I Mohendra Singh on Origin, Character and Problems of Meiteiby M C Arun
When one starts thinking of the Manipuri civilisation, its agonies and its contemporary political chaos, questions like who are the Meiteis or where they have come from, always crop up. These questions are often left unanswered because the answer does not directly relate to the present day political aspirations in Manipur, where the dominant group Meitei is reduced to a single unit amongst different ethnic groups whose aspirations are quite different from each other and contradictory. There are a number of writings on the Meiteis and other ethnic communities, who share a common historical experience, right from the colonial days till date. There are also amateur writings on the history of Meiteis. These writings often lack scientific temperament and logical coherence in dealing with the history and contemporary problems. Many of the writers fail to ask themselves as to why we need to answer questions on the origin and development of Meitei society and questions like whether the different ethnic groups in Manipur share a common ancestry or place of origin. Many of the existing ethnic identities today were probably developed in the terrains of Manipur through a process of amalgamation or a long course of interactions among the different ethnic groups existing then. So one cannot say for sure that the Meiteis were there in the valley before other groups. Likewise, who can prove that the present day identities of the Naga or the Kuki existed in Manipur and her surrounding landmass before others? If there is any sense in asking about the origin of the Meiteis, it is in the political and social movements in the contemporary Manipur and its adjacent states.
Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh who uses the term ‘Manipuri Meitei’ starts by asking the question of Origin of the Meiteis and the linguistic position of Meiteilon. He is one of those rare authors who depend on empirical observations rather than on the ancient texts (puyas) alone. He does not really accept the existing classifications with which many scholars analyse the social and political facts. He, in his latest book, The Origin of Meiteis of Manipur & Meiteilon is not a Tibeto-Burman Language, questions these classifications and modes of observation.
In the most courageously written book, the author challenges the popularly accepted stand regarding the origin of Meiteis. Many theories (speculations too) are there on the origin and dynamics of Meitei society or identity. The author tries to highlight many features of the methods employed in such studies. The way, the author tries to detach his own pride and prejudices from his observations, is remarkable. Though the author likes to question these theories in order to give an alternative answer, he goes beyond the horizon of his enquiry and hence the readers are often distracted from the main argument. He not only uses colonial writings and some Meitei texts on the origin and development of Meitei, he also takes the help of newly emerged DNA analysis in explaining what he thinks of the origin of the Meiteis.
The equally enthusiastic venture of the book is its strong question on the linguistic position of the Meiteilon (as the author prefers to use). Among linguists of the international level, there is controversy regarding the classification and position of Meiteilon in the Tibeto-Burman linguistic family. The strong claim of the author that Meiteilon does not belong to Tibeto-Burman family is very interesting, though the author is neither a linguist nor a researcher among the Tibeto-Burman people. His hypotheses are very interesting. They lead to new horizons of enquiries. The book shows his research aptitude and his tireless efforts to understand the real nature of Meiteilon and controversies around this language, arisen out of Tibeto-Burman classification.
The book also deals with the question of national character of the Meiteis. National character studies have been done by many American anthropologists. Among them, name of Ruth Benedict is most prominent. However, no one , including anthropologists, has studied the Meitei national character so far. Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh may be mentioned as a pioneer of such a study in
Manipur. Though, the author does not follow any available theoretical framework, some of his claims regarding the national character of the Meiteis are really thought provoking to various social science scholars. His spirit in the study is articulated thus: “Like the rise of phoenix from the ashes, my desire is to reach the rising spirit of Meitei national character from the smouldering Meitei nation, through the empirical method of accumulation of knowledge – the knowledge of the Meitei ancients.” (p.116). He discusses the ancient process towards the formation of the Meitei character and keeps on analysing how the emergence of Naga nationalism has affected the historical process of the Meiteis in Manipur. His comments such as “Up to the end of Khongjom Battle, the Meitei national character was intact” are very strong and provoke scientific temperaments in the academic circle. He is quite right when he says that national character is quite different from individual heroism. His lines explain the concept of national character: “Character is not synonymous with characteristics. Meitei character is a psychological profile of their nature i.e., it compasses both reason and emotion. In the Meitei character there is no practical distinction between the different clans, whatever their ethnological origins were. They are jelled together into an amorphous mass – the Meitei nation.”(p.143).
