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ST status demand: You cannot have your cake and eat it too

FILE PHOTO of STDC's protest sit-in on

The demand of the Meiteis if conceded would mean that the current ST would have to compete with the Meiteis for the ST reserved posts in the State.

By Ngaranmi Shimray 

‘You cannot have your cake and eat it too’. Cambridge dictionary explains the meaning of this idiom as – to have or do two good things at the same time especially things that are not usually possible to have together.
The idiom is referred to in respect of the demand for the status of Scheduled Tribe by the Schedule Tribe Demand Committee Manipur (STDCM) for the Meiteis who are already in the OBC category as it is fraught with fallacies; a mistaken belief, especially one based on unsound grounds.
When different societies in India were classified under Article 341 and Article 342 as Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) respectively after India became a Republic the Meitei community, who are regarded as descendants of yore, did not fall under the classification of SC or ST. When the tribes were classified as ST and the inhabitants of a few Meitei villages as SC of Manipur, the Meiteis did not oppose or object to the classification or did not assert for their inclusion as ST or SC since they were said to be proud of being chaste Hindu. The question of Meiteis claiming to be ST did not arise at that time as they were looking down on the tribes as impure and called them ‘Haos’ in a presumably derogatory manner. To be an SC then or now is out of question.
The notification of a number of tribes as ST and a few villages as SC in Manipur meant that the remaining population i.e. the Meiteis did not fall in either of these two categories. Like in the rest of the country, it was understood and implied that communities not included in the ST or SC categories were mainly chaste Hindu caste and the Meiteis fell under this bigger group. For ease of understanding, the unreserved group of people came to be known as general category/others. In other words, there is no list of general category and the usage of word ‘general’ or ‘others’ to signify them as non-SC or non-ST became the norm.
Following the Mandal Commission Report in 1980s and the implementation of its recommendations from the year 1992 onwards gave an opportunity to the Meiteis to be classified under Article 342A of the Constitution as Other Backward Classes (OBC) in the State list and Central list. The term ‘OBC’ stands for ‘other backward classes’ (castes), used for the first time in the Mandal Commission’s Report. The OBC caste are also people who are marginalized in history and even continue to face the oppression and social, economic, and educational isolation like the SC/ST but do not fall under the SC/ST category. OBCs are distinct from SC or ST. OBCs are the castes that fall between the three higher varnas and the Dalits (Scheduled Castes) and Adivasis (Scheduled Tribes). OBC category is further divided into creamy layer and non-creamy layer based on income. At present, OBCs are entitled to 27% quota in higher educational institutions and Government/public sector employment if the gross annual income of the parents does not exceed ₹8 lakh. A person with an annual income of ₹8 lakh and above is classified as “creamy layer” and cannot get the reservation benefits. The Government of India maintains a list of castes/communities to be considered as OBC. According to the scheme of reservation the ST are entitled to 7.5% quota in Government/public sector employment and higher educational institutions.
The OBC category for Meiteis have reportedly crossed more than 90% of Meitei population providing them opportunities to vie for jobs in Government/public sector employment and seats in higher educational institutions within the reservation of 27% for OBC. After their inclusion in the OBC list, the Meiteis have been very successful and this is evident from the fact that a couple of OBC Meitei have become officers in the IAS, IPS and other services which was not so prior to OBC reservation or were very few when they competed under the general/unreserved category. Quite a few of direct recruits IAS/IPS are now in the Manipur government occupying important positions.
OBC are relatively higher in the social, educational and economic standing than ST or SC. The Meitei OBC have shown their ability to compete in the Civil Services examinations under the OBC reservation quota by getting selected for appointment each year. Considering the fact that the Meiteis are performing relatively well under the OBC reservation quota, it is feared that their inclusion in the ST list will result an uneven playing field for the current ST of Manipur as it would enable the advanced Meitei community to grab all government posts and seats in higher education in the State rendering reservation for the current ST of Manipur meaningless. On the All India front it can be stated that the Meiteis are better than the Meenas that both these two communities will be able to grab all the 7.5% posts reserved for ST in Government/public sector employment and higher educational institutions.
It is the view of the ST of Manipur that the demand by a section of the Meiteis for ST status is a two pronged strategy to deprive the current ST of Manipur of jobs in the Government/public sector employment and seats in higher educational institutions as the more advanced Meitei who would be entitled to ST reserved posts/seats will appropriate all the reserved posts for ST. At the same time they will be able to grab land from the tribes (current ST) of Manipur as the Meiteis will become ST and will be able to buy land in the Hill Areas from the tribes (current ST). Currently the Meiteis cannot buy land from the ST in the Hill Areas as the tribal land in the Hill Areas are protected by Article 371C of the Constitution and its accompanying notifications. This is one of the reasons why the demand of the Meiteis to be ST and avail ST quota of 7.5%, when they are already enjoying 27% under the OBC quota, is being viewed with suspicion by the current ST of Manipur.
