A Cultural Policy of Manipur


“Cultural policies reflect the fact than [humanity] today is faced with the choice between seeking a purblind and despairing escape in nihilism, or resolutely confronting the future.”
Augustin Girard with Genevieve Gentil
Cultural development: experiences and policies, 2nd ed. (Paris: UNESCO, 1983), p. 186

With the new government sailing off on a somewhat more even keel than most we have had in the recent past, thanks to some recent rather drastic public action, it is showing signs of a desire to deliver something meaningful to the people of Manipur. Some of the ministers, if not all, have indicated a willingness to look at the possibilities of turning a page forward – and not backward. While this should be welcomed and encouraged as a long overdue positive development and perceived with anticipated relief among a wide section of our population, a word of caution is also not totally out of place in the present, tragically transient, mood of euphoria.

The new Minister of Arts and Culture, Dr. Moirangthem Nara Singh, is one among the new decision makers who has chosen, early in his innings, to flash his bat. This gives us all the singular opportunity to join him in a preliminary assessment of the “things to come”. Fortunately, he is not alone; but he must muster his team well.

With characteristic energy and aplomb, the veteran politician, widely respected for his intellectual and moral integrity, now a Minister has allowed us an interesting first glimpse into his thoughts and the government’s plans to place a “cultural policy for Manipur”. I am never very sure exactly how to refer to this rather peculiarly unique domain of modern governance – cultural democracy. Is it a “cultural policy”, “culture policy”, “policy for cultural affairs” or what? My confusion stems from questions relating to the facts that cultural policies are a new area of active government involvement – many governments have not even begun to engage in thinking along this line while others embarked early and faltered; and yet international understanding about cultural development has greatly advanced since the middle of the last century. UNESCO is a large cultural think-tank for governments. The organisation’s contributions to cultural development and the domain of cultural policy are still limited, however. Lately, UNESCO underwent an exercise to exorcise itself of out-dated concepts and approaches to cultural development after much criticism from experts in this field. As the debate continues, clarity has also emerged about the encompassing nature of cultural development and its deep linkages.

The task before the Manipur government requires a measured and cautious approach. Firstly, a broad consensus on what constitutes culture or cultural affairs in our context. We are aware that culture, unlike civilization, is not an incremental entity. It is extremely diverse as we can see in Manipur, and indeed the world, encompassing a spectrum of our lives and histories that has a breath-taking span.

Modern definitions of culture see it as “a way of living together”, which includes foundations of legal and economical systems, language, social systems, etc. This extensive definition is of high importance for sensitive intercultural comparisons, at the global level. It has also proved its viability on a regional level and is now ruling the cultural discourse in Europe as well as in North America and Australia. The concept is not new, however, to Asia with its value-based approaches in all aspects of human endeavour, though its practice has much to be desired – as the horrifying events of Gujarat today or Manipur in the 90s prove to us all.

Secondly, the government’s need for formulating such a policy designed to address the full dimensions of Manipur’s culture or cultures must be understood very clearly. Culture, and there are many who know much more, is largely in the public domain and a collective entity. However, culture also has very critical dimensions of ownership, intellectual property and heritage. It is also very heavily value loaded, and can be even violently contentious, as we have recently seen demonstrated in the fate of the Bamian Buddhas in Taliban Afghanistan. So, when there is a perceived need for a policy to address cultural affairs in Manipur, it is the responsibility of the government to attempt to understand this need comprehensively first before embarking into the very complex exercise of formulating a set of guiding principles or plan of action.

Thirdly, the intended aims of such a policy should also be elaborated very thoroughly. A set of guiding principles for culture that lays down some discrete, desirable and widely agreed or established values must carry with them a contemporaneous dynamism that can also protect and promote what is understood today as culture – itself a dynamic entity with linkages from our ancient heritage to our future. From this perspective, the policy-makers have a duty, even obligation, to study the current dialogue and existing standards – national and international – regarding the protection and promotion of cultural heritage, the issues of cultural affairs, multiculturalism and cultural democracy.

