A Vanishing Case For Unity In Diversity In Manipur
In the wake of the present demand by a Meitei group for inclusion of Meiteis in the Scheduled Tribe category with all the fret and fever, and equally vehement opposition by tribal groups with all the derision and detestation, this article is an attempt to bring a breath of fresh air to both the warring parties.
It discusses why different communities living in Manipur should not engage in a sense oneness, despite physical and psychological barriers, with the motto – “Unity in Diversity”.
The challenge to preserve Unity in Diversity in Manipur has been an insurmountable Catch-22. The 2,000 year old history of Manipur has created many diverse cultures of all the tribes living in Manipur with their peculiar ways of life, which is a part of what is called culture.
Culture is a very little understood term. It involves values, beliefs, feelings and a way of life.
Integration of cultures is more complex involving many human aspects such as food, drink, dress, religion and simple day to day living. It is even more problematic to use different cultures as an instrument to create a national cohesion as in Manipur.
For a national integration in Manipur there should be a collaborative sense between the different tribes with their distinct cultures. On the contrary, we find in Manipur a divisive political ethos based on different cultures.
Pluralism as in Manipur, cherishes and nurtures cultural diversity with its guarantee of fundamental human rights, to practise distinctive ways of life of their traditions. This is the meaning of Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
To recap, the history of Manipur is definitely 2,000 years old, which is something everybody agrees with. It’s a historical fact that 2,000 years ago there was a proto-Meitei tribe called Poireiton led by Poireiton. They came down from the Koubru hill ranges to the dry plain, which they called Kangleipak (cf. Poireiton khunthok).
Poireiton and his tribe was followed in Kangleipak by Pakhangba and his tribe. They also settled there. For political reasons, in order to live in peaceful harmony, Pakhangba married Poireiton’s sister Laisana. The Poireitons Called Pakhangba and his tribe Mee-atei (other people), which phonetically corrupted to Meetei. Kangleipak became known by a double-barrel name, Poirei-Meetei lamdam ie Land of Poirei and Meetei (cf. Ningthourol Lambuba and Cheitharol Kumpapa. Parrratt, vol 1.33-1763).
The Meetei tribe of Pakhangba in due course, became known as Ningthouja salai (king’s clan) after ningthou (king) Pakhangba subdued each salai, the Moirang salai being the last, into a union of all the seven tribes that had come down from the hill ranges from various directions. The confederation came to me known as Meiteis, the Meitei nation.
The Poirei-Meetei Lamdam became Meitei leibak (Meitreibak), the Land of Meiteis and their common language – a fusion of their dialects, became Meitei lon (Meiteilon), Meitei language. A few conservative Meeteis still continue to use the term Meetei leibak or Meeteilon.
The Meitei tribe is thus a conglomerate community of seven sub tribes, like the Kuki tribe that consists of more than two dozen sub tribes such as Gangte, Paite, Simte Vaiphe, and Thadou.
The anthropological concept of the ethnic Meitei tribe is based on socially sanctioned notions of shared ancestry with shared representations, norms and practices. Their evolutionary reality will endorse the legal framework of the Scheduled Tribe of the Indian constitution with the anthropological notion of being people in an “imperfect state of being civilised”.
The Meiteis are already reverted in the Other Backward Class (OBC). This category includes in it, castes which belong to Sudra Varna and also former untouchables who converted from Hinduism to other religions. It also encloses nomads and tribes who made a living from criminal acts. The Meiteis might as well be in the ST category by right of their being yellhoumee ie indigenous people.
Over the centuries many other tribes came over to Manipur and settled in the surrounding hill ranges and lived independently of each other with occasional tribal wars between them and with the Meiteis.
The Meiteis and other tribes in Manipur had similar life styles and food and drink habits (chakcha yuthak manaba in Meiteilon). In the early part of the 18th century Meitei conversion to Hinduism changed all that. Meitei leibak changed its name to Sanskritised Manipur. Meiteis became more civilised because of their religion and education and also with their frequent contact with Mayangs.
Towards the later part of the 18th century, the Meiteis began to dominate the surrounding tribal communities, as far as the Naga Hills. That created resentment naturally on the part of those tribal communities.
