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HomeColumnsPratap Bhanu Mehta writes: After Manipur, our self-serving morality

Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes: After Manipur, our self-serving morality

It took a horrific video to get the Supreme Court to intervene, the Prime Minister to break his silence through a grudging and mendacious reaction full of whataboutery, and the nation to express its shame at the events in Manipur. But these reactions do not wash off the taint of vile moral callousness, the indifference to moral motivation, the incitement to brutality, and the inversion of values, that now marks our political culture. The reactions to the video across the board underscored that callousness.

This was most vividly on display in the Prime Minister’s statement. As a wit once said about this Prime Minister, whenever there is an atrocity the only thing worse than the PM not speaking is him speaking. The tone was petulant, angry at the fact that a lid could not be kept on an ongoing story of ethnic targeting in Manipur. The train of political equivalences was just shockingly callous. Yes, Rajasthan recently had a horrific incident, but no one in the state government was covering it up or legitimising it, and the institutional machinery was at least put to work. The election violence in West Bengal was horrific. But again, in those cases the courts intervened, central forces were deployed, no one outside Bengal was legitimising the violence, and the central government and media were making it an object of attention.

But it is not entirely clear that in a situation as horrific as Manipur we have the moral language to counter the Prime Minister’s moral evasion. The outrage at what is going on in Manipur is genuine. The video is finally shaking people to the core. But it is hard to shake off the suspicion that our reactions are as much about managing our psychodrama in the face of horrible facts, as they are about addressing the atrocity.

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The three languages in which the horror is expressed underscores this. The first is the fervent plea “this is not my India”, “these are not our civilisational values”. Whatever motivational value or descriptive truth these claims might have, they are morally problematic when used in the context of violence or individual atrocity. The atrocity is not an occasion to litigate the question of civilisational identity or worth; to do so is to lose sight of the specific harm, injustice and the fact that the victims have individuality. It also begs the question, of who we are trying to reassure.

The second language is the language of shame. We feel “ashamed”. Shame is a powerful moral and cognitive emotion: It provides reassurance that we are not immune to moral considerations. It is inevitable. But, increasingly, the language of shame has also become tainted. It directs our attention not to the specific moral harm, but the fact that the moral harm has become public knowledge. There are two kinds of shame. One that comes from trying to look the victims in the eye, or imagining their gaze upon us, and wilting at the thought. The other is the more abstract shame: What will the world think of us? This is so shameful. How do we show our face to the world? What is striking is how few moral and political leaders have the courage to think of the individual victims and address them, in the way a Gandhi would. Our concept of shame is altogether more abstract, one that can be displayed as an object at will, one that effaces the individuality and specificity of the crime. It is just hard to know which shame we are conveying. The “perpetrator” who could not be found for 70 days was miraculously arrested a day after the video surfaced. Our shame can abate.

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The third is the excessive use of kinship language, and the absence of a language of citizenship. Even in expressions of solidarity what becomes more important to us is a form of contrived kinship: They belong to our community, some generic community of our “sisters,” as if our duties to them come from some filial obligations and sentiments. It again serves to obscure the fact that the violations in question are violations of the dignity of the individual, agents whose moral worth does not emanate from the fact that we can attribute some relation to them, and whose rights need to be secured by the state. Condemning violence against women becomes the reaffirmation of abstract masculinity, noblesse oblige chivalry rather than addressing the atrocity, trauma or even the political specificity of this violence.

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The Prime Minister may yet give more statements. But don’t let his whataboutery disguise the plain facts. Whatever the historical social contradictions in Manipur between the Kukis and Meiteis, the horror unfolding at present has been exacerbated by the present governments at the state and the Centre. They have legitimised majoritarianism in Manipur and unleashed ethnic fear. The idea that the state is helpless to stop violence and ethnic displacement and targeting after nearly 80 days, is one of the most atrocious lies you will hear. Every institution, from police to NHRC, has become part of the problem, not the solution. It is astonishing that a government that prides itself on “national security” actively creates a national security threat in its own country. The crackdown against civil society will intensify in the name of order. Already, the discourse in the media ecosystem has shifted to two questions: How can the media be muzzled and held accountable for airing this story? How can Twitter be held accountable? And a whole trail of conspiracy theories will be hatched to question the timing of the release of these videos just before the session of Parliament. The latter question will be another deflection.

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Memories are short. But remember Ribbentrop-like statements from the foreign minister, who had assured the world that internet shutdowns in Kashmir were necessary to save lives. Perhaps in some circumstances, they are. But it is palpably clear in this case that this shutdown did not save lives; its purpose was to control the information order, and blanket Manipur in a veil of darkness, behind which projects of ethnic engineering could be carried out.

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If the Supreme Court is serious it needs to intervene, not just as an act of pained chivalry in the face of a horrific video, but on the restoration of all basic rights, across India. And for us, unless we throw out from power this morally callous regime that peddles absurdities and revels in atrocity, our expressions of shame will just be empty hand-waving.

The writer is Contributing Editor, The Indian Express

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