Dialogue  January-March, 2011, Volume 12 No. 3

North-East Scan

Devalued assets of ministers

Dhirendra Nath Bezboruah

With the Assembly elections of Assam less than three months away, the only thing that seems to be happening in the State is the ruling party’s intense campaigning for the polls. This is not to suggest that the other political parties in the State are not campaigning. However, their campaigning seems so low-key by comparison as to be virtually invisible. There are three factors to the Congress campaigning that makes it stand out head and shoulder over the campaigning of the other political parties. First, there is the grim determination of Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi to score a hat trick by winning the Assembly elections for the third time running—a feat no chief minister has been able to perform in recent decades. Second, there is the seeming inevitability of a Congress victory once again because the State is going into the elections with an electoral roll loaded with illegal voters from Bangladesh—a blatant constitutional breach that both the Election Commission and the Union Government have been happy to overlook in view of the electoral benefits to the Congress. Third, there is so much money with the ruling party that other political parties would have no chance of winning at all even if the electoral roll had been cleansed of the names of foreign voters. However, the way the Congress leaders have come by their money is also a matter of concern at this point not only because of the public outcry over the rampant corruption in the State, but also because the Congress high command is understandably unhappy about the means of amassing wealth adopted by several ministers and has enjoined on the Chief Minister that he must make them declare their personal assets. And thereby hangs a tale.

Many people outside Assam may not be aware that Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi had made a song and dance about transparency and accountability in governance from the day he became Chief Minister of the State in 2001. He took great pains to introduce the Right to Information Bill and did not rest until it became a law in the State about a couple of years later. However, over the years, it is clear that he has realized the folly of putting such a strong weapon in the hands of the people. The Right to Information Act does not work in the State as smoothly as it was expected to any longer. And what must trouble him no end is that people do not believe any longer that the Chief Minister is in the unenviable position of having to carry the cross for the corrupt practices of his cabinet colleagues even though he is totally free from corruption. The financial swindles in the North Cachar Hills district and the fantastic speed at which some of his ministers have become inordinately wealthy have gone against the image of a chief minister believed to be Mr Clean himself, but who is unable to punish corrupt ministers in his cabinet. But gone are the days when this failure to punish was seen as a mere weakness. People are no longer willing to absolve him of responsibility in the matter of the numerous acts of financial corruption that have led to hundreds of crores of rupees being siphoned away from development funds, since the Chief Minister of the State is also its Finance Minister. The buck for financial irregularities and the loot of the State exchequer has to stop with the Chief Minister.

Even more sinister is the fact that the Chief Executive Member of the North Cachar Autonomous District Council, Mohit Hojai, had been giving crores of rupees to the terrorist outfit Black Widow to enable its cadres to buy sophisticated weapons for the outfit! And Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi also happens to be the Home Minister of the State! The buck for any serious aberrations in the Home Department also stops with the Chief Minister. We thus have a bizarre situation that reminds me of how, as students of literature, we were urged to resort to the “willing suspension of disbelief” every time the burden of misfortunes seemed too overwhelming for one individual — the tragic hero. In other words, we were advised to switch off our disbelief for the nonce so as to be able to appreciate the tragedy in question that much better without the load of scepticism. Our polity obviously demands a slightly different kind of exercise. We are required to exercise an unwilling suspension of our belief in order to sustain the image of innocence in someone who has ceased to be innocent. Tarun Gogoi’s attitude to the mandatory requirement that all public servants should make public the list of their personal assets has also undergone a sea change—possibly due to pressure from corrupt cabinet colleagues. There was a time when he deemed this an essential exercise in the interest of transparent and accountable governance. However, later on, he began to say that it was not mandatory for his ministers to declare their personal assets, and that curious souls could get the information from the Income-tax authorities. As a lawyer he must have been aware of the untruth in such a statement. However, the Congress high command must have insisted on his ministers declaring their personal assets before the elections, and so Tarun Gogoi instructed them to have statements of their personal assets on the Assam Government website by 15 January 2011.

