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Vociferous Demand: Classification of Meiteis as ST could be panacea for all problems?

FILE PHOTO of STDC protest sit-in

The Scheduled Tribe Demand Committee of Manipur seems to be getting bogged down under its own weight. Recently in its annual general body meeting, it was unable to elect new office-bearers to the Committee as questions were raised over fund utilisation.

 By Yambem Laba

At the zenith of their powers, the rulers of Manipur’s Meiteis, once in the majority, had their suzerainty from the banks of the Chindwin River in Myanmar to that of the Surma river in present-day Bangladesh. The East India Company had even signed a treaty with them as early as 1776.

But all that underwent a sea change in 1949 when the Government of India coerced the then ruler of Manipur to sign a merger agreement and become part of the Indian Union. In 1950 after adoption of the Constitution, a Central delegation comprising Captain Williamson Sangma from present-day Meghalaya and Gopinath Bodoloi of Assam visited Manipur to determine the Meiteis’ future — whether they wished to be included in the list of Scheduled Tribes of India or not. They met three Manipuri “scholars” of the time, namely G Lalita Madhav Sharma, G Bangka Behari Sharma and Sinam Keishna Mohon Singh, who asserted that the Meiteis being Hindus by religion would not like to be classified as a ST.

On the other hand, the Meitei Chakpa community, who were then considered “untouchables” because of their refusal to become Hindus, were classified as a Scheduled Caste. The same was not true for the Tripuris of Tripura as they had opted to be classified as a ST, including their ruling class. The hill communities of Manipur belonging to a varied number of tribes, however, came to be classified as STs and were given constitutional protection with regard to lands and reservations.

Such is the scenario now that the tribal population controls 90 per cent of the total geographical area of Manipur and no Meitei can buy land in the state, but the reverse is not true. Also, Assembly constituencies of the tribes in Manipur are classified as reserved constituencies, meaning non-tribals cannot contest elections from those seats.

Amid all such happenings, the Scheduled Tribe Demand Committee of Manipur seems to be getting bogged down under its own weight. Recently in its annual general body meeting, it was unable to elect new office-bearers to the Committee as questions were raised over fund utilisation. Then it resorted to its tame practice of staging sit-in protests urging the state government to pass a resolution to recommend to the Centre that the Meiteis be included in the list of STs.

Then the World Meitei Council came to the fore as they called a 72 hour bandh (general strike) across Manipur from 25-27 November. Its impact was felt in the far-flung districts, villages and towns of the Manipur valley despite a media blackout of the event, allegedly due to machinations of the state government.

Speaking to The Statesman, Heigrujam Nabashyam, chairman of the WMC, said that on 29 May 2013, the Union ministry of tribal affairs had urged the Government of Manipur to submit the ethnographic and socio-economic report of the Meiteis. But successive state governments, including those of the Congress Party and now the Bharatiya Janata Party, have swept it under the carpet. He also said that while chief minister N Biren Singh has been talking about developmental efforts, precious little has been done for the Meitei community, which is now confined to 6.5 per cent of the state’s total territory. On top of that, widespread demographic changes have occurred in Manipur with a massive influx from Myanmar and Nepal.

Nabashyam said, “From whom should we ask for permission to survive as a race? The ST provision is the only means within the Indian Constitution that can protect the land and political rights of the Meiteis, who have been reduced to just 1.5 million people in the entire North-east and form only 43 per cent of Manipur’s population. We are now fighting with our backs to the wall and are hence not afraid of anyone, including non-state actors.” He also said that the movement to include Meiteis in the ST list is no longer confined to Manipur but has spread to New Delhi, Guwahati, Shillong, Mumbai and Goa.

In this context it may be recalled that the proscribed United National Liberation Front, which is fighting for an independent Manipur since 1964, is against the Meiteis becoming classified as a ST and perhaps that might be a deterring factor for the state administration to arrive at a decision, according to a political observer in Manipur. The source, however, added that with its supremo RK Meghen, aka Sanayaima, now leading the life of a senior citizen and the UNLF having split into two recently, it remains to be seen just how much of a say they have on the issue.

The predicament of the Meiteis appears to be real and dangerous. An alleged Bengali Muslim, born and brought up in the neighbouring Cachar district of Assam, forayed across the border and got himself elected to the Manipur Legislative Assembly from the Jiribam constituency in 2017. Is that a pointer to how things will pan out in future?

There is an immediate need to declare Assembly seats as reserved for Meiteis and the 6.5 per cent land they inhabit as reserved tribal land. That would protect the land from the impending invasion by multinational corporations, which will accompany the opening of the Trans-Asian Highway, connecting Tehran and Singapore via Manipur, and the Indian Railways’ entry into Imphal in the next two years.

Also, taking advantage of the political situation in the region, another civil society organisation, Kangleipak Kannba Lup, informed Union home minister Amit Shah to consider the demand of the Meiteis before inking the final settlement to the Naga issue with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) and other groups.

On the job reservation front, the tribal population of Manipur is a bit apprehensive. But it has been clarified time and again that the ongoing quota system of 30 per cent reservation in state jobs will continue and even if there is competition, it will be at the national level that is open for everybody, including the Asom Tais of Assam who are being incorporated as STs.

The Meiteis being classified as a ST could well be the panacea for almost all their problems that have cropped up since the controversial merger with the Indian Union in 1949. New Delhi might perhaps be understanding the long-term gain but the power brokers in Imphal have been found to be hard of hearing.

(The writer is the Imphal-based Special Representative of The Statesman. The article was first published on The Statesman on November 8, 2021)

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