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Banished Manipuri script stages a comeback

Return to favour: A vigorous campaign has brought back the Manipuri script

Return to favour: A vigorous campaign has brought back the Manipuri script | Photo Credit: 2001 SNOWBOUND, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

The Manipuri script, over 3,500 years old by some accounts and edged out by a Bengali import, is on a revival course, with street signs, newspapers, literature and even records of Assembly proceedings adopting it.

The script was lost to the speakers of the language when Shantidas Gosai, a Hindu missionary, spread Vaishnavism in the region in 1709, during the reign of Pamheiba. The King, who assumed the name Garib Niwaz, decreed its replacement with that of Bengali.

Books and other written materials in Manipuri were then incinerated. But many of his subjects opposed the imposition and continued to follow dual religions, Vaishnava and Sanamahi. They also preserved the Manipuri script.

June 20 marked a milestone in the revival efforts, when college teachers completed a 10-day reorientation programme.

Manipur’s Education Minister T. Radheshyam said, “It is a must for college and university teachers to be well-acquainted with the Manipuri script. In due course, it will be taught at the university level.” Necessary teaching resources were readily available, he noted.

Pursuing the restoration plan is Meelal, a registered body with 24 organisations that took off on August 18, 2003. It has been at the forefront of the campaign. Meelal has kept a hawk eye on the use of non-Manipuri words in writing and social media, and in open air theatre, a widely enjoyed form of entertainment.

There are campaigns led by Meelal for teaching of the Manipuri script in schools and colleges, doing away with Bengali-script textbooks. It organises free classes for the young and the old.

Redundant letters

Manipuri belongs to the Tibeto-Burmese branch of the Sino-Tibetan family of languages and has no use for several Bengali letters, some of which its speakers are unable to pronounce correctly. Writers are known to use Bengali letters whimsically, with the result that writers use different spellings for several words. Personalised spellings imposed by university professors on the research scholars have aggravated the linguistic problem.

Militant enforcement

Occasionally, activists have used extreme methods to advance the cause. Signboards without the Manipuri script were defaced with tar. A plaque at a city flyover was vandalised and the government library in Imphal, which housed a considerable number of Bengali books, was burned down one night by unidentified protesters.

Thanks to the revivalist moves, Manipuri language newspapers have to publish at least one news item in the traditional script on their front pages.

Hoardings, billboards and other material for public events must also be in the script. Organisers have had to tender public apologies if this requirement was defied or ‘forgotten’. Also, vehicle owners must display their registration numbers in the Manipuri script.

The plan to return to the old has faced rough weather. Litigation and objections by some groups prompted the government to drag its feet over the reintroduction. The State government accepted the 27-alphabet script in 1980, but some groups claimed that the 18-letter, 27-letter or 36-letter alphabets were the ‘genuine’ ones.

While it is also called ‘Meitei,’ the late Lt. Col. Haobam Bhuban, a former Minister, demanded that it be called the Manipuri script for three reasons: it is the one used for the royal chronicle of the kings of the land, King Gambhir signed the Jeeree Agreement of April 18, 1833 in it, and most importantly, in 1979 the Manipur Assembly, under the leadership of Yangmasho Shaiza, of the Tangkhul tribe, approved the 27-letter Manipuri alphabet.”

The State language is also spoken by Manipuris in several places, including Assam, Tripura and other northeastern States, and Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Writing on the wall

The results of the campaigning are visible. It is no accident that many public signboards no longer have the Bengali script. Widely published newspapers that have not gone Manipuri, like Poknapham , Sangai Express and Hueiyen Lanpao , are losing younger readers. Since 2006, students have been taught in the Manipuri script, creating a new generation of educated Manipuris.

Publishers with a longer-term view of the market began printing newspapers in the Manipuri tradition, and in English. Many organisations, including those supporting insurgency, use Roman in lieu of the Bengali script for their press releases. Most writers have stopped using the Bengali script, while others have rewritten their old books using the traditional alphabet.

In another move that has received a big welcome, Manipur Speaker Y. Khemchand recently announced that one copy of the State Assembly proceedings would be recorded in the Manipuri script.

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Printable version | Feb 13, 2022 11:44:48 am |