August 02, 2023

The Manipuris of Bangladesh:
A Comparative Study of Popular Perceptions of Ethno-national Identity

Introduction

Ethnicity is comparatively a new term in English. Ethnic identity plays crucial role to understand the tendency of the formation of national identity of a particular group of people. A country can be consisted of different ethnic communities. 

However, there are several ethnic groups living side by side with Bengalis (the major ethnic group in terms of number) in Bangladesh for many years. There are about 57 ethnic minority groups in Bangladesh. 

According to the survey of 2011, the country’s ethnic minority population is around 1,586,141 which comprise 1.8% of the total population though they claim they are 3 million.

However, a mini ethnographic research was conducted on three branches (Meetei, Pangals and Bishnupriya) of Manipuri community living in Sylhet, Bangladesh to understand the complexity of ethno-national identity that they are facing as an ethnic minority group under the direct supervision of our honourable course teacher, Assistant Professor Mr. Md Rashidul Islam Rusel, Department of International Relations, Jahangirnagar University from February 06, 2020 to February 09, 2020.

This article aims to analyze whether the Manipuris living in Bangladesh represent a common ethnic identity or not, the approaches of their integration and the way they relate themselves to the existing national identity in light of the questionnaire of that mini-ethnographic research by presenting three different case studies. 

The article is concluded by giving a brief sense of comparison regarding ethnic identity of the three branches of the Manipuris.

 

What is ethnographic research and mini-ethnographic research?

Ethnography is a qualitative research design aimed at exploring the cultural interactions and meanings in the lives of a group of people (Barbour, 2010). It involves learning the feelings, beliefs, and meanings of relationships between people as they interact within their culture or as they react to others in response to a changing phenomenon, for the research takes place within the culture being studied (Fields & Kafai, 2009).

The researcher enters the culture and becomes the primary data collection instrument (Jackson, 1990) in an effort to understand the culture.

A mini-ethnography is used when a field under investigation focuses on a specific or a narrow area of inquiry (White, 2009), particularly when time or monetary constraints are evident. 

Typically, the classic ethnographic study can take years to complete because the researcher must become enmeshed in the culture in order to obtain the type of data the researcher wants (Storesund & McMurray, 2009). 

Traditional ethnography can take a great deal of time to accomplish whereas mini-ethnographic research is time bounded and financially constrained.

 

What is Ethnie or Ethnic Community?

The word ‘ethnie’ is a French term which refers to an ethnic community or group. Before knowing about ‘ethnie’ one should have to understand the term ethnicity. 

The word ‘ethnicity’ is originated from the Greek word ‘ethnos’ (derived from ‘ethnikos’), which was used to describe a large undifferentiated groups of either animals or warriors. 

‘Ethnos’ was used as an intellectual synonym for ‘gentile’ denoting ‘pagan’ or ‘non-Christian’ in English. Gradually the word ‘ethnos’ started to be used to refer ‘kinship based groups’ or a group of people who shares a common culture, ancestry, history and origin.

However, in the mid of 20th century, the word ‘ethnicity’ was placed in English dictionary. Since 1960s, ethnic group and ethnicity has become household words in Anglophone social anthropology.

Prior to this American sociologist David Reisman used it in 1953. It was appeared in world’s oldest dictionary-‘Oxford English Dictionary’ in 1972.

Previously, in the United States of America ‘ethnics’ was used to address Jews, Italian, Irish and other people who was considered inferior to the dominant group of British descent. 

Americans used it to denote the minority group of people. Gradually this idea has been changed and the word ‘ethnicity’ came into the mainstream Anthropology and Sociology as a well-crafted form.

An ‘ethnie’ or an ethnic community refers to a group of people who shares a common name, a common descent, a common culture, historical myth and who has an association with a specific territory with a definite sense of identity and solidarity. 

It can be large in size or can be small. For example, in Bangladesh ‘Bengali’ is the largest ethnic community in terms of size. ‘Manipuri’ is also a distinctive ethnic community which is comparatively smaller in size. There are many other ethnic minority groups living in Bangladesh.

 

Manipuri Community of Bangladesh

Manipuri is one of the most prominent ethnic communities living mainly in Sylhet and Moulvibazar districts of Bangladesh. The exact time of the Manipuri settlement in Bangladesh is not accurately known, but roughly it dates back to about 300 years (Haider, 2010). 

