impossibility for Manipur at this moment. It is a dangerously rocking ship in a tempestuous sea, and nobody is willing to do anything to rescue it. As a matter of fact, those who are rocking it (which almost everybody is doing), are continuing to do so, unmindful of the danger they are putting everybody, including themselves in. This is so because the immediate returns for being unmindful of this danger is too addictive—corruption.

However, every act of official corruption, adds to the residue of ill will against the establishment, and this residue is at a critical point of explosion today. Yet official corruption keeps growing exponentially. The reports of wealth in the hands of ministers and bureaucrats have become rich materials for fables. The open talks of percentage cuts by ministers from government contract works, the whispers of bribe amounts running into several lakhs of rupees for even a post of sub inspector in the police, or for that matter for appointments and transfers of government employees in any department, are reverberating everywhere. True, all of it cannot be real, but it is also equally true that all of it cannot be fiction either.

The matter came up in the recently concluded Budget Session of the State Assembly. Charges of extortion by the police and other government forces were flying in all direction, so were charges of corruption in the administration. Then there was also the oblique reference of legislators harbouring militants made by none other than the chief minister in his address to the House. It may be recalled similar charges had been made against him by a leading news weekly sometime ago and he tamely refused to respond. It is nice to see gloves coming off in the slugfest in the Assembly once in a while, but as raw as the debates were, so were the issues thrashed.

The frustrating question is, how can anybody who has partaken of the forbidden rewards of corruption ever be serious about checking corruption. How can law keepers who have joined the game of extortion ever be interested in fighting extortion, how can dishonest contractors and businessmen, knowing fully well those who make the rules can be bribed, be interested in sacrificing huge illegal profits. No, it is not just a nexus, and everybody knows this. On the other hand, it is more in the nature of a merry-go-round—a paradoxical situation in which each of the carriage is in an illusory (or deceptive in this case) chase of each other, knowing fully well that the distance between any two carriages cannot be narrowed, and hence nobody can catch the other ahead of him or her.

(The views expressed are that of the author)