THE BIRTH OF MEITEI ETHNONATIONALISM

1571

ITS NECESSITY TO KEEP MANIPUR UNVIOLATED, Economic disparity is not the cause of Naga-strife
By: Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh

The Meiteis always had a concept of ‘Manipuri nation’ – Manipur sana leibak, encompassing groups of ethnic people who have different cultural, traditional, ritualistic and religious traits, all living together.

A “Manipuri nation” describes a geographical place that is defined by its borders and/or by a variety of cultures and a shared language. With the ascendancy of a new concept, Manipur is now a “proposition nation” ie groups of ethnic people who are united by a common ideology rather than a common ancestry.

Ethnicity means the status of belonging to a particular group having a common cultural tradition. There are such 36 ethnic groups in Manipur.

The English word ‘nation’ is related to birth, not merely geographic or political boundaries. You are ‘native’ of the land of your birth. Manipur has a geographical boundary and any ethnic group born in Manipur is a native of Manipur. Nationality is a legal concept while ethnicity is a cultural concept.

This thesis examines the ethnonationalism and the influences that sustain it. I have selected Manipur and the Meitei ethnonationalist movement. It is a short historical reconstruction touching on historiography- theorising parts of history and relying on idealistic epistemology.

As the birth of Meitei ethnonationalism is fairly new, I am trying to write a bit of its history without an inventive approach to the truth. Like many, I am an amateur historian who is coping about trying to figure out to make a ‘good article’.

Historians repeat one another, but the history of Meitei ethnonationalism is pristine. These are things known to have occurred in the recent past without twists and turns as old histories might have.

Old histories might change over time. At the physical level, truth is absolute. But the account of human affairs that we call History, and that we make the subject of college courses, has little to do with truth. It is information that our rulers want us to have.

Example: there is now enormous literature disapproving the traditional Aryan migration history because of lack of archaeological findings. The “Indigenous Aryanism” as it is called, is an expression of Indian nationalism. It is to negate the notion that Indian civilisation was brought about by white Europeans from the Steppes of south Russia.

Likewise, I have written about “Indigenous Meiteiism” as an expression of ‘Meitei ethnonationalism’, to refute the old anecdotes of Meiteis coming from China or near about, based on the absence of archaeological evidence of any group of these people migrating to Manipur.

Walker Connor invented the word “ethnonationalism” for ethnic nationalism where the ‘nation’ is defined in terms of ethnicity, incorporating ideas of culture and shared language.

Connor is one of the great scholars of nationalism and ethnic conflict. Ethnonationalism denotes both the loyalty to a nation deprived of its own state and the loyalty to an ethnic group, embodied in a specific state, particularly when the latter is conceived a “nation-state”.

Ethnonationalism is thus conceived in a broad sense and may be used interchangeably with nationalism.

The central tenet of nationalism theoretically is that each ethnic group like the Meiteis, Nagas or Kukis is entitled to self determination for an autonomous entity or for an independent sovereign state.

Compact OED defines “nation-state”: a sovereign state of which most of the citizens or subjects are united also by factors which define a nation, such as language or common descent. The nation-state implies that a state and a nation coincide. Manipur was a nation-state united by a common language.

Broadly speaking, nationalism is a term that refers to a doctrine that holds a nation, usually defined in terms of culture and language though consisting of a number of ethnic groups. Ethno-
nationality is thus a breakdown of nationality.

The Meitei ethnonationalism was born by a break-up of the ethnic components of Manipur, creating a lot of tension by the ethnic activists who try to have a historical construction of their activities.

The educated post-War Meiteis began in earnest, to secularise and adopted the principle of multiculturalism based on a notion of ‘social reform’ in which programmes were introduced to redress the disadvantages of minority communities. This included the present titular king Leishemba Sanajaoba of the Manipuri nation.

Nationalism is one of the most persistent forces in history, as components of political and cultural self-determination in the search of a unifying ethic. But from the study of world history, the idea (nationalism) can be sustained only if it avoids a descent into tribalism and intolerance of other ethnic groups.

