TOWARDS A WHOLESOME HOLISTIC SELF: ON SILENCE, IDENTITY AND COLONIALITY OF THE POSTCOLONIAL

May 8, 2007 by the Arambam Somorendra Trust
Inaugural lecture by Dr Angomcha Bimol Akoijam.

Part One - Introduction

Chairperson, ladies and gentlemen, and friends:
First of all, allow me to confess that it is not without a sense of being a little out of place that I am standing here to deliver this Lecture. This sense comes to me from my awareness that renowned personalities, intellectuals and academics with proven credentials are the ones who usually deliver the Memorial Lectures, and I am clearly not one amongst them. I am acutely aware of the fact that by extending the invitation to an inconsequential academic like me, the Arambam Somorendra Trust has moved away from such convention. At the same time, I am also equally aware of the faith the Trust has reposed in me by bestowing on me the responsibility and honour of delivering this inaugural Arambam Somorendra Memorial Lecture. Therefore, despite the initial surprise of getting the unexpected invitation and the subsequent hesitation on my part, it is with a deep sense of humility and purpose that I have accepted the invitation and stand here today to delver this lecture.


Ladies and gentlemen, it is said that in some cultures, including ours, stories are important, if not primary, modes of construing, and communicating about, the world within and without. Some even suggest that a sour sense of selfhood is possible precisely because we are able to render stories by weaving our experience together in a temporal order. Experiences and events of life are not, they would insist, ‘one damn thing after another’; they are ingredients of the stories we tell to make ourselves intelligible to the world within and without. This claim of the individual as a ‘storied self’ also seems to be fairly applicable to the collectivity. What we call history in modern times, for instance, is arguably a story of the collective kind that enables a group of people to articulate, and be aware of, its selfhood. In other words, through the acts of narrating history, a group of people provides intelligibility to their collective self, both for themselves as well as to others. However, I must also say that stories do not exhaust the range of possibilities of construing the world or rendering intelligibility to the self. Some other regimes of truths can make stories nothing more than some fictitious or imaginary accounts. In other words, stories could also very well mean what we convey when dismissively we say in Manipuri, ‘aa-do dee wari gee waa-nee(it’s nothing but story)’, indicating or reffering to something as unreal or improbable or wishful thinking. However, irrespective of the epistemic or ontological status of story, the intimacy of stories to our life cannot be denied or underestimated. And as long as that intimacy remains with us, we will continue to engage with truths in stories and stories in truths.

Part Two: Story of Silence

Ladies and gentlemen, I request you to rekindle your intimacy with stories. For, in the course of this lecture, I shall be sharing some familiar and, perhaps, some not-so-familiar, stories of, about and on Manipur and her people as a way of searching for, what I shall call, a wholesome holistic self. In order to communicate that search, a quest that seeks to transcend, amongst others, the fragmentation and estrangement that nmark our society and polity today, I have titled the lecture ‘Towards A Wholesome Holistic Self: On Silence, Identity, and Coloniality of the Postcolonial’. Since a search for self is an existential question, I might as well begin the search by sharing an incident from my personal story, with a hope that, along the way, you will also find echoes of your experiences in the inflections or shades and hues of this story and the other stories that I shall share with you today.

Some fifteen odd years ago, as a part of my doctoral research at Delhi University, I went to interview a gentleman who arguably occupied a significant place in the socio-cultural and political life of ‘postcolonial’ Manipur. The meeting, arranged through a close family friend, was unexpectedly very brief. But it was long enough to put my interview skill as a young researcher through a crucial test. With a palpable enthusiasm of encountering the ‘field’, there I was, sitting face to face with this gentleman, who was then in his late 50s, thin and not particularly impressive or imposing as I had expected him to be, to hear and record the reality from the ‘horse’s mouth’. But hardly had I expected the meeting to be the one as ultimately it turned out to be. 

Sitting on a mora in his courtyard, the gentleman went through the pages with printed sentences—that were meant to be parts of a ‘scale’ to measure people’s view on certain political questions. Besides wanting to elicit his views on certain issues and questions related to my research, I needed his judgement on whether those sentences reflect the stand or political belief of a certain section of our society. After going through the pages for a few minutes, he told me that he would not like to give his opinion on the matter! I was taken aback, and did not know what to do for a while. However, I managed to break the uneasy silence that followed his refusal with an edgy smile—on restropect, a smile that communicated a mixture of innocence and helplessness of a young student—and I tried to confront the situation by explaining the ‘neutrality’ and purpose of my research while simultaneously pleading with him to share his views. However, my repeated attempts to engage him on the issues of my research interests could only elicit a consistent refusal from him, and his demeanour that remained calm throughout the meeting matched my increasing sense of desperation. Punctuated by pauses and uneasy silences, and a sense of déjà vu born out of the cycles of pleading from my side and firm refusal on his part, and hope and despair moving back and forth, the encounter that lasted barely half an hour or so was like a frozen space-time zone wherein I was caught with that soft-spoken gentleman. At the end of it all, the only concession he was ready to give in to my persistent effort was that I could talk to his brother, who, he said, also knew all that I wanted to know from him.

