ST tag for Meiteis - A perspective!

Ngangom Junior Luwang *

For a Meitei to go against the tide and argue against ST tag will be as good as “blasphemy” with as much “nuisance value” attributed. The issue is certainly subjective, but with much more political overtones, depending on one’s community affiliation and personal background.

Lest I am branded a “traitor”, I start with a disclaimer that just as the rest of the Meitei community, my near and dear ones too would stand to gain as much if ST tag is granted to the Meiteis, at least qua government jobs. Second, I do not have even the remotest connection with the Manipuri royal blood, who reportedly opposed the ST tag way back in 1982 (not that all RKs & hardcore Vaishnavites shared the same narrative).

Third, except for health issues, I have experienced as much life challenges as many in Manipur and hold no special privilege to take a convenient moral high ground to take an alternate viewpoint. Fourth, the instant piece is with no malicious intent to disrespect or paint the ST communities as inherently weak or incompetent.

To cut a long story short, as much as I wish to blurt out a straight “yes” to the ST tag, I do have serious reservations on the whys and hows thereof:

1. Presuming that Meities have been wrongly denied the “ST” tag, what is that we stand to gain from the ST tag? If I understand it correctly, the following are apparent fringe benefits from the much demanded ST tag:
a. Reservations in Government jobs
b. Right to buy land in the hills under the Manipur Land Revenue & Land Reforms Act, 1960 (“MLR & LR Act”)
c. ‘Indigenous community’ tag
d. Protection from immigrants’ buying valley land
e. At par treatment with the recently ST declared six communities of the North East (Koch Rajbongshi, Moran, Matat, Tai Ahom, Chutia and Adivasi/Tea Tribes)

Most of the so-called intellectuals, the Schedule Tribe Demand Committee and majority of the Meities seem to agree on such benefits, but it may not be as simple as that. Objectively speaking, our position on Government jobs seems to be borne more out of our obsession with such jobs, timidity and sheer lazy mindset for “short-cuts” (by declaring ourselves as un-equals as a one-stop solution), while other issues flagged above can be well tackled through amendments to relevant laws, just as it was attempted in 1982, without necessarily tagging “ST” to us.

2. Let’s remember that the solution to our economic woes does not lie with government jobs; the solution lies with entrepreneurship, industrial growth & employment generation. If indeed “government jobs and civil services” were a development model, Bihar today could have been the most developed state!

In any case, public employment in India is only one-tenth of that in Norway, only 15 per cent of that in Brazil and much less than a third of that in China and thanks to disinvestment/privatization, Govt. sector employment will only spiral down. On the contrary, as per RBI figures, organized private sector employment is catching up so to the extent of 119.70 lakh people in 2011-2012 (and many more in the unorganized sector) as against 176.10 lakh people in the government sector and scales are increasingly in favour of private sector employment.

The point is that our obsession with government jobs is too trivial a reason to demand ST tag and this is not a development model anywhere else. Let’s remember that no ST tag is required for setting up employment-generating entities in tourism, horticulture, export-import business, manufacturing sector or to become qualified CAs & CSs or set up world-class hospitals & educational institutions etc.

The most worrying part is that CSOs in Manipur mostly do not have broader perspectives and this explains absence of any strike or bands or large scale movement against infamous scandals or for better business loan disbursements, manufacturing hub creation, development projects, faster employment generation etc. But when it comes to we vs. they and some ST fringe benefits, we tend to become very personal, ultra-nationalists and super-sensitive, ignoring more important issues like corruption, red-tapism, nepotism, electoral malpractices and opportunism, which have sadly become our way of life.

3. We have had Meitei civil servants in top bureaucratic positions in Manipur, but I am not sure of their contribution, apart from many getting themselves embroiled in scandals, oozing around in high-speed vehicles, port-retirement hoping from one political party to the other, procuring prime properties around Imphal & elsewhere.

Of course, kudos to those who could make it to IASs, IPSs through sheer hard work, but the real question is whether we really need the ST tag just for more Meitei guys to land up in bureaucratic circles and obtain more government jobs, because if not, other communities would dominate the bureaucratic set-up and work to the prejudice of the Meities! Such a viewpoint, to me, is very myopic and reeks of timidity & insecurity and should not be at all a concern, so long as the demographic composition gets reflected in the elected State Assembly (if at all it matters).

4. On a personal note, the challenge lies in growth in unfamiliar terrains and one should not even think of the ST tag to make one’s success journey easier and merrier. We all are born once and most would wish to live life with full dignity without any trappings of any form of social, economic or caste classification having benefited him or her one way or the other. If one wants to be taken seriously and respected, the first step is not to allow oneself to be treated as an unequal vis-a-vis other human beings. Of course, this aspect is too sensitive for my ST brothers & sisters, but I am helpless since my brothers have allowed themselves to be so classified and it’s a plain fact of life.

5. It is also a fact that many within the ST/SC communities are at par or even better placed vis-ŕ-vis many Meities brethren, but let’s also remember that most are still stuck in remote hillocks and far-off hilly villages. Economic criterion not being the sole reservation criterion and caste-based inherited reservation system are larger issues to be tackled at the national level, but let’s not deny the stark reality that most of our ST/SC brethren in Manipur are still behind.