What we have on the website is unalloyed farce. In the first place, one cannot have access to the personal assets of all the ministers. One draws a blank when attempting to access the statement of their assets. Even those who have given statements of their assets have neglected to list the assets held in the names of their wives or husbands. And everyone knows what a common practice it is for ministers, politicians and bureaucrats to have benami assets in the names of their spouses. But this is not the only shortcoming. In several cases, the value of real estate is mentioned without any mention of the size of the property. In other cases, we have just the area of a plot of land (agricultural or residential) without any mention of its value. Even when the value of a property is mentioned it is generally grossly undervalued. For instance, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi lists a residential plot at Beltola in Guwahati valued at Rs 1.05 lakh. Since one cannot buy more than two or three square metres of residential land for that kind of money, what kind of a residential plot is he talking about? In any case, the valuation of this very plot had been shown as Rs 7.5 lakh in his affidavit filed before the Election Commission before the 2006 Assembly elections. Likewise, his Vasant Kunj flat in New Delhi that had been valued at Rs 18 lakh in the same affidavit has been valued at Rs 5.81 lakh in the 15 January declaration, and his land and house at Ajanta Road of Beltala in Guwahati, valued at Rs 20.37 lakh in the 2006 affidavit has now been devalued to Rs 15.98 lakh on 15 January. Have property values come down in five years? Will the government accept such reduced values for all his neighbours if they decide to emulate Tarun Gogoi’s example?

At a press meet held a few days ago, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi had a pathetic explanation for all this. He said one declaration was for the affidavit required by the Election Commission and the other just tallied with the declaration for income-tax purposes. Can statements about the value of the same assets differ for two different authorities? What kind of an example is the Chief Minister of the State setting for the younger generation of his State? Is he not asking them to defraud the state? Does even the first one reflect prevailing prices? The second certainly does not. But Gogoi obviously deems the statement of 15 January 2011 as adequate for the ‘gullible’ public of Assam.  That is the extent of his respect for the people of Assam—his electorate! There are innumerable such anomalies and ludicrous inaccuracies in the statements of personal assets filed by the ministers of Assam. For the present, the details are perhaps less important than the principle involved: fool the public as best as you can. However, this is not the only aspect of personal assets that needs to be thoroughly investigated. There are allegations that Tarun Gogoi and members of his family have acquired real estate worth Rs 18 crore in the United States. This allegation must be thoroughly investigated for whatever it is worth. Besides, such investigations of private property are much easier in the US due to the prevailing laws.

It is raining free laptops in Assam

The election fever is on in Assam. With the State government having decided on dates just before Rangaali Bihu (the Assamese New Year, which is 15 April) for the polls, there are only about five weeks left to the Assembly elections. So, what does one expect in a State that has been identified as the corrupt one among all the Indian states? For a States that has rather warped notions about what constitutes development, for a State that has for decades relied on the illegal votes of foreign nationals to win elections, for a State that has no notion of worthwhile performance for the greatest good of the greatest number, the only kind of activity that is visible is what is required to win the elections for the ruling party. This is a State where the distinction between the government and the ruling party was obliterated long ago, but this is not the only State where this has happened. Take any State a month before the elections, and the same phenomenon is clearly visible. Yet, the exertions that a non-performing government makes at such a time are both interesting and amusing.

During the last few weeks, the most visible activity of the State government (read the ruling Congress party) has been laying foundation stones of diverse projects, doing out awards to distinguished citizens and working out what blandishments and gifts will work for different sections of the population. The distribution of personal computers to meritorious students who have done well in examinations has gone on for so many years that it is passé. This incentive has been followed by the gift of bicycles to meritorious girl students. And since this is not as old as the gifting of personal computers, there are signs of frenetic activity among bicycle dealers to get hundreds of bicycles ready for the lucky girls. The distribution of computers to meritorious students was not without an element of wry humour. Students hailing from remote villages without electricity were requested to take cash in lieu of computers. There was one student who said he did not want the cash. He said he wanted the computer and electricity in his village to run the computer like the other lucky boys. This put th4e government is a bit of a fix because it exposed the government’s inefficiency on the power front rather markedly.

