Is the ST reservation a real issue for the Manipur crisis ?

NS Hemam *

One of the most contentious issues in the present Manipur crisis is ‘the fear of losing the ST quota advantage’ for the hill tribes, which make up a little over 40% of the total population (Census 2011). The tribal groups’ strong objection is that if the Meiteis of the valley area, who are comparatively more advanced, are included in the ST list, then the tribals will be deprived of ‘the ST quota’ advantages in government and public sector jobs, in education admissions, in getting scholarships, in job promotions, in politics, etc.

On the other hand, people in the valley (Meiteis) feel that as much as there is a constitutional right for people to protest, there is also a constitutional right for people to demand that they address their grievances. Are these concerns (losing the ST quota advantage) real? Are there alternate ways to resolve this seriously contested issue?

It is time to objectively analyze the national and state-level ST reservations, especially with reference to the state of Manipur. As stated by tribal protesters, the demand for ST by the Meiteis has two basic issues: first, the Meiteis as ST will deny the ST of Manipur their present share of the ST reservation as the Meiteis being the advanced society would grab all benefits, and second, the Meiteis as ST will be able to grab or purchase land in the hill areas from the current ST, who are poor and politically weak.

The present analysis will confine only to the issue of ST reservation. Since the issue of ‘protection of ST Reservation’ is considered one of the main triggers of the Manipur crisis, it is worth exploring the existing ST reservation policy of Manipur and how the inclusion of Meiteis in the ST list, if it happens, may impact the overall reservation dynamics in the state.

The ST reservation in Manipur

After Indian Independence in 1947, a reservation of 12.5% was made for SCs in recruitment through open competition. After the Constitution was promulgated in 1950, STs were provided a 5-percent reservation. The 1961 Census revealed that the SC and ST populations in proportion to the Indian population stood at 14.64 percent and 6.80 percent, respectively. Accordingly, the percentage of reservations for SCs and STs was increased to 15 percent and 7.5 percent, respectively, in 1970.

The reservation policy in India differs between state and national levels and between states. Therefore, each state or Union Territory has its own reservation policy, depending upon its population, socioeconomic status, and other criteria. For instance, Nagaland State has an 80 percent reservation for ST, while Bihar State has only a 1 percent reservation for ST. \

The ST reservation for Manipur state is 31 percent, while SC has 2 percent, 17 percent for OBC, and another 10 percent for EWC. There has been a demand to increase these quota ratios, especially for the ST communities, in proportion to the present population ratio, which is about a little over 40 percent of the total state population. At the national level, the reservations stand at 7.5 percent for ST, 15 percent for SC, 27 percent for OBC, and another 10 percent for EWS.

Why do reservations matter to the Scheduled Tribes?

It is an accepted fact that the valley people, especially the Meiteis, are comparatively better off in socio-economic conditions than the hill tribes of Manipur. There also exists a huge gap in infrastructure, especially in the educational and health sectors, except in a few hill towns. For instance, in the recent Medical Entrance Exam’s (NEET) state merit list, the topper among the tribal students was not in the overall top 100 merit list of the state (State NEET Merit List 2023).

Therefore, reservations for ST may not only provide job and educational opportunities to the tribals but also ensure their participation in the decision-making process of the state. Today, in Manipur, the majority of high-ranking bureaucrats and police officers are from tribal communities, primarily because of ST reservation benefits.

One of the main worries for the STs in Manipur is that if the Meiteis were to become STs, then the competitive advantage the tribals enjoy over the Meiteis would be gone, and they would again be marginalized in jobs and education. Are the concerns of the STs of Manipur about losing their jobs and educational reservations to the Meiteis legitimate both at the national and state levels? Are there alternate means to address these issues? Leaving aside the eligibility of Meiteis as STs, the concerns of the STs can be critically analyzed at two levels: the national level and the state level.

National Level

The total ST population of India as per Census 2011 is 1,210,854,977, which is about 8.6% of the total population of India. On the other hand, the total ST population of Manipur is only 1,167,422, which is only about 1 percent of the total ST population of India and less than a fraction (0.096%) of the total Indian population.

In other words, the total ST population of Manipur is too insignificant a number to have any bearing on the total ST population or the total population of India. Even if one adds the Meitei population (excluding Muslims) of Manipur to the ST list, the number would still remain insignificant—only about 2% of the total ST population of India.

The Total Scheduled Tribe (ST) population of India, Manipur state ST population and its relative proportion to total the ST population of India

Particulars India Manipur
Total Population 1210854977 2855794
Total ST Population 104254613 1167422
% ST to Total pop. 8.61 40.88
% ST state to ST pop India -- 1.12
% ST State to Total pop India -- 0.096

Source: Census of India

Given the insignificant ST population of the state (1%) to the total ST population of India, it would be disingenuous to assume that the inclusion of Meiteis in the ST category would jeopardize academic and job opportunities for the present ST population of Manipur at the national level. Since inclusion or exclusion of a community from the ST list is not dependent upon objection or support by a group, it may be improper to object on the grounds of presumptive opportunity loss in the future.

At the same time, the available information on population and reservation figures do not support the proposition that the inclusion of the Meiteis in the ST list will impede the opportunities of present STs in Manipur, at least at the national level.

The representation of ST has increased in all the groups (A, B, C, and D job categories) over the years. In the 1970s, the representation of the ST was very nominal, especially in the higher job categories of A and B; it had only 0.4% and 0.37% in groups A and B, respectively. By 2008, it had increased substantially in all categories; groups A and B had reached 4.8% and 5.7%, respectively.