The Meiteis are the predominant group in Manipur wielding political and administrative powers and they have been – scuttling all attempts by the tribes to get the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution extended to the Hill Areas of Manipur; stopping the Government of India/Delimitation Commission to carry out delimitation of assembly/parliamentary constituencies in the State which had been postponed for the last five decades; stopping the decadal Census in some hill sub-divisions to be accepted (these sub-divisions are still using the extrapolated population figures of Census 1971) thereby causing injustice in representation and development share for the ST; taking no action to correct the imbalance in development between the Hill Areas and valley; allowing rampant mal-administration in the Hill Areas to continue; blocking the revision of reservation ratio for ST and SC against new population figures thereby freezing the ST share for jobs in the Government/public sector employment and seats in higher educational institutions at the population figure level of Census 1971.
The reality is that the Meiteis are wealthier, wield both political and administrative powers, have higher population than all tribes combined in Manipur, have 40 Members of Legislative Assembly in a house of 60 Members; have 8 Ministers including the CM in a Cabinet of 12; have more professionals like doctors, professors and engineers and occupy most of the important posts in the State, and hence are in a very commanding position. All universities, high standard schools, national level institutes, medical colleges, State level hospitals, businesses, major infrastructures like markets, airport, railway station are located in the Imphal valley. Under such circumstances the Meiteis have already enjoyed an unassailable upper hand and the tribals are suppressed in every sphere of life. The demand of the Meiteis if conceded would mean that the current ST would have to compete with the Meiteis for the ST reserved posts in the State. Needless to say all ST benefits in the State will be taken by the Meiteis as the current ST will not be able to compete with the advanced ST Meiteis.
There is an imminent risk that any attempt to give the Meiteis ST status will upset the prevailing social, economic, political and peaceful communal situation for the worst. It could lead to a situation where the ST of Manipur will feel helpless forcing them to fight for their survival as they sense that they will soon be losing their share of jobs/seats and land to the dominant community if they get the ST status.
There is already a lesson of inclusion of an advanced tribe known as Meenas of Rajasthan for all to ponder. Inclusion of the Meenas, who are alleged to be an advance group of people in Rajasthan, in the ST list has already made a mockery of the reservation policy of the country. Every year, it is evident from the results of the Civil Services examinations that, this single community is grabbing about half of all ST reserved posts especially in the Combined Civil Services Examination and in the jobs in their State. The inclusion of the advanced Meitei community in the ST list could result in a similar situation developing in the State of Manipur depriving the current ST from their job/seat share and also skew the ST reservation situation in the country. Conceding to their demand will cause doom to many less competitive STs throughout the country leading to a situation where both these two advanced communities i.e. the Meenas and Meiteis would be grabbing and cornering all the benefits for ST in the country. In other words, the impact will not only be felt in Manipur but will be felt at the national level.
Further, land is an emotive issue and history has shown that fights over land and resources have caused bloodshed. It would be prudent for all concerned in the Central and State governments to tread with utmost care and caution on the demand of Meiteis for ST status lest it provokes adverse reactions from different stakeholders.
The question is whether the demand should be allowed to drift to a situation where a dominant community will be permitted to have the cake and eat it too? The Meiteis are the dominant community in Manipur and are enjoying an upper hand in all spheres of life besides wielding government power. They are already in the OBC category regardless of whether they meet the OBC criteria of being marginalized in history and of even continuing to face the oppression and social, economic, and educational isolation like the SC/ST in Manipur. No one has objected to their current status as OBC and they are reaping benefits from this status. The ST of Manipur has been very considerate and accommodating to their various demands and one of them was not opposing or objecting to the inclusion of Manipuri (Meitei) language in the 8th Schedule. On the other hand, the Meiteis have always been opposing the various demands of the ST of Manipur notable among them is the demand for extension of the Sixth Schedule to the Hill Areas of Manipur.
OBC status is a category above ST and SC status and they should be happy that their share of reservation is 27% under OBC. They are already OBC and cannot be downgraded to the lower ST status to fight for a smaller 7.5% of seats reserved for the ST who are weaker than the OBC. The demand is not logical as they are in the group competing for 27% of OBC reservation and they are already performing exceedingly well under the OBC category.
As stated above, the entire strategy appears to be a two-pronged one. Firstly, to deny the ST of Manipur of their present share of ST reservation as the Meitei being the advanced society would be able to grab all benefits if given ST status. Secondly, to become a ST so that the Meiteis as ST will be able to grab/purchase land in the Hill Areas from the current ST who are poor and politically weak.
For all the above submissions, it would be grossly unfair and unjust to permit the Meiteis to have their cake and eat it too.

(Ngaranmi Shimray is an activist based in New Delhi. He can be contacted at [email protected]. Views expressed are his own.)

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