Manipur, India, horses, polo and societal change: So what's missing in this picture?

In the beginning, it appeared to be merely a story about quasi-abandoned horses in northeastern India and for the most part, that’s what “In the Kingdom of Dying Ponies” was a recent offering of Foreign Policy Review.

Until I began realizing the scene was set in Manipur, that neglected corner of India that tourists rarely get to. Northeastern India is the one part of the country that is either majority Christian or has equal parts Hindu and Christian, which is the case with Manipur.

A bit of history: It was mainly the Baptists who swept through the area converting folks in the late 19th century, plus establishing schools, hospitals and translating the Bible into their language. That area of India has seen its Muslim population grow due to immigration from nearby Muslim-majority Bangladesh.

So … in a piece about society in Manipur, would you expect to see at least a little bit about the religious demographics happening there?

Two paragraphs into the piece:

Polo is the archetypal sport of snobs. But in Manipur, where the British learned of the game before introducing it to the world -- or at least the aristocracy -- polo is still a commoner’s game. And the exalted status of the Manipuri pony, the only breed used at the Manipur tournament, is one reason why. The indigenous semi-feral pony is a sacred figure for residents of Manipur, featuring prominently in the ritual life of the Meitei people, the area’s majority ethnic group. The ponies are treated as regal mounts, never put to labor, and trace their origin in local lore to the Pegasus-like Samadon Ayangba, the “swift first among beasts.

The Meitei, by the way, are Hindu.

But the ponies’ regal status has not stymied their slow demise. For decades, the ponies’ numbers have gradually dropped and now there are thought to be only around 500 left. In Imphal, one spots them on the streets, huddled together in pitiful herds, red-eyed, skinny, and surrounded by honking traffic. At night, they forage through garbage piles alongside cows and mongrels. Many of them seem hardly in a condition to be used in sport, which is just as well, because there are far fewer places in Manipur to play polo than there once were. “People in Manipur have forgotten the legacy of the pony,” lamented one local musician.
The ponies’ sorry state is a symbol, and result, of Manipur’s own downward trajectory. For centuries a prosperous, independent kingdom, it is today a pariah on India’s fringes. If it is ever in the national conversation, it is over its separatist unrest, heavy militarization, endemic corruption and overall dysfunction. But for residents of the New Jersey-sized state, the biggest shift isn’t just the violence and disorder -- it’s the area’s marginalization, and the way it has sapped the city’s pride, autonomy, and political will.

The author only sees political reasons behind the region’s poverty of spirit. Something is missing.

The constant off-and-on conflict of Manipur’s nearly 40 armed groups -- Maoist, Marxist, ethnic -- has held Manipur in a kind of developmental purgatory while much of India has boomed around it. Conflict between the Indian military and Manipuri militant groups has simmered there since the 1970s. In 1980, the state, population 2.8 million, was officially deemed a “disturbed area” by New Delhi, granting the military extrajudicial authority there. 

The article goes on to detail how the area, which joined up with India in 1949, has always been contrary to the central government and that the place has more in common with Burma/Myanmar. It then became a British protectorate in 1826 at which point polo was introduced there. But the area has been quite neglected by New Delhi; its capital, Imphal, doesn’t even have street lights and thus,

In a place with abysmal roadways, rising unemployment, constant power outages, and armed insurrection, why should anyone care about ponies?

By this point, I’m wondering why the author doesn’t at least mention some of the religious ferment in the area. We are talking about basic information, after all.

The Hindustan Times did this part March in a piece about the increase of Christians in the area and the growth rates are quite stunning.

Near the end of the piece, the author visits a polo god shrine and converses with a “priest” –- I assume this was a Hindu –- but that conversation doesn’t take the story anywhere other than to add a gloss of hopelessness to the cause of the horses. Apparently the white horse pictured with this piece is part of that shrine. It's frustrating that the few mentions of religion in this piece are quite vague.

Yes, the story was about horses.

But it’s also about Manipur, which has undergone a huge swing toward Christianity in 40 years.

What is causing people in that isolated region to convert and increase? Do the religious tensions and demographics have anything to do with the region's poverty or outlook?

Maybe not but maybe so. 

At least it'd be worthwhile to ask.

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