Even though there is a substantial increase in the job representation of STs, it’s still far below the permissible quota of 7.5%, especially in higher job categories. Therefore, the available data do not support the proposition that the inclusion of Meiteis in the ST list would jeopardize the jobs and educational opportunities of STs in Manipur.

Representation of STs in different job categories

Year Group A (%) Group B (%) Group C (%) Group D (%) Total (%)
1970 0.40 0.37 1.47 3.59 2.40
1980 1.06 1.29 3.16 5.38 3.99
1990 2.58 2.39 4.83 6.73 5.33
2001 3.58 3.70 6.46 6.81 6.36
2008 4.90 5.70 7.00 6.90 6.92

Source: Dept. of Personnel & Training, GOI

Moreover, many communities have been included in the ST list, even in Manipur state, in the recent past. The Hatti tribe of Himachal Pradesh, the Narikoravan and Kurivikkaran of Tamil Nadu, the Binjhia of Chhattisgarh, the Gond Community of Uttar Pradesh, and the Betta-Kuruba of Karnataka are all new additions to the ST list.

Therefore, if one goes by the same logic of ‘exclusivity,’ then the STs of India should have protested to prevent the inclusion of such a large number of tribal groups in the ST list that would impede upon their jobs and educational quotas in the future. The whole point is that the inclusion or exclusion of a community on the ST list is not dependent upon the exclusivist protectionism of other communities.

State Level

The reservation policies at the state and national levels are different. Besides, each state has its own reservation policy, primarily based on its population composition and socio-economic condition, which may be different from other states. For instance, the states of Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya, and Arunachal have 80% reservation for the ST, while states like Manipur Assam, Manipur, Sikkim, and Tripura have 15%, 31%, 18%, and 31%, respectively, which are significantly higher than the national ST quota of 7.5%.

On the other hand, states like Bihar, UP, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, etc. have less than a 2% ST reservation quota. Therefore, it is the prerogative of the concerned state to fix its state-level reservation policy.

The state of Manipur has a 31% reservation for the ST in jobs and education. There has been a growing demand by the STs of Manipur to increase their share of the ST quota proportionate to its population size, which was a little over 40% in 2011.

Since there are serious contentious issues of disproportionate population growth in some of the hill districts, it remains an unresolved issue in the state. For instance, the percentage of the ST population in the state was 32% in 2001, but it jumped to 41% in 2011, which is about a 9% increase in 10 years.

Proportion of ST population and Decadal ST population growth in Manipur
Year State ST % of ST ST Decadal pop growth % State Decadal Pop growth %
1981 1420953 387977 27.30 -- --
1991 1837149 632173 34.41 62.94 29.29
2001 2,293,896 741141 32.31 17.24 24.86
2011 2,855,794 1,167,422 40.88 57.52 24.00

Source: Census of India

It’s a known fact that if the tribals of Manipur were to compete without the ST reservation quota for jobs and education, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to compete with the comparatively better-off Meiteis of the valley. The recent NEET exam merit list for the state is a testimony to the existing gap between the hills and the valley, at least in science streams.

The main fear of the tribal groups in the state is that if the Meiteis were to become STs, then the question of ST reservation wouldn’t arise, as everyone has become ST. This would lead to a complete deprivation of tribals in every field – jobs, education, promotion, etc. Therefore, the existing ST reservation system is critical for providing equal opportunities to all sections of society, and hence, Meiteis shouldn’t be given ST status under any circumstances.

The state reservation policy is the prerogative of the concerned state; therefore, every state has its own reservation policy with varying degrees of reservation quotas for each category. The Punjab state has the highest SC reservation quota with 29%, while the north-eastern states like Nagaland, Mizoram, and Meghalaya have an 80% reservation quota for the ST.

On the other hand, Lakshadweep has no reservation quota in all categories. Therefore, the contentious issue of ST reservation in Manipur can easily be resolved by retaining the same ST quota policy even if the Meitei were to be listed as ST.

The way forward

One of the main issues of the present crisis in Manipur is the fear of losing the ST reservation quotas of tribals if the Meiteis were to come into the ST fold. This apprehension is not unfounded, given the disadvantaged position of most of the tribals in the state compared to the valley people. But this apprehension needs to be looked into at two different levels: the national level and the state level.

At the national level, the apprehension of losing out on the ST quota is completely misleading given the small ST population Manipur has (about 1%). It would hardly matter if there was an increase of another 1% if Meiteis were included in the ST list. Moreover, the available data suggests that the participation of the STs, especially in the upper-grade positions, is far below the given ST quota of 7.5%.

It means that the present ST population has not even been able to utilize its given quota at the national level. Therefore, the apprehension of losing the ST quota to the Meiteis is completely false at the national level.

At the state level, the scenario is completely different. It is a fact that without the ST reservations of 31%, the tribals would find it difficult to compete with the comparatively advanced valley people, the Meiteis. However, even if the Meiteis are listed, this issue can easily be resolved by retaining the same ST reservation system in the state. The state has the authority to frame its own reservation policy and, hence, retain the same ST reservation policy.

It may, therefore, be safe to conclude that ‘the fear of losing the ST reservation quota to the Meiteis’ is completely unfounded, at least at the national level. The state-level reservation quota issue can easily be resolved by retaining the same ST quota system. A critical and objective analysis, based on available facts and options, on the ST reservation issue would have spared it as one of the major causes of the present Manipur crisis.

* NS Hemam wrote this article for
The writer can be contacted at hemamns(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on October 01 2023 .

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