The other major activity on the ‘development’ front is the laying of foundation stones of projects that do not have to be completed now but can be put off for the future. The foundation stones are no more than tokens of the ruling party’s intent to do certain things if it comes back to power. If it does not … well, could it possibly have determined the right priorities for a rival political party? But the ruling party does not really have to fear such an eventually consisting that there has been an abnormal increase in the number of foreign voters during the last two years. If the government itself calls them Indian citizens the illegality of foreigners voting in Indian elections ceases to exist¯at least that is what the mind-set of those in the corridors of power must be. In any case, during the last two months there have been 40 foundation stones laid by different ministers. The cost of the function associated with the laying of foundation stones is considerable. But a government that cannot pay the salaries of its employees regularly has no difficulty in finding the funds for such wasteful expenditure here is a way for the ruling party to fund its campaign with public money. In course of time, we may even find plants growing around the foundation stones, but our politicians cannot be bothered about such trivial matters of waste of public money after the elections are over.

The other major activity of the ruling party was to increase the number of State awards from five to 23 and to rope in all well-known senior citizens as recipients of awards for some activity or the other. Even at Rs one lakh per award, that is close to Rs 25 lakh (not counting the expenses of the award ceremonies). But no one seems to be complaining, because it is only at such times that political parties are overcome with the generosity itch.

However, what takes the cake is the State government’s decision to distribute laptop computers free to all journalists who have put in ten years or more in their profession. Apparently, there are 600 laptops earmarked for journalists, and about 250 of them have already been distributed. In fact, as soon as the distribution of free laptops to journalists was announced, one or two newspapers did raise questions about the ethics of such a move and suggested that senior journalists should not accept such gifts. However, a number of senior journalists seem to have gathered to receive the free gifts. As it is, the print media in the State is not on a sound ethical footing considering that most newspapers would have to pack up and cease publication if they did not have the revenue provided by government advertisements. Since this is the sole source of revenue for most newspapers in the State, they cannot afford to be critical of the government. These newspapers have already compromised themselves on the issue of their independence. The acceptance of free laptops from the government just before the elections has compromised several journalists even further. They did not have to replicate the behavior of the publishers of newspapers. We have a situation where the government of the day is out to corrupt not just individuals but a whole system, and it appears as though it is succeeding. This is reminiscent of what happened in Uttar Pradesh in the mid-1990 when Mulayam Singh Yadav was Chief Minister of the State. His government worked overtime to corrupt the Fourth Estate by pushing all kinds of largesse on journalists. This impelled the Editors Guild of India to formulate and draft a code of conduct for journalists which is in place now. The Guild rightly felt that it was much better for journalists to evolve their own code of conduct rather than being forced to accept a code of conduct framed by the Press Council of India, the Press Information Bureau or some other government organization.

What the ruling party in Assam is doing just before the Assembly elections to re-instal itself in power and score a hat-trick is most objectionable in a democracy. Such unethical measurers only go to prove that our democracy has not yet matured and needs devices suitable only in a feudal system get back to power. This causal mindless acceptance of corrupt practices must end. And who should lead the way in this initiative but journalists who often have occasion to condemn corrupt practices. Are senior journalists of Assam about to give the people of the country an opportunity to echo the words of George Bernard Shaw who had said, “Morality is the lack of opportunity”? Are they about to assert the fact that they are used to condemning corrupt practices in society only they have no chance of being the beneficiaries of corruption? we must have answers from journalists for their own good.  


