By: Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh
Civilisation is an advanced development in human society, including intellectual, cultural and material development in a certain region or an epoch such as the oldest Egyptian, Roman, Inca, Aztec and Indus valley civilisation. It also includes politeness or propriety, measured by the level of advancement, especially the founding of the cities. Hong Kong city is a hall mark of human civilisation.
This word that comes from the Latin civil – meaning citizen could also mean ‘modern society along with its conveniences’ as in the development of Imphal city.
What makes people civilised? There are no set of answers. In terms of Manipur, the Second World War effectively opened the eyes of the Manipuris on the way to civilisation. Western civilisation was brought about by the Greek and Roman antiquity.
The Second World War started on September 1 1939 and ended on August 14 1945.
The first Japanese bombs fell in the Imphal town, especially upon the bazaar and the cantonment areas on May 10 1942.
Seventy civilians were killed and another eighty wounded. Most brick and mortar buildings in the town centre, built by wealthy Marwaris, were levelled to the ground and they all fled to Calcutta.
When the War ended the Meiteis who moved to the villages, began to surge back to Imphal. The experience of the War and of the returning peace revived a demoralised Manipuri nation.
The ingenuity of the mayangs who came as refugees from Burma, and seeing the strange civilisation of Calcutta from a Manipuri civilisation in a crocodile belly, easily accessible with affordable air flights at that time, endowed the Manipuris with a knowledge that would hold the answer to the mockery of their fallen lives.
The immediate aftermath of the War – a time of economic, social and ecological crisis brought to the Manipuris a feeling that a new start ought to be made, in politics and society as much as in economics, science and art. That was the beginning of an idea of civilisation in Manipur, both in the plain and hills.
It was a dream that would appeal to those who were braced to meet the challenges of the modern world. The smart, flamboyant and easy-going character of American GIs during the War began to anatomize the Manipuri youths who were marked by vigorous growth and cultural creativity.
Some of the returning Meiteis began to reconstruct buildings in the town- centre with funds amassed during the War and sold merchandise in them. A few Marwari people returned to Imphal.
The introduction of daily air travel in the early fifties from Calcutta to Imphal and back and with a stop over at Gauhati, by the Birla Airlines brought the Manipuri youths, especially the college students, into more contact with mayang Indians and their culture. This helped them to broaden their horizon.
When the War came to the sleepy town of Imphal from faraway Tokyo, the focus of Manipuri national consciousness began to drift away. This came to a halt in the post-War period with an energised Manipuri spirit, which became a constitutive factor of the historical consciousness of a Manipuri nation.
The experience of the War and the sight of a variety of nationalities from all over the world lessened the consciousness of ethnic difference in Manipur.
The new winds of change that began in the Imphal town, wafted to the remote hill districts of Manipur. There was awakening of social and political thinking among the educated Meiteis as well as the tribals.
The jeepable roads constructed to Ukhrul, Tamenlong and Churachandpur, by the Public Works Department at Imphal, brought the hill people down to Imphal for education, sports and bartering of farm produce. This brought them into improved social contact and congenial relationship with the emerging ‘new’ Meiteis with new beginnings and rejections of the past.
It was in 1950 that I visited Ukhrul with my eldest brother who was then an Executive Engineer, in his jeep.
The first Arts College, which later became DM College (1948), was started in 1946, just before Independence by a few enterprising people. The first Principal was Dijamani Sharma MA. The first batch graduates included E Sonamani Singh IAS (Rtd) and the late M Gojendra Singh MA LL B, who was the first legal Adviser to the Legislative Assembly of Manipur.
In 1947 the First Manipur Olympic Games were organised by RK Madhurjit Sana and N Binoy Singh as the president and the secretary respectively. It continued up to 1954.
In 1950 Sagolsem Indramani Singh introduced body building, weight lifting and boxing. Manipur Man Building Institute was established in 1955. About the same time L Manaobi Singh and others organised Mr and Miss Manipur contests offering cows and things as financial inducements.
In the 1950s, Imphal became the hubbub of the converging Manipuri nation. There were modern consumer goods, cinemas, restaurants and theatres. The tribal people and the Muslims were welcomed in the little Brahmin-run ‘hotels’ (tea shops) in Imphal.
Football tournaments were regular features in which the Tangkhuls and Kukis took part. A feeling of Manipuri nationality was generated. There were annual exhibitions where all the tribal people exhibited their wares and culture.
There were regular hockey and volleyball tournaments in which the hill people did not take part.
All the major roads were surfaced with tarmac. Few households in Imphal had built in modern flush toilets with septic tanks. There were increased water and electric supplies for the consumers. Bicycling was the smartest mode of transport in Imphal.
Almost all the young Manipuri Meitei men changed into European long trousers instead of dhotis. So did their counterparts from the hills. The Meitei girls changed their old hair style to modern civilised one.
The Manipuri Dance became popular world-wide though nobody knew where Manipur is.
The emerging Manipuri nation was based on a kind of psychological homogeneity with all the different communities living together side by side in peace and harmony, sowing the seed for civilisation in Manipur.
While the neo-Meiteis were edging into a new civilisation, the relics of Sanamahi cult and Lai haraoba began to work their impassive influence on the Meiteis through an identity crisis of their Mongoloid look in the vast sea of Indo-Aryan mayangs who just about managed to accept the Dravidians as Indians.
The revival of Sanamahi worship in the plain had parallels in the hills where Christianity began to flourish despite early reluctance. This was the beginning of the coming of civilisation among the Manipuri tribes in the hills.
Conversion to Christianity first began in the Lushai hills in 1916 and then affected the Kukis in the first decade of the 20th century. By 1920s it had spread to Manipuri Nagas.
The Protestant Christianity in the hills of Manipur was established by the American Baptists who are evangelists and thus believe the Bible as the words of God.
The first Christian conversion among the Tangkhul Nagas was in Ukhrul, and among the Kukis at Kangpokpi. The Christian education produced intellectual tribal people with a longing for civilisation.
The born-again Meitei youths and their fellow tribal mates in Imphal High Schools began to yearn for affordable higher education.
With the increasing turn-out of graduates in Manipur there was a surge of intellectual energy. More private colleges especially for teaching Arts subjects began to sprout in make-shift buildings, not only in Imphal but in the hill districts.
The sudden burst of education mania touched the lives of all men and women in the hills and the plain. The Meitei and other tribal parents worked to their bones for their children’s higher education.
Higher education was no more only a reality for the relatively privileged. To provide a good education for their children with the prospect of a good job in later life was the only insurance the parents could have for their old age.
Those students who were educated outside of Manipur began to usher in the concept of modern civilisation, though not in material terms.
The modern awakening began to ping the primitive Meitei desire for literature into overdrive.
They began to develop Manipuri literature and establish Manipuri theatre. Drama Halls such as the Manipur Dramatic Union, Rupmahal and the Aryan Theatre sprang up.
The wartime experience, especially the American influence, raised the awareness among Manipuri youths for an understanding of what was going on in the world. They bestirred themselves with disorienting vistas of the world and reinforced their perception of how backward they were.
Like the break of a crisp dawn, the Manipuri youths were suddenly transformed into Western culture, not only in their dress style but in diet, attitude and behaviour. It was a cultural shock for the Meiteis.
In the sunny fifties the ingenious Meiteis began to assemble military vehicles from salvage depots. Imphal was soon transformed into a semblance of a modern town, with jeeps, trucks,
lorries and motor cycles plying all around.
This was when civilisation came to Manipur for the first time.
The writer is based in the UK