MEITEI NATIONAL CHARACTER – Part 2

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Meitei Kanglupki Lamchat
By: Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh

In the search for an idea of the beginning of Meitei national character and in the context of its construction with a structural or warring portrait, it is necessary to formulate what kind of people the Meiteis were by studying their mentalities, attitudes, behaviour, social structure, physical prowess, and the societal place for women.

In the 18th century there was awareness of the imprecision involved in the concept of national character. The most accepted political philosophy was that of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (French philosopher). He formed the idea that the complex form of national character must be associated with an element of national conscious.

He assumed that every nation has a peculiar character, physical traits, mores and moral qualities. To these he added distinctive ceremonies and cultural religious traditions which give the members of a group the awareness of natural cohesion. He explained that a nation derives its identity from a distinctive spirit, character, tastes, ceremonies and laws. He was the first to use the adjective national in conjunction with character (character).

In my attempt to formulate Meitei national character based on the political philosophy propounded by Rousseau, which is not an easy one, it is necessary to divide the Meitei nation, consisting of two factors: one is the individual capacity for liberty and readiness to defend their country, the other is the ability of the Meitei kings to govern their subjects to lead them for common ends.

The Meiteis have always taken for granted who they were without having any basic idea of the realism and strength of their character or the fantasy, though Kangleipak or Meiteileibak was certainly a subject of national consciousness.

They worshipped liberty and knew that they had to defend their country at any cost. In this way the Meitei national identity was bubbling up from the grassroots. This is a form of a subtle national consciousness, a kind of national character; egalitarian, non-egoistic and libertarian.

The Meiteis, though illiterate, acknowledged the moral salience of nationality and insisted on the primacy of what they called ‘civilization’, seeing little merit in education, as they lived in a little cocooned world of their own, leaving their destiny in the protective hands of their monarchs.

Following the initiation to Hinduism in the early eighteenth century, the shape of Meitei national character could be taken as tradition tempered by Hindu culture, marked by increasing unification among the Meitei clans except the autochthonous Meitei Lois.

Reminiscent of the years before the British domination began on April 27, 1891, it could be argued that the most remarkable result of the humiliation in disjunction, distortion, and displacement of the Meiteis by the Burmese was that the Meitei collective ethos rose after Chinglen Nongdrenkhomba alias Gambhir Singh drove away the Burmese from Manipur after the “Seven Years Devastation” in 1826 CE. There were no more Meiteis-in-waiting for redemption.

Manipur however, was a landscape of ruins. It was a landscape which provided a metaphor for broken lives and the spirits. It was also a landscape which provided the Meiteis with joy. It gave them the awareness of natural cohesion.

Defeated they were in a hopeless war, the Meiteis fought with remarkable courage, attributable to Meitei national character and with a pronounced feeling of unabridged unity. They showed heroism against the odds – that was part of the glamour of war for the Meiteis.

The picturesque emotionalism of the Meiteis, regardless of the lapsed human and glorious divine condition, offered opportunities for explicitly Meitei patriotism. In the 64 years between Gambhir Singh’s liberation of Manipur in 1826 and the British capture of Kangla Fort in 1891, there was an undercurrent of national homogeneity, which was more rigid than the pre-Manipuri-Burmese war.

The Meiteis were not conscious of these elements because of the confusion between culture and character and also national character sometimes was subject to rapid social changes. Examination of Meitei national culture demonstrates that they were equally unconscious of their “aggressive trait”.

It was because adaptive evolutionary change is a slow process – a trait that they acquired from the time of king Pakhangba over 2,000 years, as a timeless stability that national characters are supposed to have. A form of national identity is something that the Meiteis have had for centuries.

The concept of Meitei national character however, was non-existent until after the insurgence of Naga polity in the early fifties. Until then, there was a lack of credibility to construct a national Meitei identity though they continued to focus their identity leading to the characteristics that could be defined as a major part of the Manipuri nation.

The Meitei national character, now enthusiastically embraced by the elite as by the mass, triggered the greatest change in stereotypes since the days of the Seven years’ devastation.

The ethnic nationalism of the Nagas gave impetus to the view that the Meiteis needed a national identity. It was a kind of force that shaped the character of both individuals and groups. The rise of nationalist feeling both among the mass and among the intellectual, played those elements of Meiteiness that were compatible with the primacy of national identification of the Meiteis. In Darwinian logic, it was for altruism and survival.

The ‘new identity’ might have deep and genuine roots in Meitei society. Historical and cultural relics have been preserved and refurbished for the future generations. The recent remoulding and replacement of the two Kangla sha (lions/dragons) at the Kangla Fort, destroyed by the British after hoisting the Union Jack on April 27, 1891, has been designed to
cheer up a dreary and deprived Meitei nation, drained by the sacrifices which had been required of it by the effort of fighting the Anglo-Manipuri War.

The gentle but temperamental Meiteis, who until then had regarded Manipur as belonging to them and the tribal people in the hills, began their transformation into the Meiteis of the pre-colonial period. This raised new questions and fears about their fate and their future in the cloudy Manipuri nationalism.