Ladies and gentlemen, call it coincidence or destiny, I am standing in front of you to deliver the first Memorial Lecture instituted in the name of that gentleman, Shri (Late) Arambam Somorendra (1935-2000), whose contribution to Manipuri literature and theatre as well as a strand of political awakening that has come to mark the State since 1960s need no introduction. That day, after meeting him, I did come back disappointed, all the way home contemplating the alternative strategies to fill in the vacuum created by his refusal. But it has been a decade and half since that day when I met late Ojha Somorendra for an interview; and in the course of my professional journey that began with the doctoral research programme at Delhi University, I have also learned, and taught students and researchers, on matters related to research in Social Science, including issues pertaining to situations similar to the one I had found myself in once with Ojha Somorendra. However, an aspect that underlies his refusal continues to baffle and bother me even today.

Mr Chairperson, I believe that his refusal that day was not alien to the characteristic silence that has haunted Manipur for a long time. It is a silence that reveals the obvious suspicion and fear that inhabit the hearts and minds of the people in the State. But the question is: does this silence mean anything more than this commonsense awareness that the silence indicates suspicion and fear amongst the people? The answer is yes. To the trained eyes of a student of social science, this silence also reveals the presence of an oppressive condition that undermines the freedom and creativity of the people, and its consequences. With the freedom and creativity of the people subverted, the silence points to the prospect or reality of the stagnation and bankruptcy of ideas and means to lead a better life, and a subverted capacity and resilience to deal with exigencies effectively and efficiently. It reveals helplessness and hopelessness amongst the people as they slip further into the quagmire of decadence.

Besides, this silence also speaks of the death of the conscience keepers of the society, death of those who are responsible for ensuring its health against odds. It is worth remembering that history is replete with stories of people who sailed against all odds to effect reformation and transformation or bring about radical and revolutionary changes in their societies. Thus, with freedom and creativity being undermined, the death of those conscience keepers, such silence could very well be an uncanny announcement of the absence of virtue, courage, and ability of a people to survive as a collectivity.

Sometimes I also wonder whether the silence has become a living testimony of our own complicity in the making of what Manipur has become for sometime now. For, the silence feeds, and also gets fed by, the cynicism of the helpless (and the cowards?), the twisted logics an myopic visions of the powerful, the blurred boundary between the informed views and rhetoric and hearsays, the forsaken public space inhabited by masquerading private interests, the unprecedented communal and sectarian ethos that beckons hatred and bloodshed, and, above all, the debilitating violence that has become progressively grotesque in Manipur over the years.

Ladies and gentlemen, by now you must have forgotten that I was sharing a personal story of my encounter with the silence. Because, presumably your own personal stories must have also echoed in my story, denying it status of being a unique story of an individual. If that is so, it only reaffirms that we do not exist in a vacuum; our individual self is a relational reality and there is no collectivity without these individuals. If some psychologists and social scientists are to be believed, this capacity to find echo and relate with empathy with others is that which makes an individual non-alienated and healthy, and a collectivity consisting of such individuals is a healthy and productive one. Herein lies, ladies and gentlemen, the mutual interdependence between the projects for ensuring the health of the individual and those of the collectivity. A search for non-alienated individuals who can share and connect with other fellow beings is critical to the search for a wholesome holistic self of the collectivity, or vice versa. And it should go without saying that the silence we live with in Manipur is obviously not something that promises such a possibility.

We ought to remind ourselves that those forces which nurture and legitimize the silence are working against our well-being, both a individuals and as a collectivity. Therefore, our survival as a healthy and productive people would depend on our capacity to confront, and undo the detrimental effects of, the deafening silence that has been haunting Manipur. I am sure that there are many in Manipur today who, although numbed by the prevailing circumstances, still dare to hope, or secretly fantasize, to break this haunting silence. As I understand it, public lectures such as this one, is a pointer to that longing.

Part Three: On Academics, Intellectuals, Political Class and Activists

Mr Chairperson, it is possible that some in the esteemed audience might find the title of this Memorial Lecture(Towards A Wholesome Holistic Self: On Silence, Identity and coloniality of the Postcolonial) esoteric or even baffling. If that is so, I would say, it is not their fault; blame it on my “tribe”, the academics! I would quite agree with many if they feel that the member of this tribe don’t talk in “simple and straight” language. In fact, I would even go a little further and say, even, in the age of globalization, and amidst the talk of the global village, this tribe tells its stories on how they would thrive in isolation! Jokes apart, if the title sounds peculiarly “academic”, I am afraid that my lecture may be jeopardized from the very outset. Given my experience, particularly in Manipur where the word “academic” seems to conjure up a world that is nothing more than utter irrelevance, such a fate is more likely than not. In effect, such a fate, that is rendering the world of academia and their voice irrelevant, has been a critical element in aggravating and perpetuating the silence that haunts Manipur. Therefore, allow me to devote a few more minutes on the matter to preempt the possible subversion of the lecture, and engage with this aspect of the silence.

