The peaceful public demonstration by more than 100,000 Meiteis on September 18 2016, marching from Thangmeiband to Palace Ground, captures the tungsten spirit of Meitei majority grassroots supporting conversion of Meiteis from OBC (SUDRA) (NOT Forward class anymore) to Scheduled Tribe (ST).
The challenge is undoubtedly etched in history as measured by the number of aspiring participants in this revolutionary gathering. Quantification is integral and vital in all aspects of Meitei ST conversion though it will still rock a few Meiteis, who are democratically opposing it with knee-jerk rumble and bumble, full of vivid ideas but short on solution. To them the public has given an unfettered voice.
What matters to ST demand is not argument but understanding of who Meiteis are. If you feel true, it’s true. The truth however may be surprising to some, which in public language, is a crisis of change in long standing social mores. For them “Time is out of joint”, quoting Hamlet. To Hamlet, the state of affairs (the “Time”) in Denmark resembles a dislocated shoulder, “out of joint.”
To make complexities of public policy in a democratic society comprehensible, let me, as a Manipuri-born TSE columnist, take you to Britain, the mother of democracy. In a recent referendum to exit the European Union, the majority voted “yes”, while the government was advised rightly by the elite minority not to leave the decision to common people who are ignorant of economics. But David Cameron government bowed to ordinary people’s decision.
Without sounding absurdly highfalutin but endearingly matter-of-fact, as though transforming the microcosmic world of Kangleipak, as easy as driving to the coffee-shop of Hotel Classic for a chicken sandwich, and in an effort to find a balance between truthfulness and the emotional, I may be allowed to venture a crumb of my opinion.
With a pile of experience as a clue to my longevity, perhaps I deserve amnesty for breaking a taboo among respectable mainstream Meiteis and fellow ethnic community elites. It’s just a plaintive synonym for why we can’t be nice to each other? Flawed at its birth in 1950, the social structure in Manipur, far from promoting equality, has produced successive crises and deepening inequality. This statement may not be at first glance, quite apparent to minority ethnic communities with slightly different economic and social backgrounds. Even the high class Marathas are clamouring for reservation quotas.
This is a basic article of faith, unlike physicists who built the atom bomb and called it “sweet science”. I grew up in post-war Manipur, as the youngest son of a father who moved in high society in Imphal and I am thus aware of the class system, rather the lack of it in Manipur. I recall why and how a separatist political culture was born in Manipur in 1946 at Mao, which has increasingly dominated post-war Manipur. As we had an open barricade I can relate to an accurate anatomy of the social structure of hill and valley people and some tales of wonder in this post-war period.
My enlightenment appetite is far from imagining a fabulous natural history of Meiteis apropos hill-people, like Marco Polo who imagined that an animal salamander (asbestos) lived in fire in China. There was never a caste system in Manipur, like dogs barking idiotically through endless nights.
There were no such things as ‘untouchables’ and ‘holies’ of the Hindu style caste system in Manipur, at least after WWII when civilisation wearily stepped in.
Historically, when Meiteis were converted to Hinduism (thankfully) in the early 18th century, cleanliness became a most prominent ritual of aesthetic Vaishnav sampradaya (tradition). Carnivore Meiteis became vegetarian/pisciterian. In a generation or two they abhorred even the sight of raw meat. They preferred to remain disassociated from meat eaters, especially cow eaters (shal-chaba mee). That included chingmees (hill people), pangals (Muslims), and maleshas (Europeans).
The institutional isolation came to a head when no pangal or malesha was allowed to step up the veranda, let alone inside a Meitei house. But not chingmees. Two Khongjai chowkidars of the hydro-electric power house at Sanahal Lokchao that operated under my father, often came to our house and were welcome up in the house like any Meitei. One of my father’s chakprasis was a Kabui from Saheb Manai, who moved freely inside our house. The phrase mangba-sengba (polluted/unpolluted) was a vocabulary for some Court Brahmins to segregate Meiteis as a source of their and Meitei king’s cheap income.