What is cultural policy?
The rubric “cultural policy” describes, in the aggregate, the values and principles which guide any social entity in cultural affairs. A policy statement can be simply an individual resolution– such as “I intend to avoid sexist language in my writing.” But most commonly, policies are more complex, summing up an organization’s values and decision-making criteria. From this very simple description, it is clear that cultural policies are not the exclusive sphere of influence of States or governments – virtually any social entity can formulate and practice one. Also, this depiction does not elaborate on what form such a policy should take. It could be written, oral, codified, informal, traditional, and modern or a combination of any or even all.

However, in the current perspective of the State, we can refer to Augustin Girard of the Studies and Research Department of the French Ministry of Culture who put forward this definition of cultural policy in his book Cultural development: experiences and policies, a seminal work in this field, “[A] policy is a system of ultimate aims, practical objectives and means, pursued by a group and applied by an authority. Cultural policies can be discerned in a trade union, a party, an educational movement, an institution, an enterprise, a town or a government. But regardless of the agent concerned, a policy implies the existence of ultimate purposes (long-term), objectives (medium-term and measurable) and means (men [sic], money and legislation), combined in an explicitly coherent system. (Girard, pp. 171-172).

Girard thinks that cultural policies, like any other policy, must be explicit and coherent, with its purpose, objectives and means framed within a formal system. Just as culture is all encompassing, cultural policy incorporates a broad range of measures taken to develop cultural life. Many policies with profound cultural impact are made by decision-makers who’ve hardly given cultural considerations a thought – decisions about transportation, for example, or the State budget. In a truly democratic society, the cultural impact of policies like these would be considered alongside economic and political impacts – the role of public transportation in encouraging or discouraging cultural participation, for instance, or the larger cultural impacts of our sacrosanct military/paramilitary-industrial subsidies. For instance, Tipaimukh sub-division of Churachandpur District has been cut off from public transport services for many decades – what is the impact of this withdrawal of state obligation to the right to cultural participation of the villagers of this sub-division? On the other hand, paramilitary forces empowered under extraordinary laws have been stationed in every nook and corner of Manipur, with special privileges, for more than three decades – what is the impact of this State partiality on the cultural life of the people of Manipur? These thoughts are too frightening to contemplate for too many.

According to some current views, one has to be aware, however, that ‘culture policies’ do not exist (and may not be desirable). In this text, we refer to ‘cultural policies’. In order to avoid utopian discussions, it is important to employ a definition which is influenced by the areas reached by actual policy measures or dealt with in policy reflections. This does not mean, however, that we have to traditionalise or confine ourselves to dealing only with the arts in the narrow sense. A modern definition of cultural policies could, rather than compartmentalise or officially define the arts, culture or media sectors, focus on creative expressions of all groups or individuals in society including the dynamic functions of artists. Such a definition would include all means of artistic expression – whether through sound, written form, physical movement etc. – as well as participation in cultural life as a whole. Traditional arts sectors such as drama, music or fine art as well as design, media and multimedia activity, oral history, architecture etc., should all be considered as areas for action in a definition of cultural policies. Through activities in these and more fields, arts and culture are indivisibly connected with all aspects in society be they in the fields of economy, social organisation, law, education processes etc – therefore we can speak of cultural policy as a set of ‘inter-sectoral’ tasks with high political potential. Equality and participation of all groups in a society fit well into that definition and must therefore be of great concern to cultural policy makers. (Women And Cultural Policies, Danielle Cliche, Ritva Mitchell and Andreas Joh. Wiesand, European Research Institute for Comparative Cultural Policy and the Arts, 1998)

Today, most policy-makers haven’t made the paradigm shift that would bring culture fully to their consciousness. When government agencies in the industrialized world define cultural policy, for instance, they generally limit themselves to the most specialized expressions of culture: media and communications, the arts, education, and in some countries, sports. The measures taken to implement policy are quite varied. Grants to artists and institutions are common approaches, as are public service employment programs, building and maintaining cultural facilities, encouraging and financing historic preservation, and regulating the airwaves. The Manipur government, unfortunately, has similar limitations.

