Manipur’s chief minister Nongthombam Biren Singh is going to chew over this for a while. Because, the birth of Meitei nationalism in Manipur was predicated on reactions to what was perceived as Indian colonialism—a sentiment that continues to derail India’s attempts to extinguish rebellion in that frontier state. That narrative insists India underhandedly brought the independent state of Manipur to its embrace in 1949 by a coerced treaty of accession. Even, that Hinduism dazzled the Meitei people backed by brutal patronage of the state in the early 1700s, and deliberately attacked Sanamahi, a local religious practice.
It’s been a couple of weeks since Biren, of the majority Meitei people, mouthed off at a rally in Gujarat’s Madhavpura village. It was seen back home as at best a cheap shot and at worst a capitulation to his political masters in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its project of religious-nationalistic fervour. In the time of Lord Krishna, North-East India was a single entity, Biren said. Indeed, Lord Krishna “made them part of India" by marrying the princess Rukmini, which he alluded was in Arunachal Pradesh.
Protest is yet to die down in Manipur, with social networks and media keeping the matter robustly alive, sharing the video of Biren’s speech, and accusing him of selling Manipur’s soul.
There’s reason for this angst. There are modern-day political myths rooted in the Mahabharata that claim Krishna’s principal wife was from the North-East. That the Pandava warrior Arjun had a son, Babruvahana, by marrying the princess Chitrangada from “Manipur". I’ve even read in Hindu-pride texts that Ulupi, the serpent princess who married this philandering archer had a connect with Ukhrul, the redoubt of the Tangkhul Naga tribe of present-day Manipur.
It all sets Meitei nationalists’ teeth on edge. In the wake of Biren’s grandstanding in Gujarat, Raghu Ningthoujam, a scientist with Indian Space Research Organization wrote a detailed essay in the popular Manipuri portal e-pao.net, dismissing Biren’s statement with a scientific, sarcastic approach that separated myth from political marketing. He also claimed the Manipur of Chitrangada was actually Manipura or Manikapatnam, near the coast north-east of Bhubaneshwar.
I recall a conversation with the Meitei nationalist historian and theatre guru Arambam Lokendra in Imphal some years ago. Brahmins came from Bengal to the kingdom of Manipur in the 15th century, he told me. They were initially accorded low status, the professor said, but because of their knowledge of rituals, of their larger world religion, they began to “infiltrate" society and culture. There was great contest between the indigenous Sanamahi religion and the arriviste Hindu religion over what he termed “truths and realities"—ideological struggles, really. Gradually, he explained, because of the growth of various ethnic communities, power of the state perforce became more extensive; “and they needed a much more heightened ritual to theatricalize the authority of the body of the king as representative of the cosmos."
The Brahmins were happy to oblige. They gradually gained prominence as spiritual advisers to the king and nobility. They found a key convert in the king Meidingu Pamheiba, who later adopted the name Gharib Nawaz, and who made Hinduism the state religion in 1720. History records forcible conversions.
When Tantrik priests arrived from Sylhet in present-day Bangladesh, they upped the mythology stakes, Professor Lokendra maintained. Manipur-as-part-of-Mahabharata became an essential component of new mythology, the Arjun-Chitrangada liaison being one such. This discourse became entrenched. A civil society movement in 1934, the Nikhil Hindu Manipuri Mahasabha, actually encouraged prizes for writing such history.
As far back as that, Meitei radicals and Sanamahi practitioners—often the same—went to Odisha to photograph and document a village called Manipur, which records a legend, a tradition of Arjuna’s visit. Religious resistance grew, leading to a revival of the Sanamahi movement in the 1930s. A form of communism merged with nationalism would soon follow, later riding the tiger of armed rebellion.
As Biren ought to know, mythology can cut both ways.
Sudeep Chakravarti’s books include Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India, Red Sun and Highway 39. This column focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights and runs on Thursdays