Manipuri or Meitei ?

Dr S Birahari Singh
The identity of Meitei is in the making. It is not yet complete. The statements are given seeing the general confusion in the use of two terms-- ‘Manipuri’ and ‘Meitei’. It is a fact that the entry of the terms ‘Manipur’ and ‘Manipuri’ in Meiteilon vocabulary germinated the confusion. Structural, etymological, chronological and semantic aspects of the terms are given here in an attempt to dispel the confusion. Objective and evaluative understandings are highly solicited.
From a structural point of view the term ‘Manipur’ has two syllables -– “Mani” and “pur”. ‘Manipuri’ is made with a suffix ‘i’ at the end of the term ‘Manipur’. Etymologically it has its root in Sanskrit. Chronologically it entered Meiteilon vocabulary, most likely, during the reign of Pamheiba, the King of Manipur. Semantically it refers to a territorial group of people living in the state of Manipur irrespective of race, religion and language. Precisely, ‘Manipuri’ is the demonym of Manipur.
Structurally the term ‘Meitei’ has two syllables ‘Mei’ and ‘tei’. It needs no prefix and suffix . It is complete in itself. Etymologically it has its root in Meiteilon. Chronologically it is Meitei’s primordial name. Semantically it refers to any Meitei living anywhere in the world whose ancestral origin is believed to be in Meitrabak,  present Manipur. It is one of the mongoloid ethnic groups in Manipur, Assam, Tripura, Nagaland, Bangladesh and Myanmar.
Manipuri is also taken as a synonym of Meitei by the outsiders, non natives of Manipur. The same is endorsed by Meiteis also although there are de facto exceptions. By the by it is taken as an exonym of Meitei. Thus it became a misnomer of only Meitei. The inclusive term is converted to be an exclusive term arbitrarily. In this way there is a general confusion. Other ethnic groups of the state are also deprived of a demonym with which they are to identify themselves.
Again there are people among Meiteis who want to be called Meeteis. Acceptance of one onoma or name for the same community is not yet possible till now. Here “The Meitheis” written by TC Hodson can be referred to. The author impartially used two terms-- ‘Meithei’ and ‘Manipuri’ available in Meiteilon vocabulary in his time. He was truly neutral being a Britisher in the use of the terms though his book was given the title—“The Meitheis”.
Manipur is a multiethnic and multilingual state. Nobody can deny it. Hence the term ‘Manipuri’ cannot by itself refer to a particular community or language. Even though it is used arbitrarily to refer to a language or a community, there is a built in lacuna in itself. We can say Manipuri Meitei, Manipuri Tangkhul, etc. No ambiguity is with them. There is no gain or no loss for anyone or any group. Coherence or congruence between de facto terms and de jure terms will be established. Conceptual clarity will be ensured. Structural, etymological, chronological, phonetic and semantic differences of the terms strongly negate the claim of sameness of the two.
Numerical, structural, phonetic and derivative differences of the two sets of letters used by what is called Manipuri and Meiteilon solidify the negation. Bengali letters are replaced by Meitei Mayek  now-a-days. So there is no logic to retain the name Manipuri for our mother tongue because the letters came with the adoption of the name ‘Manipuri’ just like two faces of the same coin. There are Meiteis who argue that Meiteilon can be called Manipuri because it is a lingua franca of Manipur. According to their line of thinking, the English language also deserves to be called by another name because it is an international lingua franca. There are more than 100 languages in the world which use letters of the English alphabet for writing but their primordial names are retained. It is worth to be noted. Moreover, a Sanskrit name for a Tibeto Burman Language appears to be an odd thing.
Importance of primordial names, may be toponyms or ethnonyms, is never dead. Only knowledge of this importance is dormant among us. In short, primordial toponyms and ethnonyms are repositories of legacies. Change of primordial names is the usual practice of the colonialists in their colonies. There is no dearth of examples in history. Sadhguru, a world famous personality even referred to such practices as the technology of dominance and technology of enslaving in his talk to Kiran Bedi, former DGP of Delhi. Did Santidas Gosai have a colonialist mindset? A question worth to be asked.
A committee of anthropologists, sociologists, historians and linguists is to be constituted so as to make a revision of the terms as a prelude to legislations to be made accordingly in this regard. Let us try to have a clear identity like our counterparts around us.
The writer is retd Professor, YK College