Languages of Gifting

Gifting is a political process and an event in itself. We ought to ask if a bridge, a hospital, a dam, a research institute, among others, can be a gift to society. One would notice that in India, the language of a gift has become central to the inauguration of any infrastructural project. Be it the Bhupen-Hazarika Setu (the longest bridge in the country) or the Sardar Sarovar Dam or an agricultural institute, we seem to have a distinctive language of them being gifted to the people. What is this new language of gift in Modi’s New India? Or, can one attach such a language to infrastructure and nation-building, historically speaking? What does it do to the common sense of people? What does it do to our understanding of our government?

Gifting is a very common practice in human history. Apart from being an economic and cultural encounter, it also signifies a multitude of things. It symbolizes an action and is signified by an object which makes gifting possible. Gifting also results in the crossing of social boundaries. The French sociologist Marcel Mauss’ study of gifting in an archaic society focused on the significance of the practice of gift in human society and it follows that gifting builds networks and flows across social groups of a variety. It involves and signals a condition where the obligation to give, receive and reciprocate is available, and although our common sense perception of gifting can be very individualistic, it invariably is only a practice that is possible due to a larger social and cultural contours that are at play. Gifting, thus, is more than action. It is a process embedded in larger social, cultural, economic and cultural worlds.

Speaking at this point of history, or even if one takes into account that kind of imagery we have from movies or advertisements, our primary memory of gifts are located around birthdays, marriages or some form of celebration that bring together our friends and family around us. Even Narendra Modi couldn’t help but gift himself and to the nation the Sardar Sarovar dam on his birthday! One would also remember not too long ago when Modi gifted the longest bridge to the people of India. Gifting is as much an event as it is a process.[1]

Returning to Mauss, one would find that gift is never free. One can add that beyond reciprocation, there are certain costs tied to it—human, ecological, environmental and cultural. Displacement by dams touches all those aspects of social life without which life cannot move on. The reciprocation is maintained by making this gifting process an event of his own. An attempt is being made to remember just Modi, not the government or the state. This is just the first part of the kind reciprocation process that Mauss spoke of, generated out of gifting process. The other aspect successfully promoted by Modi and his government is that of the call of the religious, spiritual and historical categories on the eve of the event. An invocation of river gods and other mythic figures are infused to sediment a kind of belonging in this process of gifting, drawn from the domain of larger Hindu culture. Such an act creates a kind of bond, which in the long run may work towards maintaining his political discourse and the agents and agendas of the right-wing government. Seemingly, they stand likely to gain from the reciprocation of the receiver of a gift, here of infrastructure of a variety.

Among others, gifting creates a memory and a sense of solidarity. It enters the mnemonics of our present and affects the public psyche. Such affects are ordinary but powerful. One is made to believe that they are part of the process and existence of the very infrastructure itself. It creates a new everyday. Our desires, needs, and wants undergo stimulation. Gifting in this case also becomes symbolic, attached to an individual, to a party or to a nation.

Infrastructures can also be alienating. It creates margins that become seditious in the eyes of the state. Gifting is a language that is used in many ways to displace loss, tears, and suffering of hundreds of people. For those who have lost lands due to dam construction and aren’t rehabilitated, such gifting is an irony, at the very least. No amount of gifting can make up for their losses. Losing land means a return to poverty and homelessness. Hence, inside the veil of the language of gifting of infrastructures, such as Sardar Sarovar dam or Bhupen Hazarika Setu, one can locate new margins and forcefully orchestrated marginality.

Grounds that make up the everyday are constantly in flux and shifting. Gifting in this manner adds to such a complex, where there is an attempt to create a utopic, euphoric and maybe even real presentation of the powers, limits, and resources of the state. It is the darkest of ironies if not the ‘worst returns to laughter’.