When one of my elder sisters had typhoid fever, the British Civil Surgeon came to see her. He knew the custom. He sat on a mora (wicker stool) below the veranda of my father’s Yumjao (main Meitei house) and examined my sister, who was brought out from inside the house to the veranda. Had he been inside the house, my father, no that he cared, would have been forced to dismantle it to avoid being ostracised as mangba.
Some readers of this column must have stayed in Taj Lake Palace Hotel in Udaipur, one of the most luxurious and expensive hotels in India. My family and I have also stayed there. As Hindu customs go, the building was the second summer palace of Maharaja Jagat Singh, built in the 18th century. He had to abandon the previous one nearby, as he gave shelter to a Mughal sultan refugee, who stayed there.
Politics is a dirty game. The accusation of Meiteis as perpetrators of untouchability towards hill people is a post-war political construct – a mischievous high octane rumour on a condescending pity of the past. I’m no politician and hiding the truth goes against the grain. I’m only gathering frogspawn from the pond of my early youth. There were quite a few chingmee students in schools in Imphal. There was no such castigation as mangba towards them. Some of my best friends were Tangkhuls who came to my house and were welcome like any Meitei.
As eyewitness to a matter-of-fact relationships between hill and valley communities, my ambition is to help draw Manipuris together without verbal or visual wit. I really feel that Meitei ST demand of which members of STDCM are flag bearers, is seeking to renew the age-old bondage between the two broad communities with regard to social and political concerns, and destroy false artificial hill-valley divide. What could be a better idea than bridging the gaps between ancient layers of Manipur?
Like some good Meitei dissenters, I was opposed to the switch at the outset until I followed my head rather than my heart and emotions for practical reasons, while keeping in mind that there’s nothing that chingmees will lose out on in my cost and benefit assessment. It’s up to federal law if Meiteis fit the cap. Hope springs eternal. Meanwhile, we should unite in supporting Meitei ST demand. Why? The successful outcome will help us share our destiny equally “with the triumph of reasonableness and practicality over doctrinaire impossibilism,” quoting Clement Atlee.
Meitei Cheitharol Kumbaba brings me nostalgia of corporate Manipur. Though interesting and non- interesting things occur on the edges of petty politics, Meitei ST demand that is not a political
but a social concern will contribute in conserving Manipur like a wetland bird reserve. Manipur is no more sana leibak (golden land). Its preservation will only be possible if all communities decide to live together. Communalism has no place in a common Manipuri society, to which everyone has something to offer, contributing his/her talents and skills, having tolerance and acceptance of each other’s weakness and tradition.
I’ve touched a bit on the past but haven’t travelled in it, like in hard science fiction. Scientists say travelling to the future may be possible but I’m merely looking in a crystal ball what the future of Manipur is going to be like, in the manner of ancient Meiteis who predicted in Cheitharol Kumbaba that Nongpok thong hangani (the door to the east will open).
Manipur has come of age in the last five or six years, though it’s less than meets the eye. The benefits in the hills, and the valley countryside, are still very small and divided unfairly. The capacity of Manipur government to respond to this economic mayhem depends on handouts of Union Bharat. Economic growth cannot be imported to Manipur with its small domestic market, and where democracy is incompatible with liberty.
It’s difficult to fathom what exactly the future of Manipur would be. But it’s certain Manipur won’t be broken. Some who tried before failed miserably. The youth of Manipur can build a young-pan Manipur with a one track mind towards building a homogenous Manipuri identity. Rather than languishing your energy with paltry inter-community strife, this is the fast track out of poverty and to get rid of our relative isolation with backward economy and inadequate capital, and solve the present social imbroglio.
The incumbent Congress government, and CM Ibobi with a deep reserve of life experience, which few in politics can match today, should weave words into picture using this unique opportunity to rewrite the future history of Manipur. The crowd will follow you. They need to streamline interaction between the state and the Union government. With the election round the corner, it’s not the time to stand knee-deep in molasses with indecision.