Manipuri Identity

July 28 2011
Imphal Free Press


The question of identity and ethnicity tends to seep into every discussion on practically any social issue in Manipur today. True enough, nobody can deny there is very much a crisis of identity in the state and this will be confronted every time somebody is asked what his understanding of the term Manipuri is. Does the term denote a culture, a domicile status, ethnicity or a language? On the last proposition, there ought not to be any dispute. The term does signify a language. But it is in any attempt to interpret it beyond the confines of the language it represents, that we begin skating on thin ice. The postmodernist approach to the problem of identity as elucidated by French Philosopher, Michel Foucault, as an IFP editorial briefly touched on sometime ago, should throw valuable light. Foucault, author of such classics as “The Birth of the Clinic” was basically reinterpreting the extremist feminist movement in Europe of his time and the Marxist class based social structuring. However, the logic he arrives at in his analysis of these issues should be quite comfortably applicable in the ethnic situation as well. Very briefly, Foucault diagnoses the problem of the traditional understanding of identity to be in its being necessarily linked to power. The assumption has always been that there will always be a binary opposition between the strong and weak with the strong grabbing all power, and this power equation would be linked up or else colour the identity issue. Hence there would be the male-female, proletariat-bourgeoisie, oppressor-oppressed dualities and within these broad categories there would also be a numerous and progressive sub-fragmentation of categories: hill-valley, tribal-non-tribal, Meitei-Mayang and so on, so that the identity question becomes an extension of these concentric circles of power struggles. In Foucault’s model, power politics and identity are de-linked. He even flags the idea that there is nothing intrinsic and permanent about identity and that it is a free floating, perpetual negotiation with the ever evolving social reality.

Let us try applying the postmodernist scale and indulge in a little deconstruction of some of the traditional understanding of identity in our situation. As for instance, if we de-link the term “Manipuri” from its traditional ethno-political connotations and then view it through the postmodernist prism, what would it mean? Would it still be ethnic specific? The same approach may be employed in trying to understand the term Indian, and indeed a lot many liberals have been doing just this. It is also true that there have been counter currents to such approaches to the issue. An analogy perhaps will place the proposition on firmer grounds. The contrast between the term “Manipuri” or “Indian” linked to all their traditional ethno-cultural-political connotations and the same terms as free floating processes of negotiations that Foucault calls identity, would be similar to the contrast between the concepts Hindutva and Hinduism or Zionism and Judaism. While Hinduism is open-ended and free-floating, Hindutva is not. The first is religion, the second is a politics of power at its core. The same is the truth in the contrast between Judaism and Zionism. Hence, the term “Manipuri” in the traditional understanding is linked inextricably to its own politics of power, and the proposition that this editorial is putting up before all interested in a discourse on the issue is, we should introspect and see what it would be like if we genuinely tried to deconstruct our traditional understanding of the term and make it a free floating negotiation into which all of us clubbed into a common predicament by history and geography can find a respectable place. What we run into may in all likelihood be a new reality purged of many of our festering and endemic problems. The same experiment may conjure up a new visage of the Indian identity as well.

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