Time and again, the controversy over the Meitei script has been raised. The controversy is not only about the number or various characters of the script but in the name of the script itself. It was during the reign of chief minister Yangmaso Shaiza in late 70s that the movement for reviving the old script took centre-stage through a movement led by former MLA of Keishamthong Laishram Manaobi and activist Chingshubam Akaba and a group of revivalists.
An expert committee was formed and the claims of several groups were examined in detail before arriving at a conclusion and it was RK Dorendra’s government which approved the 27-character script in April 1980. It contained the original 18 alphabets and 9 other additional letters in keeping with the progressive nature of language. It was without the consonants or the Lonsum Mayek.
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With the passage of time and interaction with other peoples more sounds and intonations were added to the language one speaks and so the original script of ours began lacking in letters or characters in expressing the changing spoken language. This, the then Expert Committee understood and they added the 9 additional characters to keep up with the progressive nature of the language. When the time came for naming the newly approved script in the official records, the controversy of whether it should be ‘Meitei’ or ‘Meetei’ once again surfaced.
Ultimately, the state government decided on ‘Meetei Mayek’ as it was the revivalists who were in the forefront of the script revival movement. The Manipur Sahitya Parishad and several other organisations still refer to it as Meitei Mayek.
For the record, controversy with regard to the script is not a new thing. It had been raging since the first half of 20th century with the coming of a revivalist movement led by Naoriya Phulo. He had then challenged the script officially recognised by the Royal Palace with his own set of alphabets. The script recognised by the Royal Palace then had 36 characters and it was mainly based on Bengali script which was introduced in the state after Vaishnavism became the state religion.
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After the advent of Vaishnavism, most official Puyas were written with the 36-character script as mandated by the Royal Palace. There is no dearth of books in the form of manuscripts or Puyas written in old and archaic Manipuri by ancient scholars with subjects ranging from sources of historiography to indigenous knowledge systems, rituals and cultural practices, statecraft, geography and drainage system, genealogy, political allegory, principles of war and humanitarian traditions, and even studies in astrology and astronomy.
What is worth mentioning here is that although the Puyas were written then, the content was based on ancient knowledge carried forward through the centuries via a strong oral tradition among scholars of the Royal Palace. Now, some elements are complaining that the recognised Meetei script has limitations and one cannot read the Puyas even after mastering the official script.
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What should be understood is that we have at least a working script through which one could communicate with each other. The Meetei script was introduced in 2006 in the schools and it is slowly replacing the Bengali script so much so that it has reached the college and University level now. So, if one wants to study the Puyas and ancient chronicles, he or she should strive to understand the 36 character version.
There is still the question of the nomenclature of the mother tongue of the dominant community of the state. On record, the language included in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution is called Manipuri language, taking after the name of the state.
The name ‘Manipur’ is still being disputed as being a foreign term and some revivalists prefer ‘Kangleipak’ and the language as Meeteilon. We must also remember the Meiteis or Meeteis are known to outsiders by various names like Meckley, Manipuri, Cassay-Shan, and Kathe. Ultimately, the only controversy lies in what Manipur’s dominant community calls itself and it is for them alone to decide that and not refer the matter to someone else.
A common refrain among the revivalists has been that Manipuri language is corrupted with so many foreign words and terms and a concerted effort of weeding out foreign words or ‘lonyan’ from Manipuri language is gaining momentum in recent times.
What we must understand is that Manipuri language is a dynamic language and it has the strength to absorb foreign words into its fold and also adapt to change and modern realities. One has to believe in the resilience of the language and its adaptability to modern linguistic changes. It is one of the oldest languages in Southeast Asia, which has its own script and written literature.