METEI NATIONAL CHARACTER – 3

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Metei kanglupki Lamchat

The concept of “national character” was a subject of debate during 18th century Europe. Interest in national character developed among Enlightenment thinkers prior to the great national revolutions. Following the revolutions such as the French Revolution, national character acquired metaphysical status. Later on, it was generally agreed that each nation has its peculiar characteristics. But what constitutes national character and what are the factors in shaping national traits are still not very clear.

In general terms, description of national character ranges from stereotypes to a complex mixture of a series of traits. Each country constitutes a nation with a peculiar set of characteristics. Sometimes, the people of the neighbouring provinces and communities differ
sharply from each other.

For example, Hindu Punjabis differ sharply from the Sikhs, though they speak the same language and live next to each other. The Meiteis differ in certain traits from the Tangkhul
Nagas or the Thadou Kukis.

By the time of the French revolution, the idea of “national character” in France and Germany had been formed. But Britain, because of the nature of the United Kingdom and the Empire,
remained undeveloped in the idea of national character. It took another generation and by about 1,830 CE, the idea of an “English national character” began to evolve, still blurred sometimes by the “British identity”.

The British character differs from the Spanish or the Germans in that their character is generally portrayed (stereotyped) as a mixture of good qualities such as intelligence, fair play,
bravery, industriousness while they have their share of negative characters such as
chauvinism, rudeness and a sense of cultural superiority, and arrogance in speaking another’s
language.

The simpler view of national character is a series of mental and moral qualities in terms of virtues such as pride, courage, loyalty, and vices such as weakness, cruelty, frivolity etc. It is also recognised that women play an important role in moulding the character of a nation and how the changing condition of women would modify national characteristics.

It is noted that the qualities attributed to a nation are not found in every member of the
society. National character does not reflect mean personality trait levels. Nor does it point to a
political destiny.

In the rise and progress of Meitei national character, it is necessary to look if there is any distinctive spirit, character, ceremonies, laws, tastes, quirks, habits and foibles that distinguish them from other people. It is also important to observe how the Meiteis dress, eat, drink, work, play, shop, drive, flirt and fight, as well as their common personality traits, adaptive skills, discipline, disunity or unity.

Like every stripling of my days, I always decanted with pleasure by a relative peculiarity of a Meitei ideology – a manner of thinking, characteristic of the Meiteis. It was a fighting ideology on moderate provocations, which superseded any other character. This was an obsessive Meitei ideology in which I was very deeply immersed. It had its own virtues and vices, as all national characters have.

Is this identification? Is this part of true Meitei national character or a false representation? Is it simply grandiose Meitei narcissism? Can the Meitei nation have a coherent character?

In this bizarre parody, I allow myself to be a role playing model, in speculating on the nature of Meitei aggression with almost tautological concern. In Meitei anthology, this character is considered the most profound, from the several angles of the conditions of its existence and its symbolic capacities.

Having graduated from the rough and tumble fights of my school days, for which I was not cut out physically but through sheer Meitei narcissism, the fighting trait filtered through my university days, with paroxysmal scraps.

Looking back, the trait became prominent only when I was under the impression that I was either intimidated or my character was assassinated. This was not what my mind that was tabula rasa, a clean slate, at birth had acquired from experience. Nor was it an idea that was admitted to the brain through conditioning. It was an inherited trait.

In the formative years of my life I had a few serious near-misses in my tryst with destiny that links my behaviour to this Meitei trait. One such incident took me to the edge of a precipice. I am far from being proud in re-enacting the story. I was not a new hero who stood apart from the narrow confines of my time. It was a compulsive trait.

I was a young student at St Edmund’s College, Shillong, where I beat up a College Professor for his act of “injustice” that was done with my character.

Back in Imphal, as a young doctor, I went to see a Priest at the Don Bosco School at Chingmeirong. I recognised him as the Principal of St Anthony’s College in Shillong, at the time of my incident, 10 years before.

This aging Catholic priest was very familiar with the notoriously pugnacious behaviour of Meitei students, prior to my arrival in Shillong. As he did not know me I broached the subject. He simply told me that the Meiteis (students) lived in cloistered Manipur. When they came outside, they tended to be aggressive by over asserting themselves because of an inherent ‘inferiority complex’.

I had a feeling then he might be right. To my surprise, my eldest brother agreed with him.

In my undergraduate English language classes, I did learn that people with inferiority complex, suffer from an unrealistic feeling of general inadequacy, caused by real or supposed inferiority in one sphere. It is sometimes marked by aggressive behaviour in compensation.

Meitei men who were trained for fighting in war and traditional farmers in peace time had no tolerance skills. They regarded most of what passes for tolerance today are not tolerance at all, but rather intellectual or physical cowardice and those who hide behind that word are often afraid of intelligent or physical engagement. They were unwilling to be challenged by alternate points of view, to engage contrary opinions, or even to consider them.

Meiteis even now find it easier to hurl an insult than to confront the idea and either refute it or be changed by it.

As a recent example: a Meitei, true to our inherited trait (nangna kari khangdana : you don’t know anything) sent me an email disagreeing with what I wrote in my article – “How did the Meiteis come from Africa?” He wrote: “Your research seems to be at the initial stage, do not assume that other people will accept easily your hypothesis; I feel that you need to review it in the light of the fossil finds in China and Southeast Asia, and also I suggest to acquaint with the formation of ….

