Debating India


An Incendiary Script

Tuesday 26 April 2005, by PHANJOUBAM*Pradib

The atrocious act of arson at the Manipur State Central Library where all of its more than 1,45,000 books were destroyed on April 13, 2005 is just the latest in the storm of revivalism blowing across the violence-wracked state.

A storm of revivalism is blowing across the valley districts of Manipur, spearheaded by an organisation that calls itself MEELAL (Meetei Erol Eyek Loinshillon Apunba Lup, or the United Forum for Safeguarding Manipuri Script and Language), and has culminated in the atrocious act of arson at the Manipur State Central Library where all of its more than 1,45,000 books were destroyed on April 13, 2005.

MEELAL initiated its violent campaign to ’immediately’ have the Bengali script replaced by the indigenous Meitei Mayek in written Manipuri, and to have all school text books written in this script from the current academic session. Presently, and for almost the last 300 years, the Bengali script has been the medium of written Manipuri. MEELAL activists have been going about visiting schools, snatching textbooks written in Bengali and burning them for almost two months now, with the Okram Ibobi led Congress government merely ’waiting and watching’ - now very much its trade mark policy for ’tackling’ crises - in the hope that the storm will eventually spend itself and pass.

Regardless of numerous appeals from the government and a good section of the vocal public, MEELAL intensified its campaign and added an economic blockade of the state, over and above its textbook burning spree. Many freight trucks that entered Imphal against the blockade call ended up in ashes, in the heart of capital, in full public view and under the very nose of the government.

At one stage, MEELAL even issued a diktat that all vernacular dailies should begin using Meitei Mayek by March 1. The newspapers initially refused to do so, provoking MEELAL’s ire, with activists raiding newspaper distribution centres and intimidating hawkers, starting March 11, till the newspapers complied with their diktat. In the initial sweep, even local English dailies were not spared. In protest, newspapers in the state stopped publication for three days and journalists staged a sit-in protest against the intrusion on their freedom, until a settlement was negotiated under which MEELAL was to allow the distribution of newspapers if the vernacular newspapers reserved some space on the front page for news written in Meitei Mayek.

The government continued its watching game. All except one daily complied with the agreement, but many were extremely compliant and even went the whole hog in using the entire front page for news written in the Meitei Mayek. However, these enthusiasts retracted their extreme gesture of support after they found no takers among their readers, and their circulations dropped.

The one newspaper that held out, and is still uncompromising, is the Ireilbak vernacular, which insists that the matter must solely be left to the discretion of the editor of the newspaper and that no agreement made under duress can be made binding on all. English dailies were, however, spared this dilemma.

The government did nothing, again, when an underground organization, a faction of the Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP) imposed a five day bandh (shut down) of the state, beginning April 10 and concluding April 16, in a show of solidarity for MEELAL’s demands. On April 13, however, the library burning incident shocked the government out of its complacency. Two Additional Directors General of Police (ADGPs) were removed from their posts and put on ’compulsory wait’ for negligence, and a probe was ordered into the arson. Initial reports confirmed the Library authorities, fearing an attack, had earlier written a note to the Imphal West Superintendent of Police (SP), requesting security cover, but their application was ignored.

The library burning incident put not just the administration on the defensive, but prompted many underground organizations to issue statements that they had no part in it. The Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL) went on to state that, while it ’spiritually supports’ MEELAL’s cause, it was never physically a part of the latter’s agitation. A correspondent of the Press Trust of India (PTI) who, by oversight, had reported that the KCP and the KYKL had joined ranks with the MEELAL in demanding the introduction of Meitei Mayek in schools from the current academic year, was made to apologize publicly by the KYKL under threat of extreme punishment.

Other underground organizations like the Revolutionary People’s Front (RPF) condemned the arson incident, saying that it was an act against the people. The RPF agreed that the script switch will eventually have to take place, but it should not be at the cost of destroying existing knowledge stored in the Bengali or any other scripts. The Kuki National Front (KNF) joined the chorus of condemnation, while the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) has remained silent.

For the activists and leadership of MEELAL, the passion that drives their present campaign is akin to a fundamentalist thirst for a revenge on history. Their act of torching books written in Bengali is, by their own admission, symbolic reprisal for the burning of ancient Meitei Mayek manuscripts called Puyas, in 1726, by King Pamheiba (rechristened Garib Niwaz) after he made Vaishnavism the state religion.

Pamheiba was one of Manipur’s most powerful rulers, and he extended his military influence eastwards up to the confluence of the Chindwin and Irrawadi on edge of Ava (near Mandalay), the capital of the then Ava Kingdom.

Although the influence of Hinduism was growing in Manipur at the time, it was a Vaishnavite missionary, Shantidas Adhikari, more popularly known in Manipur as Shantidas Goshai, who won over the powerful ruler of the kingdom and, through him, completed a total conversion of the state to Vaishnavism. Using his state authority, the king made the religion mandatory for all his Meitei subjects. However, the historical memory of the place recorded in existing books was seen as coming in the way of the new religion and tradition and, apparently on the advice of his religious mentor Shantidas, the king ordered all the puyas confiscated and burnt, in an event remembered to this day as Puya Meithaba.

Many of these books, it is said, were occultist in content, enumerating magic rites, oracular predictions and tantric medicinal traditions. Others were records of events. There was strong resistance from those who refused the new religion, and many of the books and scholars went underground or into self-imposed exile. Among them was Lourembam Khongnangthaba, who was never again seen, and a legend grew that he had vowed to be reincarnated in good times.

It is no co-incidence that Khongnangthaba is the icon of Meitei revivalist organizations, including MEELAL which has grown under the leadership of Chingsubam Akaba Meetei, now in jail under the National Security Act (NSA), 1980, along with other activists.

There is broad agreement among most of the Meitei underground organizations as well as a majority of the Meiteis, that the script must be switched, although not many agree with the manner in which the demand is being pressed, violently and with such unreasonable obduracy. Haste, moreover, is not favoured by most, as the script, has not been in use for nearly all of the last three centuries, and needs to be fine-tuned for these times. For instance, the officially recognized Meitei Mayek has 27 alphabets, but there is another group of activists and scholars who say it should contain 36.

The Manipur legislative assembly too, on February 21, the last day of its Budget session, shot down by a voice vote majority a private member’s resolution moved by Dr. Nimaichand Luwang for the immediate switch of scripts, although the leader of the house gave his commitment that the changeover would be brought about in phases. The demand for the switch, it may be recalled, has been in existence for almost three decades now and became all the more urgent after Manipuri was recognized as a national language under the 8th Schedule of the Constitution.

The language agitation, in its present form, however, can only add to the violence-wracked state’s overflowing cup of woes.

Pradip Phanjoubam is Editor, Imphal Free Press. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal.

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