TODAY -

Privilege trap of While Male Meitei

Ranjan Yumnam *



I don’t harbour any doubt about my privilege. I am a straight male Meitei with a whitish complexion. I will admit upfront that I have enjoyed unearned privileges since my birth, and as I have become a middle-class Meiteiman, my social privileges now seem more prominent—like default features or factory settings in a smartphone.

The elite group of Meitei is typically based in Imphal by birth or migration, but that is not the point; once you step foot in the Capital of Manipur as a Loaded Male Meitei, you will realize sooner than later that it’s one old boy’s club for doing business and pleasure.

Imphal’s strategical position at the centre of the mountainous topography at its boundaries makes it unique. Key Government offices, political mandarins, upmarket showrooms, private schools, colleges, Central universities, health care facilities and cultural landmarks are located in Imphal within a few square kilometers of utopia.

This utopia, which is close to me and where I take residence, makes it possible for me to live a smug life of false assurance. Because most of the Meitei Nawabs who call the shots in the State live, work, play, eat and sleep in Imphal, I have this psychological bullet-proof armour comparable to the secure attachment style of a child who knows their parents are somewhere near whenever a hug is needed.

Uncertainties of the vast, sinister and dangerous outside world seem nothing in my Mongoloid skin whenever I stay in Imphal among the Meiteis.

My friends are even more optimistic and lucky; few are kin or friends of the most influential Meiteis. Whenever opportune, they know how to upgrade their life using their profitable blood relationships. This fortunate circumstance of one place of birth and ethnicity spills over to other plain members of the Meitei community.

And since Imphal is small, it is theoretically possible to be connected to any other person by telephoning only two Meitei communists. In other large cities, it takes six acquaintances to reach out to any worthy person. Because of this inter connectedness, organising a social gathering on special occasions in Imphal is a surprisingly difficult enterprise.

To finalise the list of invitees of a party is like walking on eggshells; you have to be extra careful that a friend is invited and her acolytes are not missed—the list, thus, bulging forever with each new entree.

BOON OR CURSE

This self-expanding list of friendship circles is both a boon and a curse. The curse lies in the tendency to flock together with other Meiteis who share the same ideology or cuisine taste. We also swear by meritocratic ideals, thinking that there is nothing that hard work and talent can’t achieve.

In fact, many idealists among us don’t give a damn about people whose achievements we ascribe to the reservation system; even when those people happen to occupy high and coveted positions in society. Like the Americans, we naively think everything is possible if you have the right dream. And work hard.

A white male Meitei has some other collateral advantages too. For instance, if I enter a shopping mall in Thangal Bazar, the sales people will go the extra mile to give me a warm reception and offer me tea or coffee while showcasing their latest wares, dropping hints of further pandering to my ego with complementary and discounted gifts on the house.

While I am in the shop, I would somehow exhibit my pretentious, sophisticated taste suitable for my class; my vehicle parked outside will be diligently watched over by the establishment’s staff. Had I come dressed shabbily with unkempt hair from X locality with a name like A GhaariMayum, they wouldn’t have been so nice, and instead, their kneejerk reaction would be one of heightened alertness, staring at their hidden CCTVs to keep strict vigil over the unsuspecting customer.

While this is a possible example of a reprehensible stereotypical reaction from a cross-section of the population—by this analogy, I mean to say that I will never be suspected of being a potential vehicle thief, unlike A GhaariMayum, burdened by society’s stereotypes.

I am also certain that whenever I watch or listen to Manipuri news, 99 % of the topics and opinions discussed will be relevant to my community. It’s a cosy world in which our media, economy and social norms are highly tailored to my comfort, taste and sensitivity.

Our politicians speak to us in our tone and tongue. Meitei leaders have a way with words. They will not speak their hidden mind, and being gifted experts at manipulating your emotions, they will speak whatever you want to hear at that moment, conveniently with perfect timing. Then we all clap and hail Yaipahare. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Meiteis invented modern rhetoric, making Atal Vajpayee turn in the grave.

But recent developments since May 3, 2023, have shaken my faith in the invincibility of the Meitei Privilege. The social identity which I assiduously held to my heart and felt fiercely loyal to is beginning to show its Achilles’ heels. I feel as if my feet are tied and my hands cuffed. And my wings clipped. The whole experience of the Meitei privilege is a sham, like the 2008 financial bubble that exploded and left a permanent dent in those who trusted the toxic dreams sold by the Gods of Wall Street.

In my context, belief in the natural supremacy of Meiteis and the notion of civilizations rooted in mythology are as toxic as interest groups that want to perpetuate this anthropological fallacy.

REAL IDENTITY

My real officially sanctioned identity is OBC which is much worse than ST, at least in the semantic way. The social tag I carry is a triad of profanities : Other, Backward, Class. The first label excludes my community from the normal group. By branding me as the ‘other’, my place is hammered at the opposite pole of the social fabric, the antagonistic side of an imagined binary categorization. This term reminds us of America’s war on terrorism with its slogan: Us vs Them. Pitting we vs the other, the other being me, of course.

