Manipuri speaking diaspora in Assam

Rafe Ahmed *

Assam Manipuri Marriage in traditional Meitei dress at Hojai Kalinagar Village, Nagoan District, Assam :: November 2013
Assam Manipuri Marriage in traditional Meitei dress at Hojai Kalinagar Village, Nagoan District, Assam, sometime in November 2013
Pix Courtesy - Mousumi Thangjam

The seven years of devastation "Chahi Taret Khuntakpa" displaced many Manipuris out of Manipur. Most migrated to Assam's Cachar district, Tripura, Bangladesh and neighboring Myanmar. Manipur Levy led by Prince Gambhir Singh finally recaptured the lost kingdom from the Burmese invaders.

If one happens to travel to Silchar through Jiribam, one would see how Meiteis and Pangals have settled near the old Silchar road. The old road gives a legacy of the Manipur Levy, an army which liberated Manipur from Burmese invaders. Not much has been said about the Manipur Levy or about Prince Gambhir Singh.

An important chapter in Manipuri History was created by this revolutionary force. Manipur as a kingdom had many cultural exchanges with its neighboring states, but not in such scale, where its citizens had to adapt to conditions alien to them. Interaction with other cultures did not dilute much of the heritage and culture of Manipuris. Still now, most of the Meiteis and Pangals have hold on to their customs and traditions.

Globalization is a social process, where there is an economic, political, cultural and linguistic interconnection. Globalization has both positive and negative effects on language. While it allows certain languages to dominate globally, it also leads to the extinction of other languages and culture. The effects on language can affect the culture of the spoken language.

A culture is formed by language through vocabulary, greetings etc. language helps an ethnic group to communicate, it helps them to recognize their ethnicity, and it also helps them to know their common heritage. Language acts as a vehicle of thought.

It can be said that a language is a symbol of cultural identity. Everywhere language is used as an identity to be part of the globalized world and in the absence of due protection of the language, the particular language community may be without the growth of its culture, traditions and customs.

According to some estimates, the 22nd century will host only 10 percent of the present languages. Many languages have fewer than 5000 speakers.

With mobile and internet, we truly are in a globalize world, interconnected through a push of button. Globalization has brought new ideas and opportunities. One has to adapt to leverage out of these new ideas. But the byproduct of globalization is that we lose our connection with old customs and tradition. And this is certainly happening with the Manipuri diaspora of Assam.

The Assam state, post joining the Indian union has seen many conflicts and struggles. In the year 1960, the then chief minister of Assam presented a bill in the legislative assembly to make Assamese the official language of the state. The Bengali Language Movement was started in Barak valley to protest against the decision. As many as eleven people were killed in the following movement.

The Assam agitation was another popular movement. The All Assam Students Union (AASU) and the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP) started the movement against illegal immigrants. The result was the Assam Accord. The Assamese-Bengali Language conflict and the Assam Accord hold testament to the complex structure of nationalism. Apart from that, due to regionalism and linguistic nationalism, four states where carved out of it. The state also witnessed the rise of separatist movements.

If, you look at the history and demographics of Assam. The state has seen migration of communities in different periods. Most of them happened due to wars or cultural exchanges. In recent years, identity issues have become a crucial agenda for communities. With the current updating of National Register of Citizens (NRC), the debate of indigenous and migrant citizens has started making headlines.

With all the regionalism and linguistic nationalism, were do we stand as Manipuris of Assam. The Manipuri diaspora is mainly concentrated in Cachar, Hojai, Hailakandi and Karimganj districts.

As a Manipuri citizen of Assam, one has to review the status of Manipuri speaking people in Assam. Are we doing enough to protect our culture and language?

Assamese, Bodo and Bengali are the official languages of Assam. Most of the other indigenous languages are used as lingua franca of those particular geographic regions. In the Barak valley, Bengali is used officially in offices and schools.

There was a Manipuri language movement in Assam in the late fifties. The language movement demanded the introduction of Manipuri language as a medium of instruction in elementary education.

The Manipuri medium was adopted in primary schools of Manipuri dominated areas in the sixties. In the secondary and college level, it was introduced as a Modern Indian Language (MIL). Manipuri is of the Elective languages in schools and colleges.

Many students who opt for Manipuri as there elective subjects face several problems like lack of teachers. There may be requirement of Manipuri language teachers in several government run colleges. The number of Manipuri Language teachers post in government run schools have declined. Our orientation for English as a medium of language has added to this.

Lack of public awareness about Manipuri language as a schedule language and the interest of safeguarding the right to use one's mother tongue is a thought to ponder. Like many minority language communities, it is facing attack on its distinctiveness.

Employment is one another factor adding to the problem. Lack of jobs and other business opportunities had an impact on Manipuris, forcing them to leave for greener pastures.

How can we change this trend?

The solution lies in co-ordination. Different organizations in both sides of Assam and Manipur have to co-ordinate for the common cause. The concerned Manipuri departments in Manipur University as well as Assam University have to create exchange programs for research scholars.

The research should involve literature, culture and social case studies. Other non-governmental organizations and student's organization should work in tandem to create an environment where a Manipuri should feel pride in his or her custom and tradition. Promoting Manipuri through a strong language identity in homes, schools is a necessity.

If we don't find solution for this problem, the Manipuris of Assam will be "lost in translation". The essence and substance of being a Manipuri lies in its customs and traditions.

* Rafe Ahmed wrote this article for
The writer can be reached at ahmedefar(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was posted on April 18 , 2018.

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