Ground of justification for standing against the STDCM demand for inclusion of Meeteis/Meiteis in the ST list of India

Vareiyo Shatsang *

 Hills respond to ATSUM call, ST demand protested in January 29 2019
Hills respond to ATSUM call, ST demand protested in January 29 2019 :: Pix - TSE

The rampant influx of immigrants from outside the state has seriously slanted the demographic scale against the indigenous peoples living in the state of Manipur and it is quite obvious that immigrants are posing a big threat to the survival of the Meetei/Meitei community in the fertile plain areas in particular and the Hill Areas in general. Despite the fact that there is social chasm between the hills and valley dwellers, a conducive mechanism should be found to pave way for a peaceful co-existence of all privileges enshrined in the constitution of India.

The Tribal have no reservation in rendering support for the protection of the indigenous people of the state either it be Inner Line Permit Regulation (ILP) or demand for inclusion in the ST list if it really fits the paradigm shift of reversal of social strata. Tribal brethren do not claim legitimacy in this matter nor do we claim our right to decide whether one or the other community should be included or excluded from the ST list and for that matter, the prerogative lies within the competent authorities at the centre.

The state may or may not recommend according to ethnographic and socio-economic report and even if it is recommended by the concerned state Govt. /UT, it has to be concurred with by the Registrar General of India (RGI) and the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST) for consideration for amendment of legislation. The task force under the Chairmanship of the then Secretary (Tribal Affairs) was constituted by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs in February 2014 to examine the existing criteria and procedure.

The task force in its report submitted to the Ministry has made recommendations among other things, for revision of criteria and procedure for scheduling of Tribes as STs. The recommendations of the Task Force were examined and accordingly, the proposal for scheduling of communi- ties as STs and revision of criteria was circulated to States/ UT.

The criteria presently followed for specification of a community as scheduled tribe are:
1) Indication of primitive traits
2) Distinctive Culture
3) Geographical Isolation
4) Shyness of contact with the community at large and
5) Backwardness.

Any community has the right to demand for inclusion in the Schedule Tribe as per the provision enshrined in 342(1) and 342(2) of the Indian Constitution and no organisation has the Locus Standi to decide one's status provided the criteria laid down for specification is fulfilled. The constitution of India does not define Schedule Tribes as it is defined by sociologists and anthropologists but on the basis of Article 342 of the Constitution, the Scheduled Tribes are tribes or tribal communities or part of or groups within these tribes and tribal communities which have been declared as such by the President through a public notification, partly by habitat, and geographical Isolation but even more on the basis of social, religion, linguistic and cultural distinctiveness their tribal characteristic.

Scheduled Tribes are spread across the country mainly in the forest and hilly regions who are segregated from the rest of the world socially and economically. It is worth mentioning here that during a debate in the Constituent Assembly, Dr. Ambedkar, the Chairman of the Drafting Committee was very particular about the word "Scheduled" to be used before the tribe and caste to mean the selected or ' the chosen ones'. Thus in the context of India, Scheduled Tribe mean the selected tribes for protective discrimination to be valid only for 10 years after the promulgation of the Constitution of India but since the scheduled group couldn't come at par with the rest of the citizens in all spheres of lives, protective discrimination continues even after seventy years of Independence.

A case study with special reference to Meitei/Meetei community of Manipur for inclusion in the ST list is quite debatable on the question of homogeneity of such major ethnic groups after centuries of ethnic mixing in the course of civilization with various ethnic groups at different point of time, specially with Burmese and Thai ethnicities who came in the course several wars and demographic movements down the line and with sizeable proportion of people from Bengal, Assam and Bihar who were merged into the mainstream ethnic fabric of Imphal valley by ties of inter-marriage and cultural assimilation after the emergence of Shanti das Gosai, a Hindu preacher from Sylhet during the reign of Garib Niwas in 1728 AD. Given to understand the above background, it is quite empirical to dissect whether the most advance Meitei/Meetei group as a whole would qualify the definition of a tribe.

The classification of social strata in Meetei/Meitei society namely , General,OBC & SC and the social fabric woven underneath its strata will not be easy to edge up. That, the criteria for specification of a community as Scheduled Tribe and on the basis of a random ethnographic and socio-economic analysis, the Meetei/Meitei community does not fulfil the criteria, for the simple fact that they have superseded the essential characteristic of a tribe.