The Manipuris who have been settled in different parts of Bangladesh are rooted in Manipur state of India, but they had not directly migrated here from Manipur state, while they settled here through the sates of Asam, Cachar, and Tripura (Sheram, 2005). 

Among different ethnic minority groups living in greater Sylhet division, Manipuri is the dominant community, who has been settled in the plain lands. Their major concentration is in Kamalgonj Thana of Moulvibazar district in Sylhet division. 

At present the total number of Manipuri is about 1, 50,000 (Chowdhury, 2009) in Bangladesh. Bangladeshi Manipuris are mainly of three categories:

  1. Meitei Manipuri or Sonamohi
  2. Manipuri Muslim or Pangans or Pangals
  3. Bishnupriya Manipuri or Mayan

Historical evidence suggests that before the name of the present Manipur state was Meitei-Leipak and with the passage of time the state became known under its present name. All of them introduce themselves as Manipuris. 

However, the Meeteis claim themselves as the original inhabitants of Manipur. Bishnupriya community has their own language and cultural practices. And the Manipuri Muslim or the Pangals are Muslim in terms of religion and their culture differs from than that of other two sections. 

Given the above circumstances, it is evident that the three sections of Manipuris have two languages, two religions and two different descents.

 

Short overview of the mini-ethnographic research in Sylhet:

The study was carried out through a questionnaire which aimed at assessing a comparative ethno-national identity of the Manipuri community and to understand the approaches they took to become integrated. 

Sreemangal, Kamalganj (Teitgaon High School, Adampur bazar) and Ghoramara are the visited place to collect relevant information about Meeteis, Pangals and Bishnupriya respectively.

The research was conducted through following process:

Data collection: The common data collection method was consisted of field work with direct observation and unstructured or informal interviews through a questionnaire. 

The sample population that was relevant to this research included all of the household heads of selected Manipuri villages.

Direct observation: Direct observation was carried out by three particular groups. 

The information was collected in-depth as much as possible which includes the body language, the surroundings of the participants Manipuri people.

Field note: Field notes were taken during the observation phase of data collection while taking the interviews.

Informal/Unstructured interviews: Informal interviews were conducted as a strategy to know the views of the community in accordance with the questionnaire. 

It clarified further observations, ideas and concepts regarding the perceptions of Manipuri community. The duration of each interview took approximately forty five to seventy minutes.

Interacting Personnel:

Participants from Meeitei Manipuri Community:

Nanda Kishore Mukharjee

  • Dhiren Singh (Representative and educational activist)
  • Yai Laru Singh and others
  • Participants from the Pangals:
  • Abdus Samad (Writer, teacher, representatives and ex-political activist)
  • Sajjadul Haque Sawpan (Teacher)
  • Khurshed Alam (Teacher) and others
  • Participants from Bishnupriya community:
  • Randev Singh (Professor and Representative)

Meetei Manipuri and their perception about their ethno-national identity

Meeteis have been living in Bangladesh for more than three centuries with their profound ethnic and cultural practices. They were migrated from the Indian state of Manipur to Bangladesh. They are Mongoloid. 

They are mostly Hindu in terms of religion and in ancient period, they also practiced a religion namely ‘Apakpa’ and worshipped Atya Guru Shidaha, Sanamahi and Pakhangba. They are the sixty percent of the total Manipuris. They speak Meitei language which is categorized into the Kuki-Chin group of the Sino-Tibetan family of language

The Meeteis, ethnically identify themselves as the original Manipuri people. They also recognize the other two sections of Manipuris but do not consider Bishnupriya as the original Manipuri people. They profoundly address the religious differences between themselves and the other two branches. 

Meeteis mainly follow the Hindu religion and in ancient time, their descents also practiced “Apakpa” religion. They speak Meetei language which has a different origin than that of Bishnupriya language.

Although they follow the same religion, when it comes to practice some differences are evident between the Meetei and the Bishnupriya. The culture of Meetei Manipuri also differs from the culture of Meetei Pangals.

Meeteis claim themselves Bangladeshi in terms of political identity. Besides, they claim that as they are living in Bangladesh since many years, now they are Bangladeshi and it is their homeland. 

As their ancestry is rooted in Indian Manipur, so they have kinship in Indian Manipur and they often visit there. But it is not as frequent as they want due to the political boundary of Bangladesh-India. They also visit the other parts of Bangladesh when it is necessary.

It is easily observed that political boundary creates an obstacle to their natural mobility although they do not explicitly express it. Meeteis are famous for their ‘Manipuri Nritya’. Their religious and cultural practices significantly vary from Bishnupriya and Pangals. 

