Slavish language and decency of indecent life

Bimol Akoijam *

Language is power. It does not merely communicate feelings and thoughts but re-enacts and re-produces power relations between speakers and listeners. For instance, what has often been regarded as a beauty of (the imperial) English language, the phrases like "I have the honour to state that" or "I beg to state that" and "yours humbly" or "yours faithfully" with which one starts or signs off an application are statements of power relation.

Similarly, when we say in public function, "leibaak-ki angam-athou", the word "angam(ba)" communicates power position, a power that is so aptly conveyed by a familiar dialogue that appeared in many plays and shumaang leelaa that depict the life and times of a feudal-monarchical order: "Eibu loiba leimaaba, angambagee khuya da, tollabaa nanaaina punemjariye!"

Languages of the Slave and the Modern Citizen

"Eibu loiba" is an admission or affirmation of one's subjugated nature, of being a subject of a sovereign power. It communicates a status and power position which is akin to that of an animal as in "hui loiba" or "yen loiba" or "sun loiba" (owning or domesticating dog or hen or cow). Similarly, "tollaba nanaaina" is a concomitant admission of being a "slave" or being subservient to the power that be.

Needless to say, expression such as "eibu loiba" does not convey the status and power of a modern citizen as a "right bearing" individual. Indeed, the expression "eibu loiba" communicates something which is distinctly different from that status and power position of modern citizen, who is "sovereign" or endowed with a right to "self-determination".

Unlike the feudal-monarchical subject, this right bearing citizen exercises her or his right to "self-determination" to influence the authority that governs her/him. This individual citizen is the foundation of what we called "people's power" in modern democracy. And it is the dialogues and transactions amongst such citizens that constitute "public opinion" and "public mood". The much talk about "role of media" in contemporary society will not have any tangible meaning had "media" not been a site for those dialogues.

No polity which is not based on or does not invoke this notion of the "people" (a collective of the right bearing citizens) can have a stable legitimacy today. Indeed, such is the centrality of "people's power" in modern times that even dispensation under a military dictatorship would also justify its actions in the name of "the people".

Now the moot question is, does the "ruling class" care about "public opinion" and "public mood" in Manipur today? More importantly, if the "ruling class" is least bothered about the "people", "public opinion" and "public mood", what are the reasons behind such an attitude? Correspondingly, why is that certain "public opinion" and "public mood" on issues (such as those around the "territorial integrity" of Manipur) seem to inform/dictate/constraint the behavior of the "ruling class" while some issues (e.g., AFSPA or development deficits) do not?

These questions further beg the queries on the nature of the "public opinion" and "public mood" and the activities, particularly the success and failure, of those who seek to shape the same. Countering the turmoil and decadence in Manipur today has to be informed by some answers to these questions.

Language of the Marginalized People and Indecent Life

Two interrelated conditions that have shaped the nature of the discourse on issues of public importance in Manipur can be noted here. First, at the time of de-colonization, the once colonized people try to restructure their life and shape a new destiny for themselves as "free" people. Such a moment was poignantly expressed in the famous "tryst with destiny" midnight speech of Nehru in 1947. Yet, in Manipur, such a move represented by the nascent effort in 1948 that sought to move away from being "subjects" of a "sovereign" Maharajah to a democratic ethos with individuals as "citizens" who shared that sovereignty with the Maharajah was subverted in 1949 by introducing a bureaucratic rule directed from New Delhi.

In fact, the dispensation of Chief Commissioners and Lt. Governors, which lasted almost a quarter of a century in the postcolonial period, has produced an unholy marriage between the remnants of the feudal-monarchical ethos and the paramount colonial power of the Imperial British. Consequently, political culture in Manipur is critically mediated by a language that are used in the "summons" and "phone calls" from New Delhi that we get to read in local newspapers. Such a language points to, on the one hand, the intimacy between New Delhi and Imphal, with the former re-enacting the role of a paramount power and those in Imphal masquerading as local feudal lords, and on the other, the gap between those who govern and the governed in Manipur.

That such ethos, which has ideological as well as the materiality of a political-economy, has survived the transition from the colonial to the postcolonial is critical in understanding the situation in Manipur. Take for instance, the preponderance of the language of violence in the state. While the language of violence and intimidation is a central feature of the feudal-monarchical and imperial order, the language of reasoned and informed dialogue is a cardinal feature of modern polity in general and democratic order in particular. Thus, discarding dialogues and debates on issues of public importance and a tendency to address (read, suppress) such issues or elicit compliance by resorting to violence and intimidation speak volumes on the return or continuity of the order of the feudal-monarchical-imperial axis in Manipur.

