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Northeast India Matters: weaving our collective histories

Binalakshmi Nepram

Updated: November 20, 2012, 1:11 PM IST
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Did you know that the Chinese called Manipur 'Hso Po lo mein' and the Burmese called it 'Kathe', that Manipur called Tripura 'Takhel' and that till date there is a beautiful flower in Manipur called 'Takhel-lei' which means flower of Takhel/Tripura? To many in India, we are just one block of people, 'The Northeasterners'. Isn't it time to weave our collective histories?

For more than 63 years in the history of the independent Republic of India, the history/histories of 45 million of its citizens living in 8 states of the northeast region of the country have been absent from our school, college and university text books. This ignorance or lack of awareness is one of the major causes of the wrong perception about them. This is one of the main reasons that people of the northeast region are discriminated against when they travel for study and work to different parts of India. Citizens, scholars and the general populace feel that this needs to be urgently fixed.

Northeast India is home to over 272 ethnic groups and communities. However, there is no collective writing, publication or inclusion of its varied histories in the syllabi or the text books of the country's schools and universities. Lack of proper understanding of the region's history and its experiences has been the main impediment to proper policy formulation. Compilation of collective histories of some of the many ethnic communities will go a long way in building community peace-building in India's northeast and also help forge true pan-India unity.

The unmentioned histories of northeast India:

The northeast Indian region is home to eight states and is rich in indigenous chronicles, many of which were penned about 2000 years back like the "Cheitharol Kumbaba" (Manipur), "Rajmala" (Tripura), "Buranjis" (Assam) etc. The "heitharol Kumbaba: The Royal Chronicle of Manipur" is a monumental work covering the history of Manipur. It provides a detailed month-by-month record of 76 kings till date.

The Ahom kingdom of medieval Assam maintained chronicles which are called "Buranjis", written in the Ahom and the Assamese languages. Besides Manipur and Assam, the other northeastern state which had its own chronicle is Tripura. The history of Tripura first finds reference in the Ashokan pillars of 3rd century BC. Indian history does not mention that in the 1300s AD, Tripura came under the control of the Manikya dynasty, a family of Indo-Mongolian origin. Monarchy in Tripura ended on September 9, 1947, and the state officially became a part of India on October 15, 1949.

On May 15, 1975, Sikkim became the 22nd state of the Indian Union. Which history book states that the modern history of Sikkim begins in 1642 AD, which saw the consecration of the then King Phuntsog Namgyal as the Chogyal? And that soon after 1947, political parties began to be formed in Sikkim? The Indian Government helped prepare a constitution for Sikkim which was approved by its national assembly in 1974 and one year later in 1975, a special referendum was held in which more than 97 per cent of the electorate voted for the merger of Sikkim with India.

The history of Meghalaya, too, like the rest finds no mention anywhere. It is famous for being home to the rainiest place in the world, Cherrapunji. That the British occupied the Garo Hills in 1872 and that Meghalaya joined the Indian Union to be declared a full-fledged state on January 21, 1972, is not found anywhere. The story is much the same for Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh.

Northeast India also has lots of oral history in the form of folktales, folksongs, lullabies, church records, private letters of the World War II period etc available abundantly in each of the northeastern states. They have been passed over the years by their ancestors but none of them have been recorded properly.

There is no collective writing, publication or inclusion of its varied histories in the syllabi or text books of the country's schools, colleges and universities. Hence, documentation of materials of historical importance to northeast India is very much needed as it will help in better understanding of this region which in turn will help to bring peace and development to the area. The documentation should include both archival as well as non-archival materials such as church records, private letters of the World War II period along with the orally narrated histories, folktales, folk songs etc.

Understanding and noticing this major lacunae, a joint team of Manipur Women Gun Survivor Network and Northeast India Women Initiative for Peace, two women-led civil society movements in the northeast region joined hands with the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) and in coordination organised a conference "Documenting History - Written and Oral Histories of Manipur", at Imphal, Manipur on October 13, 2012. Many eminent personalities including historians, scholars, activists, media people and representatives from women's organisations attended the meet.

Chief guest at the meet and MLA RK Anand hailed the conference as a "historic initiative" and pledged the support of the Manipur government to ensure that a due process of drawing up an inclusive syllabus happens. He also stressed on the need to prepare a much needed "roadmap". Delivering the inaugural address, Professor Basudev Chattterji, chairman of ICHR, stated that "History is not a battlefield where people say his history is right and others are wrong". The aim of ICHR is not to solve current problems but to seek an understanding that needs basic requirements such as "evidence". He lamented the sad state of affairs of Manipur's state archives. Dr Ishrat Alam, member secretary, ICHR, shared that ICHR was an autonomous body created in 1972 and that the organisation was yet to work on India's northeast region.

Professor Gangmumei Kamei, eminent historian, lauded the fact that it was for the first time that ICHR realised the importance of study of oral history. He called upon ICHR to start a big project with technically qualified people to start work on documenting both oral and written history/ies of Manipur and the region. He mentioned the NCERT-dictated guidelines for syllabi from Class VII to Class XII and said that there could be local variations.

Professor N Lokendra, registrar of Manipur University, stated that in the earlier part of his research period in the 1980s, many files he wanted to take a look at were not available for researchers as the rule at that time required permission of the home department to access post-1920 files. He also stated that history of Southeast Asia actually starts from the northeast region and he gave his commitment to work with ICHR to take the process forward. He would plead the case with Vice-Chancellor, Manipur University, he assured.

Dr Arambam Ongbi Memchoubi stated, "We need to trace our own history in our own indigenous ways." She also lamented that women in Manipur were not allowed to touch or read scripts of earlier times and that women historians of Manipur were hardly recognised. She also narrated how the first Queen of Manipur was called Laisana or "Laisara", meaning she was the chieftain of the Lai people. Manipur had a tradition of warrior queens, she said.

Dr Jibon Kumar Sharma, Director, Manipur Institute of Management Studies (MIMS), held that history and decision making were closely related. The past always had an impact on the present and so, we should create knowledge of how to go about in documenting and preserving our histories, he maintained.

Nepram Bihari, author of "Cheitharol Kumbaba", said that in the early period some evidences were lacking in respect of archeological, anthropological and cultural findings but in the 11th and 12th century AD, these short comings were found incorporated in the royal diary which we term as "Cheitharol Kumbaba".

Manipur's unique identity derives from its archaic script as evidences from stone inscriptions/coins show. The meeting concluded with a historic resolution in which the following resolutions were unanimously taken where it:

Called upon Indian Council of Historical Research to start work on documenting history- both written and oral of Manipur; Urged the Government of Manipur and Manipur University to take lead in initiating the process of documenting, archiving history/ies of Manipur;

Called for constitution of an eminent panel task force in Manipur to start the process;

Called upon the Indian Council of Historical Research to work with all the above-mentioned stakeholders to ensure that history of Manipur and northeast India is included in Indian history as it is taught via school, college and university text books.

The Manipur meeting was one of the first convention of this kind and many more will follow suit in all different states of the region. Generations of people in India have grown up without knowing this part of country. The continuous discrimination faced by people of the region when they travel to different parts of India stems from this basic mistake. The much-needed work for righting this wrong has finally started.

Weaving collective histories can be an important process in nation building. Letting young children grow up in different parts of India with an understanding, reading and experience of the rich history, culture, cuisines of northeast India will go a long way in nurturing the region and strengthening the nation as a whole. It's an idea whose time has come.
First Published: November 20, 2012, 1:11 PM IST
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