Walking a tight rope in Manipur

IN Media Freedom | 14/04/2002
about two decades ago, was bombed because an underground organization thought it was close to its rival

about two decades ago, was bombed because an underground organization thought it was close to its rival. Most recently, the hopping courts (kangaroo courts) of two underground organizations took up a dispute in a College election and came out with two different and conflicting verdicts. One of the groups wanted the matter to be publicised and the other wanted it suppressed. All newspapers in Imphal were left in an unenviable dilemma. governments with their own civil and military administrations, courts, taxes (extortions) etc. The chief minister Radhabinod Koijam (who also holds the finance portfolio) was honest enough to acknowledge that this was the case in his budget speech on March 19 this year. (The hopping courts are so called because they do not have an address. They are mobile courts that can come up anywhere and vanish as suddenly as they appeared. They are clandestine, underground courts run by the insurgents.)

I have been editing The Imphal Free Press for nearly five years now. All of the five years fall within one of the peaks of insurgency. Insurgency here has been following a cyclic pattern. The last high was in the late 70s and early 80s. It simmered in the late 80s. The NSCN split, the PLA was on the verge of coming overground. The UNLF kept shy of armed struggle and it too split. Then almost all of them returned with force towards the middle 90s, the time I began editing The Imphal Free Press. Now they are at their awesome best or worst. They are all virtually parallel governments.

It is all very well to talk about the media asserting its freedom etc., but what others outside an insurgency situation do not realise is that the parallel governments we are dealing with can close down newspapers, just as the government can, and have, on charges such as that of sedition. Things have come to such a pass that a good section of the people instead of sympathising with the victimised newspaper and expressing solidarity, may even suspect that the newspaper would have done something wrong to deserve the fate, as is normally also the case when somebody is shot dead for unexplained reasons by the insurgents. This condition is what observers outside the insurgency situation fail to understand or empathise with.

The media in the northeast is generally seen as leaning towards these underground organizations. Some may very well be out of genuine convictions, but it would be wrong to generalise. It is true the media here generally publish practically every bit of literature that the underground groups release. But all these are hardly out of any sympathy. Much of the information they send out are generally very much in demand by the readers for it concerns their everyday lives.

It will come as a surprise to most outside the northeast that newspapers here even publish information about changes in the letter head designs of underground organizations. This may seem trivial but not to the people here. For it must be realised that the ability to recognize a letter head of any particular underground organization, or the failure to do so, can mean the difference between misery and wellbeing for him or her. In fact, it is necessary to update one¿s information on these things. Again, even government intelligence organizations are in constant touch with newspaper staff in order to find out what interesting underground literature is available for the day.
I know there is an element of ego defence when we justify publishing any and every bit of underground literature, but these are compulsions not easy to overcome. We do not mind getting into trouble but not into avoidable and unnecessary trouble.
So very often, Manipur has been described as a land of no law. While not disputing this description of the state, I think a more accurate picturisation of the place would be as a land of too many laws. And as I have hinted earlier, there is a certain degree of legitimacy of the laws other than that of the legitimate constitutional government, in the eyes of the public. How exactly has this come about is a discussion that will take us to the roots of some very fundamental issues. I for one, am convinced that much of this has become possible because of the weakness of the government.
A situation now exists in which the legitimate government establishment has lost the confidence of the people. Years of misgovernance, rampant corruption, inefficiency, open and blatant show

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