Open Letter to V Shanmuganathan (Governor of Manipur) on the Definition of Culture
- Part 2 -

Kshetri Prem *

V. Shanmuganathan : Governor of Manipur
V. Shanmuganathan : Governor of Manipur :: Pix - DIPR

We the people of the Northeast are known by the Sanskrit term kirata [6] meaning roughly means 'uncivilised', meaning non-Aryan. We (Meiteis non-Aryan) were Hinduiased through the process of Hinduaisation/Hindu method of tribal absorption/Aryanisation. The concept is very much like the European 'enlightenment' theory which the cultural imperialists believed in (and bow down before) and by convincing themselves and rest of the world that they were actually on a 'civilising mission' to sanctify a savage land inhabited by 'untamed dangerous people' [7] . This pretext called 'civilising mission' was carried out by Vashnavite missionaries and Brahmins who came to Manipur with their 'scrolls and sanctities' [8].

Your Excellency, as you understand, the notion of culture is fluid, dynamic, and ever evolving. Trying to define culture is like trying to hit a moving target. As a small time teacher who discusses high and popular/mass/low culture, production and propagation, insemination and dissemination, associated terms, origin of the concept and its reception in various fields, etc. of culture both with Post-Graduate as well as PhD students, I must confess that I do not try to define culture or give a pre-existing definition of culture in a classroom scenario. I don't do it because the term 'culture' has become very political in today's world. The domain of culture has become a fertile ground for expression and assertion of ascendancy of a dominant class over a subordinate class.

Therefore, we have the concept of 'hegemony' which is the process of making, maintaining, and reproducing authoritative set of meanings, ideologies, and practices. The dominant class tries to push down their ideals and ideologies through the throat of the subordinate class. This process is what Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci called 'incorporation'. The dominant class believes that they can incorporate the subordinate class by claiming the existence of a 'dominant centre' but, in a country like India, there is no 'dominant centre'. There is no such thing as common culture either. Let's all remember that culture is heterogeneous both in terms expression and the ways in which we (people from different cultures) find meaning within that expression.

Your Excellency surely knows that Canada has 'multiculturalism' in their constitution (Section 27 of 'Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom' to be precise). But, interestingly, an extremely diverse country (racially, culturally, and linguistically) such as India has not made 'multicultural' as part of its constitution. But, we believe in the concept of 'unity in diversity'. Do not Your Excellency think that 'unity in diversity' is just a popular excuse for grouping impossibly diverse entities together under one overarching all-inclusive theme (a line borrowed from a concept note of a seminar)?

For your kind information, the Northeast alone is a conglomeration of around 475 ethnic groups and sub-groups, speaking over 400 languages/dialects. Manipur alone has some 35 different tribes speaking as many languages and practicing and propagating as many cultures. Would it be wrong to conclude that each tribe would have its own notion and understanding of culture? Do we even practice 'unity in diversity'? Instead of promoting multiculturalism do we not always talk in terms of my culture versus your culture?

Yours Excellency's 'hundred word essay on culture challenge' to the people of Manipur reminds me of the immigration officer at the Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi who bullied a young Manipuri lady by questioning her 'Indianess' for which Smt. Sushma Swarji, Honourable Union Minister, External Affairs, Govt. of India had to apologise. If we look at these two incidents structurally, I do not see and find any difference. Such unfortunate statements are the direct results of cultural arrogance and false superiority complex. Your Excellency must be having the same notions about us as the rest of India does.

This is what the rest of India thinks and perceives the people of the Northeast. 'You' have a static 'jingalala hurr syndrome' about 'me'. My 'self' evokes an image of a half naked spear-wielding tribal, wearing buffalo horns and jumping hysterically to the sound of tom-toms and shouting 'jingalala hurr' feverishly in some corner of the earth. I also seem to eat everything that creeps and crawls (except for cars) and everything that flies (except airplanes). The region is marketed as Paradise Unexplored a paradise 'yet to be found'.

