Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh
The joy of Independence Day permeated all over Manipur on August 14 1947. I was there. But, Manipur had an Achilles Heel, the Manipur State Congress. Another fatal weakness for the superficial was the inherent silliness of the premise that Meiteis and Meiteilon are Tibeto-Burman.
The aesthetic offence of the 1950’s educational revolution, seduced by Grierson, was to dupe young Meiteis into believing something that is not true.
Like Meitei insurgents my love for Manipur remains undiminished. The coming of August 14, 2017 has bolstered my faith in the singularity of Meiteis and Meiteilon. The combination of realism and fairytale in its antithesis, plotting against each other, is so baroque that it gives a novelistic impression. As rationality remains a super tool with which to investigate our ethnic origin which is uncalled for, and language, even the most adherent fan of the Tibeto-Burman genre should carry on over any linguistic hurdles, and stop being Don Quixote, and believing in The Arabian Nights .
The beginning began with a couple of British ethnologists, and linguists like Grierson. Like early 19-century geologists who struggled in vain to reconcile their findings with religious biblical accounts, they had a wave of fashionable interest with unfulfilled intellectual appetite to turn a small-scale analysis into big-picture speculation, such as Meiteis and Meiteilon are Tibeto-Burman.
Some people will have to suspend their belief, though many won’t struggle to do so for their minds have been opened by whatever kind of key causes people to believe. I’ve begun to avoid looking into the mirror as I always think: Wow … that’s a big head. We need to be lost to find ourselves and not rely on old yarns of who we are.
I keep bringing up this subject with intermittent vigour because of newer evidence that crops up while the subject is still faced with the same runaway vehicle, carrying the old story clearly and cheerfully, with just the right speed and a whiff of adult satire of pedantic pretensions that might cause Grierson to squirm in embarrassment.
Meiteilon as Tibeto-Burman, abounds in literary allusions, with frequent references to linguistic bigwigs, such as Benedict, noting that, since Benedict’s manuscript of 1941 and reconstruction in 1972, Meiteilon has been flipping on its head. There’s now more evidence of linguistic immaturity in classifying Meiteilon, from the 9th International Conference on the Northeast Indian Linguistic Society, Tezpur University, Assam in February 2016.
Linguistics as a discipline has leapt to academic prominence since only 1960s. Knowledge of language is an inherent part of human beings. By the time we are three years old everyone can speak the native language. This leads some writers down the garden path to have the delusion that he/she is an expert in dealing with something as universal as language.
There are fables of Tibeto-Burman migrations, such as that of Meiteis coming from you know where; or the nonsense of a recent study (2015) that went as far as to posit Sherpas of Nepal, who have lived for thousands of years in the Himalayas, as being the ancestors of Tibetans, simply because of their adaptation to low atmospheric oxygen at higher altitudes. In 1994, a study concluded that the Sherpas migrated from Tibet about 600 years ago.
What’s not outrageous is the new genetic proof that Meiteis are not Tibeto-Burman. A genetic study by 11 Indian researchers, including 4 Meiteis: Sanjembam YM, Devi KN, Nongthombam AD and Khangengbam SM at the Department of Anthropology, Delhi University, published in 2009, proved that Meiteis are not Tibeto-Burman; probably an Austroasiatic like the Khasi but with a mixed gene pool.
Another genetic study by 7 researchers including 2 Meiteis: Sanjenbam Yaiphaba Meitei, Khagenbam Somibabu Meitei at the Department of Anthropology, Vidyasagar University, W Bengal and Biochemical and Molecular Anthropological Laboratory, University of Delhi, published in 2012, independently confirmed that Meiteis are not migrants from Southeast Asia.
Endlessly reproduced, parodied and ripped off is the legendary work of Grierson that interleave Meiteilon as Tibeto-Burman. What bristles against this circumscribed linguistic fantasy is the logic that, if Meiteis are proven non- Tibeto-Burman, their native language cannot be Tibeto-Burman.
There are footnotes and endnotes, and our ambiguous narrative in the present tense, germinated from a motley few English-educated Meiteis in post WWII, with their approach to literacy that stressed the acquisition of appropriate verbal and cognitive skills. At the heart of this scholastic reasoning lies the inadvertent theme of ‘betrayal’ of the true nature of Meiteis and Meiteilon, like all John Le Carré’s spy novels.