Ethnicity and Self determination

Patricia Mary Mukhim

Ethnicity and self determination are theories that have seen many academic debates. Unfortunately such debates have not toned down the shrillness of the demands in the field. Obviously there is a disconnect between what is discussed and researched in universities and what actually happens on the ground. After every ethnic conflict that leaves many dead and thousands displaced, academics descend on the scene of conflict to ‘study’ the situation. But what are the lessons learnt? Above all, what are the lessons shared with peace practitioners and activists? This is a question that needs to be honestly answered. Academic discourses are expected to develop tools with which to help ethnic communities engage more meaningfully with their real or perceived notions of being marginalised because they are a minority. With all the years of experience behind us, do we have these tools? If not, why not?  

It is important to delve into the larger meaning and content of the word ethnicity to better grasp its dimensions. Ethnicity denotes a group of individuals who consider themselves, or are considered by others, to share common characteristics which differentiate them from other collectivities within a society.  Distinct cultural behaviors are developed, and ethnic groups are identifiable in terms of religion, politics, occupation, or language.  Because the basis of ethnicity is cultural differences ethnicity is social in nature.

Ethnicity is different from race. Race is a socially constructed category that looks at physical differences but ethnic groups can include various racial categories.  For example, the Khasis based in the US or UK or anywhere in India although brought up differently still claim ancestry to a distinct Khasi culture. Ethnic groups are fluid in composition and subject to changes in definition.  Again let me draw some analogies here. A Khasi or Assamese living abroad still belongs to his/her ethnic group but is also of the larger Indian milieu and of Asian racial origin in the broader category. Going by this definition, ethnicity is a narrower category but race includes several ethnicities.

Ethnicity is also distinct from nationality. The latter denotes an individual’s political relationship to the country or state of his origin. One may be an Indian national but of different ethnic stock. In North East India there are according to BG Verghese at least 238 ethnic groups, some with a population to reckon with but others of a miniscule number. Many small tribes in the hills of Manipur are still evolving and claiming ethnic connection to larger groups. But this is because of the politics of identity where numbers matter and political assertions have more meaning when the volume is loud and the head count is sizeable.

Thomas Hylland Eriksen in his book Ethnicity and Nationalism: Anthropological Perspectives observe that ethnicity emerges and is made relevant through ongoing social situations and encounters, and through people’s ways of coping with the demands and challenges of life. Eriksen further states that from its vantage-point right at the centre of local life, social anthropology is in a unique position to investigate these processes. Anthropological approaches enable people to explore the ways in which ethnic relations are being defined and perceived by people; how they talk and think about their own group as well as other groups, and how particular world-views are being maintained or contested. The significance of ethnic membership to people can best be investigated through that detailed on-the-ground research which is the hallmark of anthropology. Finally, social anthropology, being a comparative discipline, studies both differences and similarities between ethnic phenomena. It thereby provides a nuanced and complex vision of ethnicity in the contemporary world.

The reason why ethnicity has gained importance in contemporary debates is because people in many parts of the world are struggling to understand their own ethnicities vis-à-vis other identities. In the early twentieth century, many social theorists held that ethnicity and nationalism would decrease in importance and eventually vanish as a result of modernisation, industrialisation and individualism. This never came about. On the contrary, ethnicity and nationalism have grown in political importance in the world, particularly since the Second World War.  Thirty-five of the thirty-seven major armed conflicts in the world in 1991 were internal conflicts, and most of them - from Sri Lanka to Northern Ireland and closer home in India’s North East – could plausibly be described as ethnic conflicts.

