The Meitei community's demand for the Scheduled Tribe (ST) status got a boost recently after the Manipur High Court directed the state government to send a recommendation in this regard to the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs. It was a major victory for the Meitei group 'Scheduled Tribe Demand Committee,' which has been fighting for the ST status for Meiteis for more than a decade.
It's not at all new for civil society groups and political organisations to demand that a particular community be included in one of the reserved category lists of the government.
For example, Nishads in Uttar Pradesh have been asking to be included in the Scheduled Castes (SC) list, Jats in many states have been demanding to be included in the central Other Backward Classes (OBC) list, and Dhanagars in Maharashtra have been demanding to be included in the ST list.
The Meiteis' demand for ST status is similar to these other agitations, but at the same time, the particular social fabric of Manipur sets it apart from them.
Indian State maintains three lists of 'backward' communities for the purpose of its various affirmative action programmes.
While all the castes and tribes that are included in any of these three lists qualify for preferential treatment in availing of public sector jobs and university seats, SC, ST and OBC categories have their own peculiarities, too.
The Hills-Valley Divide in Manipur
Some of the Meitei communities (Meitei is not a homogeneous group) are already included in the SC and OBC lists. However, they are demanding that the entire Meitei community should be designated as STs. This demand – and the vociferous opposition to it by groups that are already designated as STs – has much to do with the hills-valley divide in Manipur.
Manipur has three major ethnic groups – Meitei, Naga, and Kuki. Meiteis are primarily located in the valley, while the Naga and Kuki tribes occupy the hills surrounding the valley.
The population of Meiteis is higher than the combined population of Nagas and Kukis.
Even though the valley has only about 10% geographic area, majority of the state population lives there. The Manipur kingdom, which was ruled by the Ningthouja dynasty (who were Meiteis) for centuries, had direct influence over the valley.
Due to its historical and geographical advantages, the valley has relatively been more prosperous than the hills. Since the valley is mostly inhabited by the Meiteis, the advantages of the valley have accrued to the Meiteis as well.
Groups such as the All Tribal Students’ Union of Manipur, which took out the rally in opposition to the high court order on Wednesday, 3 May, point to this reality while arguing that the Meiteis shouldn't be given the ST status. They also point out that Manipuri, the mother tongue of the Meiteis, is the official language as well as the lingua franca of Manipur. It is also one of the 22 scheduled languages of India.
The Meiteis also dominate the state legislature. In the 60-member Assembly, 40 MLAs are sent from the valley while 20 are elected from the hills. The current chief minister is a Meitei.
While speaking to The Quint, Kham Khan Suan Hausing, who is the head of the Political Science department at the University of Hyderabad, also noted the socially privileged background of the Meiteis. A long-standing civilised community, he elaborated, Meiteis didn't meet the criteria for the ST status when the ST list was drawn up by the Government of India in the 1950s.
The Meitei activists claim that before the merger of the Manipur princely state with the Union of India on 21 September 1949, the community had been listed as a tribe by the colonial government. Their contention is that the ST status is needed to “preserve” the Meitei community and “save the ancestral land, tradition, culture, and language."
Land – The Main Bone of Contention
More than the reserved seats and the preservation of culture, it is the land that is most at stake. The Meiteis say that it is unfair that the Kukis and Nagas can buy land in the valley while they cannot do the same in the hills as the law bars it. They further lament that they have been confined to the "shrinking" Imphal valley, which has only about 10% of Manipur's total geographic area. They claim that the ST status for Meiteis will lift this restriction on buying and selling land, which will lead to more integration between the valley and the hills.
Suraj Gogoi, assistant professor at the RV University, Bangalore, told The Quint that the ST communities do not like this scenario as they fear the economically better off Meiteis will buy their land and push them out.
Manipur has more than 30 communities listed as Scheduled Tribes, all broadly belonging either to the Kuki or Naga ethnic groups, which had a combined population of 40.88% as per the 2011 census. If the Meiteis are added to the ST list, almost all the communities in Manipur will have ST designation.
An Aggressive Approach
While the immediate trigger for the current violence in Manipur was the opposition to ST status for Meiteis, the aggressive approach of Chief Minister N Biren Singh hasn't helped.
In April, the Manipur government demolished three churches in Imphal East district on the charges that they were constructed without the approval of the authorities. The Meiteis mostly identify as Hindus while majority of the hill tribes are Christian. The action against churches may have been perceived as action against Nagas and Kukis.
The government is also going forward with the land survey of reserve forests, protected areas, wetlands, and wildlife despite opposition from the ST communities. The government's eviction drive against "illegal" settlers in environmentally sensitive areas has led to anger among the hill tribes, especially the Kukis in Churachandpur district who were recently targeted.
The government is also adopting the rhetoric of "illegal immigrants," which is common among Meitei activists, too.
The chief minister has also vowed to crack down on poppy cultivation in Manipur. The poppy plantations are primarily in the state's hills.
All these things have led to Biren Singh being portrayed as a Meitei chief minister who is against the hill tribes.
Although the current violence has erupted against this backdrop, the tensions between various ethnic groups, however, go back decades. While the Nagas and Kukis are unitedly opposed to the ST status for the Meiteis, they themselves were fighting each other in the 1990s, shedding much blood.
Multiple nationalisms and sub-nationalisms in Manipur have left the state completely fractured. While the protests over ST category might be the visible cause for the current violence, the problems of the state are much complex and run much deeper.