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Scripting a solution

M. S. Prabhakara

A huge row has erupted over what the proper script for the Manipuri language should be.

THE CHOICE of script for a language should, on the face of it, be the least contentious of issues. The choice is for the people who use the language to make. In most cases the script itself, evolved over centuries, is a settled issue but for periodic minor disagreements over its minutiae among scholars.

However, scripts have also stirred passions. One has only to recall the controversy over the Urdu/Devanagari scripts that even now surfaces occasionally. Or, even the suggestion that in order to promote unity and national integration, all the Indian languages should abandon their distinctive scripts and adopt the Roman script. Further, as was the case with the Bodo language and as it is once again with Konkani, the controversy could also be over the choice of a script other than what has been in use for long. In the absence of its own script, Bodo writers, most of them fully bilingual in Bodo and Assamese, the latter a more developed language, had for generations adopted the Assamese script for their language.

However, this arrangement broke down with the emergence and consolidation of new forms of Bodo nationalistic assertion one of whose primary `cultural' manifestations was the distancing of the Bodo people and their language from the Assamese. However, the initial demand for the adoption of the Roman script for the Bodo language was later modified into accepting as a "compromise" formula the Devanagari script. A similar "cultural confrontation" over the most proper choice for the Konkani language — Devanagari/Marathi script versus Roman script — periodically breaks forth and is yet to be resolved.

The current controversy over what should be the proper script for the Manipuri language has all these elements, and more. Its virulence and self-destructive rage, whose most dramatic instance was the burning down of the Central Library in Imphal on April 13, can only be understood in its broader historical context. The language, written for the past two and a half centuries in the Bengali script, was till the mid-18th century written in the ancient indigenous script called Meitei Mayek.

The broad consensus on how this switch came about (the finer details disputed by some, nevertheless) is that King Pamheiba (1709-48), more famously known as Garibaniwaza (friend of the poor), on his accepting Hinduism under the influence of a Bengali Vaishnavite missionary, Shanta Das, ordered the burning of old Manipuri texts written in Meitei Mayek. Indeed, according to Professor Gangmumei Kamei (Kabui), an historian of Manipur, even the name Manipur, a Sanskritic construction, was introduced during the reign of Garibaniwaza, replacing the country's indigenous name, Kangleipak.

However, neither the old faith (Sanamahi) nor the ancient script disappeared entirely. Kangleipak, too, lives, as part of the nomenclature of several separatist militant organisations.

With the absorption/integration of Manipur into the Indian Union in October 1949, Manipuri nationalism revived itself in new forms. Politically, these manifest themselves as movements for independence from "colonial Indian rule." Culturally, these have meant the revival of the pre-Hindu beliefs and cults and the demand for the restoration of the ancient script.

Not easy to resolve

The issue of script is, however, not easy of resolution, here and now. For long there was no common agreement on the number of characters in Meitei Mayek, with proponents of three different forms comprising 19, 27, and 36 characters contending for recognition. The 35-character alphabet reproduced in Introduction to Manipur by the highly regarded historian, Lairenmayum Iboongohal Singh, is virtually identical to the Sanskrit alphabet. Of late, there is a consensus on the 36-character alphabet while the alphabet till now generally used for limited symbolic purposes has 27 characters.

There are other practical difficulties. The most generous estimate of the persons familiar with the ancient alphabet is about ten per cent of the Meitei population. Other estimates put the figure at four per cent. Further, though the issue really touches the Meitei population in the Imphal Valley, any decision on the script will also affect the tribal communities, approximately a third of the total population, for whom Meitei, the lingua franca, is the second language. School textbooks, government records, newspapers and a whole variety of intellectual and academic activity of the last 250 years is recorded in the Bengali script. Indeed, newspapers have threatened to close down if there were to be a diktat enforcing Meitei Mayek here and now.

The Government too has to carry blame for the present predicament. It has made several promises about taking steps to restore the ancient script, but with little follow-up action barring some symbolic steps.

Signboards of government departments and commercial establishments now mandatorily carry their names in Meitei Mayek. Newspapers in Manipuri on their own initiative have for long carried some of the news in the ancient script, the more committed of them even writing one editorial in Meitei Mayek.

If ever there was a case for gradualism, it is the switchover to Meitei Mayek. However, gradualism is the last thing on the agenda of the organisation spearheading the demand for the switchover.

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