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Pawns in conflict zones

In conflict areas such as Manipur, civil society is transformed into an extension of the conflict zone, with each conflicting party setting up its own 'civil society' proxies -- including student wings, women’s wings and civil rights campaigns. Pradip Phanjoubam reports

The debate on who or what should constitute ‘civil society’ gets all the more intriguing in a conflict zone such as Manipur. The question is: Should civil society have a normative definition and be treated as the occupant of a space earmarked between the state and vested-interest power players such as militant challengers to the state’s authority and legitimacy, private business houses, etc? Or should it be the space between mutually feuding non-state combatants? While this definition of civil society as a definite space may not be everything, it is a convenient one. The trouble is, when there is a normative definition of this space, this space invariably becomes hotly contested and often readily transforms into an extension of the conflict zones they are supposed to be standing between and arbitrating. Rather than being peace agents, they thus often come to be an instrument of what Sanjib Baruah calls “war by other means”.

Manipur is familiar with this phenomenon. There can be no argument that the ‘civil society’ space has been deeply fissured along sectarian lines. As a result, wars by other means are fought on practically every issue involving any two or more communities of the state’s multitudinous communities. This sectarian divide is also seen along other broader lines such as between the hill districts and valley districts, between tribals and non-tribals, etc. It is not uncommon to hear of self-proclaimed human rights organisations speaking two different and mutually hostile languages on many issues. It is as if there is nothing universal about such supposedly shared values as the powerful notion of human rights. How can any meaningful, problem-solving discourse ever occur under the circumstances?

The technical earmarking of a so-called ‘civil society’ space leads to another familiar problematic situation. The conflicting parties themselves begin to contest this space by putting up their ‘civil society’ proxies, having realised how powerful these bodies can be in multiplying their agenda through precisely the “war by other means”. Again, this is a phenomenon not unfamiliar to Manipur at all. The result is not only a complication of the conflicts themselves, but also a discrediting of this very same ‘civil society’ space, ultimately tarnishing the image of the civil society movement itself.

There is a fierce contest amongst conflicting parties to absorb student movements into their networks. Some even float their own ‘civil society’ bodies, and this is not difficult considering the definition of ‘civil society’ as merely an organisation positioned within a certain space. For instance, the minute a civil rights campaign body is formed, or a student body constituted, it is assumed that it automatically qualifies as ‘civil society’ regardless of whether it has any interest in civility! This makes the notion of ‘civil society’ vulnerable to being reduced to the status of a mere tool for conflict.

Must this not be considered a corruption of the popular understanding of ‘civil society’? The need then is for a rethink on what ‘civil society’ should ideally consist of.

Needed: A moral element

As a rule of thumb, civil society should have some qualitative elements over and above just the quantitative. The issue must be made to become a moral one as well. Only such an approach can make the discourses generated within this space have a vision beyond the immediate or community interest. Otherwise, it would be forsaking its exalted objective of being an impartial arbiter wherever conflicts of interest arise, and will instead become “war by other means”.

If such a definition is agreed upon, then the ambit of the space called civil society would broaden considerably. It can and would then include many more people from walks of life other than organised ‘civil society’ bodies or professional members of ‘civil society’ acting as watchdogs of the establishment and society at large. Professions such as journalism, whose credibility equally depends on neutrality, and which also draws succour from its image as a watchdog of society, would definitely come to be included.

But the dangers of the larger civil society being drawn into the “war by other means” would remain, as many instances prove. Media reporting of the aftermath of the Naga ceasefire extension beyond territorial limits, in June 2001, by newspapers in Nagaland and Manipur, for instance, was starkly different, as many media observers now point out. The facts were the same, but the way the stories were told, displayed or nuanced, conjured up totally different pictures of the same incident. Unwittingly, the media too was drawn into the conflict and fought the same “war by other means”. The challenge then is, once again, to restructure our notion of the contentious civil society space so as to unambiguously distinguish the tools of war from those of peace.

Making civil society ‘civil’

Civil society in the entire northeast is badly fractured and ethnically fissured and may not be quite what the term is generally understood to be. Indeed, in this theatre of conflict, it is almost an axiom that civil society is not always ‘civil’. Civil society vigilante-sponsored blockades, bandhs, strikes and other disruptive activities are more often than not for sectarian reasons. The term ‘civil society’ presupposed certain shared values and qualities, regardless of religious and community affiliations. These values have been relegated to the background in our context.

So when we talk of students’ communities or youth or women in more ideal situations, there ought not to be any need to prefix these understandings with community- and religion-specific qualifications. This, however, has been far from the truth in the northeast, with Manipur being no exception.

There is therefore very little prospect for generalising the problems. A few examples will illustrate this point. When we say student or youth or women’s communities, the nomenclatures themselves ought to be self-explanatory. The reality is quite different in the northeast, where every ethnic community forms its own student, youth, women’s organisations, each pursuing very different and more often than not sectarian agendas. Often these different ‘civil society’ entities work at cross-purposes, accentuating rather than solving problems. In Manipur too, clashes over sectarian agendas frequently occur. The almost entirely different objectives of organisations such as the United Naga Council, the United Committee Manipur, All-Manipur United Clubs Organisation, the Kuki Inpi Manipur, etc, to name just a few, should suffice to make this point clear.

The scenario would virtually be the same if we were to list the various student organisations, or women’s organisations existing in the state. Under the circumstances, there can be no general understanding of the term ‘civil society’ as all institutions formed in this important sector of society are always and necessarily coloured by ethnic tints. The general understanding of the term becomes split into numerous smaller ethnic-specific organisations.

While it may not be desirable to advocate for a total generalisation of the energy of civil society bodies in the northeast, as there are area- and ethnic-specific problems to be tackled, it would be short-sighted to totally ignore the commonality of all such organisations the world over. Hence when we say ‘youth problem’, there must be a general thread that binds it to the more broad-based understanding of the problem. Our youth must be able to identify, empathise and sympathise with national and international youth movements. Only when this happens can a reverse flow of the same sentiments become possible. The need of the hour then is for an effort to reconstruct Manipur’s civil society. Its civil society movements must be put back on a track that will integrate the place with the mainstream of humanity.

The upsurge in ethnic identity being what it is, this is not going to be easy. But it is one of those vital and urgent issues that Manipur cannot shy away from. It is also the only way it can make its civil society ‘civil’ in the true sense of the word.

(Pradip Phanjoubam is Editor of Imphal Free Press)

Infochange News & Features, November 2009