Suraj Gogoi

(This article was first published in Indian Cultural Forum)


[1]I grew up in a village called 5 No Shantipur in the sub-division of Sadiya, just two kilometres away from the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border in eastern Assam. We would meet many people from Arunachal in schools, markets, or even as co-passengers, sharing a boat over river Lohit, among others. In such encounters, many become friends and are invited to each other’s’ festivities. One such festival is known as Solung which is celebrated among the Adi community of eastern Arunachal. Apart from being offered the usual delicacies in the festival, one also receives a piece of meat, wrapped in some kind of leaf or paper, and if willing to carry back home, even some local liquor. It is a very typical practice of gifting and a way to thank and include the ones from the invited family who could not attend the Solung. Such encounters are not only instances of crossing boundaries of contiguous ethnic communities but also underline structural homology of hills and plains.

Search for Black Gold in Sanaleibak Manipur

Homen Thangjam

Search for the unknown have fascinated human imagination. And explorations are mostly undertaken with the underlying motto of “for the benefit of the human race”. It is a matter of polemics whether the benefits are truly universal – opinions are divided. And in every mission of exploration and the event of discovery, serendipity plays a charming role. Otherwise, how could Christopher Columbus have discovered the America or the Scottish chemist James Young discovered natural petroleum in the Riddings colliery at Alfreton, Derbyshire and for that matter the discovery of Shirui Lily.

But what is fascinating about exploration and the search is (acknowledging the motto), each exploration is driven by certain motives. We are familiar with expeditions and explorations driven by military motives, missionary zeals and scientific reasons. Closer home, the Lushai Hill Expedition (1871–72) and the Naga Hills Expeditions (1875 and 1879–80) falls in the first category. The Story of Dr. Livingstone who discovered the Zambezi River and Victoria Falls is one such example of the second category. Exploration of the moon and the Mars perhaps falls in the category of scientificity and even the discovery of Shirui Lily. For Francis Kingdon-Ward, as recorded in his book “Plant Hunter in Manipur”, the exploration of the Shirui Kashong in 1948 was for the discovery of Shirui Lily, enter it into the temples of flora as well as include the rare flower that only grows in Manipur in the Kew Index and finally towards the plant’s preservation.

Then there are also others, which are strangely peculiar and far removed from the logic of science, the Empire and the State. For example, for the British explorer Percy Fawcett who was sent by the British Government to survey location of a mutual boundary between Bolivia and Brazil as a cartographer, it was the chance discovery of evidences of a previously unknown civilization that may have once inhabited the region that made him take several more expeditions in the thick jungles of Amazon. For him, it was to prove to the western civilization that there are other civilizations unknown to the white people. The determined Fawcett, supported by his devoted wife, son, and aide-de-camp, returns to his beloved jungle in an attempt to prove his case. Yes, more evidences of civilization he did find – the natives’ ability to conquer the jungles and adopt agriculture with geometrical precision, the true meaning of cannibalism as practiced by a particular tribe in the Amazon (eating the flesh of the loved one is to embrace the deceased’s spirit), catching only the required number of fishes by stunning them (not killing them all) using certain roots, using tides of the Amazon River to cover the entrance of the villages and others. He disappeared in 1925 along with his son on one such expedition.

I’d say Fawcett is like Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Stone Seagull who flew because he loved flying. Fawcett’s belief in a lost civilization met with ridicule for almost a hundred years by the scientific establishment, which views indigenous populations as savages. But early in the 21st century, archaeologists uncovered an astonishing network of ancient roads, bridges and agricultural settlements, throughout the Amazon. Among these sites was Fawcett’s proposed location for the city of Z. David Grann’s “The Lost City of Z”, written in 2009 is a biographical adventure drama, a tribute paid to discredited explorer.

In an article that has to dwell on oil and petroleum exploration in Manipur, the above references might sound misplaced to the learned readers. Forgive my meandering stream of thought if they appear misplaced. I am only trying to discern the kernel of search and exploration in few cited examples and compare how they are so starkly different from the ongoing search for oil and petroleum in this tiny state we lovingly call Sanaleipak(the Golden Land). Very true, missions of both Francis Kingdon-Ward and Percy Fawcett were funded and sponsored – in the case of Kingdon-Ward by the New York Botanic Garden and for Fawcett by the Royal Geographical Society and later on by the John D. Rockefeller Jr. and a consortium of American newspapers. However, these were not driven by profit motive.On the other hand, the ongoing search for Black Gold (black because of its appearance when it comes out of the ground, and gold because it makes everyone involved in the oil industry rich), in Manipur is purely an act of corporate plunder marked by exploitation and driven by greed that is bound to entail far reaching health and environmental consequences.

The search began silently under the cover of turmoil created by armed-conflict and ethnic hostility in the jungles of Tamenglong in the year 2011. So when Alpha Geo Company and Asian Oil Fields (hired goons of Jubilant Energy, which has bagged the license for exploration) started bombing the jungles as part of the survey works, the already fear-stricken villagers of Kambiron, Sibilong, Oinamlong, Boluangdai, Nungba Village, TajeiKeiphun, Keimai, Nungkao Part III and others, thought those were just routine clashes either between the insurgents groups or between the rebels and the state armed forces. Furthermore, when the villagers sighted UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), they thought, these were surveillance manoeuvres deployed by the military. In reality, the drones belonged to the companies and very much a part of the survey works (possibly the Airborne Gradiometer surveys by Bell Industries). These survey works were repeated in Tamenglong District in 2012 and 2017.

The survey works commenced without taking free and prior consent of the people.The companies did not provide relevant information related to oil exploration. People were unaware of the conditions laid down in the contracts inked between Jubilant Energy and Government of India and on how the indigenous peoples of Manipur would benefit from production of oil and petroleum. Following vehement objection and protest by the indigenous peoples of Tamenglong, Churachandpur and Jiribamduring, public hearings were organized by Manipur Pollution Control Board and Jubilant Energy in the year 2012 and this brought a full stop to the exploration and survey related works in Tamenglong. The natives are right in expressing their fears – of losing their land, of massive contamination of their land and water and of deforestation and most importantly the non-recognition of their ownership rights over their land and resources.

Flagrant violations of their rights to land and resources and fraudulent machinations undertaken by the oil companies ultimately compelled the people of Manipur to reject oil exploration.In a study by Prof. W. Naba, Jiten Yumnam and Anina titled, “Oil Exploration Plan and Peoples Struggles in Manipur”, published by Action Aid in 2017, It is reported that “Oil companies tried to misinform and seek NOCs (no objection certificates) from villagers in Tamenglong and Churachandpur by bribing leaders and even using some of the armed opposition groups.  In other cases, the village traditional decision making processes are undermined.” Indeed, villagers were able to link the sounds of blasting, sighted UAVs and movement of heavy machineries with oil exploration only when company officials visited them to seek NOCs in 2012.

In a surprise turn of event, two years after the halt to exploration works, Jubilant Energy in its Annual Report of 2014 reported completion of several surveys, viz, 2D and 3D Seismic Surveys and Airborne Gradiometer surveys apart from studies on sediments and rocks in the Manipur Oil Block 1 and 2 located in Jiribam, Tamenglong and Churachandpur districts. The total area granted for oil exploration is nearly 4000 Square Kilometres and it is estimated that Manipur has nearly 5 trillion cubic feet of oil in the Abin, Kharkhublien, Taithu, Sialman, Laimata, Oinamlong anticlines in the two oil blocks. Original plan of the Company was to drill 30 oil wells in the two blocks. Jubilant in the same report stated oil deposits in the two blocks may be more than 7 Trillions.

Come year 2017, we witness the entry of new players such as Asian Oilfield Services Limited and Oil India Ltd (OIL). Asian Oilfield bagged a Rs. 143-crore contract from the OIL in January 2017 for 2D seismic data and commenced surveys in Jiribam, Tamenglong and Imphal West districts. The survey is envisaged to cover almost the whole of Manipur. Tragedy is, the survey lines cuts through ecologically sensitive zones of Manipur such as the Loktak Wetlands, Barak River system and the Yaingangpokpi Lokchao Wildlife Sanctuary,etc.

