Validity of attaching the name 'Manipuri' to 'Bishnupriya'

by Ashim Kumar Singha

In recent years some controversy has arisen as to the validity of the name Manipuri attached to the Bishnupriya speech. According to Constitution Act 1956, Article 350A and 350B, the speakers of Bishnupriya Manipuri language have been demanding since 1963 for implementation of "Bishnupriya Manipuri" language in the primary level of education in Assam and Tripura. Though the Assam and Tripura Govt. agreed to the same and issued the order in October 25, 1983 to introduce the Language at the Primary stage of education. But the order was withheld for many times following protests from the Govt. of Manipur and pressure from Meitei organizations operating in both Assam and Manipur. There have been suggestions that Bishnupriya was never the language of Manipur and Meitei is the "Real" Manipuri language.

I am a native speaker of Bishnupriya Manipuri. In this article I propose to give a short linguistic introduction to Bishnupriya Manipuri and to present my arguments in favor of the validity of attaching the name Manipuri to Bishnupriya.

At the outset I should make it clear that, historically speaking, both Bishnupriya and Meithei were used as languages of communication in Manipur for centuries, and that I do not claim any exclusive right to the appellation (Manipuri) to Bishnupriya only.

As a native speaker of Bishnupriya, however, I feel that the people of Bishnupriya Manipuri group are not given their rightful place and recognition among the languages spoken in Manipur, much against the government and census records as well as the research findings of reputed scholars.



Language Name: Bishnupriya Manipuri

Alternative names: Vishnupriya, Vishnupriya Manipuri, Bishnupuria, Bishnupuria Manipuri, Mayang, Imarthar, BM, BPM

Regions: North-east India ( Assam, Tripura, Manipur, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh)
Bangladesh ( Sylhet, Moulvibazar, Habiganj, Sunamganj, Dhaka )
Myanmar & some other overseas countries.

Number of Speakers: 4,50,000 (aprox.)

Source: Close proximity with the Sauraseni-Maharastri Prakrit, highly influenced by Sanskrit. Some charateristics of Hindi, some denoting terms of Meitei and a little influence of Bengali and Assamese incorporated.

Vocabulary:  Contains about 10,000 words of Sanskrit, 8,000 of Tadvava (words derived from OIA), 6,000 of its own and 4000 of Meitei.

Dialects: (1) Rajar Gang (Kings Village) and (2) Madoi Gang (Queens village).

The term "Bishnupriya" is derived from Vishnupurika or Vishnupriya (followers of the Vishnu cult from ancient times). Orthodox Bishnupriyas believe that they installed the image of lord Bishnu at a place in Manipur, which was given the name Bishnupur. No doubt that a group of people called Mayangs or Khalachais, lived in the plain lands near the Logtak lake which the 7th century Chinese pilgrim Hsuan Tsang had mentioned in his account as Ishangnupul. The existance of BPM in 12th and 13th century also appers from historical records. During 18th and 19th century a great majority of speakers fled away from Manipur and took refuge in Assam, Tripura, Sylhet and Cachar due to internal conflicts among the prices of Manipur and due to Burmese attack. Consequently, it was difficult for the small number of Bishnupriyas who remained in Manipur to retain their language in face of the impact of Meitei, although Dr. G.A. Grierson, in 1891 found the existence of a considerable number of speakers in two or three villages near Bishnupur, locally known as Lamangdong.( LSI, Vol -V, Page 419).

As the phonological and syntactical structure of BPM was never changed and the same is even now with its distinct identity, we can conclude that the Bishnupriyas left Manipur with their fully developed language and no matter how and when the people were migrated in Manipur, it is historically founded by eminent scholars and historian that the language is originated in the soil of Manipur and nowhere else.

Some other points to be noted are-

1. From the last two centuries the Bishnupriyas outside Manipur, like the Meiteis are known as Manipuri's (People came from Manipur) to the people of Assam, Tripura and Bangladesh.

2. The dance, music, dress, lifestyle and all other social systems are identical to the people of both these sections living anywhere, whether in Manipur, Assam, Tripura or Bangladesh.

3. Even before the fall of "Surma Valley Manipuri Association" in 1931, a Bishnupriya would never identify himself as a "Bishnupriya', but as a Manipuri.

4. Even if we assume "Manipur" and "Manipuri" are recent terms than we must admit that their "Manipuri" identity is as old as the "Manipuri" identity of the Meiteis.

5. The 1931 census speaks about a indo-aryan manipuri community and language.

6. During the British regime, the main heading "Manipuri" was sub-divided into "Meitei" and "Bishnupriya" in the statistic of students of the School board, Cachar.

7. After a few years of India's independence the term 'Manipuri' has been chosen for 'Meitei' by the Govt. of Manipur, as most of the Bishnupriyas who remained in Manipur merged with the Meitheis. The census report of Manipur 1951 shows the existence of only 114 Bishnupriya speakers in Manipur during that time. But the Bishnupriyas outside Manipur, in pursuance of their tradition, call themselves and their language 'Manipuri' even now, and use the term 'Bishnupriya' to distinguish themselves from the Meiteis.

8. In the Census report of India 1961, also the main heading "Manipuri" was sub-divided into "Meitei" and "Bishnupriya".

9. In the census report of India 1971, Bishnupriya's were recorded as "Bishnupriya Manipuri".

10. So far as educational concessions are concerned, the Bishnupriya children are enjoying the same benefit given by the Govt. of India to the O.B.C. Manipuri pupils.

The inclusion of Meitei language as the Manipuri language in the Eighth schedule of the Constitution of India came as a rude shock to the ethnic and cultural identity of the Bishnupriya-Manipuri speaking people residing in Manipur, Assam and Tripura. They feel aggrieved that their identity as Manipuri has not been given due consideration when Meitei was taken to be wholly synonymous to "Manipuri". They are not against the recognition of Meitei Language, they are afraid that their cultural identity will be lost if the term "Manipuri" is taken for language "Meitei", which is only a section of people living in Manipur.

The term 'Manipuri' has been associated with the Bishnupriya people whenever others referred to them and the Bishnupriyas always considered them to be Manipuris. The term "Manipuri" is a sensitive and prestigious connotation to the Bishnupriyas. That is why the Bishnupriyas residing in Assam and Tripura have consistently refused and rejected offers of both the state and central Governments to call their language only as 'Bishnupriya' and not Bishnupriya Manipuri. They have voiced their demands through peaceful, and democratic movements over the years and their demand is completely unrelated with any kind of economic or political gains.

Dhaka, June 12, 2003