Does Meitei insurgency aspire for an independent Manipur? The answer is not that easy as it sounds. No one is sure of the answer. The author writes in his chapter 4, giving this question as chapter-name. The sub-head of this chapter is: “Is Self-Determination Feasible for Manipur?”. In this chapter the author is caught between the ugly scenes of insurgency and the root causes of the insurgency. He is proud to be a Manipuri and is aware of mainland India’s attitude to the “Chinkis”. He knows the emotive base of insurgency; he also understands the repeated breaches of the Geneva Convention by Indian forces. He uses Meitei and Manipuri loosely. Many insurgent groups in which the Meiteis are the majority, use the term Manipuri or other alike terms, not to exclude other non- Meitei groups in Manipur. In two captions, he discusses or opines on the right to Self-determination. The names given to these captions well highlight his desires: “Demands for Self-determination as indigenous people of Manipur (here he cautions more about between the right to self-determination and the principle of national sovereignty) and Manipur’s other rights for self-determination”. As a piece of advice, the author adds towards the end of the book: “The realism is that it looks like the biggest mission impossible of all time. Now more than ever, the insurgents need a radical plan for Manipur. The signs of discontent with the political status quo are everywhere. To justify the confidence of the people in you, you must show the confidence in them.” (p.268).
The book contains 282 pages but its ideas are very vast ranging from genetic inputs to historical enquiries to principles of natural selection in researches on modern controversies. The book shows how much he loves and cares for his Meitei identity.
Prof MC Arun
“Mohendra Singh’s the Origin of the Meiteis of Manipur and Meitei lon is not a Tibeto-Burman language (2009) has propounded new theories based on biological findings on origin of man in relation to racial origin of the Meiteis. He also deals with an important chapter on the national character of the Meiteis. His formulation on the origin of the Meitei lon being a distinctive and indigenous language not related with the century old theory of Tibeto-Burman origin will definitely raise eyebrows among the well established linguistic authorities. One cannot but commend the intellectual efforts of the author”.
Prof Gangmumai Kamei
National Fellow, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla
Colonial and Post-Colonial Historiography of Manipur
October 9 2010
“Dr IM Singh is a Great thinker and writer. I am reading his latest book called, Points to Ponder. A compelling read where he answers the most fundamental questions”
– Riaz Ahmed (Studio68)
Greetings Dr. Mohendra
Thank you for your letter. I was not aware about your book talking about the origin of Manipuri (what do you think the name of the language should be Manipuri, Meiteilon?) I would be very happy to read your articles and I will do so. Work on the position of Manipuri in Tibeto-Burman or another language should be done, I agree with you on that. It would be a good PhD. Topic. Let me look further at your articles and write back.
I am currently in India and unable to access email regularly. My replies may be delayed.
“Of all that is written, I love only what a person hath written with his blood – Friedrich Nietzsche
Any man, who will look into his heart and honestly write what he sees there, will find plenty of readers – Ed Howe
Do not trouble yourself about standards or ideals, but try to be faithful and natural with your writing … – William Dean Howells
Dr. Mohendra Irengbam is a man whose writing proficiency fulfils what the above adages say about, and is a writer with many more unexpected rare talents of much higher calibre than those of many other popular writers; unexpected because he is a physician, an MRCP who did enormously heavy practice in the UK. This, any reader will easily see in his book ‘Points to Ponder.’ Knowing it, howsoever, one does not become a good writer the next day. To be a good writer it takes lots of things: study, hard work, experience, wide reading and travelling, calibre, honesty, a good amount of rational sensitivity, appealing language, courage and boldness, a keen insight; most of all, a style of his or her own”.
– Prof (Dr) Jodha Sanasam
Shahitya Akademy Award winner, 2012
Reading heart-warming essays from London in TSE
In my humble submission, I don’t claim to be a scholar nor a historian of Indian English Literature and I had never dreamt that way either. But I would prefer to write what I have read on it. In this write-up, I have a short collection of some verses spoken by Indian English writers. ‘He or she must not try to be Matthew Arnold in a Saree or a Shelley in a Salwar, or a Byron in a Burkha or a Lawrence in a Lungi, or a Joyce in Jodhpurs or a Babu as Beckett.’
In the words of Kamala Das, don’t write in English, she said. English is not your mother-tongue. Why not leave me alone, critics, friends, visiting cousins and everyone of you? Why not let me speak in any language I like? The language I speak become mine, its distortions, its queerness, all mine, mine alone. It is half English, half Indian, and funny perhaps, but it is honest, it is as human as I am.