What is needed then? The people of the State, as a group should be able to collectively and individually pursue such a set of aims, practical objectives and means found appropriate for their cultural development, and the government is responsible for ensuring and empowering such a pursuit. Ultimately, it is the people of Manipur who shall decide on such a policy best suited for their specific needs and practices – the authority in the government rests with the will of the people.

Recognizing the right to culture
The “right to culture” has been a key foundation of cultural policy. In 1948, soon after the United Nations was established, its members declared a “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” which asserted, “[E]veryone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community.”

Rene Maheu, Director-General of UNESCO (the UN’s cultural arm) at the time, amplified on this right at UNESCO’s International Conference on Institutional, Administrative and Financial Aspects of Cultural Policies in 1970:

“It is not certain that the full significance of this text, proclaiming a new human right, the right to culture, was entirely appreciated at the time. If everyone, as an essential part of his dignity as a man [sic], has the right to share in the cultural heritage and cultural activities of the community — or rather of the different communities to which men belong (and that of course includes the ultimate community — mankind) — it follows that the authorities responsible for these communities have a duty, so far as their resources permit, to provide him with the means for such participation…. Everyone, accordingly, has the right to culture, as he has the right to education and the right to work…. This is the basis and first purpose of cultural policy.” (Girard, pp. 182-183)

It is this recognition of the “duty…to provide…the means of [cultural] participation” which underlies the active stance public authorities around the world have assumed in recent decades in order to secure the public interest in cultural development.

Since those days, the discourse on the right to culture has developed much further. Today, the United Nations is advised by leading experts in cultural affairs and human rights. One new set of explicit guidelines that can be mentioned, because of its relevance to Manipur, is that developed by Professor Erica Irene-Daes (member of the Sub-Commission on the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights) – Principles and Guidelines for the Protection of the Heritage of Indigenous People in her study on the protection of the heritage of indigenous people (Economic and Social Council, E/CN.4/Sub.2/1995/26). In her principles, Daes introduces and further develops on the ideas of cultural diversity and self-determination with regard to the “[g]lobal recognition of ‘the value of cultures and the forms of social organisations of the world’s indigenous people’, in the terms of the General Assembly resolution 49/214, and bring the erosion of these irreplaceable cultures to a speedy end.”

What is being recognized here today is the fact that certain irreplaceable cultures of the world are being threatened with extinction, and the central issue is the respect of the right to culture. In the definitions that Daes elaborated in her recommended principles, “[T]he heritage of indigenous peoples is comprised of all objects, sites and knowledge the nature or use of which has been transmitted from generation to generation, and which is regarded as pertaining to a particular people or its territory. The heritage of an indigenous people also includes objects, knowledge and literary or artistic works which may be created in the future based upon its heritage.

“The heritage of indigenous peoples includes all moveable cultural property as defined by the relevant conventions of UNESCO; all kinds of literary and artistic works such as music, dance, song, ceremonies, symbols and designs, narratives and poetry; all kinds of scientific, agricultural, technical and ecological knowledge, including cultigens, medicines and the rational use of flora and fauna; human remains; immoveable cultural property such as sacred sites, sites of historical significance, and burials; and documentation of indigenous peoples, heritage on film, photographs, videotape, or audiotape.

“Every element of an indigenous peoples, heritage has traditional owners, which may be the whole people, a particular family or clan, an association or society, or individuals who have been specially taught or initiated to be its custodians. The traditional owners of heritage must be determined in accordance with indigenous peoples’ own customs, laws and practices.”

