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Get it straight: Electoral Politics and the Culture of Violence in Manipur


The recent killing of a student in Heirok and all the incidents referred to as pre-poll violence in Manipur have to be understood in the light of prolonged militarization and subsequent inheritance of the culture of violence.

By Dhiren A Sadokpam


“When we allow violence against some, we enable violence against all.” When Native American writer and progressive activist DaShanne Stokes thought of these lines, he meant much more than what he even thought. And we all know violence begets violence and it is even worse when the very roots of violence are wrongly packaged according to popular conceptions bereft of critical gaze.

The shooting and killing of a student, Nigthoujam Rohit of Heirok part-2, Mayai leikai on Tuesday night reportedly by masked men comes after a brief lull in the so called pre-poll related violence in Manipur. These senseless violent incidents should be condemned by one and all. Having said this, there is a need to scrutinize the incidents of violence that keep recurring before the advent and after the assembly elections in a state like Manipur.

As reported by TFM, Ningthoujam Premchandra, a 53-year old and father of three sons had retired for the night after having dinner at his home located in Heirok part-2, Mayai leikai on Tuesday (December 21, 2021). At around midnight, the locality was rudely awoken with reverberating sounds of gunshots.

Rohit, son of Premchandra heard noises at the back of the house and had opened the door to find out what was happening. The masked men standing nearby, wielding firearms shot him at point blank range with a shotgun. Premchandra rushed towards his son’s side and he too was shot down by the assailants. Rohit died on the way to Raj Medicity Imphal and his father is reported to be still in a critical condition.

During the month of October, we had also seen a few incidents of sporadic violence supposedly linked with the forthcoming Manipur Assembly election. The one month following October did not see any major incident that could be termed as dangerous by political observers except the most recent Heirok incident.

However, during the first phase of the violence when election moods started swaying the public minds, many political pundits, journalists and even newspapers cherry-picked the phrase “pre-poll violence” to characterize the incidents as they occurred at the dawn of an election season. What was even more interesting to note was that these so called violence took place between the supporters of rival intending candidates for an Assembly election that the Indian Election Commission was yet to schedule.

Several academics, public intellectuals, and political party spokespersons expressed their opinions on the issue through the medium of mushrooming online and cable TV Networks in Manipur. Almost all correctly identified violence in any form as a threat to the democratic fabric of the society.

However, a larger issue that needs to be addressed with critical lenses is whether or not the pre-poll violence, as we have labelled it, is truly tied to ideological disagreements or conflict between political parties vying to snatch power in the name of electoral democracy. It is, therefore, necessary to examine the issue from multiple perspectives.

Is the violence between groups and individuals we have witnessed in the state in recent months rooted in the ideological differences between the political parties or party allegiance they have supported? The answer is a clear no. Few people are willing to die for any specific political ideology, whether leftist, rightist, or centrist in the true sense of the words. When the season of electioneering begins, senseless violence occurs as a form to terrorize people not necessarily in the name of political parties but definitely for the candidates whose political affiliations are known by how close one is to the powers that be. Or perhaps, to settle score with the enemies that was pending for long.

Hence, it is imperative to look for the source of the violence elsewhere. We have obfuscated the root cause of the violence by pigeonholing it as electoral violence as if the battle turf was made for settling ideological differences. Most of us view the issue through the lenses of election season and tensions that arise between supporters of rival parties.

There are also people who argue that ideological conflicts between opposing parties sparked these violent pre-poll incidents. Here, we must not lose sight of the fact that in a state like Manipur, someone who was a member of an ideologically left-wing party yesterday could become a conservative and right-wing party member today. Political party allegiance and Electoral politics in Manipur have over the years rendered party ideologies totally irrelevant.

Therein lies the importance of looking beyond electoral perspectives and focusing on historical, political, cultural, and psychological factors. The history of political violence as we understand in modern Manipur may be traced back to the post-1949 period, when the seeds of violent political confrontation between the state and non-state actors, known as ‘Naharol gi Ehou,’ were sown. As such, our people have lived for a long time in a violent atmosphere where non-state actors have attempted to draw the attention of any regimes. While the state’s response had been the attempt to protect the bigger political structure, everything that happens in the state, from domestic violence to mob violence, must be examined in the context of Manipur’s violent political landscape and resultant fear since the 1940s.

Assuming the recent violence “near or within” in our social context as mere electoral violence is hugely mechanical in nature. So to avoid unwanted and irreparable impact on the democratic fabric of society, there is a need to find out the cause of the violence by dissecting them from multiple possibilities.

If we go back over the last one hundred years, we can see that a new culture of violence had been ingrained in the society. When one dissects the anatomy of violence in Manipur in a wider sense, we can find two types. The first one is violence caused by the conflict between state and the non-state actors. The violence perpetrated by non-state actors or those who do not want Manipur to be a part of India has been referred to as illegitimate violence whereas violence sanctioned and perpetrated by the state to protect its larger political structure is referred to as legitimate violence. Yet, the crucial point here is that either way, whether it is state induced violence or violence committed by non-state actors, both types impose “internalized violent mindsets” in the people.

However, the election-triggered violence that we are discussing right now in Manipur has more to do with money and muscle power, as well as the notion of “challenge” pushed forth by dominance-subservience mindset imbedded in our tradition over the last few centuries as a result of historical circumstances. Here, one can note that practically all the violent incidents discussed here have eventually and legally take “individualized forms”. The only reason we call it electoral or poll violence is because of the temporal factor in sequence. Even a disagreement between two brothers or two families or feud between clans can be read as political violence during election season. This despite the fact that a long standing dispute had nothing to do with the electoral exercise. In this sense, most of the violence we have seen is symptomatic of a culture of violence beyond the confines of Assembly elections. And we too have inherited a distorted form of electoral politics.

The culture being referred to here does not mean the pristine idea of culture or tradition. Rather, it refers to the acquired violent psychological state of a community whose members are lodged in a geopolitical landscape perforated by militarization and protracted armed political unrest. This underlying culture of violence may be dormant, but it manifests itself in various forms, whether individualized or institutionalized depending on spatial and temporal contingencies.

In claiming that we are inherently violent in character, it does not imply that every member of the society is a raging beast ready to attack one and all. Mob violence in our society for instance is a good example of how inherently violent we people are due to a variety of historical factors. No one seem to think that mobs are logic-less, cultureless, or tradition-less as they are constituent parts of a society. Objective material conditions and prolonged state of militarization have eventually determined their characters. The collective frustration and repressed anger must be taken into account when studying actions expressed in a violent form. Thus, the culture of violence is deeply embedded in our society propelled by extraordinary militarization. The consequences can be fatal in the long run.

(Dhiren A. Sadokpam is the Editor-in-Chief, The Frontier Manipur)

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