Narcissistic Road to Mediocrity: Manipur’s Existential Crisis

By Pradip Phanjoubam

There is an old Manipuri adage “Ikai khangdabagi hidak leite” (there is no medicine for shamelessness). Other than the mere factuality and veracity of the statement, it also has a deeper sociological implication. In the traditional Manipuri society, shamelessness was considered as one of the most base and abhorred values, that is why the condescending tone of the adage. The meaning loaded in this adage is complemented by another very common idiom in the language “Ikai bana si-re” (I am dead from shame). The juxtaposition of the idea of “shame” and “death” and the suggestion that “shame” can cause “death” is reminiscent of a tradition much better known throughout the world – hara-kiri, the act of suicide by disembowelment by somebody shamed and disgraced, once practiced in Japan. The violence involved in these thoughts is terrifying, but for a society to be in such a dread of shame does indicate without the least ambiguity, a very high standard of public discipline and morality that once defined the society.

From this vantage, one of modern Manipur’s biggest tragedies can be defined by the metamorphosis this traditional view of shame has undergone. If once “shame” was as painful as “death”, today the problem is about the unceremonious and unlamented “death” of “shame”. With it, all senses of self pride, honour, social justice and indeed all ambitions that went beyond the individual selves, have died as unceremoniously too.

Evidences of the death of shame are everywhere, yet the desensitisation has been such that those who should have been shamed probably are not even aware that such a situation has ever arisen. Look at the state of our roads. They peel off every monsoon exposing the hollow foundations on which they were laid. The money siphoned off from such public projects probably would reappear as expensive apartments in plush suburbs of Delhi and other metropolises in the country. Look at the state of government schools in the state. Their crumbling infrastructures are a metaphor of the pathetic moribund education imparted to thousands of children each year, depriving them of a future of hope they should have been guaranteed by any democracy. But the thefts that continues to cause their ruins, would probably have bought the best education in the country as well as abroad for children of those who benefited from the theft. Look at also the atrocious manner in which Manipur has been living in virtual darkness for over a decade now. Everywhere you look such evidences of public thievery stare back at you. Opulent wealth and their sources have also been so shamelessly dissociated, so that wealth today is considered good regardless of obvious public knowledge how it was made.

But it is not just the injustice of it all which is frighteningly disconcerting. It is also the almost absolute lack of pride in the work that each does which would ultimately condemn Manipur and its future, if it has not done so already. In this extreme social narcissism must have to be what Freud described as “death wish”, for this narcissism prevents people from seeing the connection that if the society dies, no individual, however privileged, can survive either. There can be little argument then that this all pervading narcissism of the Manipuri society today is its modern existential crisis.

In this age when technology is available for islands to be connected by undersea highways and rail lines, or for tunnel-roads run through the thickest mountain walls, it is unimaginable Manipur still has to manage with roads that cannot withstand a single monsoon. Likewise, decades of higher education has not produced any ground breaking scholarship, or even a substantial amount of quality scholarship to serve as a knowledge pool for social engineering. Our schools, colleges and universities instead continue to churn out degree holders each year, but less and less number of competitive employable skills or knowledge, capable of reshaping the profiles of jobs and professions in the society.

Indeed, the definition of ambition has undergone a radical transformation in the few decades that have gone by. By this definition, the ambition of the average man has come to be limited to getting a job and a livelihood and no more, which is why government jobs are today auctioned and sold to the highest bidders and there is never any dearth of bidders. A job is no longer the vehicle to higher goals but the goals in themselves. The journey to perfection therefore ends at securing a steady job. This road to mediocrity, or “Middlemarch” as novelist George Eliot calls it, is Manipur’s terrible disease today. This road can be predicted to take the place nowhere further than where it is today, and all of us know where Manipur is today is not very desirable. It is also nature’s law that anything stagnant is prone to the decaying process.

To imagine where Manipur is heading today is a disturbing thought for anybody who cares for the place. The place must be entering the cataclysmic end of an epoch that so many religions predict. At the end of every epoch, according to these beliefs, the world is consumed by its own violence and misdeeds, and then from the resultant debris and ashes, it rises again in a new incarnation like the sphinx.


In Hinduism the notion of Yug says this. But no other religions have it more distinctly than Christianity with its prediction of the Apocalypse and its horsemen with a mission to raze everything of the old world to the ground. The imagery is arresting and many poets fell for it, including Irish romantic poet WB Yeats who uses it with such gripping power in “The Second Coming”. At the fag end of an epoch, “mere anarchy is loosed upon the earth” and “things fall apart” before civilisation regenerates.

Reminiscent in this imagery of death and rebirth, destruction and regeneration, ironically is the notion of revolutionary creativity – that certain institutions and deeply institutionalised social evils (corruption for instance), are beyond reformation and have to be destroyed violently and the foundation of a new society built over their debris.

