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Strange Bedfellows

It is an irony, no doubt about it, and the temptation to call it the Mother of all Ironies hangs heavy in the air. The Ima Keithels, now in its new, posh avatar with modern lighting system, proper toilets today stand in all their glory awaiting the arrival of Madam Gandhi to dedicate it to the people or rather women of Manipur. This is but just a brief or merely a sentence on the newly built, swanky Ima markets for the true value or its unique characteristic is something which has nothing to do with its concrete structure.

The Ima Keithels, as everyone in Manipur knows, are the only markets in the whole world to be manned and maintained only by women folk, and though the history of how it became a trading center exclusively run by women is not very clear to us, it throws a lot of meaningful light on the status and role of women in Manipuri society since the days of the Maharajahs.

To any first time visitor, it would surely come as a pleasant sight to see women selling vegetables, food grains-mostly rice, fish and other essential items. The manner in which this market as a whole has been divided into three sections, each dealing with its own trade items is again a remarkable point, though this systematic division may have come at a later point of time in the history of Manipur.

In as much as the Ima Keithels, now separated into three segments/buildings and given its own name, has a unique characteristic not found in any other part of the world, it will not be over stating the fact if we say these market complexes seem to have developed an umbilical cord with controversies of different types.

Though the real soul of the markets and its place in history is not dictated by its concrete structure or the modern day appliances such as low power consuming tube lights and toilet facilities etc, no one would have forgotten how Manipur suddenly saw the emergence of several experts on the history of Manipur, especially its art and architecture when the idea of building new market complexes in place of the old and dilapidated ones was floated.

The idea was to give these market complexes a modern day look, but without compromising on its core character, which has withstood the test of time and nature. Seminars and discussions amongst some of these experts were held and it was only after a series of ideas and concepts had been debated, argued and discussed that the first foundation stone of the historic market places could be laid. This is one of the ironies we were talking about at the opening sentence of this editorial. Mercifully the debate over the character and historicity of this place has blown over and after more than five years in the making, today it is ready to be inaugurated.

However as the opening sentence of this commentary pointed out, it is an irony and a rather big and significant one at that, that controversies seem to have dogged this historic place, from the moment the State Government decided to give the much needed touch to the old and decrepit structures that passed off as the Ima Keithels. Already objections have been raised against the names given to the three market complexes by some enthusiasts or those who are supposedly well versed with the terms and terminologies that should be used while naming anything of historical importance.

The objection raised over the names of the three market complexes may be resolved sooner rather than later, but the issue raised by the Kabui Mothers’ Association (KAMA) needs to be treated with the merit it deserves. Their stand that some sheds should be reserved for them sounds perfectly alright and reflects the pluralistic character of Manipur, but on the other hand, there is also the uneasy feeling over why a particular community should deem it necessary to demand reservations of some sheds in the market complexes awaiting their inauguration.

This brings us to the question of the parameters under which the term Manipuri is coined or defined. There is no easy answer to the points we have raised, but it is significant, particularly when the centripetal forces are at work in all its might. The question of defining the terminology Manipuri can be dealt with later with more in-depth analysis and with a better grip on the social make up and history of Manipur, but what stands out prominently at this moment is the manner in which the new avatars of the three market complexes continue to be dogged by controversies.

The issue raised by KAMA is extremely important and sensitive and it will be another test for the Ibobi led Government in its second innings. The very fact that an entirely separate market shed named Tribal Market or Rani Gaidinliu Market at Lambulane has been built is a reflection of the need to treat all communities in the same light while at the same time it has also robbed the sheen off the slogan of Chingmi-Tammi Amattani.

(Courtesy: The Sangai Express)

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