Why Meitei Ethnonationalism?


By: Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh

I am very moved with this email from EMMI SERTO, especially by the noble task he is undertaking. There are very few people like him in Manipur. “He writes: Sir, proud to have a son of the soil giving away his best resources to one of the most world’s riches and developed country… For the white people, you are a blessing.”

“While appreciating your noble contribution to the people of theUK, I would also like to make a special mention on your valuable “Diaspora column” in the Sangai Express. I am always the first of the first person of the family to grab the paper on Sundays and Saturdays just for a reason to be the first to go through your column… most of the articles give weight on Social change…”


“Well! I am helping a few orphans in my own set up orphanage for social change, in a remote village called Sangang, C’cpur Dist. I have sweet 17 orphans from 9 different communities of Manipur. I do enjoy working the whole day in the paddy fields for their tomorrow… I am spreading the message of |Love, Humanity and Tolerance through this humble service to the deprived children… We can uphold each other in our prayers. Thank you once again for being a kind-hearted to your motherland. My salute to you.”

Meitei ethnonationalism is necessary for a negotiating agreement in the God basement-bargain with Manipuri Naga, without giving in. They feel that it is the best way to deal with the Naga people’s problem to prevent them from rising. They think that it would help both peoples to have a good relationship and think of each other as partners in negotiation rather than adversaries.


Before 1949 there was a Manipuri nation or the Manipur state. The Meitei always had a concept of a ‘Manipuri nation’ – Manipursanaleibak, encompassing groups of ethnic people who have different cultural, traditional, ritualistic and religious traits, all living together.


A nation describes a geographical place that is defined by its borders and/or by a variety of cultures and a shared language. With the ascendancy of a new concept, Manipur is now a “proposition nation” ie groups of ethnic people who are united by a common ideology rather than a common ancestry.

Ethnic people mean the status of belonging to a particular group having a common cultural tradition. There are such 36 ethnic groups in Manipur.

The English word ‘nation’ in the Manipuri nation, is related to birth, not merely geographic or political boundaries. You are ‘native’ of the land of your birth. Manipur has a geographical boundary and any ethnic group born in Manipur is a native of Manipur. The Manipur Naga are Manipuris. Nationality is a legal concept while ethnicity is a cultural concept.


This thesis examines the Meitei ethnonationalism in Manipur and the influences that sustain it. It is a brief historical reconstruction touching on historiography – theorising parts of history and relying on idealistic epistemology.


Meitei ethnonationalism is fairly new. I am trying to write a bit of its history without an inventive approach to the truth.  Old histories might change over time. At the physical level, truth is absolute. But the account of human affairs that we call History, and that we make the subject of college courses, has little to do with truth. It is information that our rulers want us to have.

For example: Irom Sharmila’s fast to death for the past 11 years will not be Indian history, but the recent 12-day fast of Anna Hazare in August 2011will be.

Most people are aware of the continuing tension in Manipur, tensions centrally animated by the

strained relationship between the Majority Meitei and second majority Tangkhul Naga.

Ethnonationalism is where the ‘nation’ is defined in terms of ethnicity, incorporating ideas of culture and shared language. It denotes both the loyalty to a nation deprived of its own state and the loyalty to an ethnic group, embodied in a specific state, particularly when the latter is conceived a nation-state” like Manipur. It may thus be used interchangeably with nationalism.


A “nation-state” is defined as a sovereign state of which most of the citizens or subjects are united by factors which define a nation, such as a common language or common descent. The nation-state implies that a state and a nation coincide. Manipur was a nation-state united by a common language


The central tenet of ethnic nationalism theoretically is that each ethnic group like the Meitei, Tangkhul or Kuki is entitled to self determination for an autonomous entity or for an independent sovereign state.


Broadly speaking, nationalism is a term that refers to a doctrine that holds a nation, usually defined in terms of culture and language though consisting of a number of ethnic groups. Ethno-

nationality is thus a breakdown of nationality.


The word ‘nationalism’, strictly speaking, refers to either separatist or autonomist movements developing outside or against, the existing state. Theoretically, this is true for the Meitei, Tangkhul or Kuki.


Walker Connor (1994) defines the ‘nation’ as a self-differentiating ethnic group. Thus, we have the ethnic Naga nation, ethnic Meitei nation and the ethnic Kuki nation.


In reality, ethnos and nation are equivalents: the former derived from ancient Greek, the later from Latin. It then follows that the term ‘ethnonationalism’ is largely tautological, since ethnicity permeates nationalism any way. It is the same thing. But in Manipur it is not.


