GUWAHATI: The demand for the inclusion of Meiteis in the Scheduled Tribe (ST) list is at the centre of the ongoing violence in Manipur.
A section of Meiteis, led by the Scheduled Tribes Demand Committee of Manipur (STDCM), has been demanding it for the past decade. However, this huge issue remained invisible during last year’s Assembly elections. The reason is that not just the tribals, a section of the Meiteis is also opposed to it.
On April 19 this year, the Manipur High Court had issued a direction for the submission of the recommendation on the inclusion of the Meitei community in the ST list to the Tribal Affairs Ministry after observing that “there appears to be a recommendation of the state government is pending for inclusion of the Meetei/Meitei community in the Scheduled Tribes list…”
Hearing a writ petition filed by some members of Meetei (Meitei) Tribe Union, a single-judge bench of Chief Justice (acting) MV Muralidaran said, “It would be appropriate to direct the respondent state to submit its recommendation to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs within a reasonable time.”
The petitioners placed on record various documentary references and submitted that during the preparation of the ST list of India under Article 342 of the Constitution, the Meetei/Meitei community was left out but the documentary evidence showed it belonged to “tribe community”.
In its various representations to the state government and the Centre, the STDCM also said that the Meiteis were excluded from the ST list without any constitutional safeguards granted to them and as a result, they slowly got marginalised in their ancestral land.
Meitei groups say the inclusion of the community in the ST category will also give it equal rights to land. Currently, the tribals can buy land in the Imphal valley but the Meiteis cannot do so in the hills.
The High Court’s recent order, meanwhile, united the tribals. Thousands of them in all ten hill districts of the state participated in Wednesday’s “Tribal Solidarity March” which was organised by the All Tribal Students’ Union Manipur (ATSUM).
According to local media reports, the High Court issued notices to the chairman of Hill Areas Committee (MLAs elected from hill areas are its members) and the president of ATSUM for appearance “for instigating innocent hill people against the court judgment.”
Ahead of the solidarity march, the ATSUM had said it was organizing the rally to register a protest against “persistent demand of Meitei community for inclusion in ST category, support to this by valley legislators and the need for taking appropriate measures to collectively protect tribal interests.”
The tribals stand opposed to the Meitei community’s ST status demand on the grounds of its dominance in terms of population and political representation. The Meiteis are dominant in two-thirds of the 60 Assembly constituencies.
Manipur has a total geographical area of 22,327 sq km and it is bounded by Nagaland, Mizoram, Assam and Myanmar.
The state is like a stadium. The Imphal valley is surrounded by the hills where 34 recognized tribes – broadly classified as ‘Any Kuki Tribes’ and ‘Any Naga Tribes’ – live. The tribals are largely Christians while the Meiteis are largely Hindus and they reside in the Imphal valley. The Imphal valley also has a small population of tribals. Similarly, the hills have a small population of Meiteis. Some major roads lead up to the valley from the hills.
The hills and another small valley, called Jiribam in the state’s western fringe bordering southern Assam’s Cachar district, make up around 90% of Manipur’s total areas while the Imphal valley is the state’s remaining 10%.
An estimated 70% of the state’s projected population of 36.49 lakh in 2023 (28.56 lakh in 2011 census) are settled in the Imphal valley. The remaining 30% areas are home to tribals.
The violence also has its genesis in the eviction of tribal villagers from forest areas and a survey of “reserve forests, protected forests, wetlands and wildlife” carried out by the state government. It is in the backdrop of these government steps that last Thursday, miscreants vandalised and torched the venue of a scheduled programme of Chief Minister N Biren Singh in Kuki-majority Churachandpur district.