TODAY -

Mainstream in Shoes of Alternative

Ranjan Yumnam *

 Alternative Perspectives
Alternative Perspectives :: Pix - TSE



You probably may have heard of the Alternative Perspectives. From its initial days of obscurity, it is now a journal which has a recall value. It has caught the attention of university professors and research students who read, write and aspire to contribute articles for it. As a compliment to the editorial teams, past and present, we can say AP has exceeded expectations and even transformed the DNA of its soul.

It is no longer a vehicle of marginal or alternative narratives. More like a popular magazine, it has become respectable, credible and visible. The individuals behind the publication are also well-known. Many of them lecture us from the discussion panel in the news studio through mass media and tiny touchscreens. They are savvy and have struck an easy rapport with the journalists.

They are unavoidable; just saying how ubiquitous they are. I know one highly regarded friend who works hard to pull off the journal. Every six month, and like the phoenix, it unfailingly rises when we presume we have seen the last of it. Such tenacity is rare, and so is the dedication in this age in which everyone thinks it is their birthright to get freebies. Alternative Perspectives is not a freebie. And that, sir, is an achievement!

Grand Narratives

That achievement is due to the relevancy of its theme and the weight of the scholars who write in the “Alternative Perspectives”. It can be said that Social Sciences operate within the social and political constraints of the times in which they are produced. Unlike fundamental science, the social sciences advance by taking little steps, sometimes gingerly dipping their toes in the pond to test the waters for social sanction.

The scholars themselves would not admit to this implicit mental boundary, but it informs their works in knowledge production. For example, the latest issue of Alternative Perspectives belabours points to making sense of the present ethnic clashes and unpacking the root causes. One dominant lens is Geopolitics, and the other equally broad conclusion is that the poppy is the opium of the masses that fuels this ethnic rivalry.

These deductions are true and borne by facts and data. However, the point of contention is the “alternativity” in the universe of debate in which the AP seeks to position itself. Frequently, the AP contradicts its label by toeing the most acceptable and mainstream line to explain the complex nature of the origin, fallout and solutions to the ethnic clashes in Manipur.

History of Disruptions

Wielding grand narratives, the AP examines the conflict situation, stacking causes and effects in a neat pyramid when the reality is more complicated, messy and multipronged. In 1992, Francis Fukuyama pronounced the End of History in the vain hope of tightening the lid on the pandora box of history. He cheerleadered Liberal Democracy as the final frontier of human political progress and claimed that civilization had cracked the freedom code for good.

How wrong he was. As thinkers have discovered, history is not a continuous, linear narrative, but rather a series of disruptions, ruptures, and transformations that shape the present. The discontinuities in the form of revolutions and upheavals, cultural and artistic innovations, technological disruptions, Artificial Intelligence and other advancements have resisted the lure of grand ideologies.

Much of AP’s text analyses the ethnic war in Manipur through the geopolitics, ethnography, refugee crisis and crossborder politics in the region. The essays emphasize India’s geostrategic interest and security priorities with its neighbours, suggesting that the conflict is an extension of broader geopolitical tensions. The hegemonic ambitions of China, the USA, the UK and Britain in Myanmar are dwelled upon at length.

While these make for an exciting chase of the wild goose, the narratives, unfortunately, take away the free will of the people who want to shape history and adjust its direction. While we are searching for a positive and practical to-do list, AP’s suggestion of history taking its own course, like a foregone conclusion, is a bit frustrating.

We are basically told to watch and tide out the stream of geopolitical history, unravelling itself in its constant ebbing and flow. Gone is the feeling of confidence to rock the boat and steer it, whatever that may be.

To be fair, Dr Noni Arambam redirects our focus on the borderlands and ways to untangle the issues that come with the territory. But that attempt is too little, too boyish. He peek-a-booed and went on to do other more worthy things. Yet, bringing fresh air to the conversation,

Noni writes: “Regions facing such conflicts are further complicated … the truncated adherence to international humanitarian protocols to address displacement resolution and to comply with political arbitrations have proven detrimental to a consensual resolution of conflicts.”

‘The Civil War in Manipur: What it Means for India?’ by Rami Niranjan Desai shines a light on the history of the political instability of Myanmar and how the broken system has spread its tentacles to change the demography and geopolitics of nations, affecting Manipur severely in the process. Rami’s essay is easy on the eyes and the intelligence of readers.

It is written eloquently and accessible (a version published in Firstpost), which is a blend of academic writing style with beach reading sensibilities. She writes with empathy for Myanmar as well. “Myanmar is also paying the price for the world’s conflicts over rare minerals and greenhouse gas, particularly in the wake of the West’s transition to green energy. With the politics…..an investigation by Associated Press, Myanmar is being called the “Sacrifice Zone”.

Drugs and Illegal Poppy Cultivation

Tracing the roots of the present civil war in Manipur, AP focuses in the second half of the journal on illegal poppy cultivation and drug trafficking that play insidious roles. This theory has gained mainstream status, and news editors can use this finding to write headlines for the next 10 years. This is not to reject the facts presented but to remind one that the quality of mainstream goes against the grain of Alternativity of AP.

The journal addresses the hill-divide concentration of poppy plantations and illegal drug trafficking, and a particular sentence stands out: “One reason why poppy plantation in the valley is not common is that there is hardly any land where it can be planted surreptitiously.”

Applying textual analysis here, does it imply that if there had been more land in the valley districts, people there would grow poppies? This is a problematic assumption that seems to acquit the druggist farmers of their moral responsibility for a conscious choice.

