As much as the ethnic mosaic in Manipur is complex, a solution to its ethnic problem is going to be as difficult. There are too many factors to cover, too many rising ethnic aspirations and nationalisms, each, as Prof. Gangmumei Kamei once said a decade ago in his extremely illuminating “The 2nd Arambam Somorendra Memorial Lecture”, opposed to the larger Indian state, but at the same time as vehemently opposed to each other as well. The multiplication of identity assertion in modern times must directly have to do with a democratisation of education. Even as the mental and physical horizons of previously closed worlds of backward, illiterate, ethnic communities expanded, their awareness of themselves in relation to the new and larger world would have changed drastically and dramatically. Previously understated question, “who am I?” would also have acquired new significance calling for new answers. New experiences, new visions, new vocabulary, new understanding of the self and the rest, their limitations as well as strengths, would have deepened the query. Thus would be born another ethnic nationality. With the multiplication of identities would also be a multiplication of problems. This is probably where Manipur is today. The question now must be, where must we go from here and not why cannot it be as good as it once used to be. The biggest stumbling block, especially amongst the majority Meitei community is precisely that the nostalgia of the past predominates over the realities of the present or the challenges of the future.
The crisis at this moment is the crisis of the “Manipuri” identity, although there is never a doubt as to what the “Meitei” identity is, or “Koireng” identity is, and for that matter the identity of any other particular ethnic community, much as for instance the lager “Indian” identity is much more defused than the identities of the constituent communities individually. The incongruity of this larger identity with those of ethnic communities in the northeast, arguably is one of the chief causes for the numerous and ever mushrooming insurgencies in the region. In this sense, even the “Naga” identity has been more of a success than the “Manipuri” identity, in the sense of these notions being internalised by the disparate communities that come under them. As for instance, there is nothing that is uniquely similar between say an Ao and an Anal except for the nomenclature Naga, normally suffixed to their tribe names, and yet each have come to share a sense of people-hood, regardless of the fact that quite many Aos or Yimchungers, even the elite, do not know where in Manipur Anals or Marings come from, and we are sure this ignorance is mutual. For whatever the reason, despite all its contradictions which it is riddled with even today, it is an identity which has given a vital spark to an abiding ethnic imagination.
The question is, where exactly has been the failure of the “Manipuri” identity? Perhaps there is a big lesson to be learnt from the much bigger journey of the Indian identity as such. Decades of emphasizing on its uniqueness consistently met with failures. Be it the question of “Rashtra Bhasha” (national language) or religion, they never clicked and there were always resistances and oppositions. In many ways, the Indian identity found itself when it discovered what Amartya Sen made famous in his writings five decades later – the multiplicity of identity as a basic condition of modern life. The modern man is a complex combination of many identities at the same time. Anybody who accepts this can also accommodate differences. He would also be much more comfortable in a heterogeneous environment than a monolithic one. Perhaps introspection on the “Manipuri” identity has to begin at this point. On the smaller canvas, maybe the journey of the “Indian identity” is what Manipur has to make at this juncture to rediscover and reinvent itself. Perhaps again this journey can begin with the larger question that Prof Gangmumei implied in his lecture: Where do we come from, where are we and where are we heading? Maybe it is also time to begin listening not just to the voices of aspirations, but also to voices of basic insecurities. The reincarnated “Manipuri” identity that must face the brave new world must definitely have to be a democratic one too.