The Meitei ethnonationalism was born by a break-up of the ethnic components of Manipur, creating a lot of tension by the ethnic activists who try to have a historical construction of their activities.

The educated post-War Meitei began in earnest, to secularise and adopted the principle of multiculturalism based on a notion of ‘social reform’ in which programmes were introduced to redress the disadvantages of minority communities. This included the present titular king Laishemba, who reintroduced the Merahouchongba festival. He is a likeable and serious young man.

There are many major players in the ethnic movements who continue to act out their familiar roles in a secessionist policy. While efforts are made to bring back the Tangkhul and Kabui Nagas back to the Manipuri nationhood but so far failed, notably in their refusal to set up ADCs, which is aimed to somehow reconcile a ‘distinct society’ status with provision that all the districts are to be treated equally.


The Manipuri Naga’s demand for separation of Naga inhabited (not absolutely) areas of Manipur to integrate with the nationalist movements of the Naga of Nagaland is a redundant ethnonationalism. It is a confusion of state and nation, and they imagine that nationalistic identification can refer state loyalties.


Ethnicity normally refers to a belief in putative descent: that is, a belief in something which may or may not be real. It is a perception of commonality and belonging supported by a myth of common ancestry.  Therefore it does not necessarily suggest tangible elements of culture.


Connor (1993) has stressed the subjective and psychological quality of this perception, rather than its objective ‘sustenance’.


More generally, identity does not draw its sustenance from facts but from perceptions. Perceptions are as important or more than reality when it comes to ethnic issues (Connor 1997).

By perception I mean, the feeling, the consciousness that “I am a Manipuri”. The Naga need a longer term understanding to avoid misunderstanding.

The break-up of Manipur is not negotiable to the Meitei who have an embryonic concept of Ima (mother) Manipur embracing the hills and the plain. To them it is not like a marriage bond, where there is a legal frame work with which a spouse can divorce the other whenever he or she feels like it.


The Manipuri Naga ethnic challenges have shattered genuine Meitei pluralism and increased the tension between the need for cultural-ethnic distinctiveness and integrative tendencies. The Meitei began to think in terms of Meitei nation or ethnonation. It was a crucial time when the territorial integrity of Manipur was seriously threatened as never before, with internal ethnic politics and the territorial ambition of Nagaland.

Meitei needed to re-establish their cultural history and began looking at their history backwards.

They were aware that behind their bravado lurks one of the great political challenges of the next two decades in this extra-ordinary diversity of ethnic identities and political views in Manipur.


Manipur is inhabited by the Meitei and other 36 tribes plus a sizeable community of Pangals. The question of what it means to be a Manipuri and how far there are overriding values to which all can and must subscribe has moved on since the Naga ethnonationalism.


The Meitei liberal policy has been unable to persuade some tribal groups into a Manipuri national identity. They have demanded plural political identities, tolerance and openness from all the ethnic peoples. That has included intermarriage.

The struggle for the ethnic Naga to disintegrate Manipur began to crystallise the Meitei resolve to keep Manipur intact. Various civil organisations such as AMUCO, UCM have sprung up to shore up a united Meitei, non-Naga tribals and Pangal opposition.


Manipur is as much for the Meitei as is for all the tribes and Pangals living in it from times immemorial. The Meitei thus felt that they had to reinvent themselves with a search for their

indigenous origin in Manipur, first in the hills and then in the plain. This was how Meitei ethnonationalism was born.

The high-octane pursuit of Meitei ethnonationalism and a keen interest to safeguard the integrity of Manipur were reflected by the greatest sacrifice given by 18 Meitei on the June 18 2001 uprising.


Meitei remain vigilant against Naga nationalism and Manipuri Naga ethnonationalism especially because (1) their demand has nothing to do with economic disparity but ethnicity; and lately (2)

the NPF’s Constitution, Article II (21) reads: “To work for integration of all contiguous Naga

inhabited areas under one administrative roof…”


Daniel Converse challenged the dogma of economism as the cause of ethnonationalism.

Ethnonationalism appears to operate independently from economic variables and that

perceived economic discrimination is just a choice of battle ground. The economic issues at the centre of the analysis means to miss the primary point, namely that ethnic movements are indeed ethnic and not economic.


India has a large socio-cultural diversity. So has Manipur. Among this diversity the Meitei need a strong ethnonationalism, which will be bound together by equally strong bonds of common objectives and affection with other fellow Manipuris.


The writer is based in the UK

Email: imsingh@onetel.com

Website: www.onetel.co.uk

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