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ETHNIC CHURNING: CHIKUMI STYLE - Part One: Introduction

Thursday, June 11, 2015

/ Posted by Simon L Infimate
A lecture given by Pu Lalthlamuong Keivom, IFS (Retd.) during the 10th Arambam Somorendra Memorial Lecture at Imphal on 10th June 2015

Mr. President Pradip Phanjoubam, Chairman of the Arambam Somorendra Trust, Dr. Arambam Lokendra, my young colleagues Dr. Ngamkhohao Haokip, Dr. Sohiamlung Dangmei, Dr. Priyadarshini Gangte, my friend David Buhril, ladies and gentlemen.

It is indeed a privilege to be with you at Imphal to participate in the 15th Death Anniversary of the late Arambam Somorendra and pay my respect to him by delivering the 10th Arambam Somorendra Memorial Lecture. I am very happy to be here in your midst for many reasons. Since 1964 I have hardly had any uninterrupted stay in Manipur except in 1971 when I came to Imphal for a six month district training and was attached to the Office of the Deputy Commissioner, the only DC we had at that time for the whole of Manipur. Though nobody ever noticed its significance, it was a reckoning landmark for me – the first Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officer from Manipur and the first IFS officer in India ever sent to Manipur from Delhi for District training.

After spending four years in D. M. College (1959–63) and a two-year stint at Guwahati University (1964–66), I joined the Indian Revenue Service (1967–69) and finally switched over in 1970 to the Indian Foreign Service, the ultimate choice of service at that time. I had a record breaking 21 years uninterrupted (1976–97) postings in Africa, Middle East, Australasia, Asia and Europe during which I made only a few brief visits to my hometown Churachandpur with Imphal as the transit point.

The ugly sight of gun-toting security forces doubly armed with the dreaded Armed Forces Special (Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA), the endless checkpoints set up at every imaginable place by them with demeaning and despicable signs like “Check All Suspect All”, the body-search and the command to undress at times, which I considered a cruel assault on human dignity, plus the virtual absence of electricity robbed all the charms of visiting home.Therefore, we tried to avoid visiting Manipur as far as we could. Our Sanaleipak had lost its sheen since long but never its hold on our family. It is where our roots began and no other soil on earth can substitute its sacredness.

Even though I have been practically away from Manipur for half a century, I have had the opportunity of bumping into many people and things associated with Manipur. They included the famous or infamous Dada Idi Amin of Uganda in 1978 in Nairobi (Kenya) who proudly told me that he had served in Manipur front during the Second World War. Talking about Kenya, one day, while on an official tour, I was strolling in the manicured Kericho Tea Garden, the world’s single largest tea plantation and bumped into a prominent signboard showing the tea grown there originally came from Manipur! G.W.L. Cane first introduced the plant in 1903 in Limuru and later in Kericho with thumping success.1 The photo I took that day is one of my proud possessions. A question that struck me that day was: why other people made so much money from our tea and not us? Perhaps that was the furthest our Manipur tea has traveled until the arrival of Ragesh Keisham who, in August 2011, launched another kind of Manipuri tea called CC Tea (Cymbopogon Citratus tea), a multi-purpose green tea based on lemon grass.

From Kenya, I moved to Jeddah (Saudi Arabia) handling political and Islamic affairs. One of our regular exercises was to look after thousands of pilgrims who came for Haj and Umrah from all corners of India including Manipur. It is an open secret that a good number of pilgrims including some from Manipur “vanish” during Haj, staying back and eventually getting absorbed into Saudi society by hook or by crook. My wife and I had the opportunity to share dinner a few times with these diaspora Manipur Muslims during our stay in Jeddah. The most amazing thing I discovered was that all the families we came across were still speaking Manipuri and told us how much they missed and longed for their Sanaleipak! This was really food for thought to me. What could be the thing or things, longings and attachments that even their holy land could not compensate?

From Saudi Arabia, I moved to Wellington, the capital of New Zealand (1983–85). A few weeks after my arrival, Second World War Veterans held a big annual event and I was invited to attend the function. When the organizers came to know that I was from Manipur, the last theater of war, they were over excited as if I had just landed from another planet. They asked me to propose a befitting toast which I did on behalf of India and the people of Manipur. It was a very nostalgic moment and a memorable one to witness our tiny State suddenly coming alive “Down Under” out of the dust of their collective war memories.

Then a few days later, I had a visitor in my office, a young girl who wanted to undertake research on the last days of the British rule in Manipur. She happened to be the niece of Mr. G.P. Stewart, ICS and the last Political Agent in Manipur who settled in Nelson (South Island) after his retirement. Later, I invited Mr. Stewart and his wife and their niece for dinner at India House and also paid a return visit to their home in Nelson which he had proudly decorated with trophies and mementos from Manipur.We exchanged several visits, chatting sometimes till the wee hours during which the names of Maharaja Priyobrata Singh and Major Khathing popped up frequently. Mr. Stewart married the daughter of W.L. Scott, also a Kiwi and the first ICS who served as Superintendent in the then Lushai Hills (now Mizoram). Scott’s wife was a vivid photographer. She maintained treasured albums in which she meticulously catalogued rare photos of chiefs, important families and socio-cultural events from Chin Hills to Mizoram including some from Cachar, Tripura and Manipur. It was these albums that prompted their niece to undertake the research for her Ph.D thesis but unfortunately she had to abandon her dreams for lack of proper guide and reference material.

An extract (para three) of my letter of March 25, 1985 to Dr. Rochunga Pudaite in USA when I was Head of Mission in Wellington, New Zealand may best reflect the position: 

One interesting person we have discovered is the last Political Agent in Manipur, Mr. Gerry Stewart, 79, who now lives in Nelson. Though a little short of hearing, he is still physically fit and intellectually alert. He and his wife came all the way to visit us two months ago. Mr. Stewart is married to the daughter of the first New Zealand ICS Officer, Mr. Walter Lawrence Scott (he was later knighted and died in 1949 as Sir Walter) who was Superintendent in the then Lushai Hills from 1919–22. His wife Beatrix Scott who died in 1971 at the ripe age of 94 left behind a 500-page memoir and a treasured album in which she meticulously catalogued photos of the Chiefs from the Chin Hills down to Lushai Hills. Even Mr. Stewart’s wife Elisabeth left behind an exhaustive account of their stay in Manipur which gives you an insight into life in those days. I believe there exists here a sizeable research material of our area which I will try to dig out as much as time permits me to indulge in these extra-curricular activities.

Then in 1986 I came to our immediate neighbor Burma (later named Myanmar) still reeling under military rule since Ne Win (1929–2002) seized power in 1962. Movement was restricted and even casual contacts with relatives on social occasions were suspect. It was unwise to openly visit the so called “Manipuri Basti” in Mandalay, the largest concentration of darkish Meitei population where they carried on their orthodoxy with unconcerned abandon and their language along with Burmese, the lingua franca. Though deprived of political power or any say in governance, they seemed satisfied so long as they were able to carry on their tradition and orthodoxy without interference. I used to visit the Basti unnoticed whenever I went to Mandalay to study their condition but found that it was difficult, if not impossible, to interact with them as I did openly with the Chin-Kuki-Mizo community in Myanmar. They seemed unconcerned so long as they were able to carry on their adopted culture and religious rituals without hindrance.A good number of them lived in Rangoon but never showed up at events and shows organized by the Embassy.

When I compare the Pangals in Jeddah to the Meitei Hindus in Yangon and Mandalay, many questions popped up to which I have no answers even till today. The Pangal’s attachment to his religion and the holy land and fulfillment of his dream was unquestionable. But his longings for and emotional and social attachment with the land of his birth remained embedded in him. The Mandalay Meitei to me seemed unaffected so long as he remained within his borrowed caste system which deprived him of his ethnic entity long before he came to surface on earth. I am sure many of us will encounter past unresolved issues and mistakes in our search for identity. It is suicidal to hang on to presumed and concocted myths, legends and stories which my very own community is fond of doing. I shudder to think of the heavy price they will have to pay in the future. It is like hanging on a ledge over an abyss.

The introductory part has become much longer than I expected but I still have another interesting story to tell before I jump into my subject. Soon after my arrival in Rangoon, I tried to find out the number of Indians incarcerated in Burma by visiting jails, especially the notorious Insein Prison in Rangoon, the biggest jail in Asia where they kept all prisoners awaiting repatriation by air.On one of my visits, I found a fair-looking and pleasant guy, a Meitei doctor, who was able to dabble in broken but understandable Chin-Kuki dialect. He seemed well-informed, particularly on the history and literature of the country. When I talked to him in my broken and rusty Manipuri, he became suddenly withdrawn and sullen perhaps thinking that I was one of the military intelligence guys who had come to dig out information from him. To cut the story short, after I came to know of his background, I told him that unless he agreed to my suggestion for his repatriation and assurance of his subsequent release after a few months, he would rot and die in Insein Prison. Later, the Embassy arranged an 8-member Manipur police contingent to fly to Rangoon and they escorted him back to Imphal by a special aircraft in line with his status. I have never seen him again since but hope that he is still up and about. I also still remember having repatriated three Mizo National Front (MNF) detainees from Insein Prison and two National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) detainees from Mandalay Prison to India during that period.

Why did I mention all these and for what? As a representative of India, it was my duty and responsibility to serve the interest of my country and its people to the best of my ability. What I am trying to say is that while performing your duty, your sense or feeling of being one with the subject or the object is a strong driving force which enables you to go many extra miles beyond your normal call of duty. Other factors apart, I believe that we all possess an ingrained sense of ethnic affinity, somewhat like a primordial consciousness of belonging to a common genetic root that generates a feeling of oneness. In short, it is having a soft corner for people with physical likeness in appearance over others with a different look. Adam’s exclamation when he first saw Eve, “..bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” can best explain the position. My last association with Manipur while abroad was hosting a Manipuri dance troupe in Italy when I was Consul-General of India in Milan. The troupe was led by no other than Dr. Lokendra Arambam who has now kindly extended this invitation to speak on the issue of identity, integration and national aspirations of the Chin-Kuki-Mizo peoples of the Indo-Burma region. I thank him and the organizers of the Arambam Somorendra Memorial Lecture for their generosity in giving me this opportunity to return to the cradle of my education and to my motherland that nurtured me into what I am today. I really feel that my life has come full circle. German philosopher, thinker and writer Johann Wolfang von Goethe says, “There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots, the other, wings.” I developed my wings from here, flew around the globe for more than two decades and have now come back to my roots.

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