W. Kumari Chanu
The attempt for a review of literature through the lens of the existing armed conflict in the state, which is founded on a nationalistic ideology and accompanied with a strong desire for self determination, is a new perspective at the journey of Manipuri literature. This is a departure from the previous concept of literature as ‘arts-for-arts-sake,’ to view human life and literature as more closely-bounded. In trying to understand what aspects of the nationalistic movement and the armed conflict triggered by this nationalism are being delineated in Manipuri literature, it becomes necessary to trace anew the footsteps of the nationalistic and armed conflict movements in Manipuri society. On the one hand, literature is art — the creative imagination of the writer is present at all times. Truly speaking, it is also not possible to present the images of a living society in its actuality in literature. Therefore, the main focus in this essay is to trace how the poets of Manipuri literature viewed the nationalistic and armed conflict movements in this land, what were their responses, in what way did they try to express this, was their poetic craftsmanship (style, diction, form, etc.,) a movement of its own, and how did this development again inspire their writings. The nationalist movement developed during the first half of the 20th Century in Manipur. Generally known as the Jananeta Hijam Irawat’s period, the first half of the 20th Century was a time when a strong movement for socio-political reformation, cultural and religious revitalization took place in the land in a manner unprecedented in the earlier history of the land. The period was also a time when Manipuri literature grew anew in a renaissance period. The renowned writers of that time started singing an invocation for a new journey of Manipuri literature, praising their mother tongue and native literature. Among them Dr. Lamabam Kamal (1899-1935) warmly welcomed the emergence and new awakening of Manipuri literature after being immersed in Bengali literature for a long time: After a long time, Enters Ima Meitei Chanu Inside the temple of Meitei Literature Wicker basket overflowing with flowers Let’s place at Ima’s feet. [Lamabam Kamal, Meitei Chanu] About this time poet Khwairakpam Chaoba (1895-1950) strove against the strong winds and storms of Hindunisation which placed Bengali and Sanskrit languages at a higher position and status, and worked hard to break the then prevailing prejudice against Meiteilon as a language unable to fully express one’s aspirations and inner thoughts, to bring Meiteilon back to its rightful position: Our impoverished language The ignorant say Meitei poets will come. [Chaoba, Meitei Kabi] Thus, these voices of new awakening and invocations of the mother tongue and national literature by these renowned poets of a new Manipuri literature, nationalism began to germinate in Manipuri poetry. However, a political consciousness, which is the back bone of nationalism, was not fully developed in their writings. Their view was mostly a new perception built up in strong reaction against the existence of Bengali language as vernacular, the absence of reading and study materials in Meiteilon, as well as the predominant perception that Meiteilon is an inferior language, incapable of adequately expressing one’s feelings. This perception is more distinct in the poetry of Jananeta Hijam Irawat (1895-1951) whose concept of Mother Manipur is an image built up by his poetic vision and intellect, and based on the foundations of nationalism. Orphaned from his parents at the early morning of life, Irawat strove for the welfare of his motherland even putting his life at risk. Contradictory to this, he was alienated by his motherland, became a prisoner in jail, and was not allowed to enter his beloved motherland. Such conditions only served to increase his memories and love of his mother and his motherland. The remembrance of such a mother and love of motherland is the twin streams blended beautifully in Irawat’s poetry:
In the silent night’s
In the cool moonlight
That feeble voice
Calling, ‘Ima’ –
Who’s it? [Hijam Irawat, Imagi Puja]
With the depiction in this poem of a pure image of the inner soul of a poet whole-heartedly in love with his motherland, a nationalistic style of writing was initiated in Manipuri poetry. A matter of discussion at this juncture is why the issue of nationalism came into Manipuri society and literature. The most important reason for this is that though geographically small, Manipur had existed for more than 2000 years as an independent, self-ruled kingdom, with a rich treasure-trove of arts and culture, language, religion, spirituality and history. This land which existed freely, with the power and strength of a nation, was taken over by Aryan cultural imperialism in the 18th Century and by European political imperialism in the 19th Century. The consequence of all these was the suppression of the people’s life ethos, their self-determination and socio-political and cultural