Power dynamics vis-à-vis Leikai Clubs and Meira Paibi organisations

Rajkumar Panthoiren *

In the Manipur valley, the Leikai Club (locality/community organisation) is essentially a voluntary entity that acts in the jurisdiction of the concerned locality performing a multitude of roles such as organising sports events and entertainment programs as a part of spring festivities, locality awareness programs, annual cleanliness drives, relief activities in times of a natural or an artificial crisis, political mobilisation whenever a social crisis occurs, adjudication in family or neighbourly disputes or disputes impinging on the moral health of the leikai (domestic violence, extra- and pre-marital sexual indulgences) and so on. It is quite a dynamic body and works in tandem with the women's vigilante group, locally known as Meira Paibis (nightly torchbearers).

The Leikai Club can be seen as a loose corollary of the old Pana system (consisting of the four panas, namely Ahallup, Naharup, Khabam and Laipham), which was an administrative system based on functional characteristics of membership, unlike the territory-based Leikai Club system, that provided labour supply through the corvée-like system of Lallup (literally, war organisation).

Although it has to be qualified that the Pana system was more centralised and had certain fixed conditionalities for the partaking members. The Leikai Club isn't necessarily answerable to any central body in the strict sense of the term, even though it still conforms ideationally and functionally to the overall social milieu of the community as a whole.

The other interesting aspect of the Leikai is that the membership-based Singlup system is still continued which comes under cultural survivals reflecting our past of a closely-knit extended kinship system that ensures that everybody is looked after, especially in the time of death and sufferings. The Singlup system is independent of the Leikai Club or the Meira Paibi group.

As a centre of power concentration/Leikai Palli as assurance or arousing discomfiture?

The Leikai Club system and the contiguous bodies such as the Meira Paibi group have to be looked from the perspective of power concentration to give vent to any misgivings that might and do arise in their functional contexts. These groups invoke the dictum of Leikai Palli (the Leikai is the overseer) as a mediation tool to give succour to an aggrieved party in certain domains and also to impose penalty of different intensities on deviants not conforming to social ethos and moral boundaries.

Every so often, one often hears the news of a Leikai mob dismantling the house of an alleged rapist or drug user which is accompanied by the added directive that the whole family, not just the accused, is hereby to leave the Leikai once and for all, on account of them being declared persona non grata in the concerned Leikai.

This is nothing but the Leikai authority taking up the combo role of the judge, the police and the executioner. It reflects a definition-making power of this traditional authority that derives from an imagined sense of an aggregated consensus. This definition-making power can be understood by using Carl Schmitt's theoretical exposition of the friend-enemy distinction as a nature of the political whereby groups engage in the making of a public distinction of who is a friend and who is an enemy.

Although Schmitt uses it in the scale of antagonistic and friendly nation-states, I have brought in his political distinction to the construction of such adapted theoretical categories as that of the Leikai authority with ban-imposing power and the disgraced, banished family as two different entities functioning in a tilted scale, where the former is the definition-maker (who is the enemy of the Leikai?) and the latter, the by-default acceptor of the definition made on their behalf by the aforesaid authority.

Here, the catch is that some or even many of the Leikai members might still be sympathetic to the disgraced family but they have to toe the line of the final "authority" which has decided on the banishment (a one-way loi thaba or exiling)— meaning that private friend is still a public enemy as long as the public definition stands, which is what Carl Schmitt hints at in a larger scale and context. And the Leikai authority has the power to declare someone from the Leikai as a public enemy in context to that particular Leikai only.

Having declared that the family in question is a harmful influence, what is the Leikai authority pointing at? Possibly that their very presence in the Leikai might result in the emulation of the behaviour of the errant family member by the impressionable youth of the Leikai. But then, how is the whole family implicated here?

Possibly again, in the jurisprudence of the Leikai, the family supposedly encouraged or even stayed silent when the "social virus" was breeding in their own family, and so, they are equally culpable making them qualified to be tagged co-conspirators wholesale. There goes psycho-social support, consideration of the family's own limitations and helplessness in dealing with the errant member to the dust, while at the same time very comfortably absolving the locality's own complicity in breeding such errant persons.

And to look at it in another way, if going by the Leikai authority's logic that dumping the whole family outside the Leikai's own premises is an act of purification of the Leikai's social ecosystem or prevention of similar behaviour in the Leikai, then aren't they wilfully "polluting" other Leikais that will eventually shelter the banished family, which is again subject to the assumption that the family in question will remain as polluting factors outside their Leikai of last residence?

This naturally begs the follow-up logical question: is the particular Leikai concerned only about their own Leikai and nobody else? What about the concept of rehabilitation? Shouldn't the Leikai provide an enabling environment for correction as it is supposedly based on a communitarian ethos? Will the "authority" accept back the banished family if the errant family member is reformed, but then what about the costs incurred by the family members in finances and injury to mental health during the forced externment?

Of nexus and clique:

And of course, the question of nexus and clique is always there as in any other system. The moral prism of the Leikai authority doesn't necessarily subsume all the members equally and some are more equal than others. In the power dynamics played out in the Leikai, the person who is able to dole out hefty donations and patronise the Leikai's welfare activities even at the nominal level, the MLA's special workers, the big thikadar, etc. will obviously be heard more than the simple resident who does not have much social capital to bank on.

So, if the clique functions in a self-aggrandizing manner, then the Leikai palli mantra is liable to be misused to cover up personal interests conflated as the Leikai's work. For example, the very recent incident reported in local newspapers of a young woman from Thangmeiband Lairen Hanjaba Leikai being made to apologise unceremoniously in front of Leikai "authority" for raising her voice through social media against a rationing agent of the sitting MLA, involved in selling off paddy land consecrated as property of the local god covering 5 localities, exposes how the façade of Leikai palli exhortation can take quite ugly turns (refer Imphal Free Press' 30th May, 2020 reportage 'Man sells off God's land').