They are conscious about their ethnic origin and history. Meeteis want to have their books in Meetei language at least in primary level education. That explicitly or implicitly means that they are conscious about their language as well. They do not prefer to be identified as a tribe.

 

Meetei Pangals or Manipuri Muslims and their perceptions about the ethno-national identity:

Pangals are the second largest group of Manipuris living in Bangladesh. The word ‘Pangal’ is derived from the word “Bangal”. Meetei Muslims entered in Manipur from different parts of India for example Sylhet, Taraf, Usmangarh, Gujrat, Kachar and Assam. 

Pangals migrated in this region more than 400 years ago. They have a kinship with the Mughol and the Pathan also. Pangals are Mongoloid. The physical characteristics of Pangals are some sort of similar to the both Meetei Manipuri and Bangali. They speak the Meetei language. They are Sunni Muslims in terms of religion.

Pangals ethnically claim themselves Manipuri but as they are living in Bangladesh now, they are Bangladeshi also. They recognize that they have two ethnic origins: Bangladeshi and Manipuri. But they differ from Meetei in terms of religion and other cultural practices. 

Although they have religious differences, they feel the affinity with the whole Manipuri community. They got assimilated with Bangali but they do not encourage the marital relation with the Bangali to protect their distinct ethnic identity and culture from getting extinct. They firmly believe that all three sections of Manipuri contributed to tie them in one single ethnic identity. 

But they arguably address Bishnupriya as a whole different caste. Pangals usually do not prefer to be called as indigenous group. They use it only for some material gains but never want to be considered as an indigenous group.

When it comes to political identity, they introduce themselves as Bangladeshi. But they are culturally different from Bangali. According to Pangals, Bangladesh is their homeland and they are living here since many years. 

They often visit Indian Manipur when it comes to cultural exchanges otherwise they do not have a significant kinship or tie with Indian Manipuri people.

They prefer to be called as Manipuri community not as Pangals. They are maintaining a good co-relation with the other parts of Bangalis also. Pangals are conscious about their ethno-national history. The conformity to a common ethnic identity is so obvious in Pangals. 

They highlight their contribution to the liberation war of Bangladesh in 1971. They are sympathetic to Indian Manipuris but they do not think Indian Manipur is their homeland now. Because of political border they cannot easily visit Indian Manipur.

 

Bishnupriya Manipuri and their perception about their ethno-national identity:

Bishnupriya community is the smallest group among all these three groups. Bishnupriya Manipuris are also known as Kalisha Manipuri. They migrated to Manipur from various other parts of India and Bangladesh. 

It is said that, they mostly entered into Manipur from Assam, Sylhet, Tripura, Cumilla and Chattogram after the fifteen century. The religion of Bishnupriya Manipuri is Hindu. They are the descendants of ‘Indo-Aryan’ and they speak Bishnupriya language.

Although both the Meetei and the Bishnupriya follow the same religion, Bishnupriyas religious practices differ from the Meetei. They are conscious about the cultural, religious and linguistic differences with other two sections of Manipuris but when it comes to their common identity they try to bridge culture as a factor of commonality. 

Culture is the bridging factor here. They feel the primary attachment with Indian Bishnupriya Manipuris but they consider Bangladesh as their political identity now.

They often visit Indian Manipur state for cultural participation but they have better affinity with Bishnupriya Manipuri than the other two sections of Manipuris. They have nationalist feelings and they utilize this feeling only for the cultural unification. 

They demand the inclusion of their languages in their elementary education. They feel way more comfortable to introduce themselves as Manipuris not as Bishnupriya. They do not think political boundaries have created any burden to their natural mobility rather they are happy because they can avail more material gains from both Bangladesh and India.

They barely visit other parts of Bangladesh. They firmly believe that despite having all the differences with other two sections, they represent a common ethnic identity and they are Manipuri. They highlight the cultural similarities and common traditional activities with the Meetei.

 

So what is the tension among these three groups?

These three case studies are used to examine the popular perceptions about ethno-national identity of these three sections of the Manipuri community. Here, one thing is so evident that, although they represent a common ethnic identity, there are some significant religious, cultural, ethno-historical and linguistic differences among themselves. 

Broadly speaking, there is no explicit or visible tension is present in the community. All these three sects are introduced by a common name and identity. Pangals, consciously, introduce themselves as a greater part of Manipuri community. 

