Is Manipur living or merely existing?

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By Pradip Phanjoubam

Is the Manipur vital and alive or merely existing? Every society must at some point pick up the courage to ask itself this hard and perhaps even painful existential question. The honesty and dispassionate academic rigour with which a society is able to go into such periodic soul probing exercises, and with equal forthrightness attempt the answers, will determine the society’s ultimate resilience and survival instinct. On this ability to take stock of its existential challenges through the changing times, and then to come up with corrective measures, have always hinged the question of societies going extinct or surviving, as archaeologists and anthropologists driven by the renewed academic interest in current times of how societies survived or perished through the ages, now point out for us.

One of these works is a recent book I have already referred to in an earlier column which at one point was adjudged the number one international bestseller in the non-fiction category – “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive” (first published 2006). Through his own work as an anthropologist, specialised in the studies of pre-modern societies in New Guinea, as well as by an extensive survey of works on these subjects by other anthropologists, archaeologists and historians, he gives us a picture of what led once thriving societies and civilisations to perish, cautioning even the most advanced modern societies of today are not immune to the danger of extinction. Equally interestingly, and meaningfully, he also give us a contrasting picture of societies, exposed to similar situations of existential threats as those which did not survive, salvaged themselves in time and lives on.

The scenarios in which some societies perished and others survived that the book sketches are fascinating. They all in different ways tell the same story. They are also uncanny for the sense of déjà vu they evoke in the reader. And this feeling of uneasiness about one’s own response to present challenges, and the future these responses forebodes, is not peculiar to any particular reader but widely shared. The rave reviews of the book around the globe carry this same message in different languages: “Could our skyscrapers one day stand derelict and overgrown like ancient temples?”

This is not a book review. The book, and the questions it asks, simply served as the trigger for a deeper look and consideration of Manipur’s predicament. Is Manipur ailing?

One of the vital signs of life is growth and indeed all living things grow. Another peculiar principle of life is its desire to self preserve. In evolutionary terms, all living things want to live, and as a corollary, all species want to ensure the continuity of their species. The presumption of this principle of self preservation and propagation is the basis Darwin’s theory of natural selection. By evolutionary instinct, all species try to determine the direction of the growth of their species so that it may be always fit on life’s battlefields of survival. The same principle applies to the survival struggle of any society too.

The answer to this survival question, if it can be summed up in just one sentence will sound almost an echo of the moralistic epilogue summarising Prince Hamlet’s story in Shakespeare’s play – Readiness is All.

Of the many qualities common to societies which perished is an inward looking elite who have failed to take on the mantle leadership of their societies, and instead were obsessed with their personal prestige and wealth. This was a story common to the Mayan civilisation in Meso America as much as it was to the Easter Island Polynesian civilisation. Such leaderships first never had the capability or the inclination to even try and identify what their long term survival challenges were. They remained content looking after their own immediate welfare never realising when the boat all were in sinks, they too would sink.

The story of how Viking settlers were not able to last out in Greenland after colonising the place for 500 years in the medieval times, while their neighbours the Inuit groups (also referred to as Eskimo) did so is also revealing. The Norse never ceased to be Europeans, not just genetically, but also in their cultural outlooks, treated the Inuit groups as savages from whom there was nothing to be learnt, in the process never were fully ready for the peculiarities of Greenland climate.

Moreover, during the Crusade, when Europe’s land routes to African and Asia were cut off by Muslims, Greenland’s Walrus ivory was much in demand, bring European trading ships to Greenland frequently, sustaining Greenland’s economy. After the Crusade, when Africa and Asia were open to Europe and elephant ivory became easily available, these trades dwindled and ultimately stopped, dooming the Europe dependent Greenland economy. Deforestation ultimately left them with no wood to built ships. Most of all, unlike communities which have had archetypal memories of the larger climatic cycles of the region, they were not prepared for the Little Ice Age in Greenland towards 1400 AD, and were left stranded and dying of starvation. Their hostilities with the Inuit groups also ensured they were not able to move to warmer coastal lands from their inland homes.

Memory therefore has always been important. Memories of past disasters and life threatening situations prompt peoples and societies to avoid or else prepare for those conditions. This is also why scientist now say literate societies (societies which have discovered writing) are much better equipped in meeting life’s challenges, for their memories are sharper, longer and more accurate, as these events are recorded in writing.

This is relevant to Manipur in many ways. Manipur has known writing, but this literacy was always largely exclusively restricted to the learned Maichou, royalty and nobles. This probably why the society’s memory, though long, is also not widely shared and the larger public continued to rely on word of mouth for memory extending over the generations. Come to think of it, the current generation don’t even remember the trauma of the WWII fought on Manipur soil, a cataclysmic event of just 70 years ago. Some even naively mocked the commemoration of the Battle of Imphal-Kohima, as artificially evoked.

It is also no wonder that Manipur seems to have chosen to almost completely forgot the endemic genocidal raids from the east during beginning from the middle of the 18th Century, ever since the ascendency of King Alaumpaya, the founder of the Kobaung dynasty in the kingdom of Ava, now Myanmar. Interestingly, this may be also prompted by the current generation of radically dissenting politicians to see the aggression to Manipur’s identity and culture as coming from its west. A balanced moderation is obviously what may be needed, but these developments do point to the relevance of the theory that memory is not always an accurate recorder of the past, but a projection of current wishes and desires as well. But this is another interesting discourse altogether which indeed continues to engage plenty of debates on the distinction as well as interdependency of history and memory.

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