Manipur’s Traditional Syncretic Culture is in Danger of Being Destroyed

File photo of the Pangal community in Manipur. Credit: DIPR/Th Naresh

File photo of the Pangal community in Manipur. Credit: DIPR/Th Naresh

Imphal: The clashes between two communities in Manipur on Monday in the wake of a bandh called by the Joint Action Committee (JAC) against the death of two youths who succumbed to their injuries in hospital after being mauled by a mob on April 7 are unfortunate, but to give it a communal colour would be wrong.

The young men were set upon for allegedly trying to steal a vehicle parked at Sagaisabi under Mayang Imphal Police station–the ensuing violence left seven houses gutted and more than 30 injured. The incident is an ugly one but though it involved predominantly Hindu Meiteis and the Pangals (Manipuri Muslims), it can hardly be said to have been fired by communal venom between Hindus and Muslims of the kind the rest of India has come to understand.

Even more condemnable is the loss of life of the two young men who were among three persons brutally thrashed by the mob at Mayang Imphal. Lynching people for alleged theft or indeed for any alleged crime, cannot be acceptable under any circumstances. This incident – one of an increasing trend towards mob justice in Manipur – is a reflection of the depleting faith of the public on the justice delivery system.

What makes the latest incident look like a part of a bigger pattern is the fact that two weeks earlier, on March 25, six other Pangal boys had been brutally beaten up at a Yaoshang (Holi) Thabal Chongba site at Lilong by another mob – again allegedly for trying to steal two-wheelers. Though badly injured, all six, fortunately, came away alive.

Condemnable as this incident is too, it is unconnected to what happened on April 7. In both the cases, the mob violence could have been targeted at anybody else suspected of similar thefts; of course, the only element of communalism here could be that had the victims not been from the Pangal community, they may not have been beaten as badly.

Community stigmatized

Regrettably, the Pangal community in Manipur has come be stigmatized as habitual offenders given to petty crimes like vehicle theft, shoplifting etc., so that in the Lilong mob frenzy, once the victims came to be known to be Pangals, there was likely to have been an extra kick from some or a more vicious punch, causing much more grievous injuries to the victims.

It is now clear in both cases the police did little to reassure the affected public that the guilty would be brought to book. Had this not been so, Monday’s rioting may have been avoided altogether.

In the Lilong case, where the incident happened at a Thabal Chongba (literally translated as moonlight dance), identifying the attackers would have been understandably more difficult. Thabal Chongba is a Meitei courtship festival where young girls from a locality and boys from everywhere except the same locality as the girls, participate, and the proceedings continue into the wee hours. It would have been a very young crowd, with little or no moderation of elders.

When the alleged theft attempt was first noticed, the mob that pounced on the boys is unlikely to have known the Pangal identity of the victims immediately. The Meitei’s and Pangals look alike, speak the same language, they are both traditional agriculturists settled in the valley, their settlements literally rub shoulders, they share work sites and traditionally have lived together despite belonging to different faiths.

A popular song from the 1980s by a popular Manipuri singer, Tombisana Sharma, a Meitei Brahmin, says this quite eloquently. The song is a paean to the beauty of the Iril River which silently meanders past many different settlements and in one stanza the singer nostalgically recalls the sweet sound of pre-dawn prayer from a distant Masjid floating on the simmering river surface and drifting towards him.

This syncretic character of Manipur is also evident in the fact that though Pangals form only about 8 percent of Manipur’s population, the first chief minister after Manipur was made a full-fledged state of India in 1972, was a Pangal, Mohammed Alimuddin. Furthermore, the chief minister belonged to the Manipur People’s Party, MPP, a regional party which came out of the aggressive agitation against the Centre for Manipur’s statehood.

Another revered Naga chief minister, Yangmaso Shaiza, also belonged to the MPP which was once known for its strong stand on an autonomous regional identity for Manipur.

Divisive politics

Today, divisive politics has destroyed this syncretism that marked ethnic relations in Manipur and the shrinking of the MPP to only a shadow of its former shelf, with its support base confined mostly to the Meiteis, is a pathetic symptom of this disease.

The history of the Pangals is curious. They came to Manipur as an invading army from a feudatory in East Bengal in 1606 at the behest of a Manipuri prince working to usurp the Manipur throne. However the king at the time, Khagemba, was powerful and the Muslims agreed on a truce without a fight. Their plea was they did not come as invaders but were brought by a prince of the kingdom. They were pardoned and allowed to settle in the kingdom, given local wives (as the army had come without their women) given Meitei surnames etc., and today’s Pangals are their descendants.

King Khagemba’s pardon had other reasons. The Pangals brought in new skills, especially in the areas of agriculture, fishing and horse tending. The typical Zomian “paddy state” of Manipur, as Yale professor James Scott wrote in his influential book “The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia”, always hungered for corvee as well as skilled labour to run its expanding and increasingly sophisticated economy nurtured by surplus rice production thank to its ferticle valley. Absorbing the Muslim invaders into the society thus met this need.

The Meitei Brahmins, whose ancestors were Hindu priestly class from Bengal and beyond and who came to spread the message of Vaishnavism during the Bhakti movement, have a similar history of assimilation.

In modern times, when the paradigms of the place’s economy began shifting from an agrarian base to a more urban service-centred one which lays a premium on western education, the Pangals found themselves lagging behind, whatever the reasons. This inequity has added to the tension the state is seeing now.

It is not difficult to believe the popular theory that the “paddy state” that emerged in the central valley of Manipur, has always been a big melting pot of ethnicities. Folklores as well as geological evidences suggest the valley in ancient time was water-logged and as the water receded, people began descending into it from the hills and beyond. Meitei surnames, which are titular, professional and in other cases, indicative of the geography of the places they migrated from, also suggest this. A genome study, if done, would also probably confirm this widely varied DNA base of the Meiteis. This is also why these periodic explosions of ethnic hostilities are tragic.