TODAY -

Open Letter to V Shanmuganathan (Governor of Manipur) on the Definition of Culture
- Part 3 -

Kshetri Prem *

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



Language communicates the culture of its users. And it is through language that we define and perceive the world around us. The language of imposition can subvert the potential for cultural resistance. Manipuris accord divine status to the Manipuri language and script. When they resisted the religious onslaught of one Santadas Goswami, he (Santadas) coerced with Meidingu Pamheiba or Garibnawaz Maharaj (1709-1748 CE) and burnt all Manipuri texts known as puya in local parlance in 1729 CE [12]. Such a heinous crime of one missionary made the eminent Indologist Prof. Suniti Kumar Chatterjee make this comment:

The older literary tradition suffered from a set-back, owing to the ill-conceived and mischievous action of the Ramandi missionary Santadas Babaji, whose vandalism in getting together and burning a number of Old Manipuri MSS. appears to have received the support of Gharib-nawaz himself; and this continued during the 18th century. [13]

The act of burning Meitei puyas can be equated with burning of Meitei lais (deities). Meitei lais were destroyed. And the Manipuri language and literature was literally thrown away. The 18th century saw a flurry of translations mostly from Bengali and sometimes from Sanskrit. The consequence of the adoption of Ramandi Sect was so far-reaching that the history of Manipur got amputated by the Vijay Panchali (in Bangla), a horrendously damaging chronicle of Meitei kings based upon Santadas Goswami's perverted imagination. This Vijay Panchali made the historiography of Manipur take a sudden turn and Manipuris woke up as descendants of the Mythic hero Arjuna one gloomy morning.

It is needless to say that the formation of the unique Manipuri identity at the turn of the twenty first century has been intense and complex. A Manipuri's sense of the 'self', as an individual and as a collective, is conditioned by the multilayered past and the convoluted present. Competitive identity politics among the three major ethnic groups of Manipur (Meitei, Naga, and Kuki) resulted in horrid blood-baths in the past. The long-standing ethno-political action in Manipur is one of the illegitimate children of its complex cultural matrix [14].

So, any talk about Manipuri 'identity' must discern the sub/ethno-nationalisms that hamper both the mainstreaming efforts as well as the construction of a collective Manipuri identity. The rise in sub/ethno nationalism (polarising the three ethnic groups) in Manipur has even proved that there is a discourse of nation and nationalism at the regional level within the structure of Indian nationalism.

'Chitrangada theory' was floated to impede the progress of Meitei culture and religion which strongly opposed conversion efforts. The 'theory' would find many takers, even among the most educated Manipuris in the postcolonial period, strengthening the Vedic foundation on which the racial and cultural identity of an ethnic community was compromised. The theory itself is the coloniser's attempt at obliterating indigenous history towards the formulation of colonial historiography. This 'theory' of the Aryan origin was propagated vigorously till the early 1990s by many scholars. The 'theory' though 'replete with falsities, swept the field and for a time became the official history of Manipur'. [15]

One of the saddest developments issuing from this 'theory' is that it gave birth to various other 'believe it or not' theories by many scholars belonging to this school of thought. Here is a classic example from the writings of Prof. Rajkumar Jhalajit Singh who once taught at Guwahati University:

When Mongoloid women [Manipuri women] and their children by Aryan fathers began to speak Prakrit, pronunciation began to vary and the grammar became gradually simpler. Those Indo-Aryans, who did not profess the Vedic religion but spoke Indo-Aryan languages, found it difficult to pronounce comparatively simple Sanskrit words. [...] First Prakrit and then Apabhramsa were spoken in Ningthouaja kingdom, probably upto about 600 A. D. [...] The period of Prakrit and Apabhramsa was followed by that of Old Manipuri.[16]

According to Prof. Jhalajit's book, published by Manipur University in 1987, our Aryan fathers brought Prakrit (Indo-Aryan), the language of the Kshatriyas, to Manipur. Then we spoke Apabhramsa (Indo-Aryan), one of the North Indian dialects? Then, we started speaking Old Manipuri, a Tibeto-Burman language? How can we have so many tongues, or slippery tongues?

Iboongohal Singh, who was a member of Manipur Durbar, takes the rhetoric to a different level and reiterates the 'Chitrangada theory' again:

We have not yet known that Manipur is called Prachee by the Vedas and Udoigiri by the Ramayan ... in prehistoric days the local people might not have known that their land was called Manipur by the Mahabharat, although some of the outsiders knew it. But it is mere nonsense to think that this golden land was recently given the name of Manipur in or about the 18th century. If one reads the Ramayan and Mahabharat thoroughly well, he must admit that Vyas Dev called the vast area Manipur.[17]

The processes of bringing an essentially tribal society into the Hindu fold needed the natives convinced of Aryan blood in their veins. From the cultural coloniser's viewpoint, the 'theory' proved fruitful. Firstly, the Bengalis could extend their cultural and religious boundary upto Manipur without even sending a soldier. Secondly, Manipur became a favourable destination for migrant Hindus (mostly Bengalis from Tripura, West Bengal, and Sylhet area of present day Bangladesh). A Greater Bengal was created by bringing the Meiteis closer to the Bengali samaj through religion, culture, language, and literature.