identity. The expression of the unbearable anguish and angst of a people kept under suppression by the above-mentioned two facets of imperialism became the main picture of nationalism in Manipuri society and literature. But in the 18th Century, especially during the reign of Meidingngu Garibniwaj (1709-1748), when the strong winds of the Aryan cultural imperialism blew through the land, even the strong efforts of the scholars of the land bore no fruits as the king himself stood firm. On the other hand, in the 19th Century, when the powerful British among the European political imperialists interfered in the governance of Manipur during the reign of Gambhir Singh Maharaj (1825-1834), the people of the land rose courageously and tried to protect the national identity of the land. In the Anglo- Manipuri war of 1891, even while knowing that they will definitely lose at the hands of the shrewd British with their vast armies and modern weaponry, the Manipuri people of that time battled till their last moments to protect the freedom of their motherland, exhibiting that this is the strength and courage of Manipuri people. Manipur came under British rule after this battle, the six-year old Churachand was put on the throne, native rule was set up, and a distressing puppet administration (with the British as real power) came into being. At such a point of history, Janneta Hijam Irawat was born as a rare son of Mother Manipur. As goes the saying that the morning shows the day, Irawat’s revolutionary zeal started exhibiting from his student days onwards in Johnstone School, when he led a protest corporal punishment of students by the teachers, thus lying the foundation for the long journey of his later life and preparing his stance against oppressions, persecutions and injustice. In 1922, Irawat published a hand-written magazine titled Meit ei Chanu and started his service to Manipuri literature. Through his essays on current issues published in important journals of the period such as Yakai rol, he tried hard to give direction to the Manipuri society and inspire the people. At a time when there weren’t books to be used in school, he was at the forefront of writing books for children’s education. Alongwith many poets and writers of that time like Chaoba, Kamal, Anganghal, etc., he formed a literary group known as ‘Sahitya Sanmelan’ in 1932. Not only this, in 1935, he was the first secretary of the newly formed Manipuri Sahitya Parishad which still survives till date as the oldest literary group in the state. Deeply interested in dance, music, sports as well as arts and culture, Irawat himself was sportsperson running around in the fields. He was also an actor and founder of the Manipur Dramatic Union (MDU). The emblem of this union which depicts two crossed ploughs was designed by Irawat himself. Irawat who played an important role in spreading the movement initiated by the Indian Peoples The at re A ss oc iat ion (IPTA ) en t ere d in t o m arit a l life w it h Khomdonsana, the niece of the then King Maharaj Churachand - daughter of the King’s elder brother Chandrahas. As a member of the Sadar Panchayat Court, he held a high position in the Manipur Administration. However, the King, who was also president of the Manipur State Darbar, as well as the Brahma Sabha confined all matters related to religion, religious rituals, tradition and customary issues in their hands, denying Irawat his due authority. Nevertheless he strove re le nt les sly a nd c ont in ue d t o sta nd a gains t the o ppres sive customary laws, excessive taxation and the system of untouchability promulgated by the Hinduisation process – a system which permits a person to be ostracized by saying ‘untouchable’ and yet can shake off the ‘untouchability’ tag after paying some money, which gave more sufferings to the poor, common people and the farmers. By forming the Seva Committee, he initiated funerals and religious rituals for those persons deemed untouchable and ostracized, and hence could not be given proper funeral due to poverty. For those poor people unable to perform the shradh ritual, he himself along with his followers would sing and conduct the rituals. Not only this by establishing the Nikhil Hindu Manipuri Mahasabha in 1934, he enabled the emergence of the first political party in Manipur. With the removal of the word ‘Hindu,’ from the name of the organization in 1938 during the fourth meeting of the Mahasabha at Chinga (in present-day Imphal West District), the Mahasabha became a full-fledged political party. Among the thirteen resolutions taken during this significant meeting, are included important resolutions such as establishment of a ‘Purnadaitwashil sashan’, election of representatives by ballot voting, establishment of village panchayats and the slogan that ‘the one who holds the plough should be owner of the paddy fields.’ [Loitam Yaima & RK Maipaksana, ed., 1983:171] Around this time, the monopoly of newly-founded rice mills in the task of de-husking paddy (which hitherto was the economic activity of individual women and women-groups) and sending it to other parts of British India, and the resultant famine due to such overexport created an artificial famine in Manipur. The situation came to such a point that even if there was money in hand, rice was not available for purchase in the market. In the consequent women’s agitation of 1939 protesting against this development, an event now known in history as ‘Anisuba Nupi Lan’ (The Second Women’s War), Irawat played an important role by giving a direction to the women’s upsurge. In 1940 a new political party called Manipur Praja Sanmellani was formed with Irawat as president. The first woman’s political organization Mahila Sanmellani too was formed under Irawat’s leadership. On the charges of treason and re bellion, he was imprisoned for three years (1940-1943). While in jail, he pioneered many agitations for jail reformation. Here he met many political leaders of the time and expanded his political understanding. After his release from jail, Irawat was however not allowed to return to his motherland. While in Sylhet Jail, he wrote what is now regarded as the masterpiece of his literary works – ‘Imagi Puja’, which is a collection of his poems. In 1943 he became a communist and attended the first congress of the Communist Party of India (CPI) at Mumbai (then Bombay). In 1945 as soon as he got permission to re-enter Manipur, he set up many organisations for students, youth, farmers and women. Not only this, he ran for elections to the Manipur Assembly as a candidate from Utlou. But unfortunately while organizing a huge people’s meeting at Pungdongbam (in present-day Imphal East District) in protest against the proposed grouping of Manipur, Tripura, Lushai Hills, Karbi Anglong and Silchar to form a new geographical entity called ‘Purbanchal Pradesh,’ the police lathicharged, and in the resultant struggle between police and people who had come to participate in the meeting, the police Officer-incharge (OC) himself was shot dead by a stray bullet while giving the firing order. Due to this turn of events Irawat left the place and went underground. A price of ten thousand rupees was placed on his head. Yet even while he was underground Irawat did not cease his work. He expressed his thoughts and views through his self-published journal entitled ‘Anouba Yug’. Though Irawat breathed his last soon after in a place called Tangbo in Burma on September 26, 1951, it is without doubt that the nationalist movement grew strength in the Manipuri society in the first half of the 20th Century under his leadership. In the opinion of Professor N. Sanajaoba, in September 1920, the closure and boycott of the market by the people to stop the export of rice was the first kindling of the torch of Manipuri nationalism, and the establishment of ‘Apopka Marup’ in 1930 by Naoriya Phulo (1888-1941) in Cachar with the sole aim of revivalism of Meitei religion and way of life in 1945 is the birth of Meitei Nationalism. [N. Sanajaoba, 1997: 2-5]
On August 14 midnight of 1947 Manipur got its independence from British rule, and an interim government led by Maharajkumar Priyobarta was established. Even before the Assembly elections were held and a people’s government was set up, the Communist party and Socialist party were formed in Manipur. Unfortunately the Manipuri people failed to taste the sweet flavor of a free people’s rule in the land; before the taste could even reach the tongue’s tip, on October 15, 1949, a merger agreement was signed and the land too was forcibly joined to the Indian union. In 1952 the land was recognized as a Part C State - one of the lowest categories within the Indian union. Meanwhile, a few Congress and Socialist politicians with revolutionary zeal and ideals came together to form an organization called the Revolutionary Nationalist Party of Manipur and on April 19, 1953, at 3 pm in the afternoon, made the declaration at Kangjeibung that ‘Manipur is an independent nation.’ [Yendrembam Randhirkumar & RK Jitendra, eds., 2016: 88] This was an important event in the nationalistic movement in Manipur. Not long after, several acts of the Indian Parliament, such as National Security Act (NSA, 1980) Armed Forces Special Powers Act (1958, AFSPA), Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA), 1985 etc., were passed and attempts were made at suppressing the armed insurrections.
On the other hand, to protect the existing indigenous identity, boundary and freedom, a strong armed revolution with its foundations based on nationalism arose. In 1952 the Meitei State Committee took up an armed propaganda, and initiated an armed revolution. In 1964 the hitherto existing Revolutionary Committee came to be known as United National Liberation Front (UNLF) and also entered into an armed conflict movement. Truly speaking, the two decades of 1970s and 1980s was a period in Manipuri society when the emerging youth were equally engaged in both underground and overground warfare, thereby building up on the already existing wave of nationalism.
