Two ‘sins’ and a half with many political ripples: Chief Minister’s visit to Ukhrul

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THE PEOPLE of Manipur are least bothered by the cabinet meeting held in Ukhrul headquarters on October 18, 2023, and the economic package announced by the government. The focal point of discussion of the chief minister’s visit was the side event held after the cabinet meeting and the two declarations made by the CM with political agendas, and the act of prostration at the event of presentation. The CM declared: “Ngasise tarik 18 October, ngasi dagi indigenous people singi manungda Meitei ka Tangkhul machin manao oire haibashi officially declare daoba yareh koh!” (“Today, the 18 October, among the indigenous people [of Manipur], we can officially declare that the Meiteis and the Tangkhuls are brothers!”).

The declaration made by the chief minister of Manipur, N Biren Singh at Ukhrul district headquarters has altered the motive and purpose of connection between the tribal Tangkhul and non-tribal Meitei. It seemed as if it is no longer centered solely on tracing bloodlines between one Tangkhul clan and another Meitei clan or cultural relationship. The declaration indicates a deliberate and resolute shift toward political maneuvering.

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At this juncture, where each community in Manipur is wooing one another among the triangular communities, namely the Naga-Meite-Kuki Chin Zou, relations of Manipur, vividly for political gain, the political figure in question who uttered the declaration on the cultural, identity, history, and genealogy of these communities, with political ambitions up his sleeves, should not be taken seriously. One must approach it with skepticism. The oversimplified statement made by the CM on the blood relation between Meitei and Tangkhul is subject to further investigation.

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Within the Meitei and Tangkhul communities, there exists a longstanding yet somewhat unclear belief, rooted in myths and legends, suggesting a fraternal connection between the two ethnic groups. Undoubtedly, the existing folklore and myths within the Tangkhul and Meitei communities imply a significant historical connection. It is widely recognized and accepted that there exists an ethnic and cultural ties between these two groups. The observance of Nongpok Ningthou-Panthoibi and Tangkhul Saba traditions during the Lai Haraoba festival, the narrative concerning the migration of the Meitei, considered the younger sibling of the Tangkhul tribe, and the customary offering of Luirim phee all serve as a tangible evidence of the enduring bond between the Meitei and Tangkhul ethnic groups throughout history. The intertwining of these cultural connections is an inevitable consequence of the coexistence of diverse groups over millennia. It is imperative to acknowledge that a reciprocal process of cultural exchange and sharing naturally occurs, given the phenomenon of cultural assimilation and acculturation.

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Some version of the derivation of the name of the Tangkhul itself is derived from the Meitei word tada khun (tada ki khun) which would translate as elder brother’s village which denotes that Tangkhul was the elder brother of Meitei in the ancient past. The story further said that the younger brother with the blessings of the elder one returned to the valley in their current habitation. Later the word tada khun, for phonetic convenience was shortened to Tangkhul (Meitei still call Tangkhun in their typical accent) (Sothing: 2000). If this version of the story is to be accepted, the Tangkhuls are the earliest inhabitant of today’s Manipur. Hudson T.C., in his celebrated books on the Naga tribes of Manipur, said that the Tangkhuls occupied the present Manipur during the earlier period when the Meitei were still at the primitive stage (Hudson: 1911).

However, this particular narrative cannot be endorsed due to its oversimplified approach, as it would be erroneous to assume that entire clans or villages within the Tangkhul community share a unified genealogical lineage, a sentiment equally applicable to the Meitei community. Consequently, it is more accurate to suggest that at most, one clan or village within the Tangkhul group and another clan of Meitei descent may share a common ancestry.

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All historical accounts are subject to interpretation, EH Carr in his famous work What is History (Carr: 1961) asserts that historical fact without accurate interpretation is ineffectual one must first distinguish historical fact from other facts in the past. It will not be misleading to say that the myth of the Tangkhul-Meitei brotherhood is at best considered as a raw material for historian to research and interpret the relationship between these two communities, rather than the history itself. In the construction or reconstruction of history in addition to having the accuracy of facts, one must rely on the ‘auxiliary sciences’ of history- epigraphy, archaeology, chronology amongst others. CM’s version of the past of the relation between the two communities does not reflect reality, it was more a political chant rather than a historical fact. To establish a fact, the subject needs further research, inquiry, and examination.

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Another notable aspect of the event was the act of prostration carried out by the chief minister and certain elders of the Tangkhul community during the blessing and presentation ceremony. Prostrating as a form of goodwill is widely practiced across various cultures and traditions. Unlike kneeling or bowing, it serves as a gesture of reverence towards rulers, authorities, elders, and superiors. During the event, the chief minister of Manipur, who appeared to embody the role of a younger brother of the Tangkhul community, performed a prostration before certain elders and politicians. This act was reciprocated by some village chiefs, elders, and political figures of the Tangkhul community. The demonstration of this ‘good gesture’ sparked debates and became a focal point of discussions both on and off social media. Such an act of prostration was unsolicited to many, as it is not the practice of the Tangkhus in particular, and other Naga tribes in general, and thus the act was viewed as compromising the Tangkhul Naga identity, culture, and practices of the various Naga tribes by many people. The act of prostration also go against the principle of Christian teaching of ‘thou shall not worship other than me [God].’ Hence, the prostration was seen as another act of cultural domination of the majority group and dilution of the belief of other religious practices.

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Another declaration made by the chief minister on the same occasion was on the ownership of Luirim phee/kachon, (Phee in Meitei language and Kachon in Tangkhul dialect, meaning Shawl) the CM affirmed that: “Luirim phee du, ngashidi eikhoiki oramkhre Tangkhul kisu oiramde, Meiteikisu oiramde, eikhoiki [Meitei ka Tangkhul] gi oiramkhre!” (“The Luirim phee neither belongs to Tangkhul, nor it belongs to Meitei, but today, it belongs to us!”).

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The controversy surrounding the ownership of the men’s shawl, Luirim, between these two communities is not a recent development. For the Tangkhul community, this shawl holds profound significance beyond its material form, serving as a symbol of the wearer’s status within society and the accomplishments one can attain during their lifetime. While the mutual ownership and cultural significance of Luirim kachon are generally acknowledged by both the communities, the veracity and sincerity of the N Biren Singh’s statement have raised doubts among the people. To numerous individuals, it appeared more as a political maneuvering rather than a genuine demonstration of cultural significance.

Being the elected chief minister of the state, he is not a representative of just one community. To a significant number of people in Manipur, it seemed that he was representing the Meitei community. His assertion regarding the relationship between the Tangkhul and Meitei, and the shared ownership of Luirim phee has endangered the sentiments of other communities in Manipur.

Tuisem Ngakang is a researcher based in Delhi. The author may be reached at tuisem.ngakang@gmail.com

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