For instance, NER District Development Infrastructure Index 2009 shows that Imphal-West ranked number 1 in the entire NE States Imphal-East ranked number 6, Thoubal-11, Ukhrul-68, Tamenglong-75, Churachandpur-76 and Chandel-78 respectively. Unlike the hill areas of Manipur, the habitation of valley area is well connected by three National Highways, one Asian Highways, one International Airport (Tulihal) and Jiribam-Tupul-Imphal Railway line is at the verge of completion. But the assertion by the STDCM that the habitation of Meeteis/Meiteis is geographically isolated is ridiculous.

They have a rich cultural heritage and a well developed sense of hygiene. Their main occupations are wet land paddy cultivation, fishery, sericulture, horticulture and service sectors unlike the tribal whose occupations are mostly engaged in trapping birds, hunting animals and stone carving etc. In terms of shyness of contacts with communities at large, the Meiteis/Meeteis are the most advanced and dominant community with a significant Diaspora within and outside the country. They have a well developed script/Meitei Mayek and is in the 8th Scheduled of the Indian Constitution.

The literacy rate being as high as 76-87%, they are well represented in service sector viz: UPSC, RBI, SBI and Professional sector like Medical and Engineering etc. Thus, such data inter alia include the data on the representation of the community in the govt./public sectors,political institution like parliament, state assemblies, local bodies, classical dances and music of world class. As a matter of fact, they are Five generation ahead of the rest of the tribal in Manipur and many parts of the North-East.

In the Legislative Assembly that has 60 seats, they are represented by 40 seats in an area of just 8% out of the total geographical expanse of 22,327 Sq.Km leaving 92% of the hill areas with 19+1 representatives leaving the tribal to languish in misery. As a result of the uneven distribution of Assembly Constituencies, all the developmental projects are concentrated in the valley. To cite a few, all the universities Viz; Manipur University, Dhanamanjuri University, Manipur International University, National Sports University, Manipur University of Culture, Regional Institute of Medical Sciences (RIMS), Jawahalal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences (JNIMS), National Institute of Technology (NIT) Manipur, Central Agriculture University Manipur (CAU), National Institute of Electronics & Information Technology (NIELIT) Imphal, JN Manipur Dance Academy, Central Institute of Plastics Engineering and Technology (CIPET) Imphal, Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) Imphal, Sports Authority of India (SAI), Information Technology Park, Bachelor of Education B.ED centers etc. are all in the valley.

The assertion of the STDCM that the move is to bring the hills and plain peoples closer and strengthen the emotional integrity based on a cohesive ethnic and social equality is a mere lip service to confuse the tribal brethren. The trust deficit between the valley dwellers (the Meiteis/ Meiteis) and the hill peoples have been elongated ever since Manipur gained her statehood in 1972. For instance, under Article 371 (c) of the Indian Constitution, the Hill Area Committee (HAC) is a statutory body with immense powers and responsibilities to safeguard the tribal areas of Manipur.

As however, the HAC has become redundant and ineffective either for the complacency of the tribal legislators or for fear of losing favour from their political bosses. It is quite unfortunate that tribal legislators have not been able to stand up against party lines and work in cohesion to safeguard the interest of the tribal under Article 371 (c). Taking undue advantage of the weakness of the HAC, Manipur Assembly passed the infamous three anti-tribal bills on 31st August 2015 without referring to the HAC on a pretext that it was a 'money bill'.

The inclusion of section 2 of the Protection of Manipur People Bill 2015 which reads "It shall extend to the whole of Manipur" and the insertion of non -obstante clause in the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms Amendment Bill 2015 which reads "Notwithstanding anything contained in this Act...Manipur" sparked off into a social upheaval leading to loss of 9 precious lives in the course of the tribal movement. It is not only about reservation issue but a question of identity & land.

The roadside speeches and discussion in the electronic media houses that the Meiteis/Meeteis do not covet land in the hill areas is a blatant lie because the existence of VENGS, RAMs & Colonies have been repeatedly questioned by the valley civil organisations in print media. The former CM of Manipur during his heyday had raised a question at the centre stating "we cannot purchase land in the hills but tribal peoples are freely settled in the valley". This implies that advanced valley dwellers are ready to intrude into the hill areas by fair or foul means.

