Meetei tribe bears more tribal characters among the indigenous people of Manipur

Dr Thangjam Ranjit *

Meetei community which had ruled the State in the south East Asia for about 2000 years with more than 70 kings, is bonafide indigenous people of the State. None can challenge this hard fact. Accordingly, Meetei is one of the main tribes of the State and NE India and possesses all the characteristics of being a tribe living in a permanent society.

Though, the majority of Meetei population have embraced Hinduism/Vaishnavism, they have not given up their age-old traditions, culture, way of life, etc. of their forefathers. They have been following the rituals of birth, marriage, death, etc in the way their forefathers practised, even before the time of their conversion into Hinduism during the reign of King Pamheiba (1709-1748).

This is again confirmed by the Census of India 1931, Vol-1 page 430. It records “Manipuris as wholly Hindu Tribe but retaining their distinctive language and culture. Followers of Sanamahism/Meeteism who constitute over two lakh population also strictly following traditions and cultures of their forefather till date, similar to other Meetei Hindus.

The fact that Meeteis are living in permanent tribal society are borne out by the historic resolution of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), a specialized agency of UNO. ILO adopted its Convention No.169 in 1989, based on general attitude of respect for the cultures and way of life of indigenous and tribal people and the fundamental assumption that indigenous and tribal people constitute permanent societies.

This landmark resolution however, contradicts ILO convention No. 107 of 1957 which is based on temporary tribal societies but obsolete now. The fact that Meetei (Manipuri) is a tribe, that too a Principal tribe of Manipur and of NE India is authenticated by many official records, gazetteers, publications, memoirs, books etc.

Mention may be made of Census of India 1891, 1901 and 1931; Imperial Gazetteer Bengal and Assam (1909), Gazetteer of Manipur by Captain EW Dun (1886), Gazetteer of Bengal and NE India (1909): Statistical Accounts of the Native State of Manipur, the Hill Territory, under its Rules by Dr R Brown, Political Agent in Manipur (1873); the New Encyelopedia Britannica; Ethmicity and social change by Prof Gangumei Kamei among others.

History of the Tangkhul Nagas written by AS W Shimray mentions Tangkhul and Meeteis are descendants of the same progenitor and that ancestors of the Tangkhul and Meeteis are brothers. The “Meitheis” written by TC Hodson, late Political Agent of Manipur, an Anthropologist mentioned Meetei as a tribe so on and so forth. On the other hand people in the hills, except few thousand Zeliangrongs, almost 99% of the population have embraced Christianity and have abandoned their traditional cultures and ways of life.

In other words, the old rituals of birth, marriage, death,etc of their forefathers which were in practice before embracing Christianity are no longer in practice. They are living in the way true Christians of the West are living by forgetting the old tradition and culture of their forefathers.

However, in the midst of the strong influence of Christianity in the hills and Valley of the State, sizeable population of Meetei and Zeliangrong are still following the cultures and traditions of their forefathers. That is why UNO describes such communities, which have been following the old culture and way of life of their ancestors as “Permanent Society.”

Meetei being bonafide indigenous people of the State and following old cultures and traditions of their forefathers are Scheduled Tribe according to Supreme Court of India, the highest of Court of country as per its judgment of 5th January, 2011. Again, Meetei qualifies the old and new criteria laid down by the Govt. of India Ministry of Tribal Affairs.

The old enteria are; 1. Indication of Primitive traits; 2 Distinctive culture, 3 Shyness of contact with the community at large, 4 Geographical isolation and 5 Backwardness. The new criteria (under consideration) proposed by Panda Committee 2014 are
1. Autonomous religious practices, although practicing the Hindu way of life would not be a bar.
2. Marital relationship with other tribes (majority in the tribe should marry within the tribe or with other tribes not with non tribals);
3. Distinctive culture;
4 Historical and geographical isolation.
5. Socio economic and educational backwardness and
6 Distinctive language.

Meetei having been officially documented as a tribe or principal tribe earlier, qualify both the old and new criteria of being a tribe in the context of Article 342(1) of the Indian Constitution, and accordingly Meetei can be enlisted in the ST list of the State /country and receive Constitutional safe guard for Manipur Valley/Imphal Valley where Meeteis can inhabit in Schedule Area in the same manner as that of the hill areas of the State by hill people.

Had Meeteis been enlisted in the ST list along with our brethren in the hills, without indulging in corruption by the then so called educated people of the State to the visiting members of Minority Commission of the Govt. of India in 1950, the present situation of mistrust and seemingly hill valley divide among the people in the State would not have existed but a peaceful progressive and harmonious tribal society of a hill State called Manipur/Haoleibak/Kangleipak. The term ‘Tribe or Tribal people’ is synonymously used as first people original people, native people, indigenous people, first Nation, Adivasis, Janajati, Hill people, soon and so forth by historians geographers, academicians and general public, all over India and the world over.

The dictionary meaning of Tribe that “a group of people of the same race, and with the same customs, language, religion, etc. living in a particular area and often led by a Chief “ is no longer in vogue but vastly with the administrative and political considerations. Meetei community being the indigenous people of the State /country and possessing all the conditions laid down by the union Ministry of Tribal Affairs, deserves to be included in the Scheduled Tribe list of the country.

According to the Supreme Court of India, the highest Court of the country, in one of its landmark Judgments, on the 5th January, 2011, in connection with the harassment of Nandabai (25 yrs), a tribal woman of Bhil Tribe (Ref. Spl. leave petition (Crl) No 10367 of 2010 in Kailash and others vs State of Maharastra), it has been stated that “The present Adivasis or Scheduled tribes are the descendants of the original inhabitants or aborigines of India. Meetei community and other communities, having close consanguineous relation, have been in existence since the formation of Nation State, with Meetei as the principal Tribe, called Kangleipak, Meitrabak, Manipur, Mackley, etc, can be called original people, native people, indigenous people or Yelhoumee in Meeteilon/Manipuri.

The very argument of some pseudo scholars, pseudo leaders, pseudo Hindus and non-indigenous people that Meetei do not possess tribal characters or do not fulfill the criteria laid down by Ministry of Tribal Affairs is absurd and baseless. Again, the rhetoric of some anti Meetei chauvinists, non indigenous people and biased CSOs that Meetei are also foreigners to this heart land of Meetei i.e. present Manipur are nothing but to draw a parallel line and to score their ulterior motives that they are also natives of this land.

To put the argument at rest, one should understand that the different communities who were living as subjects during the hay days of the kings of Manipur, to be approximate, upto the reign of King Maharaj Chandrakirti or Ningthem Pishak as a sovereign kingdom, are natives or indigenous people and those who came from outside to the then kingdom/Nation State later and took shelter are true foreigners, non-natives or non–Scheduled Tribes.

Again, true indigenous people will have only one place to live on for their culture, tradition, etc. of their forefathers, and are in existence since time immemorial, whereas the foreigners will have other places to go for better living as cultures, traditions, etc of their fore fathers are to be found away from their present location in the name of ancestral land.

* Dr Thangjam Ranjit wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was webcasted on November 13 2021.

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