This is ironic because the argument is boomeranging and it is turning against the revolution itself. The writings on the walls these days are all about a fury building up within the society. If what is happening at Heirok, where the citizens, despite threats are willing to accept arms from the state for self defence, is a manifestation of this fury, it is quite possible it is only a small glimpse of an Apocalyptic predicament waiting in store for the state.

A vital cord has snapped in our society and it is losing its sanity. A society is able to keep on the tract of sanity precisely because human behaviour is not grossly inscrutable and unpredictable. Hence, we know for instance murders do not happen without tangible reason or motive. We also by and large have faith that children would normally be not subject to murderous attacks, or that hospitals and schools by civilized consensus would remain as conflict free zones.

Such sacred civilizational threads knitting our society together have today become lost. You no longer are sure if hospitals or schools are safe, whether bombs would go off in crowded market places, or meaninglessly somebody would be shot in cold blood as a demonstration of cruel destruction potential to send terror in the hearts of others and bring them under the will of the perpetrators of these violent acts.

The obvious result is all round insecurity. Dissenting voices have been made the first casualty and now even beyond this, it is a regime of what George Orwell called “thought policing” that has gripped our society. The government in the meantime has withdrawn into the distance, preferring atrociously to be a spectator of the macabre drama unfolding in this beleaguered land it is supposed to govern.

Truth of the Matter

Another major casualty of this conflict has been truth. They say truth triumphs but how can anybody be so sure. After all, one gets to know of only those truths that have actually triumphed and not of those that failed to make a mark, and who knows there may have been plenty of these in human history – as a touchingly beautiful tragedy, so well encapsulated in a Manipur folk song about a mountain orchid,

Ingellei, (envisioned as a beautiful maiden) which blossoms seasonally in the wilderness and dies without anybody getting to know of its captivating beauty or fragrance, depicts. The poetry will probably find little parallel, and the mystique about the flower is stuff for legends.

Poetry however has little to do with truth prevailing over untruth, instead it is only a reflection of the inner subjective life of a society or individual, and we all know very well tragedy can be a part this life. What about the Incas or Aztecs or Native Americans, and all the other exterminated races of the world, did truth prevail for them? Or is truth a relative term? We have no answer to these questions, but looking at the way things are in Manipur today, it is easy to doubt there is any certainty about any positive, optimistic, answer that truth triumphs.

Right and wrong, truth and untruth, today have become merely a matter of decree by those who hold the reins of power – the official state power as well as the power that  flows out of the barrels of the guns of non state challengers to state power. Obviously, truth also has been reduced to a factor of liberalism (or the lack of it), which in the very fundamental sense is translated as the willingness to honestly investigate and introspect dissenting voices.

In our situation, where authoritarianism has become the rule, dissenting voices are either reviled as “reactionary” (in “revolutionary” terms), or else scorned as paid propaganda of the Opposition, from the point of view of establishment. Nothing as a freedom to assess any given social situation independently exists.


History is proof that it has always been the intent of authoritarian states to prohibit dissent and in the process monopolise the definition of truth. No other episode exemplifies this more than the gagging of Galileo of Galilee.

Galileo, as all of us who can recall our high school science classes remember, confirmed Copernican heliocentric model of the universe which went against Ptolomy’s geocentric conception of it, through observation with the telescope he invented. But the authoritarian church of the time which built its idea of the cosmos around Ptolomy’ conception of it, saw Galileo’s interpretation as a challenge to its authority and threatened the scientist to retract his discovery on the pain of being declared a heretic and suffer death, and the inconvenient fact before all who believe in the strength of truth is, Galileo actually did what he was told and disowned what he discovered and believed in.

It is another matter that an age of scientific liberalism inherited the Western world and Galileo’s discovery survived the discoverer who was not willing to give up his life for what he knew was the truth. Does this imply that truth is also a matter of personal conviction, and the value of this conviction measured against the prospect of loss of life and property?

The story would come across as strikingly familiar to many in Manipur today where extracted confessional statements, regardless of whether made under duress or captivity, have come to be treated as irrefutable proofs of guilt even to the extent of being punishable by summary execution. It would also come across as uncannily familiar to those who have always held as an axiom that truth and goodness always prevails over untruth and dishonesty, and yet have witnessed before their very own eyes that the corrupt and unscrupulous have inherited the world.

It may very well be that beyond the immediate world, truth will ultimately prevail, but as author J.A. Mannick so famously said, “in the long run we are all dead.” The moot point is, truth is also about the present and not just of the distant future. Galileo’s truth may have come to be celebrated 400 years after it was first discovered, but should it not be a matter of concern that Galileo himself might have died a miserable death, knowing fully well that he was cowered into lying to himself and the world? Should we also then be content with resigning to the complacent thought that fate will ultimately take care of the problems of our present?

(Pradip Phanjoubam is Author and Editor of Imphal Free Press)


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