It is also reminiscent of a South Indian novelist, who is not widely known in our region, I believe. What he had said about English may be cited. Raja Rao (1908- ) the youngest of the trio hailing from an ancient South Indian Brahmin family wrote four novels beginning with Kanthapura (1938), the story of a small and remote South Indian village.
In his Foreword for his book, Raja Rao wrote, “We cannot write like the English. We should not. We cannot write only as Indians. We have grown up to look at the large world as part of us. Our method of expression therefore, has to be a dialect which will someday prove to be as distinctive and colourful as the Irish or the American. Time alone will justify it.” The six verses that he uttered have become a classic today.
Likewise, it is an uphill task for an average writer like me to hunt for the best i.e. impeccable English and it is impossible to do so. Years ago, a distant relative of mine living in New Delhi told me. NE English is not brushed clean and essays written in English are full of faults and jargons, and are only relevant for the region. Whoever has a penchant for English has to climb a long pole until he gets tired to get the
opportunity to know that only futility will gnaw at his or her soul – a sort of
discouragement to be refused outright.
Even then, I used to write for the TSE more often than not, eight years back without any reservation. It is nice to struggle to acquire knowledge about what form of English writing is current in London and elsewhere in the Commonwealth realms. As an admirer of Dr. Irengbam Mohendra Singh who writes from London for The Sangai Express as a regular columnist every Sunday and placing reliance on his essays, I am in favour of saying that his writing is an encouragement for us in the North East region of India.
Marrying an English Rose to mingle in the polished society, Dr. Singh has now become an enlightened man. In a healthy trend, he has been writing ceaselessly without even being harsh or abusive even once in all his essays. An appealing aspect of his writing is his rich emotional nature, his cosmopolitan outlook, pride in the ancient culture and tradition of the people of Manipur and his aversion to organized religion, saying he is not a Christian though he reads the Bible. That’s bizarre.
The range and variety of quotations in his essays reveal a man well read in several disciplines. Truly, his essays are for widening and sharpening one’s vision and faculty for self-scrutiny. The essays of such a towering writer only soothe my fevered mind to say the least. It is not an exaggeration that Dr Singh is a prolific and tireless writer making a readable account of any episode. Is the end-result sheer reportage? Never.
Here again, the emphasis of his writing appears to be more on the structure of the lucid language than on narration—useful for English teachers in the region. His recent article titled “My reminiscence & political renaissance of Manipur from 1945 to 1949-ll” is refreshing to read. It is a rare piece. So, all his essays written in London for TSE are always heart-warming.
One of Dr Singh’s earlier essays had also mentioned the name of Christopher Gimson, ICS, the Political Agent in Manipur in 1940. By reading his Sunday column, I knew that the political agent and Dr Singh’s father were close to each other. Dr Singh and his English wife met Mr Gimson in his London home in 1967. I wish I was also present there together with them to see him.
Because it was Mr Gimson who had reserved nearly a half of the vast Yonga Koireng village land for the State when he surveyed it on the 14th February, 1940. In his long hands he wrote – I have seen all the places concerned from the top of a hill between Leinganglok and the Sajilok. Even though the land is recognized as being within Yonga Koireng’s boundary I see no reason why the State should not claim the right to the Thatch Mahal, which is now sold by the Hillmen to the Manipuris of neighbouring villages, and so on.
According to the village elders who were alive till the late 1990s, the speciality of the visit of the Whiteman to the hill hamlet on horseback was that village functionaries led by its chief killed a big enough mithun for the visiting political agent and members of his immediate entourage.
The story has it that Mr Gimson and his Muslim cooks dined together with the hill villagers on plantain leaves. In return, contrary to the expectation of the peace loving Yonga villagers, the Political Agent who showed up there had given the precious Thatch Mahal of the rugged Loiching landscape to the State. It’s a dismal tale.
Now, it is my turn to preserve historical accuracy for the youngsters to know how the Mahal was gifted away to the State without the consent of the villagers.
To conclude, the truth can be spoken out to be heard across the length and breadth of the land – all because of a thriving press that we have in this part of the world.
It is also realistic to argue that interest in English dailies have grown tremendously in the decade, thus making it possible for a much larger readership than it could claim at any time earlier.
The continuity and growth of English dailies thus remains assured, and a further impetus to its growth and popularity is provided by weeklies in English published by various tribal groups in the State, some already flourished and others newly started for a resurgent and glorious Manipur.’
* Yangsorang Rongreisek wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was posted on October 23, 2013.