As expected, there was a drift away from Manipuri nationalism to Meitei nationalism. There was a greater sense of unity among men and women. For them, the idea that I am a Manipuri, no longer satisfied their self-image of a Meitei.

The focus of Meitei national consciousness knocked on the head of the old Meitei idea of Manipur as a nation. The experience of tribal ethno nationalism profoundly deepened the consciousness of the Meiteis as a separate people. Though there was a gradual development of transitional consciousness, the Meitei audience had the foggiest of the ubiquity of the idea of ‘Meitei national character’.

To define Meitei national character, one must look at the factors in its formation. Basically, it must evolve around some physical, psychological and cultural characteristics in common, which binds them together and at the same time separates them from other people.

Psychologists tell us that we need stereotypes. But it does not mean that all stereotypes are equally useful.

Meitei national character can be conceived as the inherent Meitei spirit or the primary agency of their historical change. It is a collectivistic national character that pursues conjoined objectives. It refers to properties that pluralities display in Meitei national communities. The longstanding socio-scientific view is that group consciousness is a biological human/animal instinct.

The Meitei nation was a historically evolved stable community of economic life, language, territory and psychological make-up in a community of Meitei culture.

In the medieval times, the warlike states of antiquity, educated a race of Meiteis as soldiers; exercised their bodies, disciplined their courage. They were determined to uphold the propriety of their freedom. It was then possible to maintain the traditional virtues of the Meitei national character as the fittest.

The pre-modern Meiteis possessed an unconquerable notion of superiority over their neighbours, and for that matter, any other nation. The Khongjom battle of 1891 showed the delightful horror of their narcissistic trait of ‘superiority complex’- not false Meitei self-esteem. They were predisposed to this unrealistic psychological attitude while confronting the three columns of the invading British Army, when reliance on such virtues was inadequate and unsafe.

Looking back, the Meitei psychology at that time was not far from the modern psychological concept that “interaction location outweighs the competitive advantage of numerical superiority.” Tiny Britain defeated the massive Argentina in the Falkland’s War.

Margaret C. Crowfoot et al (Department of Anthropology, Harvard University, Cambridge, USA, November 28 2007) say that numerical superiority confers a competitive advantage during contests among animal groups, shaping pattern of resource access, and, by extension, fitness. The relative group size however, does not always determine the winner of intergroup contests. Smaller, presumably weaker social groups often defeat their larger neighbours, but how and when they are able to do so remains poorly understood.

Their theory is that they can demonstrate that contest outcome depends on an interaction between group size and location, such that small groups can defeat much larger groups near the centre of their home range. But in human terms and in the context of Meitei national character the odd one out was the part played by the superiority of British weaponry.

People who are not familiar with the Meitei national character will be flabbergasted at what the Meitei mind was capable of producing – an excessive use of ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘us’.

History tells us about the narcissistic character of Chandrakriti Maharaja (1850-1886) who went to “Jila Durbar” with the premonition of being captured by the British because of his refusal to allow British India to set up a police post at Kohima, which then belonged to Manipur. The fear did not deter him. He made the risky expedition across the hill ranges with a courage that must merge with the creative energy of Hell rather than stand in opposition to it.

Chandrakrity Maharaja knew pretty well how invincible the British Army was. He, as a true Meitei was reacting to moderate provocation when two young British officers delivered the request letter to him without decorum.

He reportedly said that he would have given away Kohima, if he was courteously asked, but as it turned out, he would not part with his land even though it were the size that could be picked with the tip of a needle. He was also equally brave or fool hardy to spit on the face of the British Empire. This is typical of narcissistic Meitei national character.

Ironically, he came back from this ‘Jila Durbar’ shouting “Joy Oirê” ie victorious after giving the British what they wanted in the first place – Kohima, and having reimbursed for expenses of the trip one way.

The complexity of Meitei character accrued from a combination of dense intellectual quirkiness and their fighting talent, with an ever present desire to show how brave they were. It was the period of a more conservative idea of patriotism, and a culture of sentimentalism – a consciousness in their perceived fighting ability.

The composite picture of Meitei character and mind was often whipped up by frequent wars and skirmishes with the neighbouring tribes and nations. And because the population was sparse, the Meiteis, like the Spartans of Greece, were taught in their boyhood to be tough, and were trained in survival skills and how to be good soldiers.

Reading and writing were thought as secondary skills. Like the Spartans, the men, instead of softening their feet with shoes and sandals were made hard, going barefoot. This practised habit enabled them to scale heights of mountains and to clamber down precipices with less danger.

The girls, also like the Spartan girls, did not go to school. They were taught how to run a house and weave handloom clothing for the use of the family and for the market. Everyone was adept in the traditional dancing which is now world famous.

The Meitei aggressiveness is not the same thing as bravery. Bravery is when you do something that frightens you, but you do it anyway because your gut feeling tells you that it is right. The Meiteis do have bravery without doubt. History is full of splendid examples of Meitei valour.

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