On the surface of it, there is nothing tangibly wrong with alterations made to the Kangla Sha replicas provided all agree that Kangla as a whole has no need for recognition as a human heritage from a unique past, a status which it was possibly close to achieving. There seems to be many who still consider the monument a living and functional institution, as much as it ever was in other eras of history. No doubt about it that it is just a matter of where the state places its priorities on the matter. The choices are clear: One, to continue to live in the past. Two, leave the past behind though without disowning it, and then look to the future as the way forward. Unfortunately, as Freud outlined in his famous essay Mourning & Melancholia, the former approach marked by a desire to live in the past in the effort to preserve memory can become self-injurious if not self-destructive in the long run. For the moment, the former seems to be where the government is taking the state towards, and this needs further deliberations. But before going into this notion of memory, there is another matter which needs a little straightening out. This has to do with the preposterous understanding advocated by a section of the intelligentsia about history making. For this section, what we witnessed was history in progress and that removal of the kabaak is a landmark historical event.
This contention is at best hilarious, considering that the stuffs that make history now are not the same anymore what they were in the past era Kangla Sha and such other symbols came into being. Removing or not removing the kabaak, or removing the horns, or introducing a tail, or adding new fangs or whatever else., will not matter at all to anybody except to a few obscurantists at home, caught in their microcosm of frozen time and understanding of reality, unaware that the paradigms of history have transformed completely in the modern era. No, removing the kabaak could not have mattered to history at all, but we may well have lost the chance of it being recognized as UNESCO heritage of humanity as well. There are other considerations to be noted. If modifying past historical relics are to be treated as permissible on the plea the present is also part of history in progress deserving legitimate agency to reshape all that it has inherited from the past, then suppose tomorrow Nagaland decides the stone inscriptions of Meitei royalty at Kohima (or for that matter others at Behiang or Cachar) should be removed or reshaped, would this section of intelligentsia say these are as legitimate as they now say the way the replicas of Kangla Sha were modified? Or would they suddenly change stance to say history is sacrosanct and therefore beyond revision? Would they forget that sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander?
It is also difficult here not to recall American political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 book End of History and the Last Man. The question he raised in this book written at the time of the collapse of the USSR and the end of the Cold War between the Eastern and Western Blocs with the triumph of Western Democracy and Capitalism, was that history or history-making will never be the same again for history had reached its apex. Of course, there are now newer tensions in the world, and Capitalism is facing new challenges not just from without, but also from within, threatening to cause it to implode, especially by an uncontrolled and increasing disparity between rich and poor. The reality is, rather than national struggles or struggles between nations which were the dominant material for conventional history, since the end of the Cold War history have revolved around corporations, their rise and ingenuity. Hence, Google, Amazon, Tesla, Facebook, Alibaba, Jio, Wikipedia etc., are now what history has come to be more about. Taking the cue from Fukuyama, Indian historian of repute, Ramachandra Guha, in his own way asked the same question – what would India’s history be after its independence from Britain in his important book India After Gandhi. Now that India’s freedom struggle is done with, and India is an independent republic, exactly what can be considered as its post-independence history? Would it be about the periodic electoral battles between political parties to form the next government? Rises and drops in GDP, or the stock market indexes? No question about it that history has lost its grand narratives, and is now on a plateau of banality, desperately trying to give the banal some grandeur. Indeed, the stuffs that once made history, will not be the stuffs for today’s history, therefore the sooner we stop living in the past and get on with onerous tasks of dealing with the present and the future, the better it will be for all.
Let us get real. As I have indicated in the example of Myanmar in my earlier article, there are many very old pagodas still in use and therefore continually and radically upgraded. As monuments still functional and in use, they have no need for heritage status as well. Many of them have little resemblance any more to what there were as indicated by archival photographs. This is in contrast to many other ancient pagodas which are now abandoned, but have acquired new meanings in the modern world as reminder of the country’s glorious past. We have to also be very clear about which category we fit our own historical monuments, including the Kangla. We have to remember, even if they do not still remain as functional institutions, they do not necessarily have to be completely closed chapters in history, for they can continue to serve as important monumental reminders of Manipur’s trials and tribulations in the centuries of pre-modern era that have gone by.
If this was agreed upon, what could have been done was to leave the Kangla Sha replicas as faithfully close to their originals and then perhaps build new ones elsewhere, such as at the gate of Assembly or the Chief Minister’s official quarters, without kabaak, just as it has been done at the Shahid Minar at the BT Park and the state emblem on the Manipur Police badge to keep the spirit of the Kangla Sha alive but in the modern way. If on the other hand, there were to be a consensus on treating the Kangla and Kangla Sha as a place of worship as many seem to want, that should be fine too in a limited way. There are so many places of worship of different faiths and the Kangla would also simply become just another added to the list. In such a course of action, this magnificent monument’s relevance too would suddenly shrink to come to hold meaning to just one faith within one community. When the zeitgeist of our time is for the world communities to open up to each other and the world, this would in a way be a contrary move of shutting down our doors and windows to the world, and to each other even in the state.
This said, dealing with historical memory has never been easy. Here is where Freud’s observations in Mourning & Melancholia becomes relevant, though he was not exactly dealing with history, but with the idea of grief and loss. Still, there can be no argument that there is always a sense of loss and nostalgia in leaving the past behind, and history is about this. Freud makes a distinction here. In “mourning”, the grieving person in her (or his) communion with the lost one assures the latter that she will never cease to love him, or allow his memory to fade away, but also takes courage to say the dead and the living cannot be together forever and the living must move on. “Melancholia” is different to the extent that the distance between the dead and the living, the past and the present, collapses, for the mourner is either unable or unwilling to leave the past behind. It also often turns into a narcissistic engagement in which the mourner begins to take perverse pleasure in the very fact of grieving and loss, thereby the tendency to perpetuate the condition. A self-absorbed sense of unrealistic victimhood is also often the result. Signs are, a good section in Manipur leans towards Freud’s “melancholia” in their outlook and relationship with the past, seeing others who have chosen to take the other route of leaving the past behind without disowning it, as betrayers. This should come across as worrying.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author