A Personal Statement About History

Memory is life, borne by living societies founded in its name. It remains in permanent evolution, open to the dialectic of remembering and forgetting, unconscious of its successive deformations, vulnerable to manipulation and appropriation, susceptible to being long dormant and periodically revived. History, on the other hand, is the reconstruction, always problematic and incomplete, of what is no longer. Memory is a perpetually actual phenomenon, a bond tying us to the eternal present; history is the representation of the past... Memory is absolute, while history can only conceive the relative.
Pierre Nora

History is so obvious for the simple reason that it has happened;
and it is even damned for this very nature of being already passed that we can hardly change it. Kings and kingdoms, the ages, battles and landmarks posit us in a situation where we can see that the past is a bridge to the future. It is for those who are interested in our collective evolution and the record of our time. It can be facts as well as opinions: the former, because it exists regardless of our inclinations or prejudices; and the latter, because people with ulterior motives can interpret it to suit their interests.

This piece aims to explore the past in the hope that ideas and knowledge will help us understand better how we have been evolving, what we are today and how we can move forward. This is not an academic or historical introspection per se but rather an individual recollection; a personal statement, from frustration about the unbearable present while hoping all’s not lost yet. There was glory in the past and we can only be hopeful about the future. It is about this part of the world: We are known as the Northeast India and very little is known beyond the ‘name calling’! It is amazing how things of the past, those bygone days and eras which we can do little about, can be such a kind of vexation and put a huge question mark over our existence.   


Sandwiched between South and Southeast Asia, the Northeast India is a region, which if we have to study its existence, we will need to rethink the thoughts and theories in humanities, or redefine the concepts. This region has been inhabited since the dawn of human civilization but it has weaved a different story of its own for reasons ranging from geopolitical to the local milieux . It is unique as much as it is isolated even today. But the previous statement of isolation is not endorsing New Delhi’s declaration of inclusive growth on paper — it is so sympathising because we have been always set apart; so much that we do not even exist in the Indian national consciousness after more than six decades of independence. Clearly it is not following the old British masters who used to maintain a sort of status quo when dealing with this region during the Imperial days.

The problem starts from its geographical name itself. It is gross injustice to club together so many varying elements of people, places and their stories under one roof. Unfortunately it is, for the politically incorrect reason that race cannot be separated from politics; albeit it is another issue for now. When things go bad it tends to get worse instead of the other way round. Perhaps we can term it as relativity.     

The Northeast has a complex assortment of tribal and nontribal people comprising more than 160 ethnic groups, and speaking more than 220 languages and dialects in an area that spreads over 262,230 sq km. Back in my native place Manipur, which is one of the worst conflict-torn provinces, there are around 2.7 million people belonging to more than 35 different groups. It is no wonder, how reading history can be a Herculean task when so many societies are already mired in a chronic social degradation and underdevelopment. The silver lining is that we are in the age of indigenous people.

Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.


Until recently, we were like an unknown, insignificant no man’s land lying between Myanmar to the east and mainland India in the west. The process of nation building in the postcolonial period can be such a disgrace to many people. In South Asian history we had been a people without history and who do not look alike; and in that of the Southeast, we were an invisible South Asian people. It is injustice to the core, all because of our geopolitical position and an unfortunate reading or misreading of the past by the people who matter the most. Things have been slowly changing though, thanks to a whole generation asking about its place in the contemporary world. You cannot fool all the people all the time!

The study of history vis-à-vis our own personal memory and that of the collective is a field that needs more introspection urgently. Interestingly it offers ample space for arguments and counterarguments. It is a given that humanities suffer from weakness of empiricism unlike for example, the more experimental and accurate study of physical sciences. Yet this can be no cover for our ignorance.
Bridging the gap between the past and the present
Image courtesy: ISTV Imphal

While the entire humanities are facing an existential crisis in this age of technology and professionalism whatever these mean, there are valid reasons why we cannot afford to ignore them. Besides, historiography and cultural studies can shed more light on how history and memory shape our existence in a substantial way. And here, we are mostly concerned about this issue in the frontier regions of India, which is as well a recently signified bridge between South and Southeast Asia, built in the epiphany of the Great Indian Eight-Percent-Growth Economy. From a nondescript no man’s land to becoming a promising bridge, we had had quite a long history.