Adding salt to the injury is the 2nd word of my OBC name: Backward. It’s like calling the Black people Negroes. You get the drift. The third word in the OBC is a class act in itself. Do I belong to the oppressed and alienated working class in the Marxist sense ?

Or am I a pauper in the economic sense ? In the political stratification, the OBC connotes that Meiteis are powerless in their own State, implying that some other ethnic groups hold more political cards. The term ‘Class’ is also tricky to unpack, begging the question: which is more backward: the OBCs or STs ? (It is another matter whether Meiteis ought to seek its ST destiny or not—that needs a book, not an article like this).

When I began this article, the Meitei Privilege was foregrounded because something in the background and margins always needs to be foregrounded to get some attention. The privilege of Meitei is a notion, a non-existent seductive trap with an emotional punch. The male part of the trap is a winking tribute to the Meira Paibis and women cutting across ethnicities who wield great power and still have the healing touch to cure the enormity of the present crisis.

FROM UTOPIA TO PLUTO

Imphal Utopia has become a Pluto— Isolated, distant, and constrained—the sunny rays of privilege fading away. A Meitei can’t venture beyond a few kilometers in any direction from Imphal without hitting a wall or a bullet. The beautiful mountains that were the pride and jewels of Manipur’s landscape are now transforming into the iron bars of a prison.

If that is the case, the Meitei Privilege is like a golden fish wagging its fins in the glass bowl, little knowing that it is a trap all along from the beginning. Never will it know what lies beyond those glass walls as long as it is confined in that constricted space, fed some crumbs just enough to keep it alive.

The solution to the current imbroglio and the irony of the Meitei Privilege Trap is to confer ST status to the Meiteis and give the misunderstood community the freedom to venture beyond that glass bowl and join their brethren in the big sea that has enough for everyone. According to Occam’s Law, the simplest solution is the best solution. ST is Simple as That.

DEATH OF CIVILISATION

However, it is not as simple as that. Many within the Meitei community oppose the inclusion of Meteis in the ST list. The civilization of Meiteis, spanning aeons with its own colourful myths, chequered history, rich culture, heritage and literature should not be dumped into a primitive box called ST, Meitei cultural hawks say. Civilization is fixed. It’s like virginity; once lost, it can’t be regained.

This notion is not only racist but also atrophic, evoking an uneasy feeling of glacial inertia. It is pertinent to note that many civilizations existed and perished with the vagaries of history. The great Mayan Civilization, the mighty Roman civilization—and closer home, the Harappan civilization all blinked in the infinite history of the universe. The fall of civilization and its study is called Collapsology in anthropology, which is a testimony to the fact that a civilization is not permanent as an idea or a social reality.

One factor that often raises its ugly face when explaining the death of a civilization is the internal ossification of ideas in a society and rejection of diversity of ideas and possibilities. Cognitive decline and creative bankruptcy in the population of a civilization is often cited as a cause of the demise of a civilization, others being natural calamity, pandemic, invasion, and increasing complexity of institutions and laws.

Tribalism is also equally problematic. Usually, it is lazily described as a distinctive stage of evolution of a society based on kinship in the run upto State building while ignoring all other definitions. The very existence of a tribal society in the modern AI generation is ridiculous, if not impossible.

Which tribe is immune to the laws of the State and the benefits of penicillin, smartphones and cosmetics ? Academicians have noticed the nebulous nature of tribal and a debate is raging on. Ask any Anthropology Professor.

WE ARE ALL TRIBES

Tribal is more of an idea, an adjective, like being in a club, loyalty to a football team, fraternity of intellectuals, association of poultry farmers, trade unions of standup comedians and so on. One such is the idea of consumerist tribe, which draws its members from buying a particular brand, like Urban Tribe rucksacks.

CEOs of tech oligarchies speak of promoting tribal culture at workplaces to foster loyalty and cooperation among the employees of the organization. It’s not far-fetched to say that there are tribes within a civilization and civilization within the tribes.

The more truthful term, instead of tribe, should be indigenous as defined by the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Tribal connotes a history of colonialism; in fact, the European imperialists called any stranger they meet in an alien territory as tribal for lack of an alternative nomenclature or plain indifference.

Cognizant of the nuances and open to the real lived-experiences of the so-called tribals in India, GoI has to invent another term: Particularly Vulnerable Scheduled Tribe (PVST), which implies that all other STs are not vulnerable. (The lone PVST from Manipur is Mao Maram, correct me if I am wrong).

Adding more existential complexity, the terms of race and caste have gate-crashed the peaceful tribal parties of civilization. Tribe, race, and caste are all intermingled; segregating the strands is a maddening challenge. Each is a sub-set of the other, adding layer upon layer of complexity and resentment. Maybe you can call me a highly tribal Meitei racist chanting Ram Ram for the civilization of Manipur.

Or, put me into a new Constitutional Schedule called Miniscule Civilization (MC), bestowing upon me all the benefits of the ST. Enough of OBC.

The issue is political, not an anthropological one.


* Ranjan Yumnam wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was webcasted on May 01 2024.



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