The general consensus among scholars, journalists, activists and many observers of the spiralling violence in Manipur is that the state has withered away there. Some argue that it has completely melted away or collapsed. It is easy to understand why some apply that framing in Manipur, where the state government has abjectly failed to rein in ethnic violence despite having the mandate and resources to do so.
But the framework of the “state withering away” is inadequate to understand the dynamic in Manipur today. The state has not vanished from Manipur. Instead, it has taken on a different shape: from an entity governed by a liberal social contract to one driven by an ethno-majoritarian consensus. In fact, even in spaces where the state appears to be missing, it is present in subtextual ways, quietly fuelling the ethnic strife.
In Manipur, at the moment, it is difficult to define what the state even means, for it has split into two distinct halves – the N Biren Singh government based in Imphal, and the Central government in New Delhi. While both are led by the same ruling party, their security apparatuses seem to be operating out of sync and are very often at loggerheads – as seen in the lack of coordination between the state police and central forces, like the Assam Rifles. This political bipolarity makes an analyst’s task more difficult than usual.
Yet, two things are clear. One, in Manipur, the state is a whole that is not the sum of its parts. Two, it is very much present everywhere, even in its supposed absence.
Take, for example, the repeated looting of arms from police armouries. One may argue that this is an indication of the state’s total absence. But there is another way to see it. The looting would not have been possible without the state’s active complacency and in some cases, complicity.
Media reports have indicated that in some instances, personnel posted at police stations willingly handed over weapons to members of the mob who shared their ethnicity.
A report in The Print, citing sources, claims that “the men in the mobs handed over their Aadhaar cards to the guards – their ethnic kinsfolk – assuring them that they would return the weapons once the fight was over”.
Kukis have even accused the state police of backing militia groups, such as the Arambai Tenggol, during mob attacks against Kuki villages.
The state government has denied these allegations. Yet, the reported evidence suggests that the state in Manipur has consciously ceded its monopoly over violence to a disparate set of non-state, ethno-political actors. This has significance in practical ways, as Meitei vigilantes are not likely to have been able to operate with such confidence if the state had completely walked away and left them to fend for themselves. It reflects a troubling internal re-hierarchisation of the state from a neutral and unifying force into an organisation that reflexively sides with one community.
More importantly, none of these instances suggest that the state in Manipur has melted away. By arguing so, in fact, there is the risk of de-emphasising the state’s role in the ongoing conflict. Therefore, a better argument is that the state has not vanished, but rather transformed into a highly ethnicised entity anchored in the dominant social consensus of the majority community.
In that sense, the state in Manipur today is less Weberian (having lost its monopoly over violence, unlike the condition theorised by sociologist Max Weber) and more Foucauldian, having morphed into what French philosopher Michel Foucault calls “a regime of multiple governmentalities”.
Moreover, in the information age, the state cannot be understood as a monolithic entity that exercises linear physical control over its citizens. It is no longer a composite of only visible hard power tools manifested in police battalions, VIP convoys, sprawling office buildings, and checkpoints on the road. It is a techno-political presence that encompasses both the tangible and the intangible, the physical and the affective.
So, when the Biren Singh government imposes a total ban on the internet across Manipur or lifts it partially, one is reminded of the state’s overbearing presence (and not its absence). One is reminded that by shutting off the internet, the state is able to impose a digital curfew and remotely control the flow of information even in territorial spaces where it is not physically present.
Large-scale political violence is a complex phenomenon that has many moving parts. The state almost always is one of those parts, even in cases of what might look like classic Hobbesian anarchy, which refers to the principle of “kill or be killed” in a “war of all against all”. But, lawlessness does not always emerge from the retraction of the state. It can also be generated on account of the state’s active participation in the processes that produce and reproduce violence. In Manipur, we see this peculiar phenomenon unfolding in real time.
In The Birth of Biopolitics, Foucault offers a radical re-characterisation of the state. “The state does not have an essence,” he writes. “The state is not a universal nor in itself an autonomous source of power.” Where does the state draw its power from, then? Manipur throws up a disturbing answer – from an ethno-majoritarian society fed by deeply constricted notions of indigeneity, pride and belongingness.
Angshuman Choudhury is an Associate Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.