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Intricacies Of Meiteis' ST Status Demand And The Hill-Valley Divide In Manipur

This issue is not just a matter of categorization but a complex interplay of several factors that have long simmered beneath the surface, threatening to erupt at any moment.

Symbols of indigenous Meitei culture and tradition as seen at the Ima Keithel market in Imphal
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The ongoing violent clashes in Manipur, triggered by a protest organised by the All Tribal Student Union (ATSUM) in opposition to the Meiteis’ demand for Scheduled Tribe (ST) status, expose the deep-rooted divisions and tensions between the hills and valley people. The Meitei community, which constitutes the majority of the state’s population and predominantly resides in the valley, is demanding inclusion in the ST category. However, this demand is fiercely opposed by the tribal communities residing in the hills, leading to continued unrest and conflict. This issue is not just a matter of categorization but a complex interplay of several factors that have long simmered beneath the surface, threatening to erupt at any moment.

The Meitei community, by and large, has long enjoyed the upper hand, as they constitute over half of the state’s population and are the majority 40 legislators out of the 60-member legislative assembly. The hill tribal people (which account for about 90% of the state’s area), composed mainly of the Naga and Kuki-Zo ethnic groups, mostly reside in the hills (mostly inaccessible terrain), although a sizeable tribal population (mostly government  employees) also lives in the state capital, Imphal. The hill tribal people are historically backward in various aspects compared to the more advanced Meiteis. In fact, the Meiteis collectively refer to them by the derogatory term Hau (meaning ‘backward’ or ‘untouchables’). Therefore, special provisions and acts exist to safeguard their interests, especially in protecting their land and practices. The land of the indigenous tribal peoples in the hills of Manipur is protected by the constitutional provisions under Section 158 of MLR and LR Act 1960 (Parliamentary Act) under Art. 371C of Indian Constitution. For instance, as per the existing law, non-tribals, including the Meiteis, cannot purchase land in the hills.

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An elderly Manipuri woman sits outside an indigenous Meitei temple in Imphal | Credit: Rakhi Bose/Outlook Photos

The demand for ST status by the Meitei community is a contentious issue that warrants scrutiny. It is important to ask whether the stated reasons for this demand are valid and whether they justify the significant impact it could have on the indigenous hill tribal people of the state. The Scheduled Tribe Demand Committee Manipur (STDCM) has been at the forefront of the movement to include the Meitei community in the ST category. In various representations before the state and central governments, the STDCM has emphasized that the demand is not for reservation in jobs, educational institutions, or tax relief, but rather to safeguard the ancestral lands, culture, and identity of the Meitei people, which are constantly threatened by illegal immigrants from Myanmar and other parts of the country.

It is an undeniable fact that the demand for ST status may not necessarily relate to job. reservations or other economic benefits. Here mention may be made that the Meiteis are historically and geographically (inhabiting a fertile plains) in a more advantageous position as they are more prosperous and advanced than any other ethnic group in the state in terms of infrastructure, education, culture, and language. Crucial educational institutions of the state, such as the National Institute of Technology (NIT), government departments and offices, and government hospitals and institutions are all located in the valley. Meitei-dominated valley districts are the top performers in terms of infrastructure development among all the northeast districts in a list compiled by the ministry in charge of the development of the northeast (DoNER), while most of the hill districts are among the worst performers. Moreover, Meiteis already have job reservations under the SC (Scheduled Caste), OBC (Other Backward Classes), and EBC (Economically Backward Classes) categories. In terms of language, the Meitei language is the lingua franca of the state, one of India’s 22 official languages, and is protected by the constitution under the Eight Schedule.