The fundamental problem with ethnicity is that it can be defined only with reference to the ‘other.’ I know I am different only when I compare myself to another, not when I am with my own kind. Hence ethnicity is based on either sharp cultural differences or minor dissimilarities. Take for instance the three major ethnic groups of Meghalaya – the Khasis, Jaintias and Garos. While all three groups practice matriliny, the Khasis and Jaintias have not been able to emotionally integrate with the Garos because of differences in dialect and inability to converse with each other. There is a slight variation between the Khasi and the Jaintia dialect but because Khasi is the language of education, the two tribes understand each other. Moreover both are, according to social anthropologists, of the same racial Mon-Khmer stock of Cambodia whereas the Garos belong to the Tibeto-Burman racial stock. But these social distinctions could have been overcome if not for politics. The Garos as a single group, although smaller in population than the Khasis and Jaintias, corner 40 % of all state privileges in education and employment. The Khasis and Jaintias although having a bigger population share 40% of the state reservation pie. This has created underpinnings of anguish and sometimes of hatred and discontent among the three tribes within the same political unit. 

Indeed, ethnicity in India’s North East is increasingly becoming the language of politics and identity assertions. This is where the problem lies. We now speak of ethnic homelands many of which overlap. For instance the Bodoland Territorial Council was granted as an appeasement to the Bodo people although their total within the so-called ‘homeland’ in the eight districts under the jurisdiction of the BTC amounts to a little over 11 per cent. Of this 11% population, not all live in the eight districts. Hence the Bodos are virtually a minority in the BTC yet their claim over financial resources of the country is essentially to develop their cultural resources and deepen their identity – an assertion that is bound to give rise to conflicts over the manner in which the Indian state’s resources are seen to be inequitably allocated. To offset this phenomenon and justify their claim over their largely imagined homeland, to borrow Benedict Anderson’s coinage, the Bodos carried out an ethnic cleansing against Muslims in 1993 then against the ethnic Santhals in 1996 where nearly 2.62 lakh people became homeless. Again in October 2008 the Bodos launched an assault against Muslim immigrants. Basically such violent assertions are a fight for control over dwindling natural resources, the most important being land.   

The case of North Cachar Hills is similar. Here the Dimasas are a minority in the present political space called Dima Hasao or the Homeland of the Dimasas. The Zeme Nagas, the Kuki, Paite, Zomis and other ethnic groups and non-tribals together add up to a sizeable chunk of the population in NC Hills. Karbi Anglong too is in a similar situation. This is because ethnic groups do not necessarily reside in contiguous areas, more so, since the tribes have been nomadic pastoralists before they got into settled agriculture.

The problem with ethnic identity is that it refuses to remain in the domain of a social construct but becomes the foundation upon which political assertions for demanding an ethnic homeland are built. Somebody has rightly coined the term, “territories of fear” to define these unsustainable homeland demands. At some point or other when the demographic profile of the group around which the homeland is created, changes, there will be assertions by the majority group and so on. Each new assertion is and will be accompanied by bloodshed and large scale displacement of innocent people for whom it will take over two decades to be rehabilitated. Some are never rehabilitated at all. Ethnic conflicts between the Reangs and Mizos resulted in over 37,000 Reangs being displaced from Mizoram and living in camps in North Tripura. Studies have shown that close to three lakh people have been displaced by these protracted ethnic conflicts in India’s North East but no one learns any lessons.

Ethnicity is not about being tribal or non-tribal as some are wont to perceive. In fact there is confusion about the markers between ethnicity from indigeneity. Indigenous peoples are those who are believed to have been the first settlers in a particular geographical space. An ethnic group may not necessarily be the first settler in a place. They could have settled in a place because it offered the basic necessities of life through relatively easier means than elsewhere. That is how people have behaved and that is how they continue to behave even today. Economic considerations determine where people settle and live. The large number of Indian settlers in the US and today forming a sizeable ethnic composition in the US social atlas is a good example. But the Indian diaspora living there cannot possibly claim a large part of California where they are now settled and investing their resources in, as their homeland. Nor is it easy for Mexican settlers in the US to demand space for self determination.

