Recent crisis in Manipur: Role of erosion of its link language
 Source : News Bharati English  Date : 26-Feb-2017

Manipur is reeling under an acute shortage of necessities four months into an economic blockade imposed by the United Naga Council. The blockade was announced by United Naga Council (UNC) after the Manipur Government decided to upgrade Sadar Hills and Jiribam areas to full-fledged districts.

Following the decision on November 1, the UNC militants blocked Imphal-Dimapur and Imphal-Jiribam highways indefinitely to deprive the valley people of essential supplies. This blockade is not the first one; since the Meitei inhabited valley is surrounded on all sides by hills where the tribes dwell, the blockade is an effective instrument of coercion and has often been used by the tribes in the past.

The Manipur Government subsequently created five more new districts and advanced the argument of greater administrative convenience. The NNC is not buying this argument. About three months into the blockade the Central Government had arranged a tripartite talk involving the Center, Manipur Government and NNC and this talk failed (early February 2017), and so the blockade and crisis of shortage of essential commodities continue.

The Home Minister Rajnath Singh has stated that the Central Government has assured all possible help including the deployment of security forces and accused the Congress Government of Manipur of playing politics and not deploying the forces to remove he blockade. He has also accused the state Government of spreading rumours that the NDA Government at the Center wishes to partition Manipur. He further assured that the Central Government wishes to preserve and protect the integrity of Manipur at all costs.

I shall like to avoid writing a commentary on the murky politics that is often on display in the Indian states and Manipur is no exception, and like to concentrate on the rationale behind the measure taken by the state Government if there is any. The question is why the Manipur Government decided to create the new districts.

Creation of new districts:

It is tied up with the demand for ‘Greater Nagaland’ of the NSCN(I-M), i.e. Isac-Muivah faction of National Socialist Council of Nagalim. The proponents of ‘Greater Nagaland’ have been clamouring for a division of Manipur along ethnic lines – the Meitei-dominated Valley and the Christianized-tribes-dominated Hills – and merger of the latter with the neighbouring State of Nagaland.

There are many tribes in Manipur out of which two major ones are matching in strength numerically – Tangkhuls and Kukis. The former are spearheading the so-called ‘Greater Nagaland’ movement, whereas the Kukis are not interested in it. The Kukis have a history of loyalty to India; they revolted against the British during the 1st World War. During the 2nd World War, many of them joined the Indian National Army (INA) of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. There are more than 150 Kuki INA veterans, who are alive and enjoy a pension from Government of India. Kukis are not so well armed and organised as the Tangkhuls who get patronage from the American Baptist church.

Following the demand for ‘Greater Nagaland’, there were a series of Tangkhul-Kuki violent conflicts in the 1990s and the Kukis were ethnically-cleansed from certain areas where they were a minority but sizable presence.

Against this backdrop they had a demand for creation of the Sadar Hills district where they would be in a majority and the Government of Manipur has conceded this demand as an antidote to the Greater Nagaland demand, and the message is not lost on the Tangkhul-dominated NSCN (I-M) since the Sadar Hills district has been carved out of Senapati district which is a part of the proposed Greater Nagaland.

The new Jiribam district was a part of the Imphal East district and creation of this district has a strategic dimension which is related again to the frequently employed blockade-tactic of the tribes. Jiribam town, the capital of the district and located right on the border with Cachar district in Assam, has the only railhead in Manipur. The railway line, a broad-gauge, is currently being extended up to Imphal.

Jiribam and Imphal are already connected by a national highway which is being blocked at the moment. A rail link and a goods train, with no passenger on board, are easier to protect from attacks and blockade-tactic. The road distance, along with NH 37, of Jiribam town from the state capital Imphal is only 201 km and the rail link is likely to be even shorter and to run close to the highway. No wonder that the activists of the Greater Nagaland movement are nervous. This brings us to the questions of how just is the demand for Grater Nagaland, who are the Naga and can the Tangkhuls be considered Naga and what the genesis of the Naga identity is.

Who Is A Naga?

