In the piece “How Hindi helped to build a bridge to Manipur language and culture” published on 12th July in The Hindu, the author of the said article/Op Ed piece Kuldeep Kumar, attempts to make a case for the prominence and historical importance of the Hindi and Devanagari script in Manipuri history and literature. The piece however is littered with factual and historical inaccuracies and worse, an extremely selective and distortive history masquerading as profound discovery.
Larger portions of the piece were spent on unrelated commentary on Manipuri history and the only actual references were a handful of translation works done by some writers. Even still, it stood on a very weak methodological anchor. Language is a shared element of society that propagates itself through contact, imitation and distortion― branching and shooting off in multiple directions. Just because other non-native of the language use it doesn’t consequently imply that there is a shared historical and cultural underpinning. Sometimes it is as simple as coming across a new language and imitating it out of the human condition of curiosity. Not every action and events have a deeper/hidden meaning and connection, unbeknownst to the common mind. Moreover, being bound together in a certain geographical region cannot be inferred to mean shared culture and history. Such assumptions are classic sociological errors. And all of this is said while, for the moment, disregarding the fact that only a handful of Manipur writers actual read and write in Hindi.
Looking at the historical claims of the piece, it could not go any further from the truth.
First of all, the hills of Manipur aren’t occupied by the Nagas alone; there are various tribes and communities inhabiting in and around the hills. There are numerous tribes under the Naga umbrella and many under the Kuki, a group that the author has totally erased in his piece. Apart from the Kuki, Naga tribes there are a few who have not yet converted to Christianity and prefer to stay apart from either the Naga or Kuki fold. Apart from the tribes, there is a Manipuri Muslimpopulation in the state too, all of which the author has cursorily dismissed or deliberately ignored. Misunderstanding such a simple fact already reveals, even before the main arguments are made, that the author does not possess even a passable knowledge of the region.
The erstwhile Manipuri Kingdom was a sovereign entity. It lost its independent status for the first time when it was occupied by a foreign power⸺ the Ava (current day Myanmar)⸺ from 1819 to 1826. This period is popularly known as‘Cahi Taret Khuntakpa’ (Seven years devastation) in local and academic history. Manipur was never “until 1826” under the Burmese. The Treaty of Yandabo, signed between the British East India Company and the King of Ava, only ended these seven years of occupation. After this, Manipur became a protectorate of the British while still retaining its sovereignty and administrative autonomy.
It is also historically contentious to claim “…close emotional bonds with it (Indian freedom movement) and began to oppose the British…” This phrasing implies that the cause of rebellion against colonial occupation in Manipur was inspired only by what Gandhi, Patel and their cohorts did in mainland India. Such dubious claim amounts to a reductionist history, erasing complexity and uniqueness. A more accurate account would be that the Manipuri resistance to the British occupation was a consequence of its internal issues― economic degradation, resource exploitations, discriminatory social practices, droughts, rice shortage, and the indifference of the puppet King (notorious for spending more time in Nawadip than in his kingdom) to these issues[i].
Among the many, Manipur has its most charismatic and influential leader in the figure of the communist revolutionary and nationalist Meeyamgi Luchingba Hijam Irabot[ii]. It would be an insurmountable crime to study Manipur’s history during the period since the British occupation till the early 1950s without talking about Irabot. Irabot is a prominent figure in the political space, even in the contemporary period, while also exerting an immense influence in literature and theater movements of Manipur.
Irabot, as a social revolutionary, played a significant part in organizing and mobilizing the people against various social ills such as, to name a few, chandan senkhai, mangba-sengba lallup and its modes: pothang and yairek sentry[iii]. He also agitated against the Brahma Sabha, an autocratic Brahminical group which enjoyed the power to issue dictums on pollution and ex-communication.
Irabot, as a political revolutionary, worked his whole life to realize the communist ideal of an egalitarian society. He worked with the peasants not just in Manipur but even in Cachar. However, his most iconic moment and certainly a momentous one in Manipur’s political history came in the form of the Fourth Session of Nikhil Hindu Manipuri Mahasabha in 1938 at Chinga Makhong, where, under the leadership of Irabot, the word ‘Hindu’ was deleted from the name and the group became explicitly politicized from its earlier being as cultural body, espousing democratic values and economic sufficiency. This was a first of a kind in Manipur at the time. With this incident, as Karam Manimohon remarked, “the political history of Manipur entered into a new era.” His participation in the 2nd Nupi Lan is also a celebrated one. Much more than Gandhi or Patel or Bose, Irabot played a major role in inspiring the Manipuri population to revolt against the King and the British.