One of the major problems is the lack of a starting point, which is much worse than the lack of documentation that many people in this region face. Maybe our age-old oral tradition, despite its unreliability is relatively is no less from the western concepts of history and historiography. Like the inflexibility of religion, we cannot question beyond a point, here in this context the consolidation of seven principalities in the Manipur valley a couple of millennia ago. For clarity and convenience, we can separate the known from the unknown from recent literature in the province.

As modern history shows, we have our share of pain and pleasure. Artistically and culturally we have been fortunate in a sense that it has highly developed on a global scale, despite the prevailing circumstances. However, as a failed state in this age we cannot help but see the narratives on how we had been subjected to, pushed and expressed, doubtlessly for all the bad reasons. We can pinpoint a few factors that have helped us tremendously in our failings and unconscious blunders:
•    one, the advent of Hinduism that imposed Aryan supremacy and its consequences, plus cultural genocide over the last three centuries or so;
•    two, the Seven Years’ Devastation, locally known as Chahi Taret Khuntaakpa, when the Awa from present-day Myanmar uprooted the then existing system and siege the land in 1819 (this was perhaps the worst among such frequent counter-raids and devastations during those heydays of the erstwhile Konbaung Dynasty);
•    three, the merger of the then kingdom to British India in 1891 because the ruling class was lost in incestuous pursuits of pleasure and power, like it is in our age with the addition of property; and
•    four, the merger to the union of India, the controversial Merger Agreement and the unsolved issues of insurgency which continue till date.

Each time, it appears history is truncated while replacing our memories, regardless of how illogical were the events. Yes, history can be too crappy at times. A very, very wise man can easily manipulate it and hoodwink the masses.

It is a fact that the matter is aggravated by other factors. Social loafing, for instance which is a process of exerting less force when we are in a group, can be a simple reason for the amnesia. Individual memories are clearer but these are subjective and grossly insufficient. So it follows that we need to focus more than just state the facts, no matter how we are interpreting from individual interests. Awareness is the key to our endeavour of building a just and peaceful society.

We have as well political and economical reasons that are beyond an individual’s capacity and are a curse to a larger entity like a state or a kingdom. These are apparent in the controversies and discrimination of writing history textbooks in mainland India. Recently, when the right-wing BJP won the national election in May 2014, the leftists purportedly downloaded the entire school textbooks from the database of the National Council of Educational Research and Training on a fear real or imagined. (Read: How Modi defeated liberals like me – Shiv Visvanathan)

The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.
George Orwell
Manipur invented Polo
Image courtesy: The Stiff Collar


Officially in Manipur, we started our history with the crowning of Nongda Lairen Pakhangba in 33 AD as recorded in the Cheitharol Kumbaba, a royal court chronicle. However, ample sources and evidences have shown the origin of civilisation dates back to a much earlier period. The discovery of Tharon caves and Napachik, a Stone Age site, for example, proves we share Neolothic and Hòa Bình cultures with some of the other well-known excavated areas in Southeast Asia. Archaeology and anthropology can be mixed with history to get a blissful cocktail of knowing about ourselves.

The memories are sporadic until we have a clearer picture from the medieval period: we can mention Loyamba and the father-son regimes of Mungyamba and Khagemba sometime in the 16th–17th centuries, then the contested rulers in the post-Hindu era. The revivalists will certainly object to this implication of a blank period but as much as this is certain for we are clueless, so is the problem of images created by overlapping histories and memories. The drawing of fine line between the past and the present has been a major counterproductive approach to solve our deepening identity crisis that we are facing today. And the problem of identifying the ‘identity’ is even worse.

A simple account of the present maze shows that history and memory can result in violent conflicts. For instance, we have a few unhidden facts. On a common territory, the Nagas and the Meiteis are fighting for the right to self-determination. Closer home, there is a campaign for promoting native belief and value systems — to take an example, from 2014 onwards, an authoritative cultural group has decreed the banning of literary books that use loan words from alien languages, read Sanskrit, Hindi and Bengali. This kind of coercion is rampant in the same proportion of how corrupted we are. The consequences of this rigidity have resulted in the formation of a society with no conscience and the growth of individuals with no roots. But frankly, we are fed up of parochialism. It is bad there is little room for discussion, and worse we are not doing it.