When the colonial administrators and missionaries first visited the Naga Hills the tribals used to identify themselves with a particular tribe, such as Ao, Sema, Angami, etc. and not as a Naga. And this was the practice till as late as the 1950s. Elwin (2001, p.284-5) testifies to the above point based on his personal experience in the Naga Hills. He says,

“The derivation of the word ‘Naga’ is obscure… the name, however, was not in general use among the Nagas until recently. It was given to them by the people of the (Assam) plains and in the last century was used indiscriminately for the Abors and Dafias as well as for the Nagas themselves. Even as late as in 1954 I found the people of Tuensang (name of the mountain range) rarely speaking of themselves as Nagas but Konyaks, Changs, Phoms and so on…. Gradually however as the Nagas became more united they began to use the name for themselves, until today it has become widely popular”.

It is clear that the Naga identity is a new and evolving construct. The words, Naga and Nagamese, came into vogue in the closing years of the 19th century. Nagamese, a mildly distorted form of Assamese enriched by tribal words and expressions, is what the Nagas spoke with the plains people of Assam for centuries, which eventually became the lingua franca over a loosely defined territory. In order to spread literacy and facilitate administration the British, during the last few decades of their Raj, introduced Assamese-medium schools and that further deepened the hold of Nagamese in this territory.

It is this territory, known as Naga Hills during the British period, which demanded independence in 1947 and later became a state of the Indian Union, called Nagaland. After a long search the present authors have come to the conclusion that the language Nagamese was the only common institution among the tribes of Naga Hills, none of which called itself Naga only a half-century ago.

Even the Naga Hoho (2005), a gathering of tribal representatives, came much after the formation of Naga National Council in 1946 (Nag 2002, p.61) almost as an afterthought. Hence it is Nagamese that gave definition to Naga identity in its formative years. In the 1920s only a minuscule fraction spoke English and Christianity was a minority religion and it is Nagamese which acted as a link between different tribes, brought them closer and catalysed the Naga identity. It is the ancestral link language of the present generation of Nagas. It is extensively used in the rural haat and urban market place, radio & television, gathering of people from different tribes, Legislative Assembly, court, administration, religious congregation, etc. In other words, this is the Lingua Franca of Nagaland.

English is the declared official language of Nagaland, but paradoxically almost all public institutions function in Nagamese. This is to be expected since the vast majority of the people do not know English. Thus Nagamese is the essential identity-marker of the Naga people.

The demand for Greater Nagaland

It is necessary at this stage to present a brief history of the demand for Greater Nagaland. From the days of Naga National Council (the late 1940s), there has been a demand to bring “all Nagas” under one political and administrative unit. Since then the idea of territories inhabited by “all Nagas” has come a long way. As Christianity spread wider in the hills of Manipur, more and more Manipuri tribes started calling themselves Naga. Today the Indian part of so-called ‘Greater Nagaland’ encompasses four whole districts of Manipur (Senapati, Uhkrul, Tamenglong and Chandel) and the NSCN(I-M), an armed outfit, is spearheading the demand. 

June 14, 2001, ceasefire agreement ‘without territorial limits’ between the NSCN (I-M) and the Centre evoked massive, unprecedented protests in Manipur that turned violent and claimed many innocent lives. The Manipuris saw this prima facie as yet another instance of submission of the Government to the proponents of ‘Greater Nagaland’. The Centre corrected its position in July 2001 and declared that the ceasefire would be continued only within Nagaland. However, the NSCN (I-M) remains steadfast in its unjustified demand for the merger of Naga-inhabited districts with Nagaland. The question of ‘Greater Nagaland’ is inextricably tied up with the traditional territory and lingua franca of Manipur. In the present article, we examine the veracity of NSCN (I-M)’s demand in the context of Manipur. We shall also examine how the lingua franca (i. e. the language of day to day functioning) of Manipur is being eroded by the combined action of the Church and the extreme Left.

The Mountain Barrier, Lingua Franca & Manipur Kingdom

The state of Manipur is situated directly to the south of Nagaland with the border between the two states running more or less east to west. Mount Japvo, which rises to the height of 9500 feet, and the congruous mountain range in the North of Manipur are a formidable barrier between Nagaland and Manipur. The Tangkhuls live south of this barrier. To this day they do not know Nagamese at all, the lingua franca of Nagaland. There is no reference to Tangkhul-Nagaland interaction (before the 20th century that is) in the comprehensive collections of folktales by Arokianathan (1982) and Hazarika (1995). There is however much evidence of contact and exchange with the people of Manipur valley.