As per newspaper reports (Pandam's 31st May, 2020 reportage 'Imphal Police registers FIR against those involved in the public shaming of Thangmeiband woman'), the update is that those responsible for selling off the land in question have tendered apology to the concerned Lai committee. This makes one wonder what would have been the outcome if the persons involved were of lesser influence.

This ganging up tendency, of immediate dispensation of "justice" à la Kangaroo court style, is a potential tool of misuse. Consider this hypothetical situation where there is some land dispute between two neighbours A and B, and A has many friends in the Leikai Club while B has none. Both are summoned to the club's office and A, having made some pre-emptive arrangements, is a happy witness to B being verbally threatened or humiliated by some club members in the garb of the proceedings of the club's wayel process.

Now, the question is: does B have concrete legal recourse to assuage the hurt to his dignity or to reframe the question, even if he does have legal recourse, will he take it up without hesitation, assuming he still wants to live in the Leikai? Highly unlikely! Another possible scenario can be that of a certain Leikai Club usurping major portions of a public drain to expand the common playground under the club's jurisdiction.

Now, the club claims that it is being done "in the interest" of the Leikai but let's say that, in fact, such a step would eventually lead to problems of waste discharge management and so on. So, even if there are sane people well versed with the technicalities of ecology, hydraulics, etc. or people with plain common sense, in this hypothetical Leikai, they will be hard pressed to remain silent as only the club and the Meira Paibi group supposedly have the prerogative to exhort the Leikai palli dictum.

So, there is a palpable danger of personal motives and missteps coming from a clique in the Leikai authority getting validation without dispute or opposition. This is the fallacy of power concentration that can breed in such traditional structures unless the old system of an elders' council is reinstated. Closer home, the Tangkhul tribe's Tangkhul Naga Long system can be an indication of how traditional authority is negotiated and kept alive by following a layered organisational structure to ensure legitimacy and democratic hierarchy.

A more constructive layout?

It is of no doubt that despite the repressive aspects that inhere in the ontological reality of the Leikai Club and the Meira Paibi, their roles as social institutions capable of enabling welfare functions (including service delivery mechanisms) and also acting as an educative platform to forge a critical solidarity among a locality's citizenry cannot be underestimated.

These institutions have a lot of potential to catalyse a domino effect of social cohesion extending beyond their traditional areas of jurisdiction, but this will be plausible only within a centralizing paradigm of an uncorrupt political economy and cultural awakening or else, fragmentary growth of one locality might be lost in the maze of a stunted system. Also, there has to be accountability in terms of the traditional authority justice system, the loopholes of which have been illustrated above.

'The Manipur Protection from Mob Violence Bill, 2018' which was passed in December, 2018 by the Government of Manipur, and still awaiting the Presidential assent, should be an effective legal force to deal with any excesses committed by Leikai authorities. The law recommends punishment for lynching, public humiliation through exclusion from public services like education, health, transportation etc. and any act of indignity, and forcing a person to leave his or her home without their express consent.

It also recommends a rigorous life imprisonment term and with a fine which may extend to Rs 5 lakh if the crime results in the death of a victim. The fate and legality of the bill is beyond the scope of this article.

The legal framework, even though is a sufficient condition, shouldn't be counted as a necessary condition because that would only obliterate the importance and relevance or self-direction of the community social capital systems of the Leikai Club and the Meira Paibi groups.

It would also be fruitful to take a leaf out of Nagaland's success story with their communitisation programme under the state government policy framed in the 'Nagaland Communitisation of Public Institutions and Services Act, 2002' wherein the communities arrange themselves in committees and are given the responsibility to own and manage education, health care, water supply, electricity, tourism, etc.

Such a policy ensures that the onus is on the community members themselves to work out the best way around their problems and is reported to have resulted in marked improvements in school dropout rate, teachers' attendance, utilization of fund for infrastructure development, monitoring of mid-day meal scheme's implementation, rural and urban healthcare and so on.

Similarly, another example can be that of the highly successful community participation model of Mizoram's Young Mizo Association (YMA), which is playing a huge role in the state level politics as well as youth mobilisation activities along with active cooperation with the state government in programmes such as running of adult education centres, afforestation under 'Green Mizoram' project, construction of houses for the rural poor, campaigns against drugs and alcohol, etc.

The group's state-level influence is because of its centralised hierarchy with a well-built chain of command wherein every veng (neighbourhood in Mizo) has a YMA branch that are further organised into Group units, which in turn form Sub-Headquarters. At the top of the hierarchy is the Central Young Mizo Association with elected office bearers.

Of course, in any case, to paint a wholesale rosy picture will not be justified as problems of overstepping authority, overzealous ethnocentric claims, etc. do arise in the context of the models mentioned above. But the lesson should be the uniting factor which these models have been able to ingrain in their respective communitarian projects functioning in a bottom-up design in consonance with state government policies.

A lot is found wanting in Manipur's context and, as pointed out in an article by Ningthoujam Irina, 'The Manipur Municipality Community Participation Act, 2010' has not been able to leverage the potential of Leikai Clubs and Meira Paibi groups through the institutional structure of the Ward Development Committee among others.

This can be a starting point, in the quest for the mindful utilisation of our traditional authority institutions, so that their perverse or regressive potentialities could be circumvented to positive ends.

* Rajkumar Panthoiren wrote this article for
A version of this article was published in The People's Chronicle on 24 June, 2020
The writer can be contacted at panthoirk94(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on July 02 2020 .

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