When a cultural policy is informed by the existing paradigm of rights, we are also accepting the justiciability of these rights. The issue of transmission of heritage that brings in the related issue of intellectual property rights, the issues of recovery and restitution of movable cultural property and other heritage, formulation of national programmes and legislation, the conduct of researchers and scholarly institutions, the regulation of business and industrial practices, the conduct of artists, writers and performers, public information and education and the role of international organisations are all included within the ambit of an explicit and coherent cultural policy.

Historical roots of cultural policy
The ideas which have informed cultural policy come from many sources – from traditional practices in diverse societies, from philosophers and theoreticians, from accounts of history and utopian speculations.

Courts, churches, legislatures, and patrons have for many centuries made decisions about whether, why and how to support work in the arts and cultural facilities; about the language and religion of a society; and about such issues as proper dress and behavior. Philosophers and historians have had a good deal to say about the conduct of a society with respect to culture. In every society and every period of history, people have made choices about the culture they would build, how to express their aspirations and fears, how to embody their values in rituals and celebrations. But the concept of a special socio-cultural responsibility for democratic governments is a relatively new invention. The idea of cultural policy as such came into currency after World War II. (France went ahead by establishing its Ministry of Culture of which the noted writer, André Malraux was the first Minister)

In the discourse which has since ensued, the idea of cultural democracy has emerged as the major innovation in cultural policy. Cultural ministers throughout the world became interested in the idea because of their alarm over social trends that are being felt globally: the proliferation of electronic mass media, urbanization, “modernization,” along with the individual alienation and deracination which accompany them. Taken together, these phenomena have come to be known internationally as the “Americanization” of culture. These factors coalesce to breed a pervasive social passivity dangerous to democracy, eroding traditional cultural activities, and replacing them with mind pap like what we are fed on Star TV, emanating primarily from US-based cultural industries.

Of course, these same forces have been at work far longer within the United States than anywhere else – for so long, some would say, that most Americans are oblivious to the domestic cultural imperialism that dominates their national culture. It is therefore unfortunate that this discussion was conducted in terms of “Americanization,” as it tended to obscure the deep domestic effects of this complex of cultural forces in the United States and, eventually, to excite US opposition to UNESCO altogether.

Whenever this topic is raised, you’ll find people defending the US against the charge of cultural invasion with the argument that nobody’s forcing people into the cinemas – everyone wants American art, clothes, food, and television quite simply because they’re the best. Meanwhile, our own regional, local, and minority traditions are endangered by the same unfettered commercial culture. We stand to gain a great deal by informing ourselves of this global discussion, for the light it can shed on how to keep the multiplicity of our own cultural traditions alive.

Cultural Policy elsewhere and relevance to Manipur
The challenges to democratic cultural development outlined above are global, but they manifest in different ways from place to place, depending upon local social and political conditions.

For developing societies such in Manipur, the crucial question has been how to preserve and extend indigenous traditions, which root us strongly in the past and provide our deepest sources of energy and inspiration; and at the same time, to take what’s best from the industrialized world without being inundated by it. We have been struggling to overcome a long history of cultural colonization – the fact that our theaters, libraries, and airwaves are dominated by the cultures which colonized us centuries ago. But we want to avoid retreating to mere nostalgia, creating an equally artificial culture which has nothing to say to the real conditions of contemporary life. We want to find the best ways to shape modernization when it comes. In Manipur, for instance, it’s not a question of how to reshape existing broadcasting systems, but how to develop our mass media in the first place.

For industrialized societies, the challenges are at once similar and different. For instance, when cultural policy-makers in Europe first began their post-War program of “democratizing high culture,” they tried many different approaches: blockbuster museum shows were promoted like movies, to draw big crowds; ticket-subsidy programs were designed to lure less affluent people into the concert halls; or artists were bused out to perform for captive audiences in schools and hospitals; to name a few examples. But no matter what was tried, the segment of the population which voluntarily participated in prestige arts activities remained the same: a very small percentage of the public, highly educated, financially well off, and middle-aged or older.

