REVITALIZING HISTORY: NAORIA PHULO
by M C Arun
This article was originally published by the Imphal Free Press on 26 Aug 2012
History writings of the 20th century Manipur were full of contradictions, full of controversies and full of conflicting views. It was the first half of the century when the British colonial rule (princely state) gave birth to a new breed of ideas that contradict with the age-old feudal ideology. It was a time when the kings – once called Lainingthou – became powerless in their own State. The Maichous and Mainous of the then political system were replaced by new class of intellectuals who got higher education outside the State. Some of them were the native vanguards of the British colonial rule; some were influenced by Indian Freedom Struggle in a way or another. Still some of them were much more concerned with Manipur’s identity in a situation of powerlessness. They started looking for every possible way to find a difference from India and westernization. In search of a new identity, some found a point of time when the Meiteis became Hinduized. Some found a future state of affairs in which Manipuris are free and liberated from British colonialism. Still some liked to integrate with the Indian freedom movement under MK Gandhi. Yet they were all out to negate the then existing system of feudalism and colonialism. That sense of negation to the then existing system in which the King is powerless helped create a double burden on the people of two masters – king and his master.
On the other hand, there were close contact between the Meiteis and the Bengalis in a colonial setting. The peasantry based Meiteis of Cachar felt alienated when the Bengalis played an upper hand in the colonial administration in Cachar after the Kingdom of Cachar was defeated. Further the Bengali chauvinism of linguistic and religious superiority compelled some Meiteis to reevaluate Hinduization which occurred in Manipur. The two points of time are, however, different. When the Meitei society embraced Hinduism, the King of Manipur could defeat internal and external forces and could make the State to emerge as a Stronger Manipur consisting of various religious, ethnic groups. The King did not force other ethnic groups to merge into the Meitei caste system which was newly created. The King had a strong sense of self-confidence and was a true sovereign power. When some of the Meiteis tried to re-assess the historical moment of religious synthesis to give birth to Manipuri Vaishnavism, the king of Manipur was a king with limited powers in the Indirect British Colonial framework; it occured when the people of Manipur was in confusion to choose ways to move out of the colonial yoke.
The responses to colonial rule are of different colors in Manipur. Political responses are loud and clear, though there is much confusion among the newly emerged middle class. The cultural responses that had been more discussed are of two kinds – one originated in Manipur mainly against the king’s atrocities in the name of religious practices; and another originated from Cachar where the Meiteis developed a sense of hatred to Bengali chauvinism. These two responses are confined only in the religious domain. There is another dimension of cultural response targeting westernization. This third dimension of cultural response is less paid attention by the people as well as the historians.
The historians pay much attention to what they term as Revivalism, Revitalization. The history of revivalist writings shows that such writings deal mainly with the one, founded by Naoria Phulo. There are only a few detailed and systematic works on the movement, which originated in Manipur as a response to the direct atrocities of the kings and his men. Like many other historians, Professor Naorem Joykumar, in his recently published book, Religious Revitalisation Movement in Manipur, enquires into the issue of this cultural challenge. And he dissects the history and society of the colonial period to the tune of Antony Wallace and his idea of Revitalization. Naorem Joykumar assumes (a) the historical event in early 18th century of Hinduization was part of Indian colonialism; [cf. even if it was colonialism, this colonialism was dislocated by Burmese occupation and British colonialism] (b) there was decline in the socio-cultural growth of the Manipuris in subsequent years; [cf. the cultural experiments of the 18th and 19th centuries had no parallel in the history of Manipur and North East India]; (c) there was no sense of patriotism and nationalism before the movement of revitalization started in second quarter of the 20th century; [cf. the patriotic and nationalistic feeling of Rajarshree Bhagyachandra, Gambhir Singh, Tikendrajit, Thangal and many more were of the period after Pamheiba and before Naoria]. Moreover, these assumptions are not fullproof assumptions as many other historians have opposing assumptions in dealing with these historical events. The subjectivity operates very obviously in history writings in dealings with the events of 18th to 20th centuries.