The overlapping history is not only confined to the local, but extends to the entire nation. Theoretically, the people of a nation have a common narrative but it is overwhelmingly complex as apparent from the present political conflicts in Northeast India. It is unsurprising the natives are up in arms against the state for using force to weave a story that all of us would share, though it has been relegated to issues of law and problem, lack of employment, geographical backwardness and what not. There are more losses as we fall into the abyss of isolation while the globalised world demands integration with no question. In short, the layers of problems are becoming thicker with the passing time.

Manipur is passing through a critical phase of her history. Historical scholarship is facing a crisis of historical interpretation. There can be use or misuse of history. Historian shall not be and cannot be neutral. He is to be objective and shall stand by the side of the truth.
Gangmumei Kabui
Combing operation and frisking:
A common sight in and around Manipur
Image courtesy: The Hindu  


Jan Assmann, the German Egyptologist divides collective memory into four parts: [i] material memory, based on objects; [ii] mimetic memory, based on imitation; [iii] communicative memory, based on oral discussion; and [iv] cultural memory, based on written and visual carriers of information.

He explains, “Cultural memory is not the same as personal memory; it’s a kind of collective memory that develops through communication, through language, or, in other words, within a context of socialisation. Our world is socially constructed on the foundations of collective thought; every one of us possesses, on the one hand, an individual memory, and, on the other, a social one. Cultural memory is manifested in communication and participation in living memory, in a process which takes different forms, encompassing rituals, meals and the landscape.”

The objective existence is clear, thanks to the various studies on the issues in other parts of the world. But as noted earlier, we need delineations that will provide a more accurate perspective, or an approach that suits the local tastes.

A host of events and issues have blockaded the process of memorisation, from the arrival of Hinduism to the controversial merger of the erstwhile kingdom to the union of India. We cannot undo the history; still the past offers a path to the future that we are deprived of in the present.

To cite one pragmatic case, we can handpick the issues and challenges in our relationship with Myanmar. Throughout history, we shared a close tie, socio-culturally as well as politico-economically and now, we have a trade agreement for some 40 items from the 90s after being cut off blatantly following the period of political Indianisation. Ironically we did not have this kind of close relationship with mainland India, until 1949 when we were merged and devalued from a proud kingdom with a 2,000-year-old civilisation to a Part-C state administered by a chief commissioner. India is too insensitive. Leave Manipur, there is no Northeast in the national consciousness — except getting hold of some prejudices and ridiculous views.

In such a case, exploring more Eastern stories will be more helpful in our forward march. Nation building and Indianisation can wait. This is also significant because landlockedness has always been blamed for our underdevelopment. For an idea, the Northeast is linked to mainland India through a narrow Siliguri corridor, which covers a mere 21 km giving rise to the pathetic chicken-neck syndrome while the region shares an international border with Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Myanmar and Nepal that extends to more than 4,500 km.

To aggravate, it is damnable that the history of the Northeast started only from the postcolonial period in popular imagination. The myopic vision in policy formulation and administration and the consideration of the region through a narrow perspective of security worsen the situation to the hilt. Lately, the dramatic progress of Southeast Asia in the last three to four decades has changed the scenario as evident from brouhaha over the Look East Policy. Yet there are more to read between the lines in other aspects of nation building, state formation and importantly, our views of what a nation is.

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.
Karl Marx
Image courtesy: Anonymous ART of Revolution

Many of us are in a fix because as things stand today, we have been far removed from the global currents. The assertion of the revivalists and reformists sounds too exaggerating — always prompting us to ask if we were so good then why we are in such a deep pool of excrements and never considering its approach is one of the reasons why there are rampant conflicts. In the same breath, this does not imply the state is more facilitative. The mass is lost in a whirlwind of chronic unrest and nothingness. Then, there are many people who are satisfied with the status quo on one hand, and those who justify the bloody history and many of us are even taking pride in it, on the other. It is a mess to connect an intolerant contemporary society to a degraded past. And if we take a step back, ethnic contestation is spread all over the region, be it Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland or others. New Delhi should accept it has contributed a fair share of illogical reasons to these complexities. But we know it will never intervene, because it has never done it and we do not mind it either.

