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Bengali script loses its only outpost

Imphal, May 15: The Bengali script will die in the only place outside Bangladesh and Bengal where it is used as the medium of writing.

After nearly 300 years, Meitei Mayek, the script of the majority Meitei community in Manipur, will replace Bengali with the cabinet in the northeastern state taking the decision in the wake of three months of agitation.

Meitei Mayek will come back into textbooks from the next academic session, the government of Okram Ibobi Singh decided last night.

Over 270 years ago, Bengali replaced the indigenous script on a decree by the then king Pamheiba (1709-48), who burnt all scriptures and other books written in the Meitei script. Since then, Manipuri has been written in the Bengali script.

The king’s action was influenced by Santidas Gossain, a Bengali missionary who came from Sylhet, now in Bangladesh, to spread Vaishnavite culture. Many protested. The protesters were either killed or exiled.

This time, too, the chief minister’s decision has followed protests and threats from organisations that wanted Meitei to return.

A month ago, demonstrators burnt down Manipur’s oldest library in the state capital. Lakhs of Manipuri textbooks written in Bengali were torched.

Last week, a team of leaders of the language movement met Ibobi and gave him seven days to take a decision.

It was not easy for the government to make up its mind as there was strong opposition from other sections of the population to the move, which they saw as imposition of Meitei on them.

To pre-empt another round of agitation from non-Meiteis, the government decided to use the Roman script for Manipuri textbooks for students from these communities, who are tribals living in the hills. Meiteis are plains people who live mostly in the Imphal valley, constituting over 50 per cent of Manipur’s population.

Meitei will replace Bengali in classes I to II from the 2006-07 academic session, moving up to higher classes every year till the university level.

The implications of the move are stupendous since new books have to be written in the Meitei script. The cabinet resolved to finish transcription from Bengali to Meitei by October to make books available ahead of the start of the academic session. Schoolteachers will undergo orientation programmes to become familiar with the script.

Still not fully satisfied, the organisation spearheading the agitation has demanded a white paper on the cabinet decision.

“We are yet to get a clear picture of the decision. The government should present a clear picture by Wednesday,” it said.

Following an appeal by language activists, all local Manipuri language papers have started using the local script in at least one news item every day.

The Manipur Assembly passed a resolution in 1980 to replace Bengali but no action had been taken until now.

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