TODAY -

The tyranny of ignorance (or the curious case of disowning one's own self)

Thokchom Wangam *



I have been a student of history for more than five years now having just completed my masters recently. This institutional learning of history has taught me a lot about the happenings in Britain and America, the revolutions in France and Russia, and the disasters that engulfed Germany and Japan. I know my Pallavas from my Cholas, the debates surrounding the behemoth that was the Mughal Empire, the coming of the Wellesley(s) and Cornwallis(s), about Chauri-Chaura and Jallianwala Bagh. The scarring experiences of the Partition, the violence involved, and the hostile relationship which has existed since then have been drilled into me. I would, however, be all at sea if you were to ask me anything about Manipur, the land where I am from. This, I have slowly realized isn't accidental at all.

To borrow from Michel-Rolph Trouillot, "the production of historical narratives involves the uneven contribution of competing groups and individuals who have unequal access to the means for such production." In other words, there is politics involved in the writing and production of history, with groups of people often enjoying hegemony over such a process. To write a history is to take a stand, to make a statement. Historical facts can be, and indeed are, utilized in myriad ways to make a claim. What happens, however if one forget the facts in the first place?

Reading about the happenings in Manipur over the last couple of weeks, I am overcome by a sense of déjà vu. It feels like we have been here before, have shouted ourselves hoarse time and again, have burnt countless tyres and have endured enough rubber bullets and tear gas shells; but still it is as if we have never moved on from 2001 or 2004 or 2009 or 2012, well you get the picture. Robinhood wasn't the first and it is increasingly looking like he won't be the last. I have tied my mind into knots questioning why no one has done anything to change the situation aside from just questioning why it happened. It seems to me that we as a society are continuously fire-fighting from one problem to the next.

'Save Manipur' screams the red ink on the walls and the bodies, 'protect Manipur's integrity' screams the hundreds on the streets. Look a little closer and this is not Manipur. This is Imphal, the Meiteis. I have no sympathy for majoritarianism of any kind, and I admit Manipuri nationalism smacks of Meitei-domination. But that isn't the only facet of a 'Manipuri-ness'. It is interesting to note that whenever the so-called 'mainstream media' talks about Manipur, it is always in terms of Naga or Kuki or Meitei, but never in terms of a 'Manipuri'. Why talk about Assamese or the Tripuris or the Arunachalis then? It would be a mistake to fall into, for want of a better word, an 'ethnicized' mind-set. Tribes, I would argue, can be created, for instance, the Zeliangrong and the Chakesang tribes.

This is not an enquiry into the question of 'tribes' or ethnicity but rather an attempt to recover a past and perhaps, find a way forward from the present. The modern history of Manipur remains poorly understood based more on hearsay and pre-conceived notions. October 15 of every year remains as a black day and yet no one looks into the significance and the history behind the day. No one appreciates the fact that the state of Manipur had the first assembly in the entire South Asia, which was elected based on universal adult franchise. It is Manipur's misfortune that this assembly never got a chance to function properly, disbanded as it was when Manipur became a part of India and came under the direct rule of one person. The bud of a new awakening was snipped off as soon as the old colonial masters left and a new one took its place.

If one cannot talk of a 'Manipur' today, it is precisely because the process of creating that 'Manipur' wasn't completed. I have people from Manipur whom I count as my friends but who doesn't consider themselves as 'Manipuris'. This wasn't necessarily the case as shown by the camaraderie between members of that assembly or a cursory glance at the history of the proscribed UNLF would show. The chance for a 'daily referendum' was never afforded to the people of Manipur; instead what followed was six bloody decades of 'military rule'.

The past which I am grappling with today is an attempt to answer a question which I asked myself back in 2011. Delhi was witnessing a spurt of movements in support of Sharmila then (a certain Anna Hazare had gone on a fast) while the highways of Manipur had been blockaded for more than 70 days. Articulating the deeply unsettling racist attitude which I have encountered since my arrival in the national capital a year back and concerned as I am now about who I am, I had asked 'What is to be done?'. This was following Lenin's pamphlet published in 1902 titled 'What is to be Done? Burning Questions of our Movement'. This pamphlet would play an important role in the emergence of the Bolsheviks and the eventual success of the Russian revolution. While nowhere near as profound as Lenin's, my article did raise several questions none of which I had answers to then.

I still don't have answers, but at least now I feel I am going on a path. It upsets me greatly that people are sharply divided and there is seemingly no common platform. The question is not of whether Meiteis attacked the Kukis or a Naga molested a 'Meitei' actress. Violence in any form is deplorable. It has to be realized that the tactic of 'divide and rule' is a favourite of any colonial power, whatever flag they may fly. I had started with how the Partition of India and Pakistan has scarred both. It is to be remembered that it was talks of 'Muslim-contiguous areas' and 'Muslim-dominated areas' that had led to Partition. It is disheartening to see this being played out on the 'eastern frontier' as well. The partition hadn't solved any Hindu-Muslim problems and it would be foolhardy to expect one to solve the Naga-Meitei problems.

I now speak directly to you my friends, my peer-group. It is said that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I would say it is far more dangerous to forget and ignore one's own history. Our identities (however incomplete they may be) claims and demands a part of the land into which we were born. I am indecently restless, patience is something which I don't have and I am increasingly getting disillusioned with the same-old talk of our older ones.

The tyranny of ignorance has seemingly taken a hold on all of them. A new imagination demands a clean slate and an appreciation of one's own past. Meiteis need to stop taking a big brother's role. The continued existence of Manipur is an endeavour in which all of should have an equal stake. An acknowledgement of one's own history needs to precede the start of a journey towards 'liberte, egalite, fraternite'.

If as Marx says, 'history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce', then the Partition of India and Pakistan was a tragedy by all accounts. Let us not wait for the farce to play out in Manipur.


* Thokchom Wangam wrote this article for e-pao.net
The writer can be contacted at wangamth(At)yahoo(doT)com
This article was posted on August 26 2015.


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