But why would someone want to create a caste based and ethnically divided Manipuri society? Before we try and find out the reasons allow me to quote a few lines again from the article "Manipur" from Janmabhumi. My prosaic translation is as follows:

Manipur is not our birthplace, but it has a close connection with Bharat, our native land. The Mahabharata and the puranas refer to it as an ancient Hindu land which the Pandavas did not turn their back during their journey eastwards. Manipur is a Hindu rajya [nation] with a population of mostly Hindus following specific rules of jatibhed [social and caste divisions] and customs and practices. We have to accept Manipur as a part of our sacred land, Bharat. Why should Manipur not hold an esteemed place in our land of birth? We can consider Manipur as a part and parcel of Bharat. Therefore we publish this article in our periodical Janmabhumi. [18]

Manipur was imagined firstly, as an extension of Bengal, and secondly, as a part of India. On the surface the obvious are present. The speculative Vedic connection of Manipur. The imperialist/integrationist propaganda. The process of describing, naming, and classifying Manipur has been done here. We understand that identity is a process of becoming built from points of similarity and difference. In other words, identity is being produced, not discovered within the vectors of resemblance and distinction. Thus identity is not an essence but a continually shifting description of ourselves like a text whose meaning is continually deferred.

The political significance of the pronouncement of cultural proximity of Manipur to other provinces of Bharat based on the Mahabharata and purana pedigree is Bengal's ambition to widen its samaj. It also establishes a new discourse, a new language which conjures up the idea of shared cultural values and similar religious identity. To some, it could be seen as a reflection of a larger practice within colonialist discourse to contain the possibilities of an indigenous historiography by the discourse of the cultural imperialists. However, this discourse is flawed. For one, you do not need to be a Hindu to be an Indian. Second, the Mahabharata is called an epic; a literary genre called myth. Third, Manipur never fully adopted caste system even after the valley was fully Sanskritised.

Constructing an Aryan identity of the Manipuris based upon historical and cultural conjunctures was a deliberate attempt of some Bengali literati. Aryanism (in all senses of the term: language, social status, religion, and race), however, is 'an exclusive status conditioned by birth' [19]. Some of the 'culturally Aryanised' groups are Mongoloid stock known as kirata. If I, a Manipuri, were a Kirata a non-Aryan tribe, then how come Arjuna of Mahabharata be my great great great grandfather? Will my culture continue to be Aryan culture?

The shift from becoming Aryan to cultural Aryanness attributed to the 'others' (including Manipuris) is due to the changing nature of the concept of 'Aryan' which has become intellectually challenging and sometimes volatile. But, the discourse of the interface between indigenous identity and Aryan identity within the state of Manipur continues to persist. Here is an example, however uncritical it may sound, of how the illogical idea of Aryan origin or cultural Aryanness of Manipuris is deliberately pushed forward:

By 33 A. D., another great man arrived [in Manipur] with swords and flaming torches in search of regal power. The Manipuris call him Pakhangba. The literal meaning of the name is one who can recognise one's father. Some say his Sanskrit name was Yavistha Deva. Pakhangba Nongaron however says that he went towards the north and ascended heaven. The Aryans regarded the north as auspicious quarter. All these point to the conclusion that he was Aryan. [20]

It is a blatant attempt to synchronize Meitei legends and traditions with the Brahmanical Puranas so that Meiteis are identified as Aryans. This synchronisation attempt is historically flawed and uncritically speculative. The cultural and religious colonisation of Manipur by the Bengalis can be treated as a continual phenomenon expanded through indigenous intellectuals who are Aryan wannabes.

However much I claim myself to be an Aryan, everywhere I went they saw a tribal in my face. I become the new untouchable. Because, I am imagined as a 'tribal', the lowest level of the socio-ritual hierarchy of the Indic cultural system. Because of my looks and language I am gazed as a non-Indic. I remain outside the traditional Hindu varna system however much I claim myself to be a Kshatriya. In the majority's imagination I am a primitive, an inferior, and an anti social element whose ethnonationalism challenges the sovereignty and internal harmony of India.

To be continued.....


* Kshetri Prem wrote this article for e-pao.net
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 20, 2016.


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