Of course, the Meiteis may very well qualify as a ST community on its own social-economic criteria, but incessant and desperate demand for such a tag speaks volumes of our opportunistic and mindset for “easy-ways” and I do not see any good reason for such a desperation! Here, I see a dichotomy in both the Vaishnavites and Sanamihists seemingly believing in a glorious past of the Meiteis - separate language, separate script, 2000 year old civilization, rich art & culture etc. and at the same time, barking up the ‘backward’ tree for the ST tag. When it comes to ST tag, we suddenly become very primitive, indigenous and surprisingly, half-clad nomads!

Maybe the Meities have good reasons to demand the ST tag, but the question is whether we actually need to beg for a life-long inherent “backward” tag, instead of looking forward and putting the best foot forward even in unfamiliar terrains. This is my purely personal take and I may not be as practical as my other Meitei brethren, who apparently believe more in results, regardless of the means adopted and care two hoots for the lifelong “backward” tag for a few fringe benefits. All said & done, it cannot be farther from the truth that we all wish a life, sans any form of classification and there is nothing unachievable through hard work even without the ‘backward’ tag and the trivial we vs. they narrative!

6. As for the recently endowed ST status to six communities of the North East (Koch Rajbongshi, Moran, Matat, Tai Ahom, Chutia and Adivasi/Tea Tribes), we do not have to be always comparative. Let them wage their own battle, while we wage ours. It is high time to get rid of this culture of begging for freebies and favors by getting ourselves classified as unequals. A forward looking approach will do wonders.

7. Coming to Section 158 of the MLR & LR Act, 1960, it is indeed a fact that Meities would be able to buy land and settle in the hills, once the ST tag is embossed, without amending the said Act. In fact in 1982, an attempt was made by the erstwhile Ibobi Government by enacting three Acts - Protection of Manipur Peoples Bill, 2015, the Manipur Land Revenue & Land Reforms (Seventh Amendment) Bill, 2015 and the Manipur Shop & Establishment (Second Amendment) Bill, 2015 ostensibly for better protection of the indigenous population of Manipur, but only to be kept in eternal abeyance by the Central Government.

Through insertion of a new Section 14A to the MLR & LR Act, 1960, land purchase by non-Manipuris in the valley area was sought to be restricted on the lines of Section 158 of the said Act (i.e. with prior state govt. approval). The issue is whether ST tag would be approved, if none of the said Acts had been even assented to by the Central Government! Your guess will be as good as mine.

8. The argument of Meities having been treated unfairly by restricting their rights to purchase land in the hills without approval of the concerned Deputy Commissioner and District Council under Section 158 of the Manipur Land Revenue & Land Reforms Act, 1960 could be little misplaced. Yes, valley land constitutes only 10% of Manipur’s land area with 60% of its population, while hills constitute 90% of the land area, hosting only 40% of Manipur’s population, as per the 2011 census. Thus, it boils down to 40% population in 90% land vis-ŕ-vis 60% population in 10% land area and restrictions on transfer of any part of the 90% tribal land to a non-tribal.

The above figures definitely sound very disturbing, except for the fact that only some parts of the 90% hilly area are habitable or can be used for livelihood, the rest being steep hillocks, cliffs, forest areas, deep gorges etc., whereas most parts of the 10% valley area are habitable. This possibly explains the population density of 730 in the valley and 61 in hilly areas, as per the 2011 census.

Nonetheless, the situation can certainly be redeemed by a tinkering of the term ‘hill areas’, defined in Section 2(j) of the MLR & LR Act, 1960 and by bringing it down from the present 90% of Manipur’s land area to a reasonable percentage commensurate with the percentage of habitable areas and population density in hill areas vide appropriate notifications under the said enabling Section 2(j).

9. As to the concern on the need to protect the indigenous culture, heritage, land and accompanying rights of the Meities, conversion to a tribal group, of course, will certainly take care of a lot of concerns in one stroke but at what price. Such a short-cut solution will have serious collateral damage and would only aggravate the chasm between the existing tribal groups and the plain dwellers, further aggravating the separatist movement amongst the hill tribes.

Suddenly, our hill brothers would find the Meities with full rights to settle in any part of the hill areas and taking away a major chunk of ST benefits, specifically government jobs. There may be not any better recipe for social disaster! Not that the Meities would not stand benefited, but it may not be worth it as the price could be far more devastating and there are much more smarter ways of development & growth, sans the ST tag.

10. Now that, we have the long demanded ILP in place vide Presidential Order No. S.O. 4433(E) dated December 11, 2019 issued under Sections 2 and 4 of the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation, 1973, certain concerns of the Manipuri elite have been taken care of, though I see it more as a formality. Objectively speaking, a case for an urgent ST tag for our own survival has been created by using this ST Vs. Non-ST narrative, while the actual immediate threat to our survival is the menace of drug trafficking, mass corruption, electoral malpractices, opportunism & sycophancy etc. In fact, we seem to be conveniently barking up the wrong we vs. they narrative, instead of rooting out the other important and immediate threats to our livelihood and existence.

11. The way forward, short of the ST Tag, should be making adequate changes in the MLR & LR Act, 1960 by insisting on the 1982 amendment and introduction of Section 14A on more or less similar lines to put adequate restrictions on valley land owning (i.e. with prior government permission). This should take care of our immediate concern, if at all it is a concern. The rest of the concerns can also be taken care of by making appropriate changes in law and ST tag, howsoever alluring it could be, is not always the only solution.

* Ngangom Junior Luwang wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was webcasted on June 22 2022 .

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