ST demand in valley exposes class bias and ethnic divide

By FrontierManipur | Published On 15th Sep, 2021, 02:20 GMT+0530

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FILE PHOTO of STDC's protest sit-in on

It is critical for us, the masses, to comprehend the ethnicized elite based charade to subvert welfare objectives of their own communities by their own elites’ invisible project of reproducing social inequality and maintaining the status quo.

By Kh Ibomcha             

A spate of heated debates has been witnessed on various platforms, including TV talk shows, on the Scheduled Tribe (ST) demand by the ST Demand Committee Manipur (STDCM) in recent months. The supporters of the Meeteis’ ST demand, claim that socio-economic and historical conditions of the community meet all criteria for inclusion on the scheduled list while the opponents have categorically rubbished such claims.

However, my argument here will not be about whether or not Meeteis meet the criteria for inclusion into the ST list. It will also not look into why the people in the hills are opposed to the demand. This article will focus on why a few members of the Meetei society have objected to their own community’s inclusion on the list, going beyond the normal debates we generally get to read and watch in the media.

The basic rationale for the demand, as put up by the ST demand committee, is to enable Meeteis to protect their land and people under the Indian constitution. Here, we see no reason to disagree with the committee’s demand. However, I wonder why a few Meetei people have opposed this? This is exactly what this article is going to be about.

To begin the argument, it is necessary to first ascertain who are these people opposing the demand.  At a first glance, it is clear that the people representing the creamy layer of society in the valley are opposed to the demand. Another question is who is lending their support to the cause. Of course, the masses are the ones who support the cause.  I hope people recall the large number of people who turned out for STDCM’s rally a few years ago. Almost all of the participants are society’s poor people located at the bottom of the existing social hierarchy.

While the STDCM claims that the primary reason for demanding ST status is to protect the Meetei people and their land, most people focus on the job and admission quotas provided to scheduled tribes. This aspect of ST status is important to take into account because it is central to the debate between the two opposing groups.

Opponents argue that Meetei is a community that has already passed through the historical stage of tribal society.  Thus, they have ruled out the idea of including Meetei on the ST list. However, they had done little to augment their position and cared less if their argument was valid or not. What matters most to them is how to derail the movement, it seems. Thus, the question of “why a few Meeteis want to undermine it” has become even more crucial.

In a society, where there are unequal power relations, those people who control the society will always try to maintain the status quo. When the existing power structure is threatened, they will use whatever means necessary to maintain the structure. This is exactly what is going on now between anti-ST and pro-ST groups. But the same equation might not be true for the relation between the people of the hills and the valley.

The Meetei social elites are constantly thinking about ways to perpetuate social inequality using every institution, legally, politically, culturally and also educationally. They are perhaps gripped by the fear that once the Meetei community cutting across classes becomes ST, it could destabilize their social, economic and political position and status. They want people bracketed within the lower rungs of the social ladder to always remain below them.

So, the primary goal of their argument is to conceal the dominant class interests while claiming that Meeteis in general do not require affirmative action nor positive discrimination. It is not that the hill people are less advanced than the valley people, as some have argued. They are only exploiting the feelings of highly Hindunized Meeteis to become enraged and start questioning, “How can we be Tribal when we have a recorded history of over 2000 years?”

Without any affirmative policy, it is nearly impossible for a young person from the lower rung of the society to sit for and pass the IAS or any other competitive civil service examinations. They will not be able to afford the expensive UPSC coaching centres. People on the upper echelons of society, on the other hand, can afford the best education from the best educational institutions. They can afford civil service coaching centres as easily as buying cotton candies, while for the poor, it is as tough as scaling Mount Everest.

If the current power structure is maintained, it is clear that these few social elites will continue to ride roughshod over the vast majority of poor people. What is more interesting here is that the demand for ST status has exposed the deep seated class structure within Meeteis. This clearly shows that we cannot assume an ethnic group or a community as a homogeneous social class. So, the contradiction between the opponents and supporters of ST demand is a clear example of clash of classes within Meetei society.

The ST status demand by the masses has infused a deep sense of insecurity in the psyches of Meetei social elites. This sense of insecurity or loss of power is so intense that they resort to lying. They lie that the demand will worsen the hill-valley divide, triggering a halt to the unification movement. However, any sensible person can see that the demand for ST status has nothing to do with the hill-valley divide or enmity. It is just that anti-ST groups are exploiting the emotions of Meetei at the lowest rung who support Hill-Valley unity in order to undermine the ST cause.

Here, one must be reminded that the cause of the hill-valley divide lies elsewhere.  As such, Meeteis ‘demand for ST status has nothing to do with this hill-valley enmity. Neither will it end if STDC ceases to demand it. Rather, the animosity is rooted in false and ethnicized politics. This serves the interests of ethnically based political elites. Therefore, in order to end our division, we must weed out ethnic politicization by elites of both the hills and the valley.

In this case of ST demand, Meetei social elites, like hill politicians, use animosity to advance their class interests. It was not to right the wrong the Meetei did to the hill people or to help mend relations when they argued that Meeteis’ demand for ST would widen the hill-valley divide.  Rather, the elites of the hills and the valley prop up seemingly united opposition and argue in favour of literally halting the ST demand to protect their interests, but not the collective interests of all. One must also remember that the opposition to the demand from within the Meetei community does no tangible service or highlight the interests of the hills communities as a whole. Therefore, it is critical for us, the masses, to comprehend these ethnicized elite based charades to subvert objectives of their own communities by their own invisible project of reproducing social inequality and maintaining the status quo.

(Kh Ibomcha is a social and political commentator. He has contributed many critical articles in the regional media) 

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