In Manipur, I have come across a tendency amongst social scientists to begin their comments on the realities of their societies and the state with a defensive opening remark, “let me share some views from the academic vantage point” or let me share some academic views”. I often wonder as to what they intend to communicate by such opening remark. By saying that their views are “academic” or from an “academic vantage point”, do they mean to suggest that their views have nothing to do, or are incommensurate, with the reality of the state of affairs on which they are commenting? Or, does it reflect an inability or unwillingness to take responsibility for the implications of their comments and views? Perhaps, professional academics in Manipur need to seriously reflect on these questions for themselves and for Manipur and her people. Finding answer to these would have a critical bearing on our understanding and finding ways of the silence I have talked about earlier.

Mr Chairperson, it should go without saying that a defunct or irrelevant academia or a sterile or impotent intellectual class is not a feature of the “advanced and developed” countries in the contemporary world, and, for that matter, many of the great “civilizations” of the past could not have been what they were without their thinking classes. A thriving thinking class, of which the academics and the intellectuals constitute two crucial segments, is a critical indicator of a healthy and civilized society. I must as well remind ourselves that if Manipur has been marked as a unique geo-political and cultural entity in this part of the globe, it has not been solely because of its political or military legacies; it is also critically because of its class of authors, thinkers and preceptors who have left us with ballads, songs, and various genres of literature along with the treatises on a range of issues, and cultural institutions in course of its history. I believe that if our society shows any signs of ill-health, our attention should also be focused on the health of our academia and the intellectual class as much as on our political class. In a sense, I would even place a higher responsibility on the shoulders of our academic community, particularly those working in autonomous institutions like the university system, and the intellectuals than on our political class to articulate issues of public concerns, and contribute towards shaping and refining public debates and political consciousness so as to ensure the well-being of our society.

By placing such a higher stake or responsibility on our academia and intellectuals, I am not absolving the responsibility of our political class, particularly the politicians. Neither am I devaluating or discarding the significance of the place and role of the political class or political institutions in our society, But rather it is to acknowledge and squarely face an unfortunate fact of our life—that is, the political class of Manipur is, willy-nilly, trapped or constrained by the existing “patron-client” (political-economic) structure between New Delhi and Imphal, and its concomitant ideological components. Whether one likes it or not, it has been a political-economic structure that produces our political class as a coterie of “middle-men”, whose power and legitimacy come primarily from their proximity, and capacity, to represent the interests of the political lordship at New Delhi rather than the people of the State whose will and wishes it is supposed to represent under the modern democratic polity. To expect such an uprooted or alienated political class to lead or rescue the society would be asking too much; at least at this juncture, it will be unrealistic. But at the same time, we have to remember that a people with an alienated political class, disconnected or uprooted from their own people, encourages despotic rule and, worse, it amounts to inviting subjugation of the people to forces from without.

It should go without saying that no society can live without a professional political class or political institutions; a healthy society requires a mature political class, well versed in the rules and nuances of the power game, including electoral politics, and capable of stewarding the society with the vision of statesmanship. It is our misfortune that we do not have a political class who can play the power game as well as show the leadership quality of statesmanship. We need to produce and groom a mature political class for the survival and health of our polity and society. The familiar cliché, cynicism and tirades against the political class have to give way to serious efforts to shape a political culture with a mature political class that its moorings firmly grounded on its own soil. Only then could we hope to ensure a real rule by our own political class, even if it operates within the constraints of an existing system, under the democratic imperative of the people whom it should not be able to displease. Such a political culture should enable us to distinguish this real rule from that of the rule by proxy with no local accountability, by forcing the latter to come out undisguised as it is and for what it is. Such a political culture can never flourish in a society with silent or defunct academic and intellectual classes.
Mr Chairperson, the academics and the intellectuals inhabit “autonomous” spaces(like other institutions in a given polity), and their locations underscores their unique identities and responsibilities. Members of the academia and intellectuals should be able to see through the hegemony of the meaning and sense of “power” embedded in the state-centric outlook. An inability to see through that hegemony, and lack of professional competence and purpose, will reduce or tempt the academics and intellectuals to play adjunct to the political class. Besides, they might even start believing that the only way to effect a change in society for the better is to become a politician! Here, I must also mention that the members of the academia and intellectuals must guard against any process that seeks to undermine their academic and intellectual autonomy and their organic link to the society. Our academics and intellectuals must be alert to the possibility of such subversions by a “patron-client” structure of research and institutional funding as well as a reproduction of the “colonial knowledge” practices wherein, in the production of “knowledge”, the local scholars end up as the “data collectors”, “local informants”, and “research assistants” while the scholars from the politically dominant decide the designs, methods and perspectives, and theorize. Keeping in mind such issues, members of the academia and intellectual class should take a major part in setting the terms and standards of public debates to ensure that cacophony of heresies and rhetoric do not become the mainstay of our public life in Manipur.

