Manipur legislative assembly election is upon us. Many of us (our families, relatives, friends, etc.) have decided where we stand, whom we vote for, or whom we stay away from. Yet, many are still indecisive about whom to choose and why they should choose someone or party; they have decided not to vote, or they are not concerned about politics. Amid this reality, many suggest that Christians should stay away from politics; they assume that we do not have anything to do with it (how wrong are they!).
Contrary to such thinking, I would suggest that we should be clear about our political position; We should be vocal about what is unfair, oppressive, dominating, and a threat to minorities. In our society, the tendency is to campaign or vote for someone who is your kin/family or friends, regardless of whether it is the right thing to do so or not. I would call such thinking an ethnic tendency.
Along with this, what is financially beneficial plays a strong determining role. This is apparent in terms of how the term development – or the construct idea of development – is used to get the support of the common people. The keyword is finance. however, we need to ask whether we are willing to compromise our faith for the sake of some cash or development promises.
While ethnic proximity and financial assistance are important, I would suggest that our faith is equally important, if not more important, in politics. If faith is absent, the moral principles that govern our conduct will be absent. Without it, what is right or not right, who/what parties are fitting for our society would not matter. This factor needs to be considered during – and beyond – the election.
Ethnic Identity and Politics
The concept of the common identity of the tribal-indigenous communities in Northeast India is a recent development. The formation of common identities, such as Nagas, Khasis, Mizos, etc. was shaped by the colonials i.e., British and Western missionaries. If there were some elements of collective identity, it was weak (Hodson 1911: 81). Ethnic identity was limited to some awareness of common-dialect, religious values, social norms, and similar social practices (Downs 2001: 64).
In the precolonial period, the ethnic identity was limited to family, clans, and village (Dubey 1982: 4). These traits determined the identity of agroup of people. In the colonial period, the colonials added another socio-religious identity while embracing a new faith. Consequently, there are those who think that the thinking and practices of the old faith/traditional religion were lost. However, in the postcolonial period, it is observed that the ethnic identity was not entirely lost. It was only subsumed with the socio-religious practices of the new faith (Ragui 2022). It remained active in all spheres of life – whether social or religious.
This presence of ethnic identity is apparent in contemporary social engagements, such as politics. As an informed community, most of us are aware of the ideologies of all exclusive but enticing nature of certain political parties. But that doesn’t seem to deter us, especially from our affiliation with certain parties. For instance, the agendas of some political parties stand contrary to our faith; they are the reasons why fellow believers are suffering or persecuted in different parts of the country. Despite such awareness, if a family, clan, or village member stands as a candidate for such a party, most people would conveniently, like a default mode, campaign for that party. In doing so, our faith or what seems right or wrong takes a back seat.
Economy and Politics
The people in Manipur hills believe that the previous government neglected development. They neglected road construction, the infrastructure of hospitals and health centres, schools and colleges, resources of development, etc. Unlike other states in Northeast India, the Sixth Schedule of the constitution was neglected in the tribal inhabited areas of Manipur. The constitution protects the rights of the minority tribals who are dominated by the majority; it allows greater political autonomy and decentralized governance. These rights and privileges were not given.
Until recently, these concerns were neglected or ignored by the state government. Some efforts are made to strengthen the Hill Areas Committee (HAC) of Article 371 (c) of the Constitution of 1971 by drafting a bill called Manipur (Hill Areas) Autonomous District Council Bill 2021 or ADC Bill 2021. While aiming to strengthen the HAC, it aims to empower and develop the tribal inhabited areas in Manipur hills. This bill is yet to be enacted into legislation.
In the meantime, the economic situation of the hill areas is being pushed to the point of degradation. They are not getting the legitimate share of revenues allotted by the central government (roughly 51%). They are pushed to the periphery of the society, both in economy and governance. This has forced them to migrate to other states/cities for employment purposes. This is also one of the main reasons why our people are working as migrant workers in different states/cities.
The chasm between hill and valley is being recognised by the present government – and used by them. They claim to address this gap of economic disparity. On the surface, several development programs are carried out – which are the rights and privileges of tribals. What they claim to do is something any ruling party should be doing! This is our right; it is not a favour. However, the development programs, such as road construction, infrastructure, connectivity, etc. are used to sway the political position of the people. It is apparent that what the earlier government (and parallel government) failed is partially addressed to win the hearts of the common people. The term development is used as the key to bringing people to the fold of certain parties.
Ethics and Politics
If you should engage in politics (i.e., decide to be a candidate, vote for someone, share your political position, comment on social media, or affiliate yourself with a political party), what should be your ethical grounding? What moral principles should govern your conduct?
You can be persuaded by your ethnic identity or the promise of development. However, as a community that claims to be 99 percent Christians, the above factors should not be the only determining factors. In the Christian tradition, believers and religious leaders, especially prophets and prophetesses, take the role of God’s representative to speak up or against injustice. These roles were taken up with utmost sincerity; and if falsely spoken, it resulted in punishment. They dare to speak against those in power and authority, even in the face of death. They also took the role of advising kings and queens – the rulers of the nation. If the kings and queens diverted from their path, they had the guts to rebuke them. For example, when David committed adultery and murdered, Nathan, the prophet, rebuked the king who has faltered (cf.2 Sam. 12). This was no ordinary task. It meant that Nathan risked his life, position, and all the privileges of prophets. Given the serious nature of their profession, they had a strong ethical grounding.
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The above example was not a one-time event. Even Jesus, the epitome of the Christian faith, did not shy away from engaging with the power-politics. The heart of his message about the kingdom of God was political as well as religious. The first century Jews knew about the kingdom of Herod and the kingdom of Rome, which was different from the one that Jesus spoke (cf. Mark 1: 14-15). He spoke about the kingdom of God on earth – about the transformation of lives on earth – and beyond. Such kingdom language put him not just in conflict with the political authorities, but also led to political execution.
If we accept this tradition, it may mean taking a political position. As Christians, we cannot belong to a party that stands against our faith. An ideology that causes suffering of believers and minorities in other states holds the same ideology when ruling our state. An ideology that threatens the Christian faith and the faith of minorities comes to us with similar thinking and approach. If you have not spoken or shied away from speaking against the unjust (or what is right), there is a need for professional correction and pastoral redirection. (Believers and) religious leaders of the Bible, including Jesus, did not shy away from political positions. In fact, they were at the heart of it. They confronted the oppressive, dominant, and powerful, even at the risk-cost of their lives.
Photo by EhimetalorAkhereUnuabona on Unplash.
Dr. Taimaya Ragui is an independent research scholar based in Bangalore, Karnataka.