In these two decades, on the one hand were the armed youths engaged in different forms of warfare, on the other were hundreds of students coming out publicly to address different social issues. The first students’ group of the state, the All Manipur Students Union (AMSU) in 1965, was formed by the numerous students who had participated in the agitation against famine in 1964. The Pan Manipur Youth League (PAMYL) formed in 1968 was also an organization comprising the energetic youths of the land. Though its mouthpiece publication, ‘Lamyanba’ edited by NK Sanajaoba, one of its pioneering leaders, the league strove to inspire the students of the time through its varied writings.
Inspired by this, an all-girl students’ organistion Manipuri Chanura Leishem Marup, better known as Macha Leima in short, was formed in 1969. This organization too had its own publication, ‘Macha Leima,’ a journal which featured writings by women activists of the period (as well as some writings by male writers using female pseudonyms). This journal also highlighted news and issues related to women and contributed to the building of Manipuri nationalism. Around this time, many students went underground one by one and formed the Peoples’ Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK). In 1978, the Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) entered into an intense armed battle against the GoI. In the wake of such significant developments, the impact and influence of these movements on the aspiring writers of that period is explained by poet and critic Sagolsem Lanchenba (1961- ) thus:
… thus as the minds of the people of that time slowly grew, a number of strong revolutionary groups were formed one after another in 1976 and 1977 and with them waging an open war against the Manipur government and the Indian government, the people of that time started speaking about a new freedom. After witnessing the huge rally taken out with regards to the consequent Kameng incident of 1978 by pioneering youths carrying banners that proclaimed, ‘We leave for your tomorrow,’ the aspiring future writers started thinking of Manipur only and the wish to stand against the oppressive forces of colonialism.’
Thus, there clearly existed a strong nationalism and an armed conflict movement triggered by it in Manipuri society. An attempt to view literature within the context of this movement is a very political approach. During the early part of the 20th Century, also regarded as the Renaissance period of Manipuri literature, the awakening of Modern Manipuri literature was heralded. During this period which is known in the history of Manipuri Poetry as the period of Chaoba-Kamal, they started humming a sweet song of Patriotism, eulogizing their mother language and the motherland, for a new awakening of their native literature. However, a fully mature political consciousness was yet to be seen in their writings. On the other hand, in the poems of Jananeta Hijam Irawat, who was more or less their contemporary, this concept was vividly expressed. Therefore it is without contention that in the journey of Manipuri literature, Irawat was a poet in whose poetry a nationalistic ideology accompanied by a concrete political consciousness is present.
But unfortunately even though there is recognition of his contribution to the nationalistic movement in Manipur during the early part of the 20th Century, he was yet to be recognized as a poet. This despite his varied publications including ‘Seidam Sheireng’, a book of poems published in 1929 for students, and his masterpiece poetry collection ‘Imagi Puja’ written during his imprisonment in Sylhet Jail (1942-43) and published much later in 1987. An important reason behind the estrangement of Irawat by the Manipuri society could be his political stance against the all powerful Manipuri King and British Government. The charges of treason against Irawat by the Manipur government, his imprisonment from 1940 to 1943 and subsequent exile, his initiation into the communist fold, the 1948’s Pungdongbam’s incident and his subsequent underground status, the announcement of a reward on his head which put him on the ‘wanted’ list – all these became important reasons why the Manipuri society of that time did not want to openly support him or talk of him. The imprisonment of Irawat’s former colleagues, sixteen of them, in the Conspiracy Case of 1951, made even the mention of the word ‘Communist’ strike fear, thereby making the Manipuri society distance themselves further from Irawat.
But as it isn’t possible to keep a fire concealed by clothes, or with paddy husks and ashes, a group of Irawat’s contemporaries and poets, ardent observers of the conditions of the Manipuri society and inspired by Irawat’s ideology and activities, came out unorchestrated around the 1980s. Among them were Sagolsem Lanchenba Meitei (1961- ), Dilip Mayengbam (1959- ), Birendrajit Naorem (1959- ), Saratchand Thiyam (1961- ), Arambam ongbi Memchoubi (1955- ) Raghu Leishangthem (1959- ), Makhonmani Mongsaba (1957- ), etc. These poets who were also contributing as leaders of various literary organizations came together under a common platform forming an organization called ‘Aseilup’ With Jananeta Hijam Irawat as their role model, these like-minded poets discussed his ideology and view to the core. Climbing up the path that Irawat had etched, they strove to connect the poetry of the period back again with the society and thus evolved a new epoch-making poetic style, which is expressed in an article by Arambam ongbi Memchoubi published in 1993 in the maiden manifesto of Aseilup entitled ‘Seireng.’
