By M C Arun
When one starts thinking of the Manipuri civilization, its agonies and its contemporary political chaos, questions like who are the Meiteis or where have they come from, always crop up. These questions are often left unanswered because the answer does not directly relate to the present day political aspirations in Manipur, where the dominant group Meitei is reduced to a single unit amongst different ethnic groups whose aspirations are quite different from each other and contradictory. There are a number of writings on the Meiteis and other ethnic communities, who share a common historical experience, right from the colonial days till date. There are also amateur writings on the history of the Meiteis. These writings often lack the scientific temperament and logical coherence in dealing with the history and contemporary problems. Many of the writers fail to ask themselves as to why we need to answer questions on the origin and development of the Meitei society and questions like whether the different ethnic groups in Manipur share a common ancestry or place of origin. Many of the existing ethnic identities today were probably developed in the terrains of Manipur through a process of amalgamation or a long course of interactions among the different ethnic groups existing then. So, one cannot say for sure that the Meiteis were there in the valley before other groups. Likewise, who can prove that the present day identities of the Naga or the Kuki existed in Manipur and her surrounding landmass before others? If there is any sense in asking about the origin of the Meiteis, it is in the political and social movements in the contemporary Manipur and its adjacent states.
Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh who uses the term ‘Manipuri Meitei’ starts by asking the question of Origin of the Meitei and the linguistic position of the Meiteilon. He is one of those rare authors who depend on empirical observations rather than on the ancient texts (puyas) alone. He does not readily accept the existing classification with which many scholars analyse the social and political facts. He, in his latest book, The Origin of the Meiteis of Manipur & Meiteilon is not a Tibeto-Burman Language, questions these classification and mode of observation.
In this most courageously written book, the author challenges the popularly accepted stand regarding the origin of the Meitei. Many theories (speculations, too) are there on the origin and dynamics of Meitei society or identity. The author tries to highlight many features of the methods employed in such studies. The way, the author tries to detach his own pride and prejudices from his observations, is remarkable. Though the author likes to question these theories in order to give an alternative answer, he goes beyond the horizon of his enquiry and hence the readers are often distracted from the main arguement. He not only uses the colonial writings and some Meitei texts on the origin and development of the Meitei, he also takes the help of newly emerged DNA analysis in explaining what he thinks of the origin of the Meiteis.
The equally enthusiastic venture of the book is its strong question on the linguistic position of the Meiteilon (as the author prefers to use). Among linguists at the international level, there is a controversy regarding the classification and position of Meiteilon in the Tibeto-Burman linguistic family. The strong claim of the author that the Meiteilon does to belong to Tibeto-Burman family is very interesting, though the author is neither a linguist nor a researcher among the Tibeto-Burman peoples. His hypotheses are very interesting. They lead to new horizon of enquiries. The book shows his research aptitude and his tireless efforts to understand the real nature of the Meiteilon and the controversies around this language, arisen out of the Tibeto-Burman classification.
The book also deals with the question of National Character of the Meiteis. National character studies have been done by many American anthropologists. Among them, name of Ruth Benedict is most prominent. However, no one, including anthropologists, has studied the Meitei national character in so far. Dr Irengbam Mohendro Singh may be mentioned as a pioneer of such a study in Manipur. Though, the author does not follow any available theoretical framework, some of his claims regarding the national character of the Meiteis are really thought provoking to various social science scholars. His spirit in the study is articulated thus: “Like the rise of the phoenix from the ashes, my desire is to catch the rising spirit of Meitei national character from the smoldering Meitei nation, through the empirical method of accumulation of knowledge – the knowledge of the Meitei ancients” (p.116). He discusses the ancient processes towards the formation of the Meitei character and keeps on analysing how the emergence of Naga nationalism has affected the historical process of the Meiteis in Manipur. His comments such as “Up to the end of the Khongjom Battle, the Meitei national character was intact” are very strong and provoke scientific temperaments in the academic circle. He is right when he says that national character is quite different from individual heroism. His lines explain his concept of national character: “Character is not synonymous with characteristics. Meitei character is a psychological profile of their nature, i.e., it encompasses both reason and emotion. In the Meitei character there is no practical distinction between the different clans, whatever their ethnological origins were. They are jelled together into an amorphous mass – the Meitei nation”. (p.143).
Does the Meitei insurgency aspire for an Independent Manipur? The answer is not that easy as it sounds. No one is sure of the answer. The author writes his Chapter 4 giving this question as chapter-name. The sub-head of this chapter is “Is Self-Determination Feasible for Manipur?”. In this chapter, the author is caught between the ugly scenes of insurgency and the root causes of the insurgency. He is proud to be a Manipuri and is aware of mainland India’s attitude to the ‘Chinkis’. He knows the emotive base of insurgency; he also understands the repeated breaches of the Geneva Convention by Indian forces. He uses Meitei and Manipuri loosely. Many insurgent groups in which the Meiteis are the majority use the term Manipuri or other alike terms, not to exclude other non-Meitei groups in Manipur. In two captions, he discusses or opines on the Right to Self-determination. The names given to these captions well highlight his desires: Demands for Self-determination as indigenous people of Manipur (here he cautions more about the contradiction between the right to self-determination and the principle of national sovereignty); Manipur’s other rights for self-determination. As a piece of advice, the author adds towards the end of the book: “The realism is that it looks like the biggest mission impossible of all time. Now more than ever, the insurgents need a Radical Plan for Manipur. The signs of discontent with the political status quo are everywhere. To justify the confidence of the people in you, you must show the confidence in them” (p.268).
The book contains 282 pages but its ideas are very vast ranging from genetic inputs to historical inquiries to principle of national selection in researches on modern controversies. The book shows how much he loves and cares his Meitei identity.