I believe that the social scientists, as crucial members of our thinking class, could and should provide us with better understanding of, and suggest solutions to, our pressing socio-economic, political and other related problems. Similarly, I am also sure that our social scientist will agree with me that the worth of a given work of a social scientist is directly proportional to the richness of her /his analytical and conceptional tools, and perspectives and methods that she/he deploys while addressing the empirical world or the world that she/he willy-nilly projects. The richness of these tools, perspectives and methods will enable us to have a better understanding of the realities and an effective negotiation with life, including our capacity to make ethical choices. An academic culture that does not trust or practice this belief could only produce alienated selves and knowledge that is professionally and socially useless. Ladies and gentlemen, while thinking or executing any effort to come out of the present impasse in Manipur, the implications of having an active thinking class, with the members of the academia and intellectuals taking active role in setting the terms and standard of the public debates and consciousness of our intelligentsia and the masses in general, should not escape our attention.

Mr Chairperson, I shall be truncated in my comments on this issue if I do not say a few words on our activists on the ground. I have come across activists who reciprocate the social scientists with comments on the same state of affairs, sometimes sharing the same public platform with the social scientists, with a claim that their views authentically capture the “ground reality”. Incidentally though, their comments and views would be invariably couched in words like “nation”, “state”, “history”, “hegemony”, “rights”, “colonial”, “neo-colonial”, “globalization”, “market”, “captive economy” and so on. I often wonder whether the activists are aware of the sources of these words/concepts with which they claim to “authentically capture” the “ground reality”? Are they aware of the meanings and implications of these words/concepts with which they construe and shape the reality? Or, more importantly, what would be the nature of the “ground reality” if the activists were to construe it without such words/concepts? For that matter, without such words/concepts, how would they construe the world in order to make sense of their actions and purpose? I believe that it is preposterous and presumptuous—or worse, suicidal—for those whose actions are directed towards a transformation, or a defense, of an existing order or system of relationships, values and beliefs in the larger collective domain, to believe that their actions are devoid of some form of ideational and ethical orderings of the objects of their actions, for the matter of their own actions. Without a sincere appreciation of this fact or the dialectical relationship between their actions and their ideational/ethical components, I’m afraid the activists could only produce ethically deprived, directionless and episodic acts. More dangerously, it also runs the risk of obliterating a desirable distinction between the activists who are fired by dreams of an ethical order and the lumpen elements who share no such dreams.

Mr Chairperson, I am aware that, like most tribes or communities, the academic tribe has its own ways of construing, and communication about, the world, and that people outside this community deride(paradoxically, also romanticize) their strange sounding language(“Oh! Those jargons”, as some would retort, conveying an unfamiliarity with the tribe’s familiar vocabulary). One may deride the tribe or look at them with suspicion or find them strange and intriguing, or irritating or downright boring because they do not have the excitement of one’s reality. But may I say, Mr Chairperson, one can ignore them only at one’s peril. It should go without saying that the tribe is crucial to any enterprise to define who and what we are as a people(of Manipur), and where we want to go from here and now. A life without this tribe would be a stunted life; it could very well be a life that poses dangerous and real threat to our very survival. Having said this, I should also remind those who see the tribe as an outside entity, that its existence is deeply embedded in the realities of the larger society. That common sense or folk knowledge and scientific knowledge can and does penetrate each other’s domain is an acknowledged fact.

The tribe’s language is therefore not unrelated to yours. However hard one might try to separate the two, or however unfamiliar one is with the language, the fact is that relationship does exist between your language and that of the tribe. To assume that universities and research institutions(can) exist outside the state or society is a myth. The tribe does not exist in the confines of its territorial and institutional spaces in isolation. In short, like almost all tribes, practically speaking, the academics do not exist in isolation from their surrounding world; and the interdependence between the two is not therefore a fiction. Thus, there are enough reasons for us to find and reaffirm the linkages, and also cultivate a healthy intercourse between the two for mutual benefit. I am confident that the academics and the activists will be able to communicate and understand each other.

Mr Chairperson, I am not suggesting that all the academics should become activists or voce versa. Doing good work that is useful, both professionally (from the disciplinary point of view) and socially (in terms of social relevance), is obviously not the case of an academic trying to become an activist. Similarly, to be aware of the issues or to have ideological clarity that defines and guides one’s actions for the betterment of society does not mean that the activist has become an academic. Neither am I suggesting that the worlds of the academic and the activists are impenetrable spaces; an academic can be an activist as well, and an activist can also become a scholar. But what is important for us is to realize that the sincerity, commitment, and dedication to their respective jobs, and recognition of each other’s role and place in society will go a long way in ensuring the health of our society. Failing to do justice to their respective jobs, and deriding each other or not listening to each other or cynicism about the academics or the activists, would only represent symptoms of a pathological society.

