Manipuri Intellectual Style

Angomcha Bimol Akoijam

‘Ekai khumnabada matik charaba, thoidokna khang heiraba, resource person oibiduna mayai tangbal da lengsinbiriba sing-gi mafam da karisu khangjadraba eina wahang amakhakta hangjage. Wahang adidu asini…; Wahang asigi paukhum manga lei; ahanba paokhum…, anishubada…, ahumshubada…, masini; lemhouriba paokhum ani-dudi ei haijararoi, eikhoigi learned ojashing na khumbirak u, tajaning-e”!

(To the ones, deserving of the honour and knowledgeable, who are occupying the centre stage on the dais as resource persons, I, who know nothing, would like to ask a question. The question is …; there are five answers to this question; the first answer is…, the second… and the third answer is…; I will not give the remaining two answers as I would like to hear those from our learned resource persons)!

This was during the question and answer session of a seminar I had attended in Manipur some time back. And I suspect, in its form, content and intent, it speaks of a familiar, if not the dominant, intellectual style of Manipur. The honorific (eaki-khumnajaraba matik charaba), the enactment of ‘modesty’ (karisu khangjadraba eina etc), the counterpoising of individuals/people rather than ideas and understandings (e.g., between the one who asks and the one who answers as in ‘lemhouriba paokhum ani-dudi ei haijararoi, eikhoigi learned ojashing na khumbirak u’) are common features that one cannot miss in intellectual engagements such as seminars in Manipur. And in a critical sense, this intellectual style reveals a lot about Manipur, its cultural system in particular and the socio-political ethos in general, and, not to forget, its pathos.

After all, ‘Intellectual style’ is, as well-known German scholar Johan Galtung, once noted in his discussions on different prototypes of intellectual styles in the world, is a part of the larger civilizational/cultural system. And insofar as intellectual style speaks of what the intellectuals do, it also provides us insights into not only the nature of our intellectuals or those who do intellectual works but also their place and role of intellectuals in our society.

Intellectual Style of a Subservient Cultural Ethos

I have this conviction, and have also been articulating the same on many occasions, that our socio-cultural and political ethos has been critically shaped by an unholy marriage between the culture feudal order and the remnants of colonial dispensation, particularly the one which was inaugurated during the mid twentieth century. Consequently, a culture of status based society and polity with its vertical loyalty structure and diktats based belief systems, values and actions has been the defining characteristic of twentieth century Manipur, and things have not changed much either even as we are in the twenty-first century. To say the least, this culture does not encourage a spirit of enquiry based on questioning the taken for granted ‘facts’ and ‘theory’, which, more often than not, involves unsettling of the status quo of power relations in society and an assertion of individuals as entities who are capable of reasoning, understanding and taking positions irrespective of his or her status in society.

The honorific and the enactment of modesty in intellectual engagement are the reflections of the disciplinary regimes of that cultural ethos. In a sense, such practices also indicative of what Johan Galtung termed ‘Nipponic Intellectual Style’ wherein intellectual ‘proposition’ is sought to be deliberated upon with the ‘who is your master’ as the parameter of that deliberation. I suspect, one’s loyalty to a ‘master’ (by extension, ‘school of thought’, ‘party’ or ‘organization’ etc) rather than the logic or content or coherence or utility of the proposition has become an overriding concern in a vulgarized form of “Nipponic intellectual Style’ in Manipur.

And, the conflict ridden society and polity seem to have aggravated this vulgarized expression of ‘who is your master’ culture that informs our intellectual style. Thus, contrary to the culture of inviting different voices to engage in a dialogue or debate, something which Galtung noted as aspect of the Anglo-Saxon Intellectual Style, the tendency to call the proverbial ‘birds of the same feathers’ to speak and repeat the familiar and agreed upon propositions and rhetoric to each other seem to have become the mainstay of Manipuri Intellectual Style. Indeed, ‘I won’t attend if so and so group organizes the meeting or seminars’ or ‘he or she is from this or that group’ or ‘she or he is affiliated to this or that group’ etc have become the guiding spirit of the culture.

Thus, Manipuri Intellectual Style has been critically marked by an inability to separate between the ‘known’ and the ‘knower’ and hence for them intellectual ‘criticism’ often means criticism of, if not attacking, the person (knower or her or his group/master etc). Deliberations becomes deeply personalized, not in the sense of seeking to sharpen the understanding of the ‘known’ by relating it to the ‘knower (sort of, knowing the poet behind the poem), but in term of personally criticizing the ‘knower’ per se.

Here, one must note that the vocabularies of modern discourses are often used in deliberation. But, those are used in a shallow manner, if not without their essence. Thus, people will have ‘difference of opinions’ and that there are ‘different perspectives’ etc are often uttered in discourses amongst intellectuals from Manipur. But when one actually probes it further, those ‘differences’ cannot be expressed or coherently hold meaningfully in terms of the ‘known’.

Take for instance, in a recent seminar on corruption, a definition of corruption as ‘the abuse of public offices for private gain’ cannot be applied in Manipur because it is a ‘definition’ which has come from ‘outside (mapan-gi), and that the implied Weberian distinction between the ‘private’ and ‘public’ in the definition is ‘theoretical’ etc have come up as ‘difference of opinion’. And yet, the same person will have no sense of discordance with himself or herself in describing corruption as ‘miyamgi sent hum sing se masa masa gi maranai oiba mawongda sinjinnaba’ or giving example of corruption as a professor (holding a public office/post as selector of a public institution) selecting his student for a job because the student had offered him fishes (nga-thinba).

End products of Intellectual Style and Beyond

Given such an intellectual style, one begins to make sense of why dialogue, deliberation and intellectual engagement seem to remain an uphill challenge for the people of Manipur. On the other hand, one as begins to understand the intellectual style, one also begins to understand as to why people are able to articulate plans for `development` — generating employment, establishing industrial units, manufacturing or service sectors, tourism, international airport — all without addressing the decade old power situation which can provide barely a few hours of electricity a day or why those who demand `world heritage’ status for the Kangla can applaud those structures in and around the site such as the BT Road Flyover and the high rise buildings barely a few meters away from the Kangla as signs of `modernity` and `progress`.

Most importantly, one also begins to make sense of the significance and challenge of the intellectual class to do the needful for a better Manipur. In short, one begins to ask: Can this be changed by the new generation of intellectuals? There are two basic answers to this.

First answer has to do with self-introspection of those who do intellectual work. There is a need for critical self-introspection, particularly the ideological or political moorings, of our intellectuals. As famous economist Joseph Schumpeter had once noted that any form of analysis is ideologic in nature, intellectuals must look at their own ideological moorings. It is this aspect that brings me to a feature one notices in Manipur:

True to the subservient culture of born of an unholy marriage between the remnants of feudal and colonial order, even amongst individuals who have been exposed to modern education and culture and thereby have come to acquire a sense of self agency, particularly those who do intellectual work, are also often caught in an act of self-denial. These new class of people, rather than taking radical positions and take the required risks and confront the subservient ethos in order to shape our society towards a life with dignity and well-being, often end up playing safe through their politically correct postures, including expressing what noted political scientist Ashis Nandy call ‘official dissent’ and or appealing to the gallery.

Second, one must realize that the dismissive outlook towards intellectual works amongst other segments of the society has a big role in perpetuating the mess we are in today. The buffoonery of expecting ‘development’ with the kind of electricity that we have in Manipur is only the tip of the iceberg of the entire spectrum of that attitude. Sooner we as people realize this, better it will be for us. But I suppose, those who do the intellectual work must provide and begin the acts of self-initiation of that move for a better Manipur.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here