On 9 August 2006 the Education Minister of Manipur, L Nandakumar, warned activists in the state’s hill districts, the government of neighbouring Nagaland and the region’s civil society to refrain from interfering in Manipur’s affairs. He declared that he had “abstracted assurances” from Human Resource Development Minister Arjun Singh and other Union ministers that they would not interfere with an ongoing school-affiliation agitation in Manipur.
One month prior to Nandakumar’s warning, students in the four Naga-majority hill districts of Manipur – Chandel, Senapati, Ukhrul and Tamenglong – made a bonfire out of the textbooks prescribed by the Board of Secondary Education, Manipur (BSEM). They carried banners that read, ‘We want common education’, ‘Welcome Nagaland Board’ and ‘Goodbye Manipur Board’, and launched a campaign to affiliate the private schools in their districts with the Nagaland Board of School Education (NBSE). The protest was seen by many in the Imphal Valley as a move towards pressing for the unification of a Naga homeland. As such, the discussion has been diverted from the textbooks’ content and the students’ grievances.
In a letter to the BSEM, the All Naga Students Association of Manipur (ANSAM) pointed out that students in the hill districts of Manipur were being denied their rights on several fronts. It alleged that the Meitei Mayek language has been imposed on them by being made a compulsory school subject, and that Meitei culture and history – that of the Imphal Valley’s majority population – are glorified while the histories of several other indigenous Manipuri communities receive no mention in syllabi.
As for the textbooks themselves, the BSEM Social Science reader for Class VIII dwells heavily on the way of life in the Imphal Valley. It acknowledges the hills and their peoples only in descriptions of shifting cultivation as a primitive method of farming, narrations of the spread of Christianity, or topographic charts that compare population, literacy levels and landholding between the Imphal Valley and the hill districts. At the end of chapters students are asked questions that could be considered loaded, such as: “Which district in Manipur has the highest literacy rate?” and “Why do hill districts in Manipur have low density of population?”
The districts of the Manipur hills are some of the most neglected in the entire Northeast region. After 59 years of Independence, many of the villages here lack basic amenities such as electricity, roads, health care, functioning schools and safe drinking water. In addition, heightened security, militarisation and structural violence are part of everyday life. Questions such as those mentioned in the textbook contribute to a potentially dangerous conditioning of young minds. One can only imagine how the disparities suggested in that textbook play out in the minds of young children growing up in the Imphal Valley versus those in the hills of Manipur.
The Class VIII textbook celebrates the Meitei monarchy, which reigned oppressively from the Imphal Valley. Delving into colonial archives and feudal records to construct a version of Manipuri history such as this one is not conducive to the creation of a sense of shared heritage among the peoples of the valley and the hills, especially when social and political processes have left behind divergent memories and senses of belonging. The imposition of this valley-centric worldview has led to a distressing breakdown of relations already marked by hostility. Facile debates as to whether the Meitei Mayek language will be written in Meitei or Roman script continue, even as the hill people reject the idea of a shared future under valley-based educational structures.
Though command of an additional language may be any asset to a young individual, such an argument in this case ignores uneven histories of cultural assimilation. Several indigenous hill communities have for generations learned both Meitei and Hindi in school, while state agencies have ignored the importance of existing indigenous languages.
The Indian Constitution contains provisions for the rights of minority groups. Linguistic minorities have the right to conserve their languages and scripts, to administer their own educational institutions, and to have their language recognised by the state in which they reside. Such constitutional remedies are frequently cited by minority groups in the Northeast, and would seem to address the injustice that Manipuri hill people feel when confronted with the BSEM textbooks. But there is a stipulation in these provisions: the onus of guarding these rights rests with the state governments.
The Naga ‘problem’
Thus far, those agitating against the BSEM textbooks have looked to neighbouring Nagaland and the central government for redress. Even if the demand for affiliation of hill schools is met, however, these academic institutions will continue to function under the injustices of the existing Indian educational structure. The only way out of this web of what can be called ‘cultural imperialism’ is to demand the transformation of the educational system itself.
The struggle for the recognition of an alternative Naga history is not new, but within India it has continuously been viewed with suspicion. It was in 1963 that an area was carved out of the colonial province of Assam to become the state of Nagaland; but communities that feel tied together as Naga through shared historical experience continue to inhabit parts of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur. In these states, attempts to produce alternative Naga histories have been dismissed in favour of ‘acceptable’ archival material – mostly colonial – in which the Nagas appear as perennial troublemakers, simpletons or jhum cultivators out to destroy the forests.
It is not that the Nagaland Board of School Education textbooks are any better: the way they treat Naga history and culture is just as poor. The Class VIII Social Science textbook developed by the Nagaland State Council of Educational Research and Training for the NBSE, for instance, devotes hardly any space to the subject. Instead, the first eight sections are devoted to India’s role in the modern world, the colonisation of the Subcontinent and the anti-colonial struggles. The part of the textbook devoted to Civics includes sections on subjects such as National Goals and Democracy of India, The Society in India, Economic Reconstruction, National Integration, Defence of the Country, India and the World, and World Problems – but nothing specific to the Northeast.
Only the History section of the reader manages to include a chapter on Naga society, and even this is extremely cursory, putting an overwhelming emphasis on qualities such as ‘simple, honest and hard-working’ when describing the Naga people’s past. The condescending and reductionist stereotype promoted is once again that of the ‘simpleton Naga’. Modernisation is equated with the coming of locks and keys – guards against the dishonesty that plagues Naga society today. The perceived ills of modernisation are blamed on the oppressed themselves. The present generations of Nagas, it is said, are not sufficiently hard-working. In other places, the textbook proffers that they are not in the same league as their ‘simpleton’ ancestors because they “lie, steal and are lazy”.
In reality, the state of decline evoked by such prejudiced prose corresponds to the changes wrought in Naga society by five decades of militarisation. The public space has been brutalised by the systematic and perpetual policing of civic structures by the Indian state, and what is left is a polity and civil society characterised by violence. The role of the Indian government in this “decline” receives no mention in the chapter in question. Political questions are elided, and the text dwells instead on what it sees as the ramifications of the “ills” of the Naga people: AIDS, alcoholism and drug addiction. Remarkably, after all of this, the writers of the chapter still found it prudent to venture back to the civic and political questions of what might have caused this “decay”, and once again equate what they see as a “moral ineptitude” of Naga society to the dangers of modern life.
Despite being one of India’s most researched peoples, the Nagas are frequently represented as primitives, savages and naked hills-dwellers. Nonetheless, this group today espouses some of the most radical ideas in postcolonial India, rallying as they do around indigenous rights and the right to self-determination, and resisting the hegemony of the Indian educational system. The current education-based agitation in Manipur is a part of this process of questioning. How the New Delhi authorities address these asymmetries will be important. If this most recent point of contention is not taken seriously and addressed quickly, there is every possibility that it will join the long list of agitations that surround the subject of identity politics in India’s Northeast. Their importance forgotten, those issues are now used only as convenient reasons not to deal with pressing questions of justice.