Facing the indifference and hostility of the vast majority of their populations – sometimes referred to as “non-publics,” to indicate their disinterest in establishment culture — European policy-makers reinterpreted their own roles. They began to see themselves as needing to address the many cultures within their societies, not simply promoting the traditional “high art” culture favored by wealthy patrons in the past. Instead of focusing on how to lure people into established arts institutions, these cultural ministers turned to a set of much broader social questions, which we may well be asking ourselves now in Manipur:

· How can we begin to overcome the already-entrenched alienation of modernization?
· How can we retrieve and preserve relevant traditions – both indigenous and foreign?
· How might we facilitate cross-cultural communication, even cooperation?
· How can we help animate community life?

It was at this stage that cultural democracy emerged as the leading edge of cultural policy in Europe, at least in policy-makers’ rhetoric. From the mid- to late-’70s, it looked as if cultural democracy would become the primary strain in European cultural development. But with Thatcherism in Britain and other strong right-wing voices affecting the cultural policy dialogue, there’s been a lot of retrenchment since. These trends accelerated through the nineties, with governments throughout Europe and around the world “privatizing ” functions formerly considered essential aspects of the public cultural commonwealth.

Among the primary means devised to realize the aims of cultural democracy is community animation. In many community animation projects, an artist-organizer uses both artistic and organizing skills to help the members of a community discover and express their own cultural identities and exercise control over their own cultural development. Other kinds of cultural workers have also worked as animateurs of cultural life, to use the French term by which the practice is known in international circles (where animation is often called animation socio-culturelle or, adopting the British form, “socio-cultural community development”). Much attention has also been paid by post-War policy-makers to the problems posed by the proliferation of electronic mass media:

· How to encourage and sustain democratic media?
· How to ensure media literacy, to enable people to use the media for democratic expression, rather than being held helplessly in their thrall?
· How to encourage and sustain live, participatory, face-to-face cultural activities in societies saturated with mass-distributed product?

Among the experiments which have been tried are community TV studios where community groups are helped to produce programs about their own perceptions and concerns, which are then broadcast on local TV and sometimes nationally, thus linking efforts to promote active participation directly with the otherwise pacifying forms deployed by mass media. Variations on this theme exist in many countries.

A basic aim underlies most efforts to implement policies of cultural democracy: that the primary task in cultural development is to support the means of cultural production and dissemination, not its ends. This can be a hard point to grasp, since the public arts-funding system here has been modelled after the conventional Western forms of private patronage. Most of its money goes to support end products: an artist applies for a grant to perform a particular piece of dance composition, or make a specific film. And since there’s been very little money set aside for these purposes, competition for money is fierce, leaving a lot of scope of nepotistic and other corrupt practices, and most applicants don’t get any.

The cultural democracy alternative is to support the means of cultural participation: making facilities, equipment, materials, education, and jobs widely available, so that everyone who wishes is able to participate. It’s the difference between maintaining a public library (the most democratic of existing modern cultural institutions in Manipur) and having a system whereby the most determined readers apply for funds to purchase volumes for their own private libraries, with just one out of every ten or twenty of them getting to buy books.

We desperately need a Climate for Cultural Democracy
There are many obstacles to seeing the goals of cultural democracy realized. What’s most important for advocates of cultural democracy is to keep the big picture in mind.

The writer Carlos Fuentes has characterized ours as an era of “cultures as the protagonists of history.” Around the globe, everywhere we look, we see evidence of cultures refusing to buckle under to the homogenizing influence of the imperial powers, be they political or corporate. The indigenous peoples’ movement is one very prominent example today. The century now ending has seen the appearance of an ever-growing number of independent States, increasing visibility of ethnic and cultural groups within states, and a global revolt against the technocratic and anti-humane values of western-style development. This big picture – both global and historical – is essential to keeping one’s hopes up for cultural democracy in the first depressing decade of the 21st Century.