Generally defined, self determination is the free choice of one’s own acts without external compulsion. In politics it is seen as the freedom of the people of a given territory or national grouping to determine their own political status and how they will be governed without undue influence from any other country. Self determination also refers to a number of distinct human rights which include the right to equality under the law, the right to a nationality, the right to freely leave and return to a person’s country of origin, the right to freedom from persecution because of race, religion, or gender, and a host of other rights. Self determination in a nation state of diverse ethnic communities would imply that there should be one overarching paradigm such as the Indian Constitution within which each ethnic group can find its footing and pursue its ambitions. This would prevent one group from treading on the toes of another group.

In the context of India there are several ethnic groups which are also termed as Indigenous Peoples’ Groups and have been recognised as such by the United Nations. They work with an international network called the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) where discourses on greater self determination within the nation-state structure are regularly held. What is implied in these discourses is the right of indigenous peoples to participate in the democratic process of governance and to influence their future – politically, socially and culturally. Self-determination embodies the right for all peoples to determine their own economic, social and cultural development. Self-determination has therefore been defined by the International Court of Justice as: The need to pay regard to the freely expressed will of peoples.  For indigenous peoples the term self-determination does not imply secession from the state. But often the term self-determination has been construed by the Indian state to mean secessionism. The long struggle to understand the Naga conundrum springs from this narrow understanding of the word ‘self-determination.’ Today there appears to be greater clarity around this issue hence the Naga retraction of the word ‘sovereignty’ from the current peace dialogue.

In India we have a federal political arrangement with the Centre looking after a set of responsibilities such as Defence, Currency, and External Affairs etc while states are vested with authority over certain subjects of governance which are more suited to the people living within those states, but always within the ambit of the Indian Constitution. However, the Indian experiment suffers from some major deficiencies. The Indian electoral system is based on representation on the basis of population. The North Eastern states have relatively smaller populations in a smaller geographical space. And even though Arunachal Pradesh is only 1000 hectares smaller then West Bengal, population wise it is very small. The North East put together has only 26 MPs while Uttar Pradesh alone has over 80. This disparity in numbers is bound to lead to a feeling of isolation in the Lok Sabha which has 540 members. In India numbers matter a lot. States with more MPs are wooed for Government formation at the Centre. Not so the smaller states with MPs coming from disparate parties. Hence the voices of the NE MPs despite their having a forum of their own carry no weight.

North East India has its own development goals. The Vision 2020 that was charted out after a massive field exercise represents to a large extent the aspirations of people of this region. The Vision entails money for implementation which the region cannot generate because of its limited resources. This money has to come from the Central Government but to do so means hectic lobbying in Delhi with those holding the reins  in North and South Block. This has always been the Achilles heel of the region. Firstly, MPs are divided by party loyalties and the region comes second always. Secondly, the 26 MPs are hardly adequate to make a loud enough noise in Parliament and to sustain that decibel until heard. So if India continues to follow this pattern of electoral politics on the basis of population distribution the North East will never be able to articulate its collective aspirations or what we would call ‘self-determination.’

This same pattern of election has however created similar heartburns within the states of the North East. Whether it is Assam or Manipur, communities with larger populations, notwithstanding the fact that they live in smaller areas, continue to have larger representation in the state assemblies. One fourth of Manipur which is the valley is inhabited by 70% of population which is predominantly Meitei. They have 40 seats in the Assembly. The other 30% of population which includes the Nagas, Kuki-Chins, and Mizos etc live in the hills. They have only 20 MLAs in the House of 60.   Needless to say, in such a situation the majority carries the day. The minority voices are subsumed. So how can we talk of self determination in such a situation?

For many of the ethnic groups, self determination today has taken the form of a platform for extracting more political and economic resources from an obliging Centre. These exercises are backed by strong ideological assertions and are aimed at convincing the Central Government that if more funds flow in, more opportunities could be created for the particular ethnic group. In this case even educational institutions, health facilities, road construction projects etc are seen as opportunities for employment for people from within the ethnic community. This is seen as one form of political and economic empowerment of the ethnic community – in other words – a form of self determination without having to wait for resources to trickle in from the state Government. State governments whether in Assam or Manipur are wont to have a majoritarian mindset. The bulk of their resources are deployed towards building the constituencies of the MLAs who are in the majority.