Noted participant observer R.K Nimai, Retd IAS, enlightens us with his erudite explanation of the poppy farming techniques, opium extraction and heroin production in the region with makeshift infrastructure. Based on his personal survey and research, the author estimates that the illegal trade related to poppy in Manipur may be worth Rs.70,000 lakh crore per annum.

“Illegal drug trade can change the entire spectrum of society. …It calls for a concerted mitigation effort, and social and political revamp to it,” he writes. The essay also draws attention to the environmental harm caused by poppy plantations, made worse by the use of the chemical glyphosate, which often finds its way to the food chain of the villagers, causing peripheral neuropathy in the victims.

Customary Laws and the Ethics of War

The journal surprises where it is least expected—at the midribs. The article entitled “Customary Rules of Warfare and Armed Conflict Situation” by N. Pramod Singh & Pamreiso Raiping, appearing in the middle section of the AP, is a delightful idea as much as it is fresh.

The authors compared the similarity of customary laws with International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and other global wartime ethics, particularly the principles of proportionality and the safety of non-combatants.

The Chainarol in Cheitharol Kumbaba and Naga headhunting traditions are cited to illustrate these points. It is intriguing and interesting, only interrupted by the author’s writing to academic conventions measured in the density of words per sentence. How these customary laws practically influence the current conflict dynamics in Manipur amidst the projectiles of bullets, bombs and verbal barbs flying at the foothills will be extra interesting.

The last chapter of AP is a review by Wangam Somorjit of a chapter from the book ‘His Majesty’s Headhunters: The Siege of Kohima that Shaped World History’ by Mnhonlumo Kikon published by Penguin Random House India. The review “explores (into) the historical account of Raja Gambhir’s conquest of the Angami Hills, specifically focusing on the events surrounding the Kohima campaign (in 1883), symbolizes (Raja Gambhir’s) ambitions and perceived the strategic importance of the area from Manipur’s viewpoint, more so after the Anglo-Burmese wars”.

Wangam referred to relevant portions in the Cheitharol Kumbaba. The article recreates the political milieu of the time and the expansiveness of the Manipur Empire.

The Heart of AP

The heart of AP is purely academic. Like any academic journal, its work is cut out to deliver fruits of scholarship within the tight framework of academic exposition and writing conventions. Being fashionable is not a criterion.

To complain about the style and readability of AP will amount to ignorance of the genre of the journal. We can’t read AP like we read chick lit novels. Don’t seek Jane Austen’s storytelling fluency. The dense language, heavy citations and detailed bibliography for each essay are a feature, not a bug.

In any case, all academic writings or, for that matter, any specialised writing as in bureaucracy resorts to what Ludwig Wittgenstein called ‘language games’. In this view, academic writing is not just about conveying information or presenting objective truths but also about engaging in a specific type of language game that follows certain rules, conventions, and norms.

The professors and PhD students participate in social rituals like peer review, citation practices, and conference presentations. It is also performative, employing a unique craftsmanship of expertise, authority, and knowledge rather than just a simple presentation of facts.

When academicians try to step beyond the Lakshman Rekha of their professional code, they have to bear a heavy cost. A social science scholar has to make sure that her ideas are not too radical. As mentioned elsewhere, she should take baby steps and look behind her shoulders for any sign of disapproval from the established ethos and paradigm of her field. That’s why social theories are glacial in their development.

Novel ideas have to be diluted to find a level with the existing epistemology. Being a non-conformist would be akin to committing a career suicide. She should worry. Her colleagues would think twice before citing her works and she would find few references. She should forget that tenured post in the university if she wants to go that untrodden path. She will be shunned. She will be a roque star.

In science, the opposite is true. The scientific community incentivizes innovation and overturns earlier theories. Scientific theories work in a succession of paradigms from Copernican, Newtonian, Relativity, Quantum and so on. The validity of a scientific theory lies in the potential for falsification.

Karl Popper, who propounded the falsifiability of science, observed that for a scientific theory to be valid, two conditions must be met: testability and refutation. Following this logic, the statement that all swans are white will be true until a single black swan is seen.

In contrast, Social Science has no swans at all. It deals with the matter of mind like the Forms in Plato’s Cave. The agendas of social science are set by social expectations and standards, which are more contextual.

The Plus Points

Despite all the systematic disadvantages, AP is an outlier. The earlier comments do not target AP or individuals who believe in certain ideas and write them in an academic journal. It is always a given that an academic journal, when published, is opening its floodgates to criticism of all sorts. That is the feedback, and if taken with the true academic spirit of inquiry, criticism is a boon. As Jaques Derrida said, to write and verbalise something is to be vulnerable to erasure.

In this post-truth world, feelings are riding high in a sea of social media messages. Truth is harder to find and there is a greater claim that all truth is tentative. AP doesn’t over-exert itself and tries to brainwash us.

The writers in AP exercise restraint as practitioners of their academic discipline and do not veer off haywire. Undeniably, the essays are linguistic minefields and jargon-filled puzzles with too many complex sentences. But they serve as the shortcuts or heuristics for the more scholarly among us who will find them invaluable.

The theme of the latest edition of AP is relevant to the present turmoil in Manipur. It is timely and well structured, and the authors do justice to their topics with their scholarship. It is a pity, though, that their write-ups have to be squeezed into a tiny magazine format at a microscopic type size.

As the Reader’s Response Theory say, no author should be too sure of her work. Once in the hands of a reader, a book or any cultural product is at the mercy of the reader or consumer, who may interpret it in multiple ways and repurpose it to fit her worldview.

After the author has finished writing, done the last manuscript, and the book printed and showcased on bookshelves, it’s the turn of the readers to make meaning out of it. At this point, the author is dead. The same principle applies to this review too.


* Ranjan Yumnam wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was webcasted on June 10 2024.



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