The mountains acted as a kind of ‘watershed’ for the flow of human interaction. The tribes north of the barrier, that is, of present-day Nagaland, traded and exchanged ideas with the Brahmaputra valley for centuries. Out of this interaction emerged a language called Nagamese, which has been discussed in the paras above.

The tribes south of the afore-said mountain barrier, i.e., the tribes of Manipur state, traded and exchanged ideas for centuries with the valley of river Manipur, on whose bank is situated the city of Imphal. In Manipur state also the linguistic situation of the hill tribes is similar to that of Nagaland, in the sense that different tribes speak in mutually unintelligible dialects. Here the language of the valley, Manipuri, written in Bengali script, emerged as the lingua franca over centuries of interaction, according to Arokianathan (ibid). The hill tribes use this language for communication among themselves and with the valley. All public institutions, including the haat/market in the hills, function in this language. Some of the tribes use the Bengali script even for tribal languages along with the Roman script; the Church introduced the latter after conversion of the tribes to Christianity.

The NSCN(IM) would have us believe that Manipur or Kangleipak of yester years was confined only to the valley, but this is not supported by history. The politico-administrative unit called the Manipur State was neither created after Independence nor created by the British when they took over around 1830. It had been there, being ruled by a king of the valley-based dynasty. The British accepted the borders of his kingdom.

Tangkhul Relationship with the Manipur Valley: Shared Customs and Language

Traditionally the Tangkhuls have enjoyed a close relationship with the people of Manipur Valley, called Meitei (see Arokianathan, ibid). The Meitei kings and the Tangkhul Chiefs used to have marital relations [p. 240], the Tangkhul Chiefs used to host the king’s army in the Hills [p. 107], the Meiteis and the Tangkhuls participated in each other’s festivals and ceremonies [p. 113], the Meiteis visited the fairs and markets in the Hills for trading [p. 226], and the Tangkhuls used to work in the Valley to earn a livelihood [p. 231]. The Meitei king used to be crowned in a Tangkhul dress, near Ukhrul in the village of Hundung. Even today some Tangkhuls organise phiroy, a Meitei memorial feast for the dead. Because of the intense two-way interaction, described above, Manipuri words entered into the vocabulary of tribal dialects and the vice versa.

According to Ethnologue: Languages Of The World (2005, Edited by Raymond G. Gordon, Jr., Fifteenth edition. Dallas, Texas: SIL International, also see the Tangkhuls’ literacy rate in Manipuri written in Bengali script is 70 %. Ethnologue is silent about the illiterates, but our information is that even they speak Manipuri. (A word about Ethnologue is necessary here. SIL International, which publishes Ethnologue, is a Christian missionary source, and it tries to provide the missionary on the field with the most accurate data about tribes all over the world, such as the number of speakers of a tribal language, the script or its absence, a popular second language if any, etc., and this comes in handy for the linguist professionals too.) The moot point is that the Tangkhuls are and have always been proficient in Manipuri and they do not speak Nagamese, the lingua franca of Nagaland, at all. Yet NSCN(IM) would have them secede from Manipur and join up with Nagaland. Other small tribes in the area, such as Anals etc, who also use Manipuri as a link language, are following in the footsteps of the Tangkhuls. The NSCN(IM) would like the people of India and the Tangkhuls in particular to forget the ancestral history of this tribe, given above in brief.

Current Trend

The literacy in Manipuri language among the tribes is falling not only because of the pro-English/Roman policy of the Church controlled schools but also due to the linguistic puritans of the Valley, who want to bring back a purified Manipuri language written in the ‘old’ Meitei script. A detailed discussion of this linguistic shift is beyond the scope of this article. However, for the purpose of the present discussion it would be sufficient for us to know that,  for about two centuries, Manipuri written in Bengali script has been the only language understood in general by all peoples of Manipur and played the role of a shared linguistic medium. However, since the advent of Meitei ethnic nationalism in the 1970s promoted by the Left,  the Bengali script started losing its broad-based appeal and the process accelerated in the 1980s with increased emphasis on the ‘old’ Meitei script and attempts to purge the Manipuri vocabulary of the loan words from other languages. The State government in 1980 officially introduced the ‘old’ Meitei script (Manipur Gazette No. 33 April 22 & No. 40 Apr 25, 1980), although the Bengali script continues to be visible everywhere even in the present century.