These bottlenecks need to be surmounted at the level of the states and the centre by electoral reforms that do not decide the number of representatives based on population but on the needs of the constituencies. This might smoothen the rough edges of ethnic politics and their assertion for self determination. At the end of the day, ethnic homelands are mere tools for appropriating greater political and economic resources. If the reasons behind the assertions for ethnic homelands are analysed and everyone is made to feel a stakeholder in democratic governance, one expects the shrill demands for such politically and economically unsustainable homelands might slow down and finally taper off.


Set Back for Congress in Manipur

Pradip Phanjoubam

The Konthoujam bye-election results are out, and for the first time  since the ascendance of the Congress under chief minister, Okram Ibobi, to the seats of the state’s power corridors nearly 10 years ago, the party’s apparent invincibility has been broken quite convincingly. In the light of this, the significance of the news of the bye-election result today was more about the defeat of the Congress than the victory of the new entrant into state politics, and indeed deserving giant killer, the Trinamool Congress.

While it is true election results in Manipur are not determined purely by politics or political ideology of the parties in the contest, it cannot be ignored that this somewhat a mid-term verdict of the electorate on the popularity of the party in power. Nobody would have thought today’s was possible two months ago. Now it is a reality beyond the pale.

The ruling party needs to rethink its ways, and for the opposition parties, this is also an indicator that if they manage to remain united, this is the best time for them to break the Congress fortress built solidly during the party’s extended period in power. This thought is extremely relevant for both, considering the election to the state Assembly are just one year away. But before anything further is said on the issue, our congratulations go out to the winner, K Sarat of the Trinamool Congress.

Although the Assembly elections are due technically in February 2012, this year is virtually an election year. There is just one year left for the ruling party to salvage the situation, or for the opposition combine to think of consolidating its gains. It remains to be seen which one takes the situation seriously enough to take the best advantage of it.

But there is also another more serious thought to be considered. So far the Okram Ibobi government has been in a strong position not to be swayed by the sentiments on the streets. This was witnessed in the measured concessions the government made to the demands for the implementation of the 6th Pay Commission recommendations for state government employees. It was seen in the way his government pushed through the controversial Autonomous District Council elections. It is again being seen in the way the government is taking on the many strikes the state witnesses on almost a daily basis, including the ongoing one by the College Teachers’ Association (COTA).

What many would be eager to find out at this moment would be, would the Ibobi government have the courage to carry on with its resolute postures on issues of importance to the state, or would the Konthoujam election defeat begin to eat into his government’s confidence, making it want to lean towards more populist policies and measures.

In other words, would the government continue to see only what it thinks are in the interest of the state, or would it shift focus from state interest to election interest. We hope nothing very serious in matters of governance ends up compromised. Any realist would give allowance for a bit of populist measures of any government in an election year. This happens everywhere, including in the most advanced democracies in the world, but the state needs to be wary about this populism not amounting to any serious sell-out of state’s interest.

The urge of the government to resort to such means will also depend on how the opposition conducts its campaign. It can also deliberately or otherwise push the government to do exactly what every right thinking citizen fears – enter into unrestrained populist programmes. Our appeal then is for both the sides of the political divide not to cross the line of political decency and thereby avoid pushing each other to the wall where the cornered are left to resort to desperate means.

Let the campaigns be held in true earnest, but without allowing it to degenerate into total insanity. Let both the sides continue to consider the overall interest of the state as primary and within this parameter, conduct their campaigns. But in the final analysis, the responsibility of not compromising the overall health of the state in view of the upcoming state Assembly election, would rest on the ruling party’s shoulder, after all, all the levers of power are in its hands, thus it can misuse it more than anybody else.