While concerns have been raised about illegal immigrants from Myanmar and other parts of India, it is worth questioning – how many of them are there in the state and actually pose a threat to the ancestral lands, culture, and identity of the Meitei people. According to the Chief Minister of Manipur, N Biren Singh, there are about 2000 Myanmarese nationals in the state. Even if this is true, this number is hardly significant enough to pose a threat to a state with a population of 28.6 lakh, as per the 2011 census. Additionally, Manipur is one of the most protected states in the northeast, with an inner line permit system that requires visitors from mainland India to have special permits to visit or stay in the state, even for a limited period. Considering these points, it seems clear that the main motivation behind the demand for ST status is related to ‘land’. By obtaining ST status, the law that prohibits Meiteis from purchasing land in the hills would no longer apply, and this is precisely why the hill tribal people are against the inclusion of the Meitei community in the ST category. They fear that the economically advanced Meiteis may purchase their land or, worse, use their power and influence through various agencies to grab it forcefully. Further, the hill tribes fear that the ST status demand is a ploy by the more educationally advanced Meitei community to monopolise state government jobs, where the 31% job reservation for ST categories will no longer hold in case the Meiteis are granted the same.

The state machinery has been systematically depriving the indigenous people of their rights and subjecting them to years of socio-cultural, economic, and political discrimination through a variety of covert laws, plans, and policies. The hill people’s fear and suspicion are further aggravated by the recent actions of the state government, which they perceive as biased towards the majority community and directed against a particular hill tribe. The state government redrew district boundaries, incorporating parts of land historically inhabited by the hill tribes into the valley districts without proper consultation with tribal landowners or local bodies. This turned land inhabited by tribal people since time immemorial into government land and forced them to pay land taxes. One such example is the incorporation of a strip of land running along national highway 2, also called the Imphal-Dimapur road, right up to the district headquarters of Kangpokpi district, a district dominated by the Kuki-Zo ethnic groups, under Imphal West District. Violence also arose from the forceful eviction of K. Songjang village from forest areas and a survey of reserve forests, protected forests, wetlands, and wildlife carried out by the state government in Churachandpur district.

Although these evictions were ostensibly carried out (involving procedural lapses) to protect forests, they were done without providing compensation or resettlement, which heightened the sense of injustice felt by the affected tribals. It is truly disconcerting to witness how rapidly the initial unrest transformed into an alarming ethnic conflict between the Meiteis and Kukis, despite the collective participation of all tribal communities from the hills. This unfortunate turn of events has resulted in a stark segregation between the Kuki and Meitei communities. The consequences have been dire, with the Kukis being forcefully evicted from the capital city of Imphal and several of their villages in the vicinity of the valley districts being burned down and devastated.

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Similarly, a few Meitei groups residing in Kuki-dominated towns also faced eviction. It is crucial to acknowledge the role played by the Chief Minister (also holds the home department) in this tumultuous situation. The Chief Minister’s silence for a full 18 hours following the outbreak of violence raises serious concerns about his commitment to upholding law and order, as well as protecting the interests of all communities. During this period of inaction, organized mobs allegedly led by radical Meitei youth organizations, such as Meitei Leepun and Arambai Tenggol, and reportedly aided by the state’s security forces, were allowed to carry out acts of arson, looting, and destruction by selectively targeting the properties, churches, and houses of the Kuki-Zo community in Imphal. These reprehensible actions not only signify an administrative failure and inept leadership but also imply potential complicity in abetting the
violence.

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Furthermore, the state government’s selective withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), the draconian law, from the valley (the Meitei insurgents are actively operating without any ceasefire agreement with the government), while retaining it in the hills (although the Kuki-Zo insurgents under two umbrella groups, viz. Kuki National Organisation (KNO) and United People’s Front (UPF) have been under ceasefire agreements called Suspension of Operation (SoO) since August 2008), raising suspicions about the potential premeditation of this ethnic violence by those in power. It is imperative that those responsible, including the Chief Minister, should be held accountable for exacerbating the situation, and a thorough investigation must be conducted to ascertain their level of involvement. This course of action will not only serve the cause of justice but also send a resolute message that acts of violence and communal targeting (in this case, ‘ethnic cleansing’) are incompatible with India’s democratic ethos.

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(Lalmin Kipgen is an Associate Lecturer at Arden University Berlin (Email: lkipgen@arden.ac.uk); Ngamjahao Kipgen is Associate Professor at Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati (Email: nkipgen@gmail.com))

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