In the Hills three following processes are at work simultaneously: an introduction of Roman script for tribal languages; efforts to promote the use of English for inter-tribal communication; and the use of force to persuade marginal tribes to declare linguistic affiliation with the Tangkhuls. Taken together these are aimed at irreversibly changing the linguistic identity of the so-called Manipuri Nagas and associated tribes.

It should be noted that in the 19th century Christian missionaries found a society steeped in Vaishnavism on their arrival in the Valley. They moved towards the Hills since the Meitei ruler declared the Valley out of bounds for the missionaries and with the Anglo-Manipur War just behind them the British administration was not keen in escalating the matter.

Script question and Partition of Manipur

The valley has its own fifty-year long separatist movement, which was started by the Left-oriented Manipur nationalists, influenced by the thoughts of Hijam Irabot Singh and Bisheswar Singh. Soon the separatists became extreme-Left and resorted to terror. Their over-ground organisations started propagating certain absurd ideas such as the pre-Vaishnava religion was free of any Indian influence.

The fact is that the easiest land route to Burma (Myanmar) from India is through the Manipur valley. Hindu-Buddhist influence can be seen in the popularity of Ramayana and Hindu-Buddhist temples in Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia. The latter has the famous Angkor Vat temple complex, built by King Surya Varman II in the 12th century. It is obvious that Hindu-Buddhist influences had crisscrossed Manipur valley (for that matter the whole of the North East) long before the advent of Vaishnavism in the 14th century. (Nowadays it is commonly written in the media that before Vaishnavism, it was pure animism in the North East, without any Hindu-Buddhist radiation from the heartland.)

The separatists also propagate that the pre-Vaishnava script of the valley, called Meitei, had nothing to do with India, from which they preach secession. (In reality, the ‘old’ Meitei alphabet is divided into vowels and consonants and the consonants are arranged in an array exactly in the Indian fashion.) They campaigned for a change of script for the Manipuri language and succeeded in getting a bill passed in the Legislative Assembly, more than a decade ago.

Now they are pressing for its implementation (to start with by burning priceless books), and that would break another important link with the hill tribes. The tribes would press for the Roman script for the lingua franca, and soon Manipuri would be written in two different scripts, Meitei and Roman. The orthography of the language in Roman has to be constructed anew. The whole process would be tremendously disruptive.

Eventually, the tribes would break completely with the language and there would remain no lingua franca at all and partition of Manipur would be inevitable. This turn of events must have been anticipated by the extreme-Left in the garb of Manipuri nationalists, given their track records of colluding with separatists of every hue, be it Kashmiri Islamist or Assamese ULFA or Jharkhand Christians.

The common people of Manipur, who worship either Krishna or Sanamahi and the coiled serpent of pre-Vaishnav days, should realise that they have played into the hands of the so-called Naga separatists who want to partition Manipur. They should understand that there is a contradiction between their two demands – (1) to preserve the territorial integrity of Manipur and (2) to restore a script, which fell out of use two centuries ago, leading to the destruction of the only lingua franca.

The valley people should retrace their path if they want to preserve the integrity of Manipur. The state Legislative Assembly should pass another bill allowing the Bengali script to continue side by side with the ‘old’ Meitei script. The state Government should open schools in tribal areas using the medium of Manipuri language written in Bengali script. Conceding the “Greater Nagaland’ demand will not see the end of the Naga secessionist movement for separation from India.

On the contrary, it would reappear with renewed vigour after a ‘respectable’ interregnum. Once Manipur is partitioned, the Meitei separatists will also be reinforced and press for secession from India.


Arokianathan, S (1982), Tangkhul Folk Literature, Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysore, p. xi.

Ethnologue (2005), Languages of the World, Fifteenth edition. Editor: Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. Dallas, Texas: SIL International, USA, (see

Hazarika, Sanjoy (1995), Strangers of the Mist: Tales of War and Peace from India’s Northeast, Penguin Books (N Delhi)

Nag, Sajal (2002), Contesting Marginality: Ethnicity, Insurgency and Sub-nationalism in North-East India, Manohar, India, New Delhi, p. 61).

Naga Hoho (2005), Interview with General Secretary of Naga Hoho, Neingulo Krome; Q & A: ‘Nagas were never a part of India’, Times of India, August 22, 2005, Monday, New Delhi.