Corruption monster

There is nothing much to dispute in the proposition that corruption is at the root of most ills of our society. Manipur should know this only too well. In fact, the ruling Congress government led by chief minister Okram Ibobi may be paying the price for failing to address this issue. Rather than address the issue, the government has been rather reckless on the matter. The disenchantment this has caused may be what was reflected in the recent election defeat the Congress suffered in the Konthoujam bye-election.

There should be no dispute that even the question of law and order can be seen as hinging on corruption a great deal. For corruption is not just about certain men and women in position of official power aggrandizing themselves, but also equally, if not more, about their acts destroying the just order of the society, where hard work, merit and enterprise are the key to success and status in the social hierarchy.

In this way, much of the trouble that Manipur faces today is retribution for all the sins that those in various positions of state power over the decades have endlessly piled up. Moreover, not only does corruption turn the idea of justice upside down, it also ensures gradually but certainly that the credibility of the establishment is surrendered ultimately. Can anybody doubt then how crucial this is in any serious project of society building?

It is true that official corruption is endemic and widespread in Manipur. There is practically no department in the government left today where this corrosive culture is alien. From the very top to the very bottom of the official hierarchy, nothing moves unless lubricated by corruption. Although it is no consolation, it would however be wrong to suggest this disease is specific to Manipur alone, or for that matter, the Northeast. There is nothing to suggest that the most corrupt politician or bureaucrat in Manipur or northeast would have more black money than many of their counterparts in other parts of the country.

It is true, a former chief minister of Arunachal Pradesh, Gegong Apang, has been arrested for involvement in a Rs. 1000 crore PDS scam, but nobody would believe that there are no such politicians say in Uttar Pradesh or Bihar or New Delhi. The ongoing scandalous Commonwealth Games affairs, or the kind of wealth the Uttar Pradesh chief minister flaunts around, are just a pointer that the scale of corruption elsewhere would make corruption in our region akin to child’s play.

Corruption, it seems is engraved in the DNA of the Indian political system. In fact, according to an estimate, 60 percent of the Indian economy is black. The 9 percent growth that the country is proud of today, is accounted for only by the 40 percent which is tax paid. The expanding Indian GDP amounting to an estimated 3.5 trillion dollars today would probably have been much closer to China’s estimated 9 trillion or the US 14 trillion had it not been for this.

But as we have said before, this should be no alibi for the corrupt in Manipur. The other states of India are much more equipped to balance out the ills of corruption, for they also have other very strong sectors and enterprises autonomous of the government. In Manipur, the government is not just about governance alone, but is also practically the prop for all other sectors of the state’s economy.

This explains why the Manipur economy literally collapsed when government employees’ salaries were irregular in the early part of the last decade after the pay hike for state government employees on the pattern of the 5th Pay Commission recommendation for Central government employees, without first a financial pledge from the Union Finance Commission. Since this is the case, ending or at least curbing official corruption in Manipur is not just about soul cleansing. It is more importantly about regaining the fabric of the society that once made it vibrant and strong. It is about the social organism winning back the lost belief in itself.

This last point is very important, for today, every indicator suggests the best of Manipur is turning sour and abandoning itself. The exodus of talented people from the state because life has become impossible is just a metaphor of this growing cynicism. It would probably be difficult to convince those at end of the social spectrum who are benefitting from perpetrating the corruption culture, but the fact is, as long as this culture is allowed to continue, in direct and indirect ways it will ensure peace in Manipur remains elusive.

The ever increasing number whose futures have been condemned by the system will remain the willing candidates waiting for their time to take violent revenge on the system which has been so mercilessly unjust to them. In other words, this agenda of fighting corruption is not just in the interest of those who have become victims, but also those who are benefitting from it. The sense of social justice fostered by the belief that hard work and merit pays, is one of the must keys to peace. For then, not only would those who succeed in the race be prouder of their achievements, but those who lag behind will not be bitter. Importantly, the latter would also not be deprived of the hope that they can always continue to strive harder to emerge on top the next time.


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

                                               Astha Bharati