The issue is sparking fire in the already fractured relationship between the valley (dominated by the community) and the hills (Naga, Kuki and other tribes)
Manipur is currently experiencing demands for inclusion of Meitei in Scheduled Tribes (ST) list, led by the Scheduled Tribe Demand Committee Manipur (SDTM). A mass rally was organised at state capital Imphal on March 3 this year with an objective to pressure the state government to reach out to the Centre over the matter. Keeping in mind the general elections around that time, the protest was put on hold.
The month of September witnessed some forms of protest and demands again, and support from civil societies including Democratic Students Alliance of Manipur (DESAM) to strengthen the momentum of the protest. On the other hand, organisations like People's Action for National Democratic Movement (PANDM) and Indigenous People's Association of Kangleipak (IPAK) expressed that the impending Naga Framework Agreement inching towards its solution, and the possibility for granting ST status to Meitei cannot be seen in isolation.
They observed this to be more of a strategy in pacifying the people. In response to the ST status demand, the All Tribal Rights’ Protection Forum, Manipur (ATRPFM) issued a statement on September 11 that the Meitei community is known to be the most advanced community in the Northeast region in terms of their socio-, economic and ethnic status. In presenting the situation of tribals in relation to the Meiteis, they wrote that "when we see the percentage of representations in public employment of all departments, representation of Meiteis is already high”. It added that there is already a reservation of 10% for economically backward upper caste if job opportunity is one of the concerns for ST status demand.
The recent ST status demand for the Meiteis came about with the STDM memorandum addressed to the then Governor Gurbacharan Jagat on November 30, 2012. The ST status demand sparked fire into the already fractured relationship between the valley (dominated majorly by Meitei community) and hills (Naga, Kuki and other tribes). The valley witnesses an opposition from Meitei community itself but over the period the chorus is growing stronger for ST status demand.
The primacy around this demand points towards the depletion of resources, vulnerability of culture and traditional practices, and the rise of unemployment and individualisation. Then, with the presence of outsiders, the sense of insecurity in reference to Tripura sits largely on the minds of people, and the ethnic politics prevailing in the state. These factors framed the Meitei ST status demand, and through this they feel that lands can be protected and also elevate their socio-economic status through reservation available to scheduled tribes. In similar measure, the Inner Line Permit (ILP) movement, which took place in Manipur’s valley few years ago, captured the mood of people from the fear, anxiety and insecurity surrounding the present and future socio-economic and cultural landscapes.
Meitei, in relation to neighbouring communities and its history from the past, remains a dominant community. This can also be inferred from the way how the Manipur and the hills (of present Manipur) came to be administered (separately) from 1891 till 1947. The tribes and their lands which were never a part of Manipur from before found themselves directly under the Manipur state after its annexation to India in 1949. In fact, in the year 1948, the Naga people waged a protest at Mao Gate in their opposition to include their lands into Manipur state but the demand was denied and included into Manipur.
Three people were killed and 14 people were injured in the protest. Mention can also be made of the distinction of the hills from the valley of Manipur in terms of culture, tradition, customs and religious practices, keeping this in mind their lands and customary laws, and interests were protected under the provisions of Article 371 C and Autonomous District Councils (ADC). The tribal people, however, feel that these provisions are far from fulfilling its objectives.
After Manipur became a part of India from 1949, the unequal relationship between the valley and hills became more pronounced under the arrangement of the nation-state. Meitei community is accrued with various means to continue their stronghold in political representation; yielding fruits of development; access to education, health, employment opportunities etc. These features accorded them a stronger unequal relationship with the tribes in the hills.
On the other side, the lands which have been protected in the hills suffer from the gaze of the MLR and LR Act from its attempts to dilute communitarian value attached to tribal lands. The tribes have been demanding since 1978 to put ADC under the Sixth Schedule Provisions. The tribes feel that the existing provisions do not protect and empower their interests and aspirations. The demand for Sixth Schedule stands till today.
The conditions in the valley in regards to its interface with the hills indicate that the design of the state is skewed in a sense that it privileges and empowers one community over neighbouring communities from the hills. This complicates the existing unequal relationship between the valley and hills from the past. It is largely on this ground that the communities in the valley find themselves in a better situation in terms of socio-economic well-being and in having a larger share in political representation in the state assembly; 40 seats for the valley, and 20 for the hills.
It is on this ground that the Meitei community must give a thought and reflect upon how the demand for ST overlaps or infringes into the interests and rights of tribal people. One can ponder as to how a historically dominant community without bridging the gap between the hills and valley, can take recourse to ST status demands. This at the moment looks more like it shall take away the minimal protective measures and provisions available to tribal people in the hills. It will rather empower the Meitei more at the cost of the tribal people in the hills.
The demand for inclusion of Meitei into ST list goes against the notion of affirmative actions provided under the Indian constitution for the scheduled tribes. These measures to uplift socio-economic status of scheduled tribes is a means to rectify and correct the historical injustices meted out to them, and protect their vulnerabilities from appropriation, exploitation and discrimination. Reservation is never the end in itself. This is where it becomes all the more important to engage and dialogue on issues which overlaps the interests, concerns, and rights of the tribes in Manipur. A move as such can pave way for trust and peaceful living.
(Richard Kamei is a PhD candidate at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views expressed are his own)