There is plenty of evidence to justify discouragement, however. “Ethnic cleansing” and genocide, racism and oppression, are as much a part of our cultural legacy as our abilities to love and nurture one another, embracing and celebrating our many differences. Clearly, cultural democracy is a vital theme of our epoch. The question is whether we will be able to recognize and engage with it in our own lives and work, whether it will be a good idea that didn’t take root or a way to make positive change.

UNESCO’s recommendations
The Intergovernmental Conference on Cultural Policies for Development in Stockholm (UNESCO) was convened from 30 March to 2 April 1998 following the growing legitimacy of cultural democracy approach to development policy, the need to address the core issue of sustainable development by placing cultural policy centre-stage. This could be a very far, almost alien, cry from what our Manipur government has in mind. But, looking from the depressing experience of the past couple of generations in Manipur, it must dawn upon all of us that our economic and cultural survival issues are inter-related and inter-dependent. Otherwise, we may as well resign ourselves to being “wiped off” together at the alter of the re-globalising and de-humanising tidal wave of foreign hegemonistic industrial power. This is not a fantasy and we can see it happening before our eyes.

“When culture is understood as the basis of development the very notion of cultural policy has to be considerably broadened. Any policy for development must be profoundly sensitive to and inspired by culture itself… defining and applying such a policy means finding factors of cohesion that hold multi-ethnic societies together, by making much better use of the realities and opportunities of pluralism. It implies promoting creativity in politics and governance, in technology, industry and business, in education and in social and community development — as well as in the arts. It requires that the media be used to open up communication opportunities for all, by reducing the gap between the information ‘haves’ and ‘have nots.’ It means adopting a gender perspective which looks at women’s concerns, needs and interests and seeks a fairer redistribution of resources and power between men and women. It means giving children and young people a better place as bearers of a new world culture in the making. It implies a thoroughgoing diversification of the notion of cultural heritage in social change… It requires new research.” (Our Creative Diversity, the first report of the World Commission on Culture and Development, 1995 – revised in 1996)

It would be wise for our government, as it gathers itself to launch into a cultural policy formulation exercise, to make some very serious attempts to undertake a comprehensive appraisal of the climate for cultural democracy, study the present recommendations of a wide array of experts and also seek international cooperation, which is available, before stepping out. The UNESCO recommendations are derived from the acknowledgment of the challenging thematic issues of pluralism, cultural rights, creativity and cultural industries, concerns of children and young people as well as the challenge of re-casting “cultural policy” – research and international cooperation, resource mobilization for cultural activities, the role of the media and new media technologies.

The Stockholm conference reflected key themes in cultural policy thinking today:
· A continuing emphasis on broadening the scope of cultural policy to include “the whole complex of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features that characterize a society or social group…. not only the arts and letters, but also modes of life, the fundamental rights of the human being, value systems, traditions and beliefs” (a quote from the 1982 Mexico City Declaration, the last worldwide meeting of ministers like the one in Stockholm, reaffirmed in the 1998 conference’s “Action Plan”).
· Deepening concern about the “globalization of culture,” always an important theme in UNESCO’s discourse, but heightened in recent years by the conglomeration of transnational corporate commercial entities, accelerating since the 1980’s.
· Interest in examining how “sustainable development” can exist alongside respect for diverse cultural traditions.
· Great attention and concern to the preservation and promotion of cultural diversity, the antithesis of globalization of culture, for protecting freedom in cultural life, the rights of minority cultures and points-of-view, and included marginalized voices in public affairs.
· Internationally, deep questioning of the role of the State, especially acute in formerly socialist countries, but prevalent now everywhere as nation-states cut back public expenditure and privatize more and more sectors of society once considered part of the public domain.

These are crucial considerations as culture is now being defined as “ways of living together”. This is why culture is at the core of sustainable development. And this cannot be achieved without conviviality. An exclusive gala event should not serve as a substitute for real thinking. The voice of the voiceless and the choice of the choiceless must be elicited and respected. We are late and have a very long road ahead. We cannot wreck this bus further; we are innovative and no one can say we lack creativity, let’s do things differently this time and do it well.