In their poems, the poets of this time entered into a poetic style that gave a positive response to the ideology of armed conflict which was sparked off by the nationalistic spirit of this hill-state, based on the political economy as expressed in Irawat’s vision, the courage of this nation which since time immemorial has never bowed to another and stayed independently. What could be seen in the poems of these 1980s poets is a mature poetic style – built up on the earth and soil of the land, accompanied by the winds and waters of the land, based on the tradition and roots of the land. This is a poetic style that reflects the Manipuri nationalism and its resultant armed revolution which had set roots in their minds. A collective emotion in the hearts and minds of these poets and which has lodged itself in their psyche is the feeling that many beautiful aspects of the self-identity of the land and its culture which has existed since time immemorial has been wiped out by colonialism. Poet Lanchenba Meitei brings in the imagery of the Kangla Sha, the mythical Manipuri royal animal, and the image of its statues being blown apart by British during the British colonial rule to explain this feeling in detail:
From time immemorial
Standing at Kangla’s golden gate
The two white Kangla-Sha,
When blown into smithereens
(They) wept silently.
Manipur lost her independent self-rule after its defeat by the British in the Anglo-Manipuri War of 1891. Yet this hilly kingdom retained the freedom of its traditional customs and beliefs as before. But unfortunately, the mighty British – the one on which the sun never sets, ruler of many countries - failed to respect the culture and tradition of this small kingdom. The British also failed to respect the beautiful traditions which existed in this society – a society which has never known how it is to live under someone else, a group of peoples who feel that it is hundred times better to lose one’s life than to live in subjugation, a society which practiced a beautiful tradition of pardoning a person, no matter how guilty, if he or she seeks refuge. At this attitude of the British, the angst of the people, their pain, shame and revengeful feelings which became deep-rooted in their hearts, are all beautifully captured and expressed in the poem of Arambam ongbi Memchoubi as given below:
In the meadow of Pheidabung
On a killing-rope each
They stay hanging
Their necks drooping
Their eyes downcast
Thangal General, The Wise
Koireng Jubaraj, The Brave.
Heads covered in white
Waists clasped tight with waistcloth
Stood the Meitei women
Heads bent silently
Below their navel, a pulse throbbing
[Memchoubi, Androgi Mei]
By this time, the image of Manipuri nationalism had taken clear shape in the poems of this period in which was expressed the firm resolution that the land which had from time immemorial lived in its own way independently should never live a life of subjugation. In his beautiful poems Birendrajit Naorem entered into a decision to take up arms, expressing that living freely if only for a moment and spilling blood on the battlefield is hundred times better than living in subjugation :
From the dense gorge of the Forgotten
Like one who has slept long
Shaking its feathers once
Flew up suddenly into the red sky
And then smeared
All over its body
The colour red.
[Birendrajit, Phadok Amagi Seireng]
In this period, sometimes called the Bloody Period of Manipuri literature, the poets’ use of the frightening imagery of ‘playing with war as if with flowers’ is for the sole purpose of getting independence as Raghu Leishangthem clearly brings out:
The blood-dance is on
Flowing all over the floor, the red blood
The world is.
In this time
In this place
In all hearts
War is played as flowers.… … …
In this moment was sketched
With a blood-brush
On the darkened walls of life
[Raghu Leishangthem, Lanbu Lei Oina Sannariba]
In his poetry Dilip Mayengbam expresses his thirst for a Manipuri nationalism to come into this land where blood flows in torrents everywhere and the land is scattered with smokes of war and death-injuries, a nationalism derived from the seven colours of this land and beautifully clear like the light of the sun to wash over this hill land where from time immemorial, peace and harmony has reigned:
Towards the sun, flew a bird
Then put up all around a red curtain... ... ...
Desiring again for a glance, the bird
Took out the red curtain
Flying close towards the sun.
Repugnant, went wild the people
Sighting the seven colours of the past.