Ladies and gentlemen, such pathology will only aggravate the silence I have earlier talked about, and guarantee a life for us wherein “forms without substance” becomes it defining characteristic, and labeling becomes a convenient way to hide the shallowness of that life. Such a life can never be called a wholesome life”: rather, it signals the danger of the bankruptcy and decadence that will destroy our society. In Manipur, one often comes across people seeking to de-legitimize others by saying that she/he is from this or that group. And unfortunately, it seems that this act of mere labeling is all that one needs to effect the desired results. Because, such “branding”, as it is called in Manipur, scuttles, if not replaces, real engagement with issues through dialogue or debates or sharing. This culture, far from generating “substance” for the “forms” that are jealously sought to be protected, can only feed the process of bankruptcy and decadence in our society. Therefore, the members of our academia, intellectuals and activists need to respond urgently to this dangerous trend before it is too late.

Such a response demands, amongst others, that we delineate the identities of the academics and activists. Such delineation should not be a difficult task for us. At least, this should not be as contentious or problematic as what I am going to address now: the question of identity with reference to Manipur as a geo-political entity, to which I would like to invite your attention now.

Part Four: Identity crisis: It’s site

Ladies and gentlemen, neither is Manipuri identity an uncontested idea nor the threat of fragmentation and communal tensions and conflicts alien to our reality. In short, Manipur has been going through, to use the term popularized by Erik Erikson, an identity crisis. In this segment, I shall attempt to reflect on this “crisis” and speculate on the possible ways of ensuring a wholesome holistic self.

First of all, in order to understand the “identity crisis”, we need to understand what would the word identity mean here. I shall deploy this word to communicate the positionality and directionality of a given sense of being. Deploying the concept in his sense allows us to address thequestion of where one stands in relation to the others amidst a system or network of relationship, as well as to a sense of “knowing where one is going”. It covers a self definition that implicates a “sense of continuity” and purpose(or even telos) of its being, enabling a person(by homologous extension, a collective) to “integrate” different facets of experience or “moments of self”. This conceptual rendering of identity, I believe, by and large, encompasses the sense in which we use the word as lay persons as well as those nuances deployed by the professional academics.
Psychologically speaking, then, identity crisis could mean, among others, an inability to clearly define as self or a lack of “a sense of continuity” or not “knowing where one is going”. It could also mean a sort of an estrangement, failing to come to terms with different aspects of one’s self or experiences. Now, with this understanding, we can ask: In what sense, Manipur has been going through an identity crisis?

Let me address this question by acknowledging that “Manipuri” is a contested word with divergent meanings. The contestation could be framed by noting the two broad senses in which this word Manipuri has been usually deployed” One, a geo-political sense and the other, the cultural-linguistic sense. In its geo-political sense, Manipuri refers to something that is to do with Manipur as a geo-political entity; in this sense, it also refers to those native inhabitants of the State. But in its cultural-linguistic sense, the meaning of Manipuri has a strong association with those people whose mother tongue is the language called Manipuri, particularly the one spoken by the Meitei, the “ethnic” group that constitutes the majority of the state’s population, and by the pangal1 as there mother tongue. This cultural-linguistic sense is non-territorial or territorially no confined to the State of Manipur in so far as it includes all those people who speak the language as their mother tongue(in places like Assam, Tripura, Burma, Bangladesh etc).

The major crisis of Manipuri identity comes from a lack of fit or disjuncture between these two senses of the word. Taken in terms of the cultural-linguistic sense, Manipuri thus excludes many communities, who are otherwise included under the geo-political sense of the word. Of course, there is a connotation of Manipuri as the lingua franca of the State of Manipur that seeks to incorporate all those native inhabitants of the State. This claim of being the lingua franca is arguably true as the language serves as a medium of communication amongst different communities who speak different languages and dialects in the State. In this sense, this linguistic usage seems to make the two meanings(cultural-linguistic and geo-political) coterminus. However, this usage as a derivative one; it grows out of or is informed by the geo-political sense of the word. And, therefore, it does not necessarily create a fit betweenthe the two meanings(cultural-linguistic and geo-political) of the word “Manipuri”. In fact, this derivative usage, while seemingly makes the cultural-linguistic and geo-political meanings coterminus, paradoxically serves to register the lack of fit between the two. As shown by the controversy around the Manipuri as an “official language”, it has been a site where some of the ugly contestations on Manipuri identity have taken place. Just to remind ourselves,we are all familiar with the responses froma section of our population, particularly from the hills, during the agitation for the inclusion of Manipuri as a “national language” under the VIII Schedule of the Constitution, or in matters related to the introduction of the language in the curricula of the schools in Manipur etc; I need not go into the details of these familiar contestations.

With this lack of fit as a backdrop, the site of this identity crisis has been articulated in terms of “inter-community” or “inter-ethnic” relations. Consequently, the resolutions to the “crisis” have also been sought in terns of those relations. However, contrary to the popular belief, the site of this crisis may very well be located in the domain of the ways in which the identities, including that of Manipuri as a geo-political entity, have been articulated with the modern discursive categories such as “history:, “nation”, and “nation-state”. In short, the problem may lie in the way we articulate the identities with these modern discursive categories. Allow me to elaborate this proposition by looking at the popular articulation of Manipur.