Claims and counterclaims for ethnic and national identities have also worsened the historiographical disagreements. All of these are making the present unbearably hard. At the end of the day it is so essential that people share a collective memory. The exception of India-Pakistan hostility proves the rule.

The existence of memory determines we are going to live together in the present and plan for the future. Alternatively, it would be hard to realize what we have to do, as we are facing it today. Evolution has been quite a process and calls for introspection because there are more unknown things than the known. We know Mt Koubru is very special. We know we have evolved as a martial race. As much as the Bengalese had been catalytic, we had mixed and mingled so many things from the Shans and the Pongs and beyond. It is only a matter of time we will know our story completely as much as genuinely. We judge ourselves from things we think we can do; but people judge us from what we have done. Sad but true.

With these limitations it will be making haste and waste to jump to conclusions. Even if there is little space for deliberation we cannot afford to be extravagant in always taking the extreme steps — in a society like ours, where violence seems to be both the means and the end — the denial mode is unsurprising but reality is always bitter. Like language and religion, history is always evolving. This is a hopeful reply to the existing frustration of being stranded at a crossroad bogged down by an existential crisis. We are going to change for good.

-- Concluded.


Archive on the popular website E-pao, History of Manipur, A compilation of articles related to the history of Manipur

Caroline Gaudriault, Conversation with Jan Assmann: Historian and Specialist about the Cultural Memories, ZigZag Blog

Deep Ecology Hub, Have You Heard of The Great Forgetting? It Happened 10,000 Years Ago and Completely Affects Your Life

Ethel St. Clair Grimwood, My Three Years in Manipur and Escape from the Recent Mutiny, 1891

George Novack, Understanding History: Major Theories Of History From The Greeks To Marxism
Marxist Archive

Major W. McCulloch, Account of the Valley of Munnipore and of the Hill Tribes

Maurice Halbwachs, an extract from The Collective Memory

Michel Foucault, Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias

The Ministry of Development of Northeast Region, Border Trade

Wangkhemcha Chingtamlen, The Discovery of Kangleipak (A compilation)

Pierre Nora, Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire, Representations, No. 26, Special Issue: Memory and Counter-Memory. (Spring, 1989), pp. 7–24

Saroj Nalini Arambam Parratt, The Court Chronicle of the Kings of Manipur: The Cheitharon Kumpapa [Vol 1 (Routledge); Vol 2 1764–1843 CE (Cambridge University Press, Foundation Books); and Vol 3 1843–1892 CE (Cambridge University Press, Foundation Books)]


History of Manipur
Gangmumei Kabui

The Origin of Meiteis of Manipur
I Mohendra

The Wounded Land
John Parratt

Hijam Irabot and his Political Movement
K Manimohan

British Policy Towards Manipur, Colonialism and Christian Mission
Lal Dena

From Feudalism to Democracy, History of Modern Manipur to the Social Movement of Manipur and the Revolutionary Movement in Manipur
N Joykumar

Unquiet Valley
N Lokendra

Manipur: Past and Present (in four volumes)
N Sanajaoba

The Eastern Frontier of India
RB Pemberton

Rethinking Colonialism
Th Kishan

Manipur in 1AD, 400 AD and 900 AD

In the 900 AD map, is Hidimba most likely to be Manipur? Presumably, with all the Mahabharata craps.

Clearly the names are from secondary sources. The name ‘Manipur’ was coined only three centuries ago after the imposition of Hinduism as the main religion of the erstwhile kingdom. Throughout history, the kingdom was known by different names. Some of them include:

Meitrabak | Kangleipak | Meeteileipak | Mayai Koiren Poirei Namthak Saronpung | Tilli Koktong Ahanba | Meera Pongthoklam | Tilli Koktong Leikoiren | Muwapalli

The Shans and Pongs knew us as Cassay
the Burmese: Kathe
the Assamese: Meklee
East India Company: Meckley




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