In later life, Irabot had to go underground as the state declared him as a dissident because of his opposition to the annexation under the Indian Union[iv]. This event testifies against the claim by Kumar that the Manipuri people launched a movement to merge with the Indian Union “…and thus Manipur became a part of Indian Union on October 15, 1949.” This again suggests that the “merger” was a consequence of the people’s demand, which is a romantic rendition. Recalling Sardar Patel’s “Isn’t there a brigadier in Shillong?”, accounted in Sanjib Baruah’s Durable Disorder, would suffice to disapprove the claim. Writing history, or anything for that matter, in absolutes is a fallacy.
Thereafter the author claims Manipur remains culturally well-connected with mainland India taking a singular example of a certain dance form – Rasa Leela. Kumar again willfully ignored actual history. The period of the 1940s saw the growth of Sanamahi laining movement, a revivalist movement under Naoriya Phulo’s Meitei Marup. He should have also paid attention to the revival of the Meitei Mayek script in the early part of this century. Meitei mayek is now the language subject at high school and secondary level. These movements are part of a cultural flow that re-emphasized the distinctive indigenous cultural values.
In this light, the credibility of Kumar’s claim that there is a “wide acceptability” of Hindi should be questioned. First of all, Hindi is not widely accepted, spoken or written in Manipur. And I anticipate that this comes as a surprise to absolutely no one. It is difficult to find Hindi scripts written in public places⸺ signboards, shop names, landmarks, office buildings, etc⸺ and students mostly study the language until only the 8th standard and that too because it is a compulsory subject.
But the fundamental question that should be asked is how his historical claims came to be linked with the “wide acceptability” of Hindi? What kind of epistemological connection is being made here? There is an unspoken underlying assumption and a very uncomfortable one.
Now, let us suppose that, after doing some awkward mental gymnastics, we manage to give a pass to Kumar’s argument of “well-connected with mainland India”. From what can be gathered from his argument, the justification for this claim hinges on Manipur being a Hindu dominant state. But is Kumar aware how it came about? Is he aware of the fact that Vaishnavism was imposed violently upon the population by King Pamheiba? Is he aware that the recalcitrant ones were ex-communicated and deported from their home while the rest were forced to give up their indigenous faith? Is it difficult to be aware of this? No. One has to only pick up a simple history book on Manipur.
To back up his baffling claims, Kumar refers to Manipuri literature as translation works in Hindi. It is imperative to note that translation works are a simple literary exercise, not the unrevealing of a profound realization of a cultural cosmos. Further, Kumar again pushes the boundary and intentionally referred to Aribam Chhatradhwj Sharma who traced the origin of Meiteilon (Manipuri language) and its script, obviously under the mask of “local belief”, to Shiva and his sons. I can, as a local, claim in certain that this is not at all a local belief. I have been living in Manipur for 25 years and this is the first I am coming across this “local belief”.
What the author has referenced is a member of a group of disgraced Brahminical writers/scholars of Manipur who attempted to Sanskritise Manipuri history and culture. Their works were disapproved repeatedly by numerous serious Manipuri academicians and writers. In contemporary Manipuri academia, their works are studied as prime examples of the vicious cultural, historical and political assault on the indigenous population, not as a factual history to be learned. The author, knowing or unknowingly of the context, has linked an old, disgraceful and erroneous period of Manipuri scholarship, a scholarship marked by bad faith and bad inventions.
What Kumar has done is to dishonour and distort the autonomy of the Manipuri culture and history. Culture is not reified; it changes and exists in flux. A snapshot in history is a moment in time; it can never capture the entire flow, its velocity, its viscosity, and its high and low points. The piece amounts to nothing but a continuation of the age-old project of erasing indigenous history in favour of national history, marginalising the marginalised, and denying the autonomy, history and reality of indigenous people and their world.
[i] Karam Manimohon Singh (2006). Nupi Lan (Women’s War of Manipur). Imphal: K. Premita Devi
[ii] Karam Manimohon (1989). Hijam Irabot Singh and Political Movements in Manipur, New Delhi: B.R. Publishing House.
[iii] John Parratt and Saroj Arambam Parratt (2000). Hijam Irabot and the Radical Socialist Democratic Movement in Manipur. International Asienforum, Vol. 31, No. 3-4, p. 275-288.
John Parratt and Saroj Arambam Parratt (2000). Hijam Irabot and the Radical Socialist Democratic Movement in Manipur. International Asienforum, Vol. 31, No. 3-4, p. 275-288.
John Parratt (2005). Wounded Land: Politics and Identity in Modern India. New Delhi: Mittal Publications.
Karam Manimohon (1989). Hijam Irabot Singh and Political Movements in Manipur, New Delhi: B.R. Publishing House.
Karam Manimohon Singh (2006). Nupi Lan (Women’s War of Manipur). Imphal: K. Premita Devi.
Sanjib Baruah (2012). Durable Disorder: Understanding the Politics of Northeast India. New York: Oxford University Press.