In May 2017, villagers of Khaidem, Moidangpok and Sangaithel in Imphal West District woke up to the thundering sounds of bomb blast. Similar to events in Tamenglong, the surveys were carried out in a clandestine manner. The residents were simply unaware and unprepared. Asian Oilfield blasted multiple explosive devices during their survey without providing information on impact of the blasts and safety. Officials of Company verbally assured that nothing would happen to the villagers.

On May 17, 2017, villagers of Khaidem Village stopped the Asian Oilfield from conducting oil surveys in their village and further resolved in a community meeting in their village on May 18 to stop all oil exploration works in the Khaidemarea. Similarly, villagers of Kambiron, Sibilong and Oinamlong, etc. in Tamenglong District rejected the efforts of the Asian Oilfield to seek No Objection Certificates (NOC) for surveys without providing information.

There is a temporary halt to the exploration for Black Gold in Manipur. However, fundamental issues pertaining to profit sharing, ownership and environmental impact, remains hidden etc. As much as the corporate houses are silent on these issues, so is the Government of Manipur. Companies are riding on obsolete laws which has colonial designs and insensitive to third generation of human rights. The Oilfield Act of 1948, Petroleum and Minerals Pipelines (Acquisition of Right of User in Land) Act of 1962 and Oil Industry (Development) Act of 1974 are a few examples of such laws. All these laws state that oil in India belongs to the Indian State and hence, it has exclusive right to mortgage or sell to multinational companies. Even the North East Hydrocarbon Vision, 2030 formulated in 2016 contains no provision for recognition of community rights and role in decision making related to oil exploration and production.

Manipur’s existence within the Eastern Himalayan Biodiversity Hotspot and Indo-Burma Biodiversity Hotspot is something corporate houses and the Indian State very deliberately ignores. More than 500 varieties of orchids and more than 700 fish species are recorded to be found in the forest and rivers of Manipur. Furthermore, Manipur lies in the Seismic Zone V (zone prone to high intensity earthquakes). How can we forget the earthquake measuring 6+ on the Ritcher Scale that struck Manipur on January 4, 2015. Interestingly, the epicentre of the earthquake was in Tamenglong, which is one of the locations of oil exploration. In such a geographical reality, plunderers remain to benefit at the cost of local inhabitants.

How long the people can resist especially in a place where the Armed Forces (Special) Powers Act, 1958 (AFSPA) runs amok? The state holds the record for one of the highest numbers of fake encounters (1,500 cases as per the Supreme Court of India). To achieve the agenda of corporate-state nexus (in our case oil and petroleum exploration), Indian military and para-military forces are bound to be utilised under the umbrella of AFSPA. The same has happened in the past – Tipaimukh Dam, Mapithel Dam and Maphou Dam, to mention a few. And time and again, spines of the people as well as civil society organizations are violently broken. Remember, aftermath of the BT Road incident on July 23, 2009 in which pregnant Rabina and Sanjit were brutally killed by the Manipur police. It took around a year for the Manipuri civil society organizations to stand up again.

Today, explorations are underway in areas where the indigenous peoples inhabit. This is a universal phenomenon currently fashionable. What is not universal is that these searches are no longer for the benefit of the human race or to prove a point or even for scientific purposes or to enlighten mankind. March of corporate-state is aggressive and their technology highly violent. It appears as if the march is unstoppable and so is their exploratory designs. Regrettably, alternatives is far from our sight. Thus, our only consolation will be when both the entities fulfill certain minimum standards – respect our land and resources, acknowledge our share of profit, allow us to participate in the management of resources post-production and finally, be mindful about the fragile ecological balance. On our part, too, certain responsibilities are demanded. We must learn to live together. When the Kukis, Nagas and Meiteis are fighting, corporates have made inroads with the sole purpose of plundering. We owe a responsibility to the future generation – to leave something for them.

 

Homen Thangjam teaches Political Science at the Indira Gandhi National Tribal University- Regional Campus Manipur. The author wishes to thank Jiten Yumnam of CRA, Manipur for his comments and suggestions.