Newspapers, the last holdouts of Bengali script in Manipur, given ultimatum to switch to Meetei Mayek next month

While students have been taught the Meetei Mayek script over the last two decades, most people over 30 years of age only know the Bengali script, leaving a conundrum for vernacular newspapers

December 04, 2022 04:19 am | Updated 04:19 am IST - IMPHAL

Imphal’s ‘Ima Kethel’ (mothers’ market) has the name emblazoned both in English and Meetei Mayek. The government of Manipur is taking efforts to replace the Bengali script with Meetei Mayek.

Imphal’s ‘Ima Kethel’ (mothers’ market) has the name emblazoned both in English and Meetei Mayek. The government of Manipur is taking efforts to replace the Bengali script with Meetei Mayek. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

On January 15, 2023, most Manipuri language newspapers may fail to hit the newsstands. From this date, all seven vernacular morning newspapers, nine evening papers and four periodicals will have to exclusively use Meetei Mayek or Manipuri script, replacing the Bengali script which has been in use in this tiny hill State since the early parts of the 18th century.

The All Manipur Working Journalists Union and the Editors Guild, Manipur came to an understanding with the script activists of the Meetei Erol Eyek Loinasilol Apunba Lup (MEELAL) a year ago, agreeing to replace the Bengali script in their newspapers from January 15, 2023, an extension from the previous deadline in February 2022.

Most editors and reporters privately say that they are on a discreet job hunt, as they expect retrenchments and salary cuts even if some publishers decide to continue the publications in this script for some time.

According to the Sahitya Akademi, the history of the Meetei Mayek script dates back to at least the 6th century, and was in use till the 18th century. In 1709, a Hindu missionary named Shantidas Gosai came to Kangleipak — the ancient name for the independent kingdom of Manipur — to spread Vaishnavism. He mesmerised the kings and the high officials of the palace, and on royal orders, all religious and other precious books in Meitei Mayek were incinerated, and new ones written in the Bengali script.

The Manipuri language was included in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution in 1992, but in Bengali script.

However, Meetei Mayek has seen a revival in the 21st century, with an initial shift to the Manipuri script in educational institutions and an amendment of the Manipur Official Language Act last year to mandate the phasing out of Bengali script over the next ten years.

However, the stumbling block to a complete switch-over has been the vernacular newspapers. After several rounds of talks between editors and MEELAL leaders, and the media’s successful pleas to extend the deadline several times, January 15, 2023 has been fixed as a final date for the exclusive use of Meetei Mayek.

In anticipation, the publisher of one vernacular daily, Manaba, had some years back published entirely in this script. However the publisher abandoned it for many reasons, the most important being incredibly low circulation.

“There will be an information gap in this age of information. The students up to university are using this script. But the students depend on their smart mobile phones for news round the clock,” said P. Labango Mangang, editor of mass circulation evening daily Kangla Pao. “The people aged 30 and above are too old to learn the Meetei script which means that there will be an outlandishly low circulation which cannot sustain a newspaper office. But we have to respect the popular wish to restore our own script.”

As of now, the Meetei Mayek edition of the Hueiyen Lanpao is the only one in the market using the script. The Bengali script Hueiyen Lanpao is also publishing its editorial in the Meetei script in addition to some news.

“The computers and operators and other infrastructures have to be organized and it needs money. It will be an unbearable burden for this low budget newspaper,” said Meghabarna Chongtham, editor of another eveninger, Paoningkhol.

“Since it is the people’s desire, we cannot dodge much longer. However we are taking all factors into consideration,” added Khogendra Khomdram, editor of the Sangai Express Manipur edition and president of the Editors Guild in the State.

Some long-sighted publishers had started sister publications in English, the most prominent being The People’s Chronicle and the Sangai Express, hoping that even if Manipuri editions in Bengali script were closed, they would not have to shut down completely.

Though Manipuri settlers are found everywhere, with Assam alone having over 5 lakh, they may never learn their own script since there is no facility to teach it to them there. A weekly newspaper, MARUP, published in Agartala is the only newspaper for the Manipuri diaspora. Its editor R.K. Kalyanjit told The Hindu that the newspaper is 54 years old and has circulation even in Bangladesh and Myanmar where there is a high population of people of Manipuri origin. Since there is no scope for teaching them the Meetei Mayek, the weekly shall continue to use the Bengali script, he said.

With just over a month left for the vernacular newspapers’ deadline, however, the writing on the wall is that after all these years of domination, the Bengali script will gradually vanish from Manipur.

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