‘Naga nationalism’ of Nagaland has accrued from their desire to carve out a Naga identity in the post-independent India. They rightly feel that they are not Indians, ethnically and culturally.

But nationality is a question of feeling that the person belongs to a particular nation, in spite of colour, caste or creed, though in legal terms, nationalism is a legal relationship involving allegiance on the part of an individual and usually protection on the part of the state.

In the beginning, the Meiteis were not bothered whether the Nagas of Nagaland were independent or not. It was just a distant drum. But the drumbeat became deafening when their demand of a greater Nagaland or Nagalim, incorporating four districts of Manipur and bits from Assam and bits from Arunachal, came to a head.

The break-up of Manipur is not negotiable to the Meiteis who have an embryonic concept of Ima (mother) Manipur embracing the hills and the plain. To them it is not like a marriage bond, where there is a legal frame work with which a spouse can divorce the other whenever he or she feels like it.

The Manipuri Naga ethnic challenges have shattered genuine Meitei pluralism and increased the tension between the need for cultural-ethnic distinctiveness and integrative tendencies. Meitei ethnonationalism was kick-started. They began to think in terms of Meiteis cum Manipuris.

It was at a time when the ethnic concept of nationalism was far outweighed by the pluralistic multicultural concept because of the ever changing population in the Imphal valley. This was also a crucial time when the territorial integrity of Manipur was seriously threatened as never before, with internal ethnic politics and the territorial ambition of Nagaland.

The Meitei ethnonational identity suddenly became fundamental to their sense of Meiteiness. They needed to re-establish their cultural history and began looking at their history backwards.
They were aware that behind their bravado lurks one of the great political challenges of the next decade in this extra-ordinary diversity of ethnic identities and political views in this erstwhile nation-state of Manipur.

Manipur is inhabited by the Meiteis, Kukis, Tangkhuls, Kabuis, Marings, koms and other smaller tribes, altogether 36, plus a sizeable community of Pangals. The question of what it means to be a Manipuri and how far there are overriding values to which all can and must subscribe has moved on since the ethnic Naga ethnonationalism.

The Meitei liberal policy has been unable to coax the tribal groups into a Manipuri national identity. They have demanded plural political identities, tolerance and openness from all the ethnic peoples. That has included intermarriage.

The struggle for ethnic Nagas to disintegrate Manipur began to crystallise the Meitei resolve to keep Manipur intact. Various civil organisations such as AMUCO, UCM have sprung up to shore up a united Meitei, tribal and Pangal opposition.

Manipur is as much for the Meiteis as for all the tribes and Pangals living in it from times immemorial. The Meiteis thus felt that they had to reinvent themselves with a search for their
indigenous origin in Manipur, first in the hills and then in the plain.. This was how Meitei nationalism or ethnonationalism was born.

The high-octane pursuit of Meitei ethnonationalism and to safeguard the integrity of Manipur
were reflected by the greatest sacrifice given by 18 Meiteis on the June 18 2001 uprising.

There is no end of being vigilant against Naga nationalism and Manipuri Naga ethnonationalism to show that the Meiteis are still in business, especially because (1) their demand has nothing to do with economic disparity but ethnicity; and lately (2) the NPF’s Constitution, Article II (21) reads: “To work for integration of all contiguous Naga inhabited areas under one administrative roof…”

Daniel Conversi, who introduced Connor’s work on ethnonationalism, challenged the dogma of economism as the cause of ethnonationalism. During much of the Cold War, conflicts were customarily explained as a consequence of backwardness, economic crisis, uneven development or relative deprivation. The prescription coda was hence that ethnic conflicts could be cured by addressing economic grievance.

Conversi substantiates Connor’s article (198b) that ethnonationalism appears to operate independently from economic variables and that perceived economic discrimination can merely work as reinforcing variable, as a ‘catalytic agent’, exacerbator, or choice of battle ground. The economic issues at the centre of the analysis means to miss the primary point, namely that ethnic movements are indeed ethnic and not economic.

The writer is based in the UK
Email: [email protected]
Website: www.onetel.co.uk

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