One of the most popular articulations that has caught the imagination of the people is that Manipur is a “nation-state” with 2000 years old “history”2. And this history of Manipur as a “nation-state” usually begins, following the records of the Royal Chronicles such as the Cheitharol Kumpapa, with the story of the accession of Meidingu Pakhangba in 33 A.D. The expansion and growth of the reign of this dynasty forms the main, if not the, axis of this popular history of Manipur as a “nation-state”. This articulation of self is problematic in many ways. Let me mention two crucial aspects of the problem.

First, the above history is undoubtedly a product of a “state-centric” historiography, and if some historians are to be believed, “state-centric” historiography often takes the form of majoritarian articulation. This view is not an unwarranted position. A history that forms its axis around the expansion of political authority of the Ningthouja dynasty, with the concomitant stories of defeats and subjugations of various peoples along the way, understandably becomes the history of the Meiteis. And to articulate a collective self through such history obviously excludes others(other than those under the rubric of Meitei), on the one hand and, ironically, on the other, makes subjugated selves out of fellow citizen in the present. Thus, if some people say that “they have never a part of Manipur”, I am afraid, their claim must have something to do with the above popular history that articulates the identity of Manipur. And if such historiography is inevitable, the conflict and estrangement that marked the present-day Manipur is also inevitable. Perhaps, then, we need to rethink such historiography, any notions of its “inevitability”.

Second, such history seeks legitimacy for an anachronistically imagined Manipur, which is temporally and spatially frozen throughout the 2000 years of its history. The idea of Manipur as a “nation” with “firm boundary” since “time immemorial” is an example of such narrative. While this is an understandable need or even an imperative of a “nationalist” imagination, it is nonetheless problematic. It restrains us from doing an objective rendering of the evolution of the structure of the political authority or the spatiality of “state” or the shades and spectrum of the people’s consciousness in the making of Manipur as we know today. In the process, how different peoples from different spatial locations with different “cultural” practices have interacted, intermingled under different regimes of power or political authorities in the evolution of the present state, are left outside our purview. As a result, the partaking of different peoples across times and spaces in the making of present-day Manipur, arguably an important element of a narrative to produce a sense of belonging or wholesome and holistic self, have been subsequently subverted.

Mr Chairperson, different forms of consciousness of collectivities and relationships have presumably accompanied the transformation of spaces dotted by small human settlements, villages and principalities into a kingdom, then to a monarchic state and a modern state. The consciousness and cosmologies of the people under the social order of kinship groups, insulated (and often fortified) villages under the chiefs and the suzerainty of a sovereign monarch, are bound to be different from that of the secularized political order inhabited by the enfranchised people in a modern state. Manipur as an entity marked by a hierarchy of loyalty with the King at the top with his officials, the village chiefs and sagei aahals(family patriarchs) below, is not the same Manipur under a democratic and republican order inhabited by equal, at least in principle, individual citizens. A history that produces, sustains and legitimizes an anachronistically imagined Manipur is against such an understanding.

I believe that the popular historical narrative renders the Meiteis a la “national mainstream”, and reduces the different trajectories and life-froms of the people to a monochromatic narrative of that “mainstream”. It has a propensity to propagate implicitly, if not explicitly, the idea that all other communities are mere peripheral appendices to the “mainstream” Meitei. It even nurtures an assumption that the Meiteis constitute the necessary as well as sufficient condition that underlies the geo-political reality of Manipur. In such a worldview, “integration” often represents a wish to have a homogenous entity, which comes in direct contradiction with the realities of heterogeneity of life. The alienation and fragmentation of identities in Manipur today is a direct manifestation of that contradiction. In short, the popular history neither captures the historicity of the complexities of the evolution of Manipur as a geo-political reality nor is it enabling the reality to sustain itself.

Ladies and gentlemen, I believe that such rendering of history is as mythical as the refusal to acknowledge the historicity of the reality called Manipur as a geo-political entity amongst certain sections of our society. In fact, in a way, both could be taken as the two sides of the same coin. Or perhaps, like the interlocking quantum particles of Physics, I might aw well venture to suggest that a change in position of one might bring about a reciprocal change in the other. Of course, this suggestion is a statement of “probability”, based on an assumption, as in quantum state, which is reportedly pretty “unpredictable” as suggested by the Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle”, that human affairs cannot be accurately predicted.

Mr Chairperson, if such a history is problematic, what is the alternative? The answer is perhaps producing alternative histories, to use the expression popular amongst the subaltern historians. These alternative histories could be in the form of social histories, “histories from below”, histories of the marginal communities, women etc. One can also think of histories that critically engage with the nationalist and state-centric narratives. Though not a professional historian, I am aware that these are not only popular amongst, but also fairly representative of, much of the works of many contemporary historians. However, to get a flavour of the implications of writing such alternative histories for us in Manipur, allow mw to share an example. Let us think of writing a history on the evolution or nature of YU Shungba(brewing of local liquor) in Manipur. In terms of its production and consumption, and cultural meanings and economy, one is likely to come across shared spaces as well as markers of specific enclaves amongst different communities. I believe that the identities we might see through such history would be different from the history that produce identities of the modern “nation-state”. While the former is likely to reveal “fuzzy” identities, that is, identities that are codified and performed differently in temporally specific spaces for specific purposes, the latter is likely to register and justify reified, bounded and enumerated identities. A work of this kind shall not be a rare specimen, as I have indicated, amongst the contemporary historians.

