MEITEIS WILL SURVIVE ECONOMICALLY WITHOUT THE HILLS
Having encapsulated the origin of the Meiteis in my preceding article this paper looks at how the primitive Meitei social structure might have influenced the economic, legal, political, religious and cultural systems of Manipur. Social structure is the parent system of these various systems that are embedded in it. Social and cultural systems are interrelated. The term “society” was used prior to “culture”.
This piece is simply a narrative of my experiences of Meitei social structure and mores, which I remember as a young boy of 8-11years, just before and after the War. This is not an in- depth study in Meitei social sciences or their cultural ethos or, for that matter, a serious study of the economics of that time. It is just an overview. There is nothing that has not been written by others before.
One of the earliest accounts of social structure was provided by Karl Marx, who related political, cultural, and religious life to the mode of production (an underlying economic structure). Social structure is a term used in social sciences to refer to patterned social arrangements that form society as a whole, and which determine, to some varying degree, the actions of individuals socialised into that structure. The organisation of social structure, for example, by industrialisation will influence the economic system and as a result, the social system. We now find that as a result of urbanisation the Meitei cultural system of inviting neighbours, mainly old people, to utsab chaba (religious feasting) at home is replaced by a restaurant type of invitation at a temple mandab, provided by a contractor, charging so much per head.
A cultural system (belief, ideological) differs from a social system. For example, Meitei Vaishnavite culture differs from the modern social system. Meiteis now socially drink alcohol and eat meat. Another example is capitalism, a cultural system rooted in economic practices in which the societal wealth distribution varies, more concentrated in the urban area. The cultural system of the Meiteis was endowed with the Meitei political system, religion, philosophy, sciences, code of ethics, statecraft, arts and crafts, and study of warfare.
The economic pattern of the Meiteis of the premodern period (arbitrarily, before 1947) was shaped by their social structure and patterned social arrangements ie the way they lived their lives. The Meitei social structure was a relationship between different groups of Meiteis, the seven clans, which endured a stable pattern of relationship. The Meitei social entity was grouped into structurally related groups (eg leikais) or sets of roles, with different functions and meanings or purposes. The Meitei society was a self-contained, self-sufficient population united by social relationships, bounded by geographical locations in the Manipur valley while neighbouring tribal people lived in the hills. Though the geographical limitations were not insurmountable, the Meiteis did not try to impose their societal system as a corporate identity uniformly on the neighbouring communities, regardless of any consideration of local economic, environmental, or cultural factors.
Meitei society was vertically structured (individuals were ruled by the king on top). There was no social class system. Nor did they have a simple occupational classification. There was hierarchy in the nobility and they assisted the king in running the administration. Equality in social and economic status was shared among the Meiteis. They lived in close-knit village communities (eg Uripok, Sagolband) with a dense social network. According to Zuckerman(2003); Dutta & Jackson (2003) and others, that social structure, especially in the form of social networks, affects economic outcome. Shared ideas about the proper way to behave are clearer, more firmly held and easier to enforce, the more dense a social network.
Manipur was a feudal and non-capitalist country. It had a self-reliant economy as an extension of the social system. Self-reliant economy was perfectly feasible in Manipur as the agricultural produce and natural resources were just enough to feed all the families. There was enough land for cultivation of rice, the staple food as the population was very small. There was sufficient water because of the many rivers and rivulets crisscrossing the valley from the surrounding hills. The Meiteis had long developed the art of weaving, spinning and dyeing. They knew how to culture silkworms and cultivate mulberry plants. Manipur is the origin of silk worm, not China as often mentioned. They grew cotton plants. They made their own cloth of cotton and silk. There were a variety of seasonal vegetables, fruits and fish to provide the Meiteis with a balanced diet – the results were athletic and muscular Meitei warriors. They bred a kind of Meitei ponies that were trained for war. The bred Meitei dogs from the wolves’ puppies. They loved sports, which were played all the year round. They distilled spirits and brewed rice beer.
There were many lakes that sustained a variety of fish, fowls and edible vegetables. They knew animal husbandry and hunting techniques though they did not hunt for food after Hinduisation. Bir Tikendrajit was attributed to killing a tiger with only a sword and shield in his hands. When I was a schoolboy, there was a Bengali book, “Bichitra Manipur” with a painting of Tikendrajit fighting a tiger with his sword and shield, on the cover page.
Meiteis did not have what is now known as the ‘classical political economy’, which is concerned with surplus – the concept of exports for generating wealth. Money used to buy local food stayed in the local economy, which in turn helped sustain the economy. They did not import any essential goods from outside and there were no favourable trade relationships with Burma or other neighbouring states to supplement their economy. They were capable of producing basic necessities for survival such as permaculture, autonomous building, renewable energy, and sustainable agriculture.
The political equilibrium and the political geography of Manipur based on a stable socioeconomic structure ensured Manipur’s independence until the British conquest. The Meiteis were free to choose their political, economic and social pattern, whose foundations were laid by the Meitei kings.
We owe toward our kings, including the last king Bodhchandra, a great debt of gratitude. Maharaja Bodhachandra tried to keep Manipur as an independent country. I used to see Bodhchandra Maharaja, who had a bonny face like that of Buddha when he came to play volleyball on most Sunday evenings at the Khwairamband mapal volleyball ground. He played as a server. My eldest brother Gokulchandra in his team was a very good volleyball player.
It was largely due to our kings that we had an independent Manipur till 1891. Our kings were able generals and good rulers. With the formation of Ningthouja dynasty they provided a good monarchical system beginning with Ibudhou Pakhangba, with an unwritten constitution. A written constitution was introduced by King Loyamba in the 12 century. Loiyamba Shilen gives a very good account of the economy of Manipur. The singing of Ougri – a recitation that exhorts the duties and courage of the king before he set off to conquer an enemy – started with him.
There was not much change in the monarchical system after Pamheiba converted himself and compelled his subjects to embrace Hinduism in the early 18th century, apart from rituals connected with Vaishnavism, such as cremation of dead bodies. However much we dislike the invasion of a foreign religion, Hinduism brought early civilisation to the Meiteis with a different social system moulded by sanskritisation.
Hinduisation was the beginning of a new social order, and a religious system – a system of Hinduism that accepted a version of the Ramayana -Valmiki (the other is Tusidas Ramayana) wrapped around Sanamahism, whose philosophical tenets did not differ much from Hinduism. However coercive the king was, the Meiteis would not allow Hinduism to replace Sanamahism. The practice is similar to the Japanese who practice Buddhism along with Shinto, getting the best out of the two. The excellent thing Hinduism brought to the Meiteis was the habit of cleanliness.
Manipur’s economy was boosted by natural resources from its Kabaw valley. It is very unfortunate for Manipur that Pundit Nehru in a state of mental disequilibrium gifted away this valley, nearly as big as the Imphal valley to U Nu of Burma in 1953 at the Mapal Kangjeibung. I was present at this sad moment of history, when I came home from college in Bombay. The proper and rational exploitation of the various resources in this valley would have given a much needed fillip to the growth of Manipur’s economy.
This is modern history, which is amenable to change. We should seriously petition the Government of India to restore our rightful territory. Some of our kings and our forefathers fought hard for this bit of our territory. We should not let them down.
Sadly, Manipur’s economy after the Independence is in the doldrums. Although Manipur has moderately rich natural resources, crime and corruption means that badly needed foreign or Indian investment is not flowing, while the tourist industry is at a standstill.
As the global economy is becoming more and more integrated, knowledge and skill should become the most important resource in production process, by attracting outside direct investment for a diversified structure of production.
The writer is based in the UK.