On 9 August, 2006, the Manipur education minister, Mr. Nandakumar warned the hill districts of Manipur, government of Nagaland, and civil society to refrain from interfering in Manipur’s issues. He further declared that he has ‘abstracted assurances’ from the union human resource development minister, Arjun Singh and other union ministers who said that they would not interfere with the school affiliation agitation in Manipur. The government of Manipur was reacting to the ongoing agitation in the hill districts.
On 10 July, 2006, students in the four hill districts of Manipur state (Chandel, Senapati, Ukhrul and Tamenglong) made a bonfire of the textbooks prescribed by the Board of Secondary Education, Manipur (BSEM). They carried banners that read, “We want common education”, “Welcome Nagaland Board”, “Goodbye Manipur board” and launched a campaign to affiliate the existing private schools in these districts with the Nagaland Board of School Education (NBSE). This move was seen by many analysts in the Manipur valley as a move towards pressing for the unification of a Naga homeland. Thus, the issue of discussing the contents, quality and grievances articulated by the students against the textbooks prescribed by the BSEM became secondary. In a letter to the BSEM, the All Naga Students Association of Manipur (ANSAM) pointed out the students in the hill districts of Manipur were being denied their rights because of the imposition of Manipuri language to the hill people and the introduction of Meitie Mayek as compulsory subjects in all hill districts, besides the glorification of Meitie culture and history while omitting the history of several other indigenous communities who inhabit Manipur.
What do the BSEM textbooks teach? A snapshot survey shows that the BSEM Social Science textbook for Class VIII dwells heavily on the way of life in the Imphal valley comprising of Imphal West, East, Thoubal and Bishnupur districts. The only time it acknowledges the hills and the people there comes when describing shifting cultivation as primitive method of farming practiced by the hill areas, the spread of Christianity or the topographic charts comparing population, literacy level and land holding between the Imphal valley and the hill districts. At the end of chapters the young students are asked: “Which district in Manipur has the highest literacy rate?” and “Why do hill districts in Manipur have low density of population?” which are loaded questions. In reality, the hill districts of Manipur are one of the most neglected districts in the Northeast region. After 59 years of India’s independence many of the villages in these hills lack basic amenities such as electricity, road, health care, functioning schools and safe drinking water. Added to these, heightened security, militarization, and structural violence are part of every day life of people. Questions such as the one mentioned above are provocative and dangerous processes of conditioning young minds. One can only imagine the process of how these disparities as suggested in textbook play out in the minds of young children growing up in Imphal valley and the hills of Manipur.
The textbook’s celebration of feudal and oppressive Meitei kings, queens and princes who reigned from the Imphal valley is disturbing to say the least. Delving into colonial archives and feudal history to boldly construct a Manipuri history is not the best way to create a secular and shared past between people of the valley and the hills in the twenty-first century, especially when social and political processes have left behind alternate memories and sense of belonging. It is easy to see how the implementation of such dominating processes of imposing a valley-centric world view has led to a distressing breakdown in already fraught relations between the people in the hills and those in the valley in Manipur. Facile debates on whether the imposition of Meitei Mayak in hills will be in Meitei script or roman script continues, even as the people of the hills burn the idea of a shared future with valley-based educational structures. Nevertheless, let us for once assume that learning a language is an additional asset in one’s education. Even so, such positive liberal rhetoric hides uneven histories of cultural assimilation. Several indigenous communities in the hills of Manipur have for generations learnt Meitei and Hindi in school while state agencies have ignored the importance of existing indigenous language and writings. In the past, such imbalances have been instrumental in the creation of new states in the Union of India. For instance, existing provisions in the Indian Constitution, such as Article 29 (1) Right of linguistic minorities to conserve their language and script, Article 30 (1) Right of linguistic minorities to administer their education institutions, and Article 347 Right of linguistic minorities to recognition of their language in the state, have been frequently cited and used by minority communities, even in the Northeast region. Therefore, there is a Constitutional remedy at hand that will seemingly address the sense of injustice that the people of the hills feel when confronted with the BSEM textbooks in Manipur. But there is a caveat to these provisions. The onus of implementing these rights and protections rests with respective state governments.
Thus far, political agitation against BSEM textbooks in Manipur has looked up to the Nagaland government and the central government as possible altars to place the demands for redress. But unless there is a demand for transforming the existing educational system, even if the demand for affiliation of schools from the hills of Manipur is successful, it will continue to be at the receiving end of a dominant Indian educational structure which perpetuates cultural dominance and seeks to institutionalize hegemony over Naga culture and history. The struggle for an alternative Naga history among Naga educationists, intellectuals and activists is not new. Although 1963 carved out an area and led to the formation of Nagaland state, several Nagas inhabiting parts of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Nagaland continue to be tied together by a strong sense of shared historical and political experiences. But such alternative peoples’ histories have been often viewed by nation states such as India with caution. Attempts to produce such alternative histories have been dismissed in favour of acceptable archival sources, mostly colonial, where Nagas appear as perennial trouble makers, simpletons or jhum cultivators out to destroy the forests.
The NBSE textbooks reduce Naga history into a complete travesty. For instance, the Class VIII Social Science textbook developed by the State Council of Educational Research and Training Nagaland, Kohima has the following chapters; the first eight sections deal with India’s role in the modern world, the colonization of the sub-continent and the anti-colonial struggles. In Civics, the syllabus includes sections such as (a) National Goals and Democracy of India (b) The society in India (c) Economic reconstruction (d) National Integration (e) Defence of the country (f) India and the World and (g) World problems. The history textbook manages to add a chapter on the Naga society but it is extremely cursory. There is an over emphasis on qualities like ‘simplicity, honesty and hard working’ while describing Naga people’s past.
The glorification of the simplicity of the Naga past is done by creating the simpleton Naga, a stereotype that is at once condescending and reductionist. Modernization is equated with the coming of keys and locks- symbols of the dishonesty that plagues Naga society today. In an amazing display of mental gymnastics, the perceived ills of modernization are blamed on the oppressed themselves. The passage goes on to attribute the ills to the fact that the present generations of Nagas are not hardworking enough- at least not in the same league as their ‘simpleton’ forefathers. They “lie, steal and are lazy”. This is actually a direct reference to the changes that Naga society has undergone during the past five decades of militarization. The Indian State has been a part to this process of brutalization of the civil space but this fact is not clear from the passage. Instead, the textbook avoids the political questions entirely and moves on to what it sees as the fallout of these “ills”- AIDS, alcoholism and drug addiction- not necessarily in that order. Remarkably, the passage still finds it prudent to venture back to the unresolved civil and political questions that have caused this ‘decay’ and subtly equates what it sees as a ‘moral ineptitude’ of Naga society, to the dangers of modern life.
As one of the most studied communities frequently represented as primitives, savages and naked hills dwellers in the nineteenth century Northeastern Frontiers of India, it would have been difficult to imagine that Nagas would pick up some of the most radical ideas in post colonial India, such as the Right to Self Determination, Indigenous rights, and resist the hegemony of the Indian education system. The current agitation in Manipur, where important Naga organizations are calling for a radical de-linking of education from the grasp of a valley-centric syllabus has to grapple with these questions as well. One of the most pressing questions would be how the central government in New Delhi addresses the perceived asymmetries. Unless such questions are tackled at the earliest, there is every possibility that this issue – like several others related to identity politics in Northeast India – will continue to be used as a convenient alibi for not dealing with pressing questions of pedagogy and justice.