Manipur crisis and the difficulty of representing trauma during a conflict situation

Speedier anticipation of potential trouble could have prevented the violence in Manipur. But the government’s blunders continue, and have grave and ugly consequences.

Published: 07th September 2023 12:33 AM  |   Last Updated: 07th September 2023 12:44 AM   |  A+A-

Manipur crisis

Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)

The unprecedented bloody feud in Manipur between the Kuki-Zo group and the Meiteis crossed the four-month mark on September 3, yet there is no sign of this tragedy concluding. Every now and then, there are still reports of gun battles breaking out in the foothills, shattering hopes for a return to normalcy.

The situation is compounded by a lack of will and competence of the Central as well as the state governments to exercise their legitimate might. At this moment, the combined strength of the Manipur Police and Central forces would be close to one lakh on the ground, but things are still allowed to slip deeper into the abyss. It is true that this is not an easy task for the security establishment. They are not free (or inclined) to resort to violent actions as they are dealing with citizens and not enemies, though a great number of citizens are now armed, as an officer of the Indian Army clarified.

As for the state government, from May 3 to now, the story has been about blunders. If it were not for its inability to get a full grip on the problem, in all likelihood, today’s crisis could have been quelled the day it broke out. Or, speedier anticipation of potential trouble could have prevented its outbreak altogether. But the blunders continue, with grave and ugly consequences.

In June, Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh, after a meeting with Union Home Minister Amit Shah in New Delhi, came back and informed the press that Shah had assured him that if the state police took care of the valley, the home minister would ensure the Central paramilitary forces brought the hills under control. A buffer zone was thereby created at the foothills to separate the two warring communities.

This has slowly but surely added another hue to the conflict. Soon enough, the Assam Rifles came to be seen by the Meiteis as helping the Kukis in the fight, and the Kukis believed the Manipur Police was siding with the Meiteis. In the ethnically polarised atmosphere, there would probably be some truth in such alleged partialities but what is atrocious is that this, to a larger extent, is a consequence of the official mandate given to each of these forces. Worse still, the two forces now see each other as rivals. On certain occasions, they even came dangerously close to gunfights.

The Manipur crisis has also revealed another truth which has been a subject of much discourse—the difficulty of representing trauma in a conflict situation.

Understanding and representing conflict has never been easy for a) Those who are subjects of the conflict and trying to interpret it as they see it and b) Those observing the same events from an objective and detached vantage. The ideal position to view the conflict is somewhere in the middle. Dominick LaCapra in Writing History, Writing Trauma calls the first category of individuals “subject analysts”. The “subject analyst” who can rise above his/her subjectivity without losing the intimate engagement with the crisis in which he/she is privileged or cursed, and the “objective analyst” who possesses the capacity to see also from the vantage of those pulled into the conflict, are best suited to represent trauma.

While the “subject analysts” must overcome what Capra refers to as “fidelity to trauma”, which prevents them from seeing the larger canvases within which their worlds are enclosed, the “objective analysts” must also be able to overcome the compulsions of what journalist Tony Harcup in his book Journalism: Principles and Practice has termed “objectivity rituals”, so as to see through the surface and feel the different pulses within the crisis.

From the vantage of the “objective” observer, things can get reduced to the likeness of an event in a stadium or theatre, with the inner forces driving the conflict getting completely obscured from their sight. In Capra’s words, they are also prone to conflating “objectivism” and “objectivity”. Objectivism forecloses empathy, which is problematic, for traumas are not always objectively identifiable.

However, while the need for empathy is vital, the understanding of it should also not be confused by unchecked identification of victims. This can also lead to what Capra calls “surrogate victimage”, distorting vision.

Also read: ‘Generalisation’ in Manipur strife hindering peace

In popular parlance, such an error is committed by “parachute journalists”, though not as a rule. They fly in for a few days to the conflict area and, under pressure to meet the terms and deadlines of their assignments and to justify their presence, resort to using generalised templates of conflict that are based on other conflict scenarios they are familiar with. They then begin seeing and interpreting the new situation the same way they might have viewed an older situation.

After the outbreak of communal violence on May 3 at Churachandpur, media on both sides of the conflict would have been understandably taken by surprise. Violence of this scale was something no one ever expected. In the initial days, they were reporting the developments in a routine manner. However, it was when the conflict grew and became entrenched that pictures of extensive suffering became commonplace. And this is when the problem of representation began to reveal itself. This is also when predictions of scholars like Capra began manifesting, and reportage by local and “parachute” journalists began taking divergent paths. Neither in general is capable of “working through” the complex psychological maze of this conflict, in the words of Saul Friedlander in his engaging essay Trauma, Transference and “Working Through” in Writing the History of the Shoah.

Quite ironically, a three-member fact-finding team of the Editors Guild of India (EGI) is now embroiled in the Manipur maze. The team flew in on August 7 and left on August 10, and during their short stay were able to confidently declare who the victims were and who the perpetrators were, chastising the local media for not seeing what they saw almost instantly. Their report is now being challenged by the local media under the All Manipur Working Journalists Union (AMWJU) and the Editors Guild of Manipur (EGM), with AMWJU and EGM alleging that the EGI’s report is largely based on hearsay and not on verified records. A suit for damages is expected, and would be settled in court if no agreement is reached in the meantime.

Pradip Phanjoubam

Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics


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  • Sang

    When the invaders stop firing
    20 days ago reply
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