It is believed to be a land of exotic orchids, inaccessible yet beautiful jungles, enchanting half clad tribal girls dancing everywhere at any given point of time (as shown in the Northeast Brochure published by Ministry of Tourism, Government of India), wild animals and wilder food habits, strange languages and stranger customs, primitives whose history and literature are yet to be written ... Simply put, we are waiting to be explored. A 'case study' of sorts for researchers, anthropologists, NGOs, and the people who hold 'I Love N-E' placards at Jantar Mantar.

The Northeast is perceived, at the turn of the twenty first century, by many of the 'mainstream Indians' (a term which has mainstreamed by itself in the centre-margin discourse) as mysterious, exotic, bizarre, and the actual location for 'hunger games'. The race-culture issue of the Northeast still mars the socio-political discourse of India. Racist attacks on the people of the Northeast in all parts of the country are becoming a 21st century Indian reality. However much we deny that racism exists in India, discrimination issuing from racial and cultural differences permeate everywhere. We are called 'chinky' (whatever that word means). That's not all. There are food epithets in this racial 'slur'ping. I am not just a 'chinky', I am a Momo Chinky Chow man.

Please allow me to take Your Excellency down the memory land and discuss with you the process of Hinduasation that happened in successive periods. During the reign of Meidingu Kiyamba (1467-1508) Hindu conversion efforts accelerated in Manipur. Waves of Shaivism and Vaishnavism sects entered Manipur. Chief among them are the Nimbarka Sect, Vishnuswami Sect, Madhavcharya Sect, Ramandi cult, Madhu Guru Sect, etc. Vaishnavism was adopted as a state religion during the reign of Maharaj Garibniwaz (1709-1748) but not one sect could hold the ground for long.

Finally in about 1777 Rajarshi Bhagyachandra (1748-1799) adopted Gouranga (Narotam) Paribar of the Bengal branch of the Madhu Guru Sect. The madhur bhava of Radha and Krishna enticed the valley of Manipur for more than two centuries. However, Manipuris never gave up their indigenous faith. Something had to be done to consolidate Vaishnavism in Manipur. That consolidation effort included rewriting Manipuri history and superimposing Hindu gods on Meitei lais (deities). An ambivalent syncretism ensued between the two faiths. The configuration of Manipuri cocktail identity began thus.

One cannot help but notice Ngugi's sarcasm when he says that, "It is the final triumph of domination [neo/colonialism] when the dominated [colonised] started singing its [coloniser's] virtues." [9] We had many in the 1930s who through carefully selected Vedic texts made us see and feel Aryan blood in Mongoloid veins. I have nothing against any religion. I am a proud atheist who still considers Hinduism as one of the best ways of life. I still am a son of a pious Vaishnavite mother and Christian minded Vaishnavite father. But, what followed after the Meiteis got converted to Vaishnavism is something we need to introspect.

The Hindu religion brought to the land (Manipur) Hindu culture, the notion of amang/aseng (impure-pure/touchable-untouchable), Sanskrit and Bengali languages and script, and above all, the propagation of a false racial superiority (elevated self) of the Meiteis among the rest of the ethnic communities. Suddenly, there was a divide between the hill tribes and the valley tribes who had co-existed for centuries.

This divide (religious) continues to persist (in political avatars) as the hill tribes have adopted Christianity (around the time of British occupation of Manipur in 1891) and the valley tribes have made themselves stranded in a unique situation of racial, religious, and cultural wilderness [10]. Manipuri language and literature was being sidelined to promote a hegemonic language and culture. There is a sense of pride in the following observation made in 1890 CE in an article called "Manipur" in Janmabhumi published by Shri Kebalram Chattopadhyay.

My prosaic translation from Bangla is:
Previously in Manipur, the Sanskrit language was highly coveted, and the nagarakshar/devanagri script was used. But, after Goswamis of Nabadvip became their mantra gurus, the Bengali language and the script began to be preferred by the people there. However, this has not resulted in the complete disappearance of devanagri. Manipuris who are well versed in Hindu dharmahastra have great respect for Srimadbhagavat and other Veishnav texts. [11]

To be continued.....

* Kshetri Prem wrote this article for
The writer is Assistant Professor, Dept. of English, Tripura University and can be reached at kshprem(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was posted on August 18, 2016.

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