What`s in a Name?


The current spurt in interest in Burma and the growing popularity of its other relatively more recent name Myanmar, has thrown up some interesting debates relevant to even Manipur. Even after the former military junta in the country decided to change the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar, much of the conscientious section of the international media, including the BBC and CNN among many others, had been insisting on referring to the country as Burma. Perhaps this was meant as a support for pro-democracy champion and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, who too continued to refer to her country as Burma. But in the past month or so, when Burma is seen as opening up to the outside world, and in equal measures the world too have come to acknowledge and accept this sleeping South East Asian country’s overtures, pledging among others the chairmanship of the ASEAN in 2014, Burma’s other name Myanmar is beginning to replace its old nomenclature. The argument by those within Burma for their preference of the new name is that the name “Burma” is inclined too closely to the Burmans, the overwhelmingly dominant community in the country, at the cost of somewhat excluding its many different ethnic minorities. Even Aung San Suu Kyi now seems soft on the idea of a name change. Perhaps her refusal to use it all this while was only an extension of her opposition to the military junta and now the military is seemingly making a voluntary exit from the country’s political forefront, she thinks shifting her stance is legitimate.

The debate is relevant to Manipur for almost identical reasons. While there is nothing seemingly wrong with the name Manipur, what becomes problematic is the derivative term Manipuri which is supposed to signify all citizens of the state. The problem as in Burma is, “Manipuri” has for many reasons, tangible and intangible, come to signify chiefly the numerically dominant community of the state, the Meiteis. Although there are many, including most recently the chief minister, Okram Ibobi, tried to clarify that “Manipuri” signifies or should signify all domiciles of the state, the truth is, such rhetoric have never been much more than weak attempts at being politically correct. Even educated and self-proclaimed liberated citizens more often than not relapse into the old mindset and continue to use the terms “Meitei” and “Manipuri” as synonyms. So try as many would to make “Manipuri” have a more inclusive connotation, another section of the population which is not sensitive to the issue have continued and would continue to ensure that the clock is turned back and this divisive inference of the name remains.

The moot point is, why not think of a more inclusive name for Manipur to which all the peoples of the state can identify with and share a sense of belonging. The overture would not be altogether novel even in this country. So many other states and cities have done so in the past. The state of Madras became Tamil Nadu and later on its capital city of Madras too became Chennai. Likewise, Calcutta became Kolkata, Poona became Pune etc. Come to think of if, the list of such changes of nomenclatures of places in India in recent times is indeed long. Manipur has many ancient names that predate the nomenclature “Manipur”. Of this many are also what other ancient feudal principalities in the region gave it. The new name, if at all, does not have to be any one of these, but preferably an imaginatively conceived one which draws from the place’s ancient heritages as well as modern challenges. The intent is to ensure a sense of belonging and identification to one and all in the state. If on the other hand, as the chief minister in his recent speech said, it becomes possible for everybody to internalise the notion of “Manipuri” as indicating not just the dominant community but every son of the soil of Manipur, then there cannot be a better way. However, as of now, this effort is not making much headway, all because of chauvinists amongst the dominant community as well as rabid and frenzied ghetto mentality of many amongst the minority communities.


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