“Further you have also mentioned that phenotypical (sic phenotypic) similarity does not indicate genotypic relationship of the people. But in genetics phenotype is the outward expression of the inherent gene. By writing such unfounded information are you trying to divide the people of Manipur?”

In normal non-Meitei behaviour ie with a lack of significant deviation from the average, he could have simply asked me to cite references. Or he could have politely rephrased it like: “I would have thought your hypothesis is not in keeping with the fossil finds in China (?which) and genetics”.

I could have explained advanced genetics that not all organisms that look alike (phenotype) necessarily have the same genotype. (Ref. Wilhelm Johannson 1911; more recently, Francis Crick’s Central dogma of molecular biology).

Meitei behaviour tends to maximize the survival of the genes for aggression whether or not those genes happen to be in the body.

In the book, “The Selfish Gene” (1976), Richard Dawkins pursues the theory that, “to regard an organism as a replicator is tantamount to a violation of the ‘central dogma’ of the non-inheritance of acquired characteristics.” (p.97)
This Meitei gene – the ‘intolerance’ gene passed on without mutation from generation to generation along with the gene that makes them ‘aggressive’. Their lack of tolerance skills combined with a short fuse and impatience invariably turned their behaviour to aggression at the slightest provocation.

These are two prominent traits that were firmly embedded in the vocabulary of Meitei national character.

The Maharajas wanted to keep the Meiteis illiterate. So did the British except Johnstone. One can understand that the British were not in Manipur on a mission to civilise the Meiteis. On the contrary, they were forced to rule Manipur. The general political principle of occupying someone’s country is to follow the dictum that the more the population is illiterate the easier is to keep them subdued, and wherever it is possible, eliminate the intellectuals.
Education brings civilisation. Civilisation and culture are related with each other intricately. A change in the former creates a great stir in the later. Civilization advances with renewed ideas of thinking, behaviour changes, rationality and morality. The advanced ideas are bred in the mind of those educated though the rest of the society do not share such advanced ideas. They stick to the traditional ideas which form their culture of the society.
When the whole society is educated, like the evolution of biological organisms, culture too can be viewed as following three Darwinian principles: variation, differential fitness, and inheritance. It is an evolutionary system subject to the selective and non-selective forces. Darwin wrote about in The Origin of Species: that there is a vast amount of variation within a species, which leads to selection for particular traits, and that these traits are then inherited by successive generations.
With the establishment of English education in those days, the aggressive Meitei trait could have possibly altered as it happened among the Vikings and Sioux Indians. Advancement in education would have brought civilisation, which in turn would have initiated a change in Meitei culture. Meitei culture has now visibly changed because of education.

The rajas that were equally illiterate (Vir Tikendrajit could speak some Hindustani) took no interest in the education of Meiteis. Their contact with the outside world depended on a couple of Bengali translators from Sylhet, who could speak Meitei lon. The illiteracy of the Meiteis prevailed until James Johnstone started a middle school to train the Meiteis in the running of the state machinery, such as clerks and Amins.
There were however, quite a few functionally literate Meiteis known as maichou (court scribes), who were literate in their own language and wrote Cheitharol Kumbaba and other chronicles in the Meitei alphabet. We owe them deeply-felt gratitude for writing our history. It is the ‘Pierian spring’, that metaphorical source of knowledge and inspiration for the Meiteis.

The Meiteis were happy-go-lucky people, an ingredient of their national character. One hardly saw any Meitei male or female suffering from depression. They were happy in living life with the most basic needs. Their staple food was vegetable but they ate freshwater fish that were available aplenty, though seasonal. As a result there was no fat Meitei man or woman and the men were muscular.

This unique Meitei national character was once summed up jokingly by my witty friend N. Brajakishore from Sagolband: “Eikhoidi khudei ama shetlaga pangnung nungaiba jatni. In English: I can be quite happy even though I wear only a khudei – wrap-around indigenous Meitei male apparel.

Actually he might have a point, purely in terms of happiness. In evolutionary terms, the humans were not programmed to have happiness as a default but we are now because of technological advances.

Meiteis have now come a long way from the days of the Kiratas 3,000 BCE. I agree with social anthropologists that in general the Meiteis have shown that “primitive” societies like the Meiteis are no longer fundamentally different from “civilised” societies.

Nationality is the greatest social trait. The long inherited cultural traits of the Meiteis, though in the throes of disappearing, still exist besides the distortion of the landscape they inhabit. It is no longer politically correct to talk of Meitei nationhood.

Regrettably, while anatomising the Meitei mass, in spite of advancement in education and civilisation, the variations between individuals in terms of unity have not diminished. Identity of individual interest and ego underlie the contradictions among us. It is not injustice in the society that causes disunity.

The intrinsic challenge to a unified Meitei nation with a series of perceived ideas of disharmony however, will not rank so high when there is an extrinsic threat to the whole Meitei community. The Meitei national character will bind them together to defend their right of coexistence.

The writer is based in the UK.
email: [email protected]
website: www.drimsingh.co.uk

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