The down trodden tribal brethren have every right to say "No" for inclusion of the Meiteis/Meeteis in the ST list because the hill peoples of Manipur are neither safeguarded by the Sixth Scheduled nor is administered within what the Constitution calls 'Tribal Areas'. We are merely governed under Article 371 (c) which become redundant due to non implementation of RULES OF PROCEDURE AND CONDUCT OF BUSINESS besides void of Land Laws of the HAC. Reservation policy affected by the Centre and State Government, is manipulated and interpreted to suit the interest of the valley people. The university imbroglio in admission and employment in group C & D in RIMS and other Central Universities which is fixed by DoPT, Govt of India @ 34% on the basis of the population is not implemented in toto.

The commoners are not to be blamed for the injustice done to the tribal but the bureaucrats and politicians at the helms of affairs. For instance, out of 187 teaching faculties in MU, only 11 are STs. The modus operandi applied here is piecemeal recruitment by breaking up of the vacant post and call for interview twice or thrice with a substantial time gap to ensure that no reserved post remains. This is true in every university and department/institution. Coming closer to this pathetic situation, reservation quantum which is supposed to be nearly 42% according to the latest census is not implemented on the pretext of bogus figure of 2011 census in some hill districts.

Reservation in admission and recruitment of service which is fixed at 31% remain only in the paper as half of the percentage remain unfilled due to bureaucratic interpretation and manipulation of reserved quota. The connotation 'Hills and Valley' is not a new creation and separate rules govern the administration of the Hills before and after the British left the Indian continent. The fact that the tribal have been given a distinct and separate treatment can be manifested from the Constitution of Manipur, 1947, Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reformed Act, 1960, Article 371(c) of the Indian Constitution read with the power conferred by V.V Giri in an extraordinary gazette of India on 20th June 1972, enactment of Autonomous District Council 1972 etc.

The socio economic status of the hills and valley being incompatible besides spontaneous exploitation and discrimination in every walk of life, the Hill Area Committee consisting of 19 MLAs from tribal reserved constituencies passed a resolution demandingVI Scheduled promotion for Manipur in 1978. In 1984, the then Union Home Minister stated "Provi sion of the VI Schedule of the constitution may also be extended to the state of Manipur at the earliest opportu nity".

It is pertinent to note that the National Commission under the Chairmanship of Justice M.N. Venkatachaliah, Former Chief Justice of India, in its report dated 31-03-2002, has recommended that the provisions of VI Schedule should be extended to the Hill Districts of the State of Manipur Viz: Ukhrul, Tamenglong, Churachandpur, Chandel, Senapati and Sadar Hills. Consequent upon this, the state government of Manipur had reported in April 2002 that the matter was under active consideration of the state cabinet and the Manipur Hill Areas Committee of the Manipur Legislative Assembly. However, details of the local adjustments and amendments to be made, while conferring VI schedule status to this councils has never been made known to the union government despite repeated reminders.

While the tribal brethren are asking for extension of the Constitutional Act to enable safeguarding the belittled and regressed society, the dominant civil organisations based in the valley are covetously planning to scrap what is not theirs. Posters campaign on the wall against any provision for the schedule tribes of Manipur is enough to testify of an Ahab's eyes. It is not to be forgotten that the movement of the Meitei/Meetei for inclusion of Mayek/script in the VIII Schedule of the Indian Constitution was a concerted move- ment with the help of the tribal brethren on the condition that tribal peoples' aspiration for VI Schedule will be supported but at the end of the day, it turned out to be a monkey justice.

We do not refute your tribal roots, prevalence of distinctive religion, culture and mongoloid race because these are not the sole criteria of your claim for inclusion in the list of ST. There is no denying, the fact that all the ethnic communities of Manipur originated from the hills and all the ancient civilizations started at the bed of rivers. Even the most ancient civilized community and race of the world today (the Greeks, Romans, Teutonic's and Aryans, Chinese Civilization, Mesopotamian Civilization) had their tribal roots.

However, claiming this roots in the Twenty First century after a continuous process of civilization for over a period of 2000 years dating back from 33 AD and an attempt to descend from civilized to uncivilized, urban to rural, literate to illiterate, light to darkness etc. is a reversal of social strata a backward process with an ulterior motive to exploit the weaker section of the society.

The Knitty-gritty in chalking out the mechanism for inclusion of the Meiteis/Meiteis will not be so easy and the road ahead will be winding and slippery unless 'a give and take' relationship is mutually agreed upon without push and pull.

* Vareiyo Shatsang wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is president of the All Tribal Students' Union Manipur (ATSUM)
This article was webcasted on March 20, 2019.

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