But slowly, slowly again
Returned to the previous habit.
[Dilip Mayengbam, Angangba Phijang]
The poets of this period minutely discussed the Manipuri culture, oral literature, creation myths, and stories of god and goddesses and entered into post-colonial writings. Their efforts to develop a poetic style unique to this land and born out of the soil, the fertility and the creativity of this land, and also their attempts to give it a universal appeal, is based on the ideology of Manipur nationalism. In their poetry is explicitly expressed their journey of inner self-discovery and their realizations of a unique ethos and identity of the Manipuri nation. The poets of this period frequently expressed a unique image of the ‘Manipuri-ness’ of the nation - found in its creation and cosmological myths, in its arts, culture, language, religion and aesthetic values – along with a political tone in their poetry.
Even in this present period with its abundant publishing of poetry, the heart and soul of these poems is the nationalism of this land and the armed conflict triggered by this nationalism. Therefore, in order to view the core issue and an ideological positive response to the nationalism and armed conflict in Manipuri poetry, we have to study the poetry of this time.
These like-minded poets who had come out collectively, their mind and blood is deeply immersed in nationalistic feelings and their view of the armed conflict is related to their liberated self and their political determinism. The colonization of this erstwhile free nation under the British Empire as well as the merger of the nation to the Indian Union in 1949 after independence from British yoke completely uprooted not only the political economy and determinism of the land but also the strength and power of the community to safeguard and protect its own identity. Since then mainland India has continued to keep this hitherto geographically isolated land, politically and economically marginalized. The loud voice of nationalism in this hilly state conditioned by all these situations is given a poetic form by Arambam ongbi Memchoubi:
Save Wild Life
Is it only that –
Please say after that
Save indigenous peoples.
Their tradition and language
Let them protect themselves
Let them live on their own
Let them eat just one meal if they wish
Dressed in old clothes, or rain dripping through their roofs
Why should another grieve?
One day they will on their own
Stand up, if not in chains.
[Memchoubi, Save Wild Life]
The generation of poets emerging before and after the poets of the 1980s expressed feelings of nationalism and armed conflict in piecemeal. Modernist poets like Nongthombam Shri Biren (1946-2011), Rajkumar Madhubir (1942-2002), Thangjam Ibopishak (1948 - ), Yumlembam Ibomcha (1949 - ), Rajkumar Bhubonsana (1952 - ), etc., moved away from the previous trends of Chaoba and Kamal towards a writing paradigm which broke stereotypes and were iconoclastic in nature. However, apart from delineating some of the broken shreds of the society in vulgar words, they were not able to build up and bring out a new prototype of the Manipur that they thirsted for. However, Elangbam Nilakanta (1927-2000) regarded as ‘Adi Guru’ and role model of the modernist poets delved through the philosophy, arts and culture of this land and wrote with a long-sighted vision trying to trace the past glory and inherent traditions of this land. In some of his poems he tried to delineate his self-identity and the identity of his nation with a political tone. But his concept of nationalism came with mixed feelings. For him, it was an attempt to view Manipur within the larger framework of the Indian nation:
Let’s bloom in Bharat’s garden
Alone, proud, smiling
Laughing with the other flowers, together.
[Nilakanta, Eikhoini Bharatbashi]
Even though, generations of Manipuri poets wrote poems related to Manipuri nationalism and armed conflict, it is hard to find committed poets like those who emerged together during the 1980s to write with a consistency and seriousness on this issue. In their poetry, these poets who emerged in episodes, were more concerned with tangential issues and fragmented ideas and painting the overall negative impact – for example, peripheral problems unrelated to ideology of armed conflict such as the problems caused by those using the revolutionary movement for their vested interests, moral degradation, extortion, the in-fighting between the many mushrooming factions, the loss of trust of the people, freedom as lip-service, the attitude of the armed revolutionaries who are now interfering in issues of localities, etc.
On the other hand, these are important problems that Manipuri literature and the present society both are facing. If a solution to this is not searched out at the earliest, it will be a dark blot on the history of the nationalism and armed conflict in this land. At present the nationalistic movement and its accompanying armed conflict continues in this land. But till date, very few poets have been able to write with the same poetical insight which was there in the 1980s poets, who still continue to build up the image of nationalism and related armed conflict.