It’s been 29 years that Manipuri has been included as an official language under the Eight Schedule of the Constitution of India. Every year in fact, August 20th is observed as Manipuri Language Day to commemorate this occasion that came about with a long history of political protests. The funny thing about the day over the years is the dominance of statements by politicians, Government officials and other esteemed experts on language over the matter of the script not being inscribed on Indian currency notes. Nothing has changed in the 29 years: Manipuri language is still not used on currency notes as yet and the statements around this have not stopped either.
If and when the script is used one day, what would the future Manipuri Language Day observations be about? The promotion of Manipuri language does not begin and stop with its inclusion on currency notes. No doubt this political stamp is important but just as crucial is the need to critique and factor in a hard analysis over where Manipuri language stands today and where it might head in the future.
In the Manipuri language day observation last year, two notable Ministers gracing the event made a grand statement regarding putting in ‘efforts for the inclusion of Manipuri language in the list of Classical languages of India.’ The sheer irony of course is that the statement was made by representatives of a government, whose political alignment is to push Hindi as the National language over and above any other Indian languages. But the cold hard fact is only six languages enjoy the ‘Classical’ language status: Tamil (declared in 2004), Sanskrit (2005), Kannada (2008), Telugu (2008), Malayalam (2013), and Odia (2014). The basis for declaring a ‘Classical language’ status as per information provided by the Ministry of Culture in the Rajya Sabha in February 2014 are: High antiquity of its early texts/recorded history over a period of 1500-2000 years; a body of ancient literature/texts, which is considered a valuable heritage by generations of speakers; the literary tradition should be original and not borrowed from another speech community and a discontinuity between the classical language and its later forms or its offshoots. Look at the facts and judge well if Manipuri language can make it to that list in the present context of low readership and a not so prolific writing track record.
Manipuri or for that matter any language can grow only when it is read, discussed and archived. But is Manipuri as a language being read enough? That is the one question that is going to need some tough and honest introspection before it is answered. Does anyone know just how many Manipuri books are being published on the literary front every year? What themes are these books on? How many copies are being sold? Who are reading these books if at all?
The literature of a language, any language is an integral ingredient for its promotion and continuation. When a language is used for academic textbooks, official notifications and newspapers, it is for the specific purpose of teaching/studying, relaying information but when the same language in literary form is read, it is not just an intimate window but also the beginnings of a socio cultural and political journey. This is why we need to come back to the question of whether Manipuri books are being written and read as also look into the factors that have kept Manipuri literature on a tight lease that has held it back from being popular as it should be.
The Manipuri publishing scene is totally non existent in Manipur. Unlike in other parts of the country where there are publishing houses that commission an author to write or put an author under contract after their work has been approved, the scene here is that authors and aspiring authors not just write but proof read, do copy writing, editing and then look for a printing press or agency to print the books from his or her own pocket and then try selling the book copies on their own. This means that an author is the sole creator of a book from its inception till it reaches its readers. Compare this scene with publishing houses that take on the responsibility of proof reading, cover designing, art work, printing, marketing and distribution elsewhere.
Experts will say that there is no reader base for Manipuri literature now. Isn’t it time to start asking more questions on why there is no reader base? The easy answer is to point out to contemporary distractions in the form of English writings being available, the ease of reading online etc. But decades earlier when writings in English were not as easily accessible in the form of novels and books as they are now, there was only a select Manipuri language reading group: those who had Manipuri as a subject and those who were writers themselves. Isn’t it time to build a readership base starting with reading clubs that reads and discusses Manipuri books? Last year, a young Assamese author made waves in the literary space when she started posting a chapter on her Facebook page every week that saw thousands of hits, fan recreations of her writings and intense discussions on how the plot might turn out in its next update. The surprise factor here? It was written and being posted in Assamese script but the readership and response was such that it led to visual creations by readers and fan creations. Contrast this to how most Manipuri literary events remain exclusive and formal domains where everyone laments while the younger generation grows more estranged from their language and aesthetics.
For Manipuri language to grow, there needs to be a nurturing and enabling environment that cannot be built by diktats on what words to use and what cannot be. The empty posturing of events where everyone repeats what has been said and lamented over should be done away with. Here, promotion of Manipuri language does not mean running down other languages or other writing in the state. Rather, writing about the language and its literature in translated languages is going to play a complementary role though of course, the translation itself would have to be one of quality.