Mr Chairperson, let me come to the last issue that I want to address in our search for a wholesome holistic self: that is, the context of our identities. In a way, the text of identity, ie, the narrative that allows us to make sense of our identity, has a context, certain specific socio-political and historical conditions/circumstances. In the absence of that context, the text might lose its meaning. For instance, in Kathakali, the movement of the eyes as the text of the performance cannot be fully appreciated, if at all it can be comprehended, without its context, namely the face and mask. Thus, the text of identity can only be meaningfully understood in relation to its socio-political and historical contexts. As we shall see soon, a look at the context of articulations of identity would reveal some of the critical factors behind the estrangement that we see in Manipur today.

Part Five: Discovery and Estrangement: Coloniality of the Postcolonial

Ladies and Gentlemen, sometimes we become aware of certain aspects of ourselves through our encounter with certain specific experiences, and some of them leave behind lasting impact on our sense of self. For the people in the ex-colonies of the former European powers, that experience has been their encounter with the ideas, practices and conditions of colonial modernity. In fact, if some historians are to be believed, most of the “categories” that form the basis of the present identities in South Asia—including Manipur—were, and still are, mediated by the colonial mappings of lands and their inhabitants initiated by the British administration.
The exercise that began in the later part of the 19th century was a response to the imperatives of colonial administration of the British Raj in South Asia. Colonial modernity, a specific set of ideas, practices and institutions born of an unholy marriage between European modernity and colonialism, informed this exercise. With certain characteristic ideas of history and progress of the European modernity, Hegel announces, while acknowledging that “the English.. are the lords” of South Asia, that “it is the necessary fate of Asiatic empires to be subjected to Europeans”. In a similar vein, Marx also terms the British rule in South Asia as the “unconscious tool of history” to transform the people from their “Asiatic mode of production”. The “civilized” Europeans with ”history” were contrasted with the “primitive savages”, the “people without history”, to use the Hegelian phrase, while mapping the peoples and lands in South Asia. It was also an exercise conditioned by the imperative to politically control the “natives”—especially after 1857—and to organize and enhance the revenue collection of the Raj. It was under such imperatives of colonial modernity that the British also mapped the people in Manipur valley as people with “comparative civilization” and those in its hills as “barbarians”. Such classification was further reified with institutional measures such as the introduction of administrative separation between the valley and hills. While certain forms of pre-colonial distinction between groups of people we re-rendered, consolidated and reified, earlier forms of relation and shared spaces were reordered in terms of new distinct and separate categories.

It was these categories of colonial state of the British Indian Empire which was re-rendered by the postcolonial Indian state in the 1950s in terms of “scheduled tribes”, “scheduled castes” and “general category” in Manipur. Subsequent conversion of the “general category” into “OBC” has only deepened the power of the exogenously derived self-definition of the people under the postcolonial state that has inherited mush of its structures and spirit from its preceding colonial state.

Those exogenously ascribed self-definition of the people inform the way people in Manipur think about themselves and how they relate to each other. In fact, the pride derived from a self-definition rooted in the Aryan narrative, which itself has not been free from the idea of the “Indic civilization” discovered by the Western modernity through its orientalist enterprise, has been complimented by the definition of being called a “singular oasis of comparative civilization”. Incidentally, the underlying “exceptionalism” that affirms the assumptions of the non-Europeans as “savages” or “people without history” and the implied “regressive history” in the works of European ethnographers, seem to have escaped most people as they take pride in the masters’ acknowledgement of their self as a “comparative civilization”! Of course, the pride of the self also embraces a new selfhood of being a “backward” community on the basis of expected material benefits. Similarly, some live with the pejorative aspects of being a “tribe”, which itself is not free from the “conceptual-ideological structuring” of the colonial knowledge, along with the sense of security as a Scheduled Tribe under the patronage of the postcolonial state.

With these self-definitions, the people in Manipur are also located within a schizophrenic ambience. The dominant historical narrative of the “Indian nation”, while giving legitimacy to the postcolonial Indian state, renders them historically “invisible”. (Histories from Manipur and the Northeast are more or less absent in the renderings of the history of India; perhaps following the legacy of colonial modernity that they are “tribes” and “people without history” or simply that they are not Indians in the eyes of that history). Similarly, the state claims them as “citizens” while simultaneously “suspecting” their “loyalty” and “devotion”. (Founding fathers of postcolonial Indian state like Sardar Patel had expressed such a suspicion to Jawaharlal Nehru in one of his letters in 1950).

Besides these ideological moorings, the people of Manipur, and Northeast in general, also find themselves structurally caught in a political economy marked by the “patron-client” relation between New Delhi and the region. These ideological and structural aspects of the postcolonial state crucially structure the estrangement of identities. The identity-based conflicts in the region, suspicion between communities, efforts to draw more attention and favours from New Delhi for one community over the other,or fight for a little more share of the spoil ( of the grant-in-aid economy) for oneself, are not the only ones that mark such an estrangement. Even the capacity to come to terms with one’s own “different moments of self” is also jeopardized by such a context.

