TODAY -

The 'war' that wasn't and the 'battle' that rages still

Wangam Thokchom *



Going through e-pao.net and occasional glances at my Facebook page over the last couple of days, I was excited at the possibility of a truly 'public' sphere opening up. A space of discussions and ideas where facts would be honoured, opinions listened to and everyone was invested in a common goal, a better, more tolerant and inclusive Manipur.

Well, that's the dream anyway. It is another matter that chauvinism still triumphed and voices lost, and silenced, over a din of noise which barely made sense. But then again, when have noise ever made sense.

I am writing of course, and adding on to the many which have already been written and said, about the 'Khongjom War' of 1891. It is not my intention to wade into whether it was really the 23rd or 25th April, who led who, which ching (hillock) was it or whether the river/rivulet/drain really did run red. Suffice to say, it is a matter which requires a clearer appreciation of historical facts and claims without resorting to chest-thumping and made up claims.

Selective arranging and display of 'source materials' of photos, telegrams and passages from books isn't going to solve the issue either. (Further arguments could be made about all history being claims and 'objective truth' not being out there, but rather about history being created by historians a necessary diversion but which I am not going to elaborate on here.)

E. H. Carr, in his What is History?, wrote about the distinction between facts of the past and historical facts. A simple way of putting it would be that while all historical facts are facts of the past, not all facts of the past are historical facts. Historians, when writing about the pasts, are always on the look-out for 'traces' of the past a diary, a piece of pottery, a gold coin, a story anything and everything that connects them to the past they are writing about. It is akin to writers always being alert about and attentive to a good story. The distinction between fiction and history though, quite simply put, would be the latter's insistence on evidence.

A controversy on something which just celebrated its quasquicentennial anniversary seems to me to say much more about the type of society we are and the ideals and values we cherish rather than about the event itself. One can, by all means, question the type of sources one is using and the politics inherent in every historian. One can even go further and say that history and all its accompanying methods and materials rationality, objectivity, the archives are a part of the 'modern' thrust upon and utterly inadequate for a 'non-west' society such as ours. It may even be blasphemous in certain circles if I say a hundred and twenty five is a ridiculously short period of time. Well, what's a century or two compared to 2000 years of written recorded history.

The 'Public' and 'Cloistered' lives of History

If it seems to be the case that my understanding of history is of a strictly academic discipline variety, it was my intention. My case being, to point to what Dipesh Chakrabarty, an eminent historian, has described as the distinction between the 'public' and 'cloistered' life of history. Peter Burke, following Hugh Trevor-Roper's 1957 lecture History: Professional and Lay, includes in the category of 'lay' history not only histories written by 'amateurs' and novelists but also pasts performed on the stage and through audiovisual materials.

Chakrabarty goes beyond this and describes the 'public' life of a discipline as, "the way in which 'lay' history or discussions in the public domain actually come to shape the fundamental categories and practices of the discipline's 'cloistered' or academic life." He continues, "'public' and 'cloistered' lives are interactive categories, and the discipline of history is molded by the pressures of both sides". He contends that Burke's distinction "is mainly inert and classificatory in function".

Chakrabarty rightly points out that all disciplines have a cloistered life, "..the life that a discipline lives through journals, reviews, specialized conferences, university departments, professional associations, and so on. It is a life fostered and confined to academic institutions. It is what gives a discipline its social and institutional authority, making people look upon the practitioners of the discipline as experts."

He talks about disciplines having threshold which act as barriers to entry, a minimum degree of specialized training to enter conversations or controversies internal to a discipline. He argues, correctly, that history is perhaps the least technical of all social science disciplines and that not many barriers exist, except in specialized subfields such as economic history or the history of science and technology.

Thus, almost any person can presume to write and debate history. This creates, potentially, in Chakrabarty's view, "a field of tension between the two lives of the discipline, the cloistered one and the public one. Sometimes a middle ground is occupied creatively, as in the case of academically trained historians who write successful trade books or popular blogs and magazine columns; sometimes, the relationship is awkward or tense, particularly when trained historians find historical claims made in public life by particular groups who may even have claims to historians' political sympathies difficult to justify in terms of their professional knowledge. Being the kind of discipline that it is, history remains perennially open to the pressures emanating from its public life."