Incidentally, the success of the oppressive regime critically hinges on its capacity to make the oppressed learnt the language of the oppressor as their own language. In other words, making the language of the oppressor a shared language between the oppressor and the oppressed is critical in sustaining the oppressive order. In that, the language of violence and intimidation - kaapthat-luraa and haat-tok-uuraa or eikhoise kidabaraa etc - has become so pervasive in Manipur shows the success of the oppressive regime.

Needless to say, such a language of violence and intimidation is antithetical to the language that mediates reasoned and informed dialogues. And if the ideas of "public opinion" and "public mood' based on reasoned and informed deliberations are being contemptuously subverted at the expense of our collective and individual survival and well-being, such oppressive language must be held responsible as a major culprit.

Second, the inability to address issues in a reasoned and informed manner has also been nurtured by a psychology - the "crabs-in-the-bucket" mentality, which is seen amongst the marginalized or defeated people. Indicating the preponderance of a status based social ethos and a deep sense of inferiority or inadequacy born out of a marginal and marginalized existence, running down each other and personalized discourses (e.g., statements such as "the problem with X" rather than "problem with X's views or X's works") are not uncommon in Manipur. Cynically brushing aside the activists as ill-informed or half-educated or unemployed self-seeking people and contemptuously dismissing intellectual insights and contributions as "academic" or theoretical are common refrains amongst the people.

Indeed, rhetorical exhortations and platitudes rather than informed and reasoned articulations often come as opinions in the public domain. Sometimes such utterances can get as bizarre as leaders pronouncing with some sense of authority that "the right to education is more important than the right to life" or "laairik paabana kaanna-roi, theory na yaaroi - reading books or theories won't work" (as if the death can study or schools/colleges/universitsies are useless institutions or there can be no intellectual intervention that shapes the terms of the debate on public issues)!

Thus, overwhelming language of violence and intimidation and the orientations and practices of the "crabs-in-the-bucket" mindset become impediments to evolving informed "public opinions" and "public mood" for sustained mobilizations of "people's power". Consequently, those who are responsible for the decadent and non-existent infrastructures and degenerated norms and institutions (e.g., institutionalized corruption and subversion of rule of law by the law enforcing agencies) are hardly held accountable to the system or the people.

Indeed, not having confronted the wrath of "public opinion" or "public mood" in elections after elections, the "ruling class" continues to get away with the degenerations and indecent life in our society. And understandably, a driving motive for the "ruling class" seems to be that of earning enough money so that they can deal with the "people", like a client would deal and bargain with pimps and prostitutes, at the time of elections to ensure their continued pleasure of the power and wealth of the state.

And in a violent environment, even when they face physical threats, they may do as some rich bourgeois would deal with criminal mafia: by paying off ransom money or "protection fees" or offering business stakes. For the rest of the people, ordinary citizens, they can continue to live in misery and oppressive environment as dispensable lives.

Incidentally, despites these degenerations that implicate the failures of our "ruling class" and their hanger-ons, they still seem to command reverence from the general population as "ee-kai khumnajaribasing and khumnajaribeesing" and "peisaa paaibasing and paibeesing". And rather than being offended, they seem to be amused even by inappropriate conducts of their "leaders" in public.

Such characteristics are not the only ones that show the extent of the rot in society. True to its ethos that smacks of a feudal-monarchical and imperial-paramount order, more often than not, subservient and pretentious conduct passes off as decency, capacity to induce sycophancy stands for leadership quality, an obvert preference for the expression "we" camouflages an unspoken "I" of self-seeking and alienated individuals, cynicism is mistaken for criticism, rhetoric and platitudes substitute informed and reasoned deliberations, and modesty hides ignorance and perpetuates dominance.

If this is so, what language should one speak to change the situation? Undoubtedly, a language of self-respect that is capable of reasoned and informed dialogue must be the foundation. Having been used to the language of decency of the indecent life, some might say that this is wishful thinking. But then, it is as good as saying that one doesn't have the capacity to hope and act and therefore one must as well live through, and leave behind for the next generations, a f**ked up life!

* Bimol Akoijam wrote the article for Hueiyen Lanpao(English Edition)
The author is an Associate Professor at Centre for Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
This article was webcasted on August 12 2010.

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