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Meitei-Manipuri Conundrum

"Meitei Manipuri" celebrating Lai Haraoba in Tripura.

The emergence or rather the sense of urgency accompanying the poser, who is an Asomiya, or rather the indigenous people of Assam, comes with its fair share of ethnic identity, chauvinism and of course the need to assert one’s identity in the face of numerous alarm bells sounded by some zealots that their identity is under threat. It was this question that first led to the anti-foreigner movement in Assam and sowed the seeds of ULFA. How ULFA had to shift its stance after finding a safe haven in Bangladesh is the political icing on the cake that says there are no permanent enemies or friends. The anti-foreigner movement, of which the story of Nellie stands out prominently, was primarily against the large scale infiltration from Bangladesh into Assam, with the tacit approval of those at the helm of power.

It was the policy of vote bank politics that made Hiteshwar Saikia, the then Congress Chief Minister in Assam, to turn a blind eye to the large scale infiltration from across the international border that the natives of Assam began to feel the pinch of being slowly and gradually pushed to the sidelines in their own court yard. The anti-foreigner movement in Assam also led to some dramatic changes and which will surely go down in history for it is not often or very rare to see a movement launched by students, propelling them to the centre stage of State politics.

So leaders of the All Assam Students’ Union, suddenly transformed into the typical politicians that we know and understand and from being a student body, the then leaders of AASU went on to don the mask of political leaders under the highly indigenous sounding Asom Gana Parishad. This is a brief sketch of what happened in the past and what impact it has left on the social, political and economic life of the people of Assam. It is against this backdrop that the question of who is an Asomiya, becomes relevant and extremely interesting.

We are not Social Anthropologists and are not qualified to map the demographic changes and its composition, the shifting population as well as the factors at play here, such as culture, language, race or ethnicity or just economic and political ties, but the growing trend of each ethnic group asserting its own unique identity cannot be ignored, for it has already started rocking the boat of quite a number of ethnic groups in the North East region. As things stand today, it would be difficult to say what the parameters are that would go into making an individual fit the bill of an Asomiya.

If such a question has started haunting the intelligentsia of Assam, then what about Manipur? Apart from the Meitei-Pangals and the Meiteis, has the term Manipuri really caught on among the other communities such as the various Naga and Kuki sub-tribes who are indigenous people of this province? Such a question may not have arisen earlier, but with the demand of Greater Nagalim, getting more and more vocal with each passing day and with some Kuki armed groups openly declaring that they are for a separate Statehood for the Kukis, the relevancy of the term Manipuri needs to be questioned and studied minutely.

The lingua franca of the State, was unanimously or commonly called Manipuri but today seldom will one find a hill man using this term. Instead of Manipuri, it is Meiteilon or Meitei language and this is not just a choice of words used to refer to a lingua franca of the State, but denotes the emerging trend of ethnic identity at the cost of the collective and generally accepted common identity, where the majority enjoys a certain degree of advantage over the others.

Now coming to terms with this reality, it is time to raise the question of who a Manipuri is? Has the 2000 years old history of Manipur failed to instill the idea of a Manipur as a Nation amongst its people, or is it just a question of every ethnic group exerting their own identities? To our mind, there is absolutely no harm or mischief in identifying Manipuri or Manipur but in the end, just as there are the Blacks, the Hispanics, the Orientals etc settled in the USA, who identify themselves as citizens of the most powerful Nation in the world, the different communities of Manipur, who do not want anything to do with the entity called Manipur, may replace it with Meiteis, though this would not exactly reflect the society and the history of the people.

Just as there are questions over Asomiyas there are bound to be questions over who is a Manipuri vis-a-vis the Meiteis and the important point to remember is that it serves no purpose to be unduly worried over it, but question ourselves how this has come about in the first place. The example of Nagaland should be enough for anyone to understand the complex under current of ethnic politics. This complexity is perhaps best exemplified by the demand of the Eastern Nagaland Peoples‘ Organization for the creation of a different State while the integration of all Naga inhabited areas under one administrative unit has become the fashion statement of quite a number of Naga thinkers.

(Courtesy: The Sangai Express)

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