Chakrabarty asserts that while the cloistered life of history may look the same everywhere with only slight variations, 'historical writings end up being embedded in different public contexts in very different ways'.

Thus, he continues, while it is true that the 'nature' of historical writing is always 'influenced not only by temporal but also by local circumstances', even the basic categories of the discipline 'research', 'facts', 'truth', 'evidence', 'archives' can be moulded by the interaction between history's cloistered and public life. He further writes that the pressure the discipline's public life exerts on its cloistered existence will vary from one context to another.

It is this tension which is visible in the case of the Khongjom conflict. It would be pertinent to enquire into the status of history as an academic discipline and more generally about academia and the university as an institution in Manipur.

The 'University' in Manipur?

The scene in Manipur is far from the ideal one which Chakrabarty provide, of "places where the university has come to be valued as an institution of 'experts' and where historians are less exposed to the pressures of the pasts that are invented, claimed, and contested in the popular domain".

It is also not quite like the Australian example which Chakrabarty provides, where "the emergence of Australian Aboriginal history in the 1980s was a much-debated phenomenon, both among academics qua academics and in the larger public context. Debates about the claims of memory, oral history, and experience over those backed by archival documents (mostly of settler-European origin) raged as much in the halls of academe as in discussions in the media, in courtrooms, and sometimes on the streets as well (as fracas and also as questions of historical reenactments and public history, as during the celebrations of the Australian bicentennial in 1988)."

The academe in Manipur remains a cocooned place; where an army company is placed inside a university campus and no one bats an eyelid; where you are much more likely to be penalised for wearing shorts rather than for plagiarism; where a professor can be shot down in broad daylight; where power, literally, grows out of the barrel of the gun. Of course all these cannot be delinked form the larger structural problems which exist in a conflict-ridden place like Manipur.

However, it should be clearly seen that the existence of a vibrant academia and a publicly-inclined intellectual class not bound to the whims and fancies of anybody is one of the easiest step we can take as a society to rid of the ills plaguing it.

At a time when universities all across India are fighting the intrusion of a fascist state machinery into the democratic space that is the university, when the idea of public universities is falling into disrepute and is sought to be recovered, when larger debates about democracy and individual freedom are taking place, it is our misfortune that the academicians of Manipur are frighteningly silent. Or is it perhaps a case of the society and environment that one is in?

The parochial public

The 'public' in Manipur can be extremely parochial and conservative. Mob-justice is still the norm of the day; houses of persons accused of a crime are burned without a moment's hesitation and with scant regard for the law; young girls and boys hanging out in restaurants and public spaces are subjected to the most humiliating forms of moral policing in one of the numerous 'restaurant drives' which organisations, ostensibly working for the society, carry out.

This extends to the 'public' life of history where parochialism is married to an underlying current of Meitei chauvinism, though it is never outwardly shown or said. The seven-coloured flag representing the seven clans/salais of the Meitei is increasingly being used and showcased in a variety of way as if identifying with the flag makes you better or posit you in opposition to other colonising powers.

History all around the globe have shown the dangers of indulging in highly charged and polarizing forms of cultural mobilization. It would be futile in today's environment to put forward the case that flag in pre-colonial Manipur was specific to the ruling monarch. While the seven-coloured flag did represent the union of the clans, each ruler made their own flag and there wasn't any 'national' flag as such.

The Khongjom-controversy showcases the worst of the 'public' as well as the 'cloistered' life of history in Manipur. While the 'cloistered' remain steadfastly silent, the 'public' threaten to overpower and distort the whole conversation.

It has to be remembered though, that public memory in Manipur is extremely fickle and fleeting. Ours is after all, a society which can call for hanging a murderer and yet, embrace the same person as a hero a couple of years later. Recent communal flare-ups point to the fact that, this parochialism presages an extremely dangerous and worrying trend.

The online Oxford dictionary gives one of the definitions of 'war' as a "sustained campaign against an undesirable situation or activity". In this war against ignorance and parochialism, I submit, history remains an important battle ground.

The Liverpool legend, Bill Shankly once said "Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I don't like that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that."

In the same vein, 'history isn't just a matter of life and death; it is much more serious than that'.


* Wangam Thokchom wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was posted on May 10, 2016.


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