Mr Chairperson, let me end this lecture with a few posers for us to reflect on this aspect. For that, allow me to get back to one of my favourite ways of knowing: sharing a story. This is a part of a story that I call the “Discovery of ‘Mother Manipur’”. Recounting his experiences as a Manipuri outside Manipur in his youth in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Shri Nongmaithem Pahari, the “melody king of Manipur”, wrote in his memoire, Eigee Diary-da-gee:

Mapan-da leiraba matam-da Manipur Ima-gee
Aasheng-ba mashak aa-do khanglak-le. Mapan-
Gee mee-shingna aekhoi-bu mashak khang-bee-
-da-ba, Manipur kadai-da lei hai-ba khang-
-da-ba, aekhoi-bu yam-na hantha-na lou-ba
puum-namak aasee khanglak-le.

[We began to know the real identity of Mother
Manipur after we had been staying outside(the
State). That the outsiders (people outside
Manipur) do not know “us” (our identity),
that they do not even know where Manipur is,
and their comtemptuous outlook towards us—
all these we came to know.]

These lies register a moment of coming of awareness of a self through a simultaneous awareness of its own “invisibility” in the eyes of the others, and a humiliating experience with those others. In my reading, these lines powerfully and poignantly communicate the discovery of atext within a context, which smacks of coloniality. The inferior and humiliating status of the historically “invisible” subjects—“people without history”—is not alien to the colonial condition. The story of this discovery of “Mother Manipur” by Shri Pahari is by no means a unique individual story; many generations of Manipuris who have gone outside the State have encountered similar moments of awareness. It is this nature of the discovery that has critically shaped the tenor of the narrative of Manipuri selfhood during the period we call the “postcolonial”. Fired by a need that “we must have a history”, the culturally humiliated colonial subjects in South Asia ventured into a nationalist enterprise to counter the colonial insinuation of their inferiority, which led to the “discovery of India”. Likewise, Manipuris also seemed to have ventured into a similar journey of nationalist self-discovery. A strand of political consciousness and turmoil that have marked Manipur since 1960s are not alien to this journey.

Significantly, the above lines from the memoires appeared in a section where Shri Pahari was narrating a meeting with his old friend Shri Arambam Somorendra in Lucknow while they were in their late 20s. One of the things they shared in that meeting was also the question of Merger of Manipur in 1949. Given the familiar developments that followed their coming back to Manipur in the early parts of 1960s,the two seemed to have discovered not only “Mother Manipur” but also the nature of postcolonial India in the “hindi-Hindu heartland” of the Indian nation. This discovery seems to have produced discernible impacts on many Manipuris.
Mr Chairperson, the denials and rejections that accompanied the discovery have been a part of the self-estrangement that we see in Manipur today. Many in the second generation of Manipuris of the twentieth century find it difficult to own up the legacies of the first generation. Just as “India” seems to have become alien (oppressor) to many of the former, the latter also seems to have become an uneasy aspect of their collective self. To many, in fact, the first generation appeared as “collaborators”, albeit seen as innocent or ignorant, of building India with the blood of Manipur. To them, the Merger of Manipur in 1949 comes to be the moment “Manipur became a part of India”, the beginning of a subjugated life.

Ladies and gentlemen, these are the parts of the stories of our selfhood. And we will continue to tell these stories time and again as we week to reaffirm and refashion our selfhood. However, we need to understand that the story of the predicament of the postcolonial to be “post” even after the end of formal colonialism are not confined to South Asia, including Manipur. It has been a story of the ex-colonies, and even the ex-colonizers, across the globe. People informed by postcolonial consciousness seem to have the confidence to engage with those predicaments. Many of them are going through critical self-appraisals of themselves and others to understand and refashion their lives. If this is the case, allow me to leave behind two questions, which I think, are crucial for us to refashion a wholesome holistic self.

First, when did Manipur become a part of “India”? Was it 27 April 1891 or 11 August 1947 or 15 October 1949 or any other date?
Second, did coloniality depart or arrive in Manipur in the “postcolonial”?

Thank you,
Dr Angomcha Bimol Akoijam.

Popular posts from this blog

MLA LOCAL AREA DEVELOPMENT FUND IN MANIPUR

Lamyanba Hijam Irabot (Two-article series)

CONTEMPORARY MANIPURI SHORT STORIES

‘MANIPURI THEATRE IN A DISAPPOINTING STAGE’: PADMASHREE KANHAILAL (An interview)

ETHNIC CHURNING: CHIKUMI STYLE (WITH A FORWORD FROM THE ARAMBAM SOMORENDRA TRUST)

Importance of 9th January in the History of Manipur

ARMED FORCES (SPECIAL POWERS) ACT 1958: DISGUISED WAR & ITS SUBVERSIONS

Sovereignty and integrity of Manipur

INDIA NEEDS TO RATIFY CONVENTION AGAINST TORTURE ASAP