This write up is an excerpt from the article – “Reflections on the Conflicts of our Times: Attempt at Common Sense reading of the Manipur Experience” written by Lokendra Arambam
The relationship between Manipur and Indian state through history need some understanding, though the relationship was never a harmonious one. (The term Manipur and India are themselves subjects of relative interpretation). From very ancient times, Manipur’s cultural and social orientation was towards the eastern direction, towards Myanmar and Southeast Asia. The pre-colonial Manipur state was an endogenous development, impelled by the nature of its geographic and ecological features, initiated by clan warriors who descended from up the mountains into the fertile valley below. The indigenous populations had origins from racial categories of Southern Mongoloid, with certain complicated admixtures between Proto-Austroloids and incoming layers of Tibeto-Burman speech communities. All these human groups shared habitat, geography, climate, faunal and floral environments, food habits, and ancient technological traits like loin loom and fly shuttle technologies in the plains. While the highlander denizens continued to bear the vagaries of the forest and mountain environments, those who came down in the plains were ushered into challenging the extensive flow of the river waters whose currents had to be controlled and utilized for developing livelihood systems. Wet rice agriculture, with the system of transplantation provided early impetus to change into peasant lifestyle and invention of better tools for food production technologies. The openness of the alluvial flood-plains helped ensophistication of religious beliefs, with a deep ecological consciousness of the notion of fertility of nature and veneration of ancestors. The initial tribal lifestyles of close clan formation and in-group consciousness were transformed into the need for greater integration on supra-village principality formations and the idea of a ritual theatre state, a designed architecture of governance and authority relationship through ritual was organized under a monarchical system, with war and matrimonial alliances binding the clan polities. An urge for civilization propelled the lowlanders into producing a philosophy of life, numerous literatures and texts thereby reflecting the literate status of the communities in the plains. Openness to outside influences and miscegenation with incoming migrants with various human groups resulted to a detribalized life-world of hydraulic civilization based on systematic networks of irrigation and flood control. Early possession of the plough, the horse and iron paved the path for rapid development in the ontology of the plains dwellers into a martial race. Citizen volunteers swift in horsemanship, swift in physical movements in the arts of swordsmanship, rapid in aggression or retreat, with tremendous spirit of sacrifice for the collective, emerged in the medieval period of expansion and conquest. A ranked society helped in smoothening of the governing bureaucracy indigenous in values and beliefs. The clan Piba (male elder of the clan) had been raised to the status of Kingship, and a system of circulation of royal princesses circulated amidst the rising international communities for peace and harmony. The territorial frontiers of the state was recognized in the international community first by the Upper Shan principalities and later by Burmans, the Ahoms, the Dimasas and the Bodos of Tripura.
With the international recognition of prestige, liberality and hospitality of the monarchical regime in the 15th century, the first migration of Brahmin populations, escaping from the violence of western Islamic invasions, was noticed, bringing along with them fresh notions of astrological and cosmological wisdom, along with pragmatic theories of kingship and elevation of the power and authority of the monarch to the status of divinity. The need for the integration of the clans, tribes and other communities into a well-structured poly-glot of cultures and demographies needed a higher religious system emphasizing the power and exhibitory faculties of the state represented by the monarch and his associates necessitating the conversion of the Meitei into Hinduism in the 18th century.
While Southeast Asian polities had easily assimilated themselves into the Indic cultural influences since the 4th to 14th centuries in the Common era, Manipur felt these influences while its social and political systems had already been well-established with a definite identity and status of its own. The conversion into Hinduism faced shift opposition from the proponents of the Meitei indigenous religion. But through the exercise of force and violence, subtle intimidation as well as public oppression, the king Garibniwaj (1709-1748) was able to effect a compromise with the clan elders, a sort of contract to accept the conversion into the Ramandi religion. Other indigenous religious systems of tribes and peripheral communities like the Chakpas retained their traditional systems. Christianity entered Manipur during the colonial era in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The pre-colonial orientation of the Manipur state towards Indic connections, side by side with the conversion of the ruling kraton class into Hinduism was therefore an 18th century phenomenon. It also coincided with the political orientation towards British India since 1762 C.E., because of the expansion of the imperial Burmese ambitions directly affecting the geo-political awareness of the rulers, necessitating support from the Ahom dynasties as well as the East India Company. Total economic integration was unthinkable at that period of history for more than a hundred years. Manipur’s agricultural economy was based on subsistence with incipient trade relations with the proximate neighbouring countries. However the British defeat of Manipur in 1891 CE introduced forcible changes in the indigenous economic structures. The British introduced the Indian rupee as a medium of exchange replacing indigenous systems in 1892, and the Manipur resources were used to feed the imperial military establishments in Assam and the Northeastern region through the export of rice and cattle. Imports of British manufactured goods reached Imphal and the colonial economy altered the indigenous social structure by introducing a new imperial racial class of Marwaris and Bengalis for economic management and organization of the new revenue structures. The earlier migrant population of Brahmnis and Muslims had earlier been assimilated into the indigenous social structure, but the new demographic inputs through the colonial economy introduced a sort of contested pluralism, as different from the organic pluralism of the past. A lot of conflictual societal relationship was noticed similar to the system introduced in Burma by the colonial authorities.
The British also introduced a new system of administration totally rupturing the organic plurality of hill and plains relations. The Meitei ruler-ship was divested of administrative jurisdiction over the Hill people, and the administration of the Hill was given to the British political authority craftily institutionalized in the colonised polity. A system of dyarchy, separation of powers between the Maharajah and the British political agent was structured into the system. When the Hill citizens rebelled against the colonial authority in the first two or three decades of the 20th century, its character and form was later misinterpreted through the prism of awakened ethnicities, which became murky and unclear leading to serious conflicts in the era of ethnic identification movements. When the British left in 1947, leading to a precarious in-equilibrium from the convulsions of the Second World War all the efforts to restore traditional equilibrium of the polity was in vain. Manipur became a district of the vast territories of India through the integration in1949. One can imagine the consequences.