In post-WWII, a few Meiteis having read citations from books written 100 years ago by colonialists, who after looking at our facial physiognomy (Mongoloid), conveniently clumped Meiteis and Meiteilon together with Tibeto-Burman, lost reason-d’être of the uniqueness of Meiteis and Meiteilon. Unlike our Meitei forefathers who did not have the propensity to radicalise self-invention, they fell hook, line, and sinker for the fabricated Meitei origin and Meiteilon. There are linguistic experts, but all academic publications aren’t trustworthy. New findings may later supersede them.
There are some in the Brave New World, who challenge conventional beliefs. One is Heath Robinson, English cartoonist, who invented a contraption ‘to overcome the difficulties of conveying green peas to the mouth’. Understanding that, by using observation and critical thought it is often possible to discover the truth, rather than searching for answers in fantasy, I propositioned in my book (2008) The origin of the Meiteis of Manipur & Meiteilon … that, as a genetic and geographic subgroup “Meiteis were just here” in Manipur as yelhoumee – autochthons, from time beyond memory.
My hypothesis fits in with Graham Thurgood, professor Emeritus of California University, Ohio, US and Randy J LaPolla, professor of Linguistics, Nanjing Technological University, Singapore. They write in their book ‘Foreign Language study’ (2006. p188): “As with Karbi, it seems safe to leave Meitei (Meiteilon, Manipuri) by itself.
LaPolla says: “We should constantly challenge our most basic assumptions with arguments presented with a view to convincing us to change our conception of Sino-Tibetan [Tibeto-Burman] and to change the name of the family. The amount of research on them, both diachronic and synchronic, has multiplied in the last few decades.”
Robbins Burling, an American professor of anthropology and linguistics found that, “The people of Northeastern India often construct migration stories in an attempt to explain the history and the present distribution of tribes. ‘Where did the so-and-so come from?’ is a question that has no meaning. While people certainly migrate, they rarely do so as coherent tribes. Westerners should understand while contemplating Northeastern Babel [Babel in the Bible as a source of single language], it is hard to avoid the suspicion that languages have been manipulated in order to be different.”
The fundamental of my thinking against Grierson’s is narcissistically a monster of debate but not without apologists, such as Prof Sobhana L Chelliah, University of North Texas, Sohini Ray, Prof (Emeritus) of Anthropology & Linguistics, University of Michigan, and Prof Robbins Burling, who has a deeper understanding of Northeast languages.
Recently, I read an article (April 2011) by Pauthang Haokip, Linguistics, Assam University, Silchar. He writes scholarly that, “Manipuri is often regarded as constituting a genetic subgroup within the so called Kuki-Chin-Naga group. But Burling and Thurgood in 2003 pointed out that there is no clear evidence to show that. Manipuri shares only some lexical similarities with the Kuki-Chin languages and Tangkhul due to prolonged contact between these languages. The position of Manipuri within Tibeto-Burman is yet to be properly determined.
The exact number of Manipuri dialects is somehow not made clear by previous researchers working on the language. According to Yashwanta (1995), there are four major Manipuri dialects, though Thoudam (1980) lists eight dialects. Chelliah (1997) suggests the list of dialects given by Thoudam is just geographical names rather than dialectal names of Manipuri.”
Chelliah hit the nail on the head. I think Yashwanta is a scholar and Thoudam is pedantic. As for pragmatic competence, Chelliah wrote to me: “the position of Meiteilon is still uncertain. It needs a PhD thesis”. It is for the linguistic department of Manipur University, to research but, with the predicate that Meiteilon is NOT Tibeto-Burman.
Burling has scoffed Matisoff and Grierson: Matisoff for “a laudable admission of ignorance for grouping Northeast Indian languages as ‘Kamarupan’ as there is nothing like any convincing genetic classification, and Grierson “for nonsensical classification as ‘North Assam branch’ which was no better substantiated.”(having an interest in Meiteilon I went to see Matisoff in 1989 at Berkeley by the undersea train across San Francisco Bay).
Burling emphasises that “When reliable comparative phonology is lacking, as it generally is in Northeastern India, even judging cognate status often requires an uncomfortable amount of guesswork. In the absence of reliable phonological analyses or good description of morphology and syntax, we have no choice but to rely primarily upon the lexicon for tentative judgements and to toss languages together under arbitrary geographic labels that do more to hide than to clarify the relationship among languages.”
Meiteilon is enigmatic, and the most enduring Manipuri literature like the legend of the Holy Grail, Christ’s cup of the Last Supper. It is searching for the elusive truth. We haven’t heard the last about Meiteilon.
(The writer is based in the UK. Email:[email protected] Website: www.drimsingh.co.uk)
Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh