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One Of Manipur’s Oldest Communities Is Searching For Its Forgotten Identity

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The language spoken by the Bishnupriya Manipuri community belongs to the Indo-Aryan group of languages, which originated from Sanskrit. Having its own character, this language underwent significant changes over the period of many centuries. But today, this community is searching for its existence and identity. Associated with this, I had a conversation with none other than Professor Smriti Kumar Sinha, who is a writer, professor, as well as a social activist. Let’s have a look at his perception in this matter.

Bindita Sinha (BS): Tell us something about Bishnupriya Manipuri community.  

Prof. Smriti Kumar Sinha (SKS): Bishnupriya Manipuri community is a very small, microscopic minority community and its people are staying mainly in Assam, Tripura, Bangladesh and some parts of Myanmar. This populace originated from Bishnupur of Manipur and that’s why they are called Bishnupriya Manipuri. Since they belong to the greater Bishnupriya community, people call them Bishnupriya Manipuri.

BS: Although we say that the Bishnupriya Manipuri community is a very ethnic community, day by day, this community is losing its existence and identity. According to you, what is the reason behind it?

SKS: Basically if you look into the identity of any ethnic community, we have to see what the identity variables are; the identity variables are those which build up an identity and these are language, literature and culture. Since this is a minority language and an endangered language, the people, particularly the young generation, are shifting towards the ‘major’ languages. Besides, we see that people in the 21st century are not much aware of the bright history and culture of their communities. So maybe that’s why they are not much interested in this, but in the north-east, the Bishnupriya Manipuri community is a special community in one respect. Like endangered languages, its revitalization, which we have been seeing for the last 100 years, is an example to the people. They are being thoroughly studied by researchers as it’s taking a u-turn because of the initiatives of Gokulananda Gitiswami and others. Instead of going towards its death, it is being revitalised, both as a language and as a community.

Professor Smriti Kumar Sinha

BS: Do you think the internet, especially social media, can bring a change to the community?

SKS: Obviously. I think social networking sites are one of the strongest forms of alternative media if you see it from the viewpoint that it’s one place where people can take part generously. You can see liberated voices which you will not see in mainstream media. Mainstream media has many obstacles but particularly in India, the language policy is always a restriction when it comes to the media. Language policy is very stringent, as only the scheduled languages will be broadcast in mainstream media. But social media is coming up as an unconventional source of media, where anybody, of any community, of any language, can upload their content on the internet and it can be shared. So, in my opinion, for the renaissance of the endangered languages or any ethnic community, alternative media, particularly the world wide web, is the best choice. Manipur is their homeland but they are now scattered in other places like a distributed community. Hence, the internet, particularly social media, gives us an essential incorporation. It is a platform which integrates this scattered community. Here you can share your culture, your history and everything else with other people across all ages from young to old.  There is no other way, right at this moment. If this community can give India an ethnic dance form, then the literature from the same thought process will be qualitatively very striking.

BS: Any suggestion for the young generation?

SKS: I have seen that the youth of today are not very much linked with their roots and this is the foremost issue. They do not know from where their language originated, what the beautiful traits of their language are and they also do not know about their bright heritage. Their identity construction and deconstruction is a vital process going on in the north-east so the youth are suffering from inferiority complexes. I think they should know. I think globalisation is carried away by the strong waves.

There are many misconceptions regarding the community. Most people think there is only one Manipuri group of people, Meitei, but the Bishnupriya Manipuri people are also there. The Manipuri community is one of the oldest and ethnic communities in our country; it has given us a classical dance form – the Manipuri Dance (classical dance). The community needs a strong platform so that it can grow and establish itself into society so that they can create awareness among people. Mainstream media is dominated by languages like English, Bengali and Hindi. So, it is unable to help the community and because of that, people of this community have chosen alternative media like the internet, and social networking sites like Facebook, as their medium of communication.

Image Credit: Ami Foundation via Facebook
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