Although they are different from other two sections of Manipuri community in terms of culture and religion, they adopted ‘Manipuri’ as their identity. Due to their certain necessities and under different circumstances, they form their ethnic identity and they preferred to be introduced as Manipuri.

We know that, there are some common ethnic boundary markers in a specific ethnic group. According to Manning Nash, kinship is the most common ethnic boundary markers in an ethnographic record. This kinship refers to the biological and descent unity which mainly indicates the commonality in between them. 

This idea of kinship links the Manipuris to a common ethnic identity although they are far from their origin, Manipur state despite having different ethno-national histories. The other surface markers, according to Manning Nash, are language, physical features, dress and traditions. 

Physical features include skin color, height, hair, eye shape etc. There are some visible differences in physical features of Aryan Bishnupriya and Mongoloid Pangals and Meeteis.

The cultural marker, language is a crucial factor in determining an ethnic identity. In Manipuri community, there are two different languages (Meeitei and Bishnupriya) are spoken. In terms of cultural practice, Meeiteis and Pangals are different. 

On the other hand, Bishnupriya has some sort of similarities with Meeteis but the differences between these two groups are also significant. Religion is another cultural marker. Meeitei and Bishnupriya are the followers of the Hindu religion but Pangals are Muslims. Apart from this, there is a tension between the other two groups of Manipuri and Bishnupriya. 

The Meetei and the Pangals do not prefer to call the Bishnupriya as the original Manipuri people. The arguments in favour of this tension include the physical structure of Meetei and Bishnupriya, differences in language, religious and cultural practices of them. 

But Bishnupriya people themselves claim that they are also Manipuri people. The Pangals do have a different ethnic history and Meeteis have the different one. However, it is seen that, language, culture and religion have increasingly become dominant factors when it comes to determine their identity.

 

 

What makes them integrated?

It has been noticed that, there are many visible differences among these three branches but still they are representing a single ethnic community. So here comes the question, what makes them integrated as a single community?

According to Paul R. Brass, there are mainly two types of approaches of ethnicity. These are:

  1. Primordialism
  2. Instrumentalism

Primordialists argue that ethnicity is a natural, biological and non-rational thing which is inherited from a common ancestry and they firmly believe that ethnic identity is constant and unchangeable. 

On the other hand, instrumentalists believe that ethnicity is not something natural or divinely ordained thing rather it is socially constructed based on the necessity of a particular group of people mainly for the materialistic gains. 

Pangals might have been used instrumentalist approach for their assimilation or unification. Again, Meeteis and Pangals are Mongoloid and they share some primordial physical features and common characterstics also. So, under the given circumstances, it is obvious that Manipuri community is tied in a single knot by following both of these approaches. 

They came closer on the basis of their primordial characteristics and still represent a single ethnic identity on the basis of instrumentalism or ‘circumstantialism’. They take the help of their umbrella identity ‘Manipuri’ to introduce themselves. 

So it can be assumed that more or less both of these approaches contributed to determine the factors behind the integration of Manipuri people despite having differences.

 

Concluding Remarks

Although some significant and visible religious, linguistic and cultural diversity are evident among these three sections of Manipuri community, they still feel the solidarity and living side by side peacefully. 

But generally it becomes impossible to have various cultural practices and languages in the same ethnic identity. 

Such differences may pose a threat to their unity and single identity. So this is the case and there may raise a question that why they are claiming to be a common ethnic identity despite having such unavoidable differences. 

Perhaps the answer is ‘to protect their existence along with their “Manipuri” identity or to achieve some material gains as an ethnic minority group’.

 

 

References

1. Smith, Anthony. “The Ethnic Origins of Nations”. United States of America : Basil Blackwell Inc. 1986

2. Brass, Paul. “Ethnicity and Nationalism: Theory and Comparison”. United States of America: Sage Publications, 1991

3. Nash, Manning. “The Cauldron of Ethnicity in the Modern World”, United States of America : The University of Chicago Press, 1993

4. Fusch, P. I., Fusch, G. E & Ness, L. R. How to Conduct a Mini-Ethnographic Case Study: A Guide For Novice Researchers, The Qualitative Report.” Walden University, 22(3), 923-941. 2017

5. Ahmed, Faisal, Singh, Lakshmikantha. “State of the Rural Manipuris in Bangladesh”, Bangladesh: Ethnic Community Development Organization, 2006.

6. Samad, M. (2012). Monipuri Moslem History of Bangladesh. Adampur Bazar Press: Moulavibazar

 

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