In the later part of the 20th century, tribal conversion into Christianity crystallized their community identity further and distanced themselves apart from the Hinduised Meitei community that became very orthodox and looked down on them as untouchables.As Meiteis are the majority community and living in the fertile valley, they ruled the roost.
So, there came about the diversity in the primordial unity between the Meitei tribe and other tribes in Manipur as Manipuris, though there were very few socials intercourse. In this early part of the 21st century, the cultural and ethnic diversity are increasing in evolutionary terms, to the extent that the Meiteis might have no place to live in the Imphal plain, now that, as reported, 25 percent of the Meitei valley has already been occupied by the tribal people coming down from the hills, while the vast uninhabited land areas in the hills are forbidden to Meiteis because of protective tribal laws.
Looking at the new proposed Kukiland (painted green) or Kuki Leibak in Manipur (cf. TSE, August 6 2013) the Meitei leibak has shrunk to about 10 percent of their primordial land. At this rate, one day the whole of Manipur will be painted green.
The laid-back Meiteis, now with their back to the wall, and having realised that wearing just a badge of ‘general category’ around their neck, is no substitute for homelessness, have begun the dance of the beginning of the Beguine, for their survival. This is the demand for the ST status, to neutralise the damaging consequences of being in any other category.
It is prudent that all Meiteis cogitate where we have gone wrong in the remote past and in the recent past. All tribal leaders as well, should take a recreation and analyse their feelings without feeling them,whether acollective existence of all the tribes in Manipur is a death wish.
I for one, definitely feel it is not. After thousands of years of living together in harmony in this tiny state, I remain much closer to any tribal community in Manipur than to a Mayang man or woman outside of Manipur.
The Meiteis and other minority ethnic communities need to put their heads together and devise new mini constitutional arrangements to address specific concerns of grievances, especially for more local autonomy and minority rights guarantees, such as quota reservations for legislative assembly, universities, jobs, and the continuation of the application of Schedule V within existing institutional arrangements.
They need to look afresh if these arrangements are mutually acceptable to provide security and to promote economic prosperity for all. In the economic sector, it is not merely how to allocate “given” resources – “given” is taken to mean the allocations of funds from the Central government, but rather the crux of how to secure its best use among different communities.
In the political arena, multicultural policies that recognize differences between different communitoes have recently been seen to be helpful in resolving tensions, by rooting out real or perceived injustices that are socially entrenched.
Indeed, the social divide between the Meiteis and various tribal communities is narrowing fast. The new generations of liberal Meitei youth have no difficulty in living with Christians and Muslims. The bygone era of Meitei untouchable lois or now Scheduled caste, does not exist anymore in Meitei society.
Unity in diversity is the modern Meitei slogan for co-operation between different ethnic groups of people and various religious groups for channelling their energy into a single socio-economic group, while keeping their cultural and religious identities intact.
The attainment of unity in diversity in Manipur could only be made possible by a passionate desire of living together in an atmosphere of social harmony. We have been living in Manipur together from pre-historic times. We need an integrative approach to transcend the fragmented understanding of each other and rise above the religious dogmas and self-centred political ideologies.
We should have a ‘national’ allegiance that multicultural Manipur is for Manipuris and multiculturalism must mean more than mistaking the currently dominant culture (Meitei culture) as universal, and expecting other people to adopt this dominant culture. It should do away with the fear many minority groups have, of becoming subsumed within the dominant Meitei culture, by mutually fostering awareness of and sensitivity to difference in culture.
A healthy and constructive articulation of the concept of unity in diversity is already espoused by the Meiteis to erase those fears and mend the rifts that have developed between them and other tribal communities of Manipur.
We need a future of peace and reconciliation for harmonious living and safeguarding the integrity of the ‘nation state’ of Manipur. ‘United we stand, divided we fall’ is a phrase that has been used as mottos, from nations and states to songs. It was a political phrase that has been used by the Indian freedom fighters to garner support within India during its struggle for independence from the British Empire.
It should now be a phrase for all Manipuris to adopt. The unity of the different communities in Manipur will thus haul us out of the present feeling of uneasiness of being side-lined in Mayang India, as oriental Northeasters. It will also help us to preserve the integrated nation-state of Manipur on the global map for ever.
Long live Manipur.