Naoria Phulo is one of the history makers in the first half of the 20th century. He started his religious movement in Cachar. His ideas are subscribed by some of the Meiteis – in Cachar and Manipur. His call for awakening is all about new search of old religion. Acknowledging Naoria’s deeds in the history of Manipur, Prof Naorem Joykumar takes up Naoria Phulo and his movement as case history in examining/understanding the historical happenings of the 20th century. Professor Naorem Jokumar tries to examine Naoria Phulo to show how a social movement originated from religious domain. He further concludes on the transformation of anti-Hindu feeling to anti-India movement. As he considers only one factor in shaping anti-India attitude (or movement), one may think of his treatment of the nexus between religion and insurgency, anti-Hindu and Manipuri nationalism (of Manipuri insurgents) as oversimplification of a complex social condition of feudalism, colonialism, synthesized Manipuri Vaishnavism and de-sanskritization. His method of looking into this complex from a single social parameter may not be subscribed by many thinkers. They may raise eyebrows. Here, there are many questions, like: What was the driving force for anti-colonial movements like the Kuki Rebellion, the Nupi Lans? How do the insurgent groups look at religion in a State like Manipur where there are several religious groups? Are there not many forerunners of insurgent leaders who are non-Meiteis whose dream was for a brighter Manipur? There are Bamon insurgent leaders. And is anti-Mayang similar to anti-Hinduism? These questions may help in understanding how anti-India feeling was shaped in the colonial history. Why did the religious movement attract only a section of populations only? Why did not majority of the people, who are equally subjected to religious atrocities in Churachand’s times, accept the new religious movement under Naoria Phulo?
However, Professor Joykumar is right in saying that there came up a debate between the existing Hindu ideology and the newly emerged contra-Sanskritization ideology (of both originated from Manipur and brought from Cachar). The ideological debate, however, could not touch the course of political movements as the religious debate did not question the existing colonial administration; rather the new religious movement was mainly anti-Brahmin (anti-bamon or anti-Hindu). The main anti-colonial political stream started from Kuki Rebellion that gave a political consciousness among the people (the mass became active) to opt for political violence as a means to achieve their political ends to Nikhil Manipuri Mahasabha movement to Communist movement led by Hijam Irabot to insurgent movement. This genealogical line of insurgency or anti-India feeling is the hard line. This line generates its own cultural system.
These movements are beyond the religious domain. The movement of new religion or revivalism of pre-sanskritized religion was obsessively concerned with the religious events of early 18th century. It did not address what Anthony Wallace terms “individual stress” – the stress arisen out of the existing system at the individual level. Professor Naorem Joykumar attempts to explain in the theoretical framework of Anthony Wallace but he does not explain the real condition of individual stress in the colonial condition. The basic needs and individual stresses under a colonial rule are beyond the agony of ‘religious identity’ or anti-Bengali chauvinism. The historical analysis of the entire 20th century demands the examination of these needs and stresses. The joining of religious events in chronology is not an answer to the question of revitalizing the distorted culture of the period. Historical treatment of colonial stress demands more in-depth study of entire society and state system. The economic exploitation and administrative imposition are more important. The individual stress, consciousness of people’s political inability and their conscious movement to free from the colonial conditions are some of the key areas that need to be examined. The contemporary stress-producing conditions are manifested in terms of economic disruption, military defeat, natural disaster, or other catastrophic events. This leads to the collapse of the ‘mazeway’ previously adhered to by individuals who recognize the dominant culture’s (here the colonial culture, not Pre-Pamheiba culture) inability to provide for them. ‘Mazeway’ is the mental image of society and its culture.
Professor Naorem Jokumar’s eyes are filled up with the images of Naoria Phulo in different capacity. To him, Naoria is a visionary and practical man who could change the entire religious thinking of the Manipuris (sic.). Naoria’s movement is one of the unique movements in Manipuri history, no doubt. This movement is not a solution or part thereof to the colonialism. Theirs was to de-sanskritize the Manipuri religion (culture for that matter). In a situation where the Hinduism was synthesized with the age-old Meitei religious thought and practices, the ‘nationalism’ of the Manipuris (a polyglot, multi-ethnic, multi-religious identity) goes beyond the religious boundaries. Manipuri nationalism is not based on language, religion and race. Its base is common historical experience. The metamorphosis of Naoria’s religious movement to Manipuri insurgency cannot be, methodologically speaking, ascertained with personal interviews with a couple